Sony's first attempt at an original platformer on the PlayStation 2 was Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, a Mario-influenced fantasy built around the adventures of the two titular heroes. Although Jak X is the fourth installment in the Jak and Daxter franchise, it, as the name implies, leaves its platforming roots completely in the dust and favours a number of different modes that centralise around combat and racing.
Jak X is a fun combat-racing game; the story will appeal to fans of the franchise, and there are a lot of cool secrets and unlockables. But there are some functional drawbacks -- especially noticeable in the later levels -- that prevent this game from being truly excellent.
Despite the complete genre change, the story in Jak X picks up shortly after the previous game in the series. This time, Jak and Daxter have been summoned to Kras City for the reading of Krew's will. You might remember Krew as the thug lord who doled out a number of missions in Jak II, and who had to be defeated toward the end of the game. As is evidenced by the opening premise, you will spend a lot of time dealing with story that picks up from the three previous games in the franchise. You won't need to have played any of the games to be able to appreciate what's going on, but you will probably miss a tonne of innuendo and self-references if you haven't.
Though the story plays a fundamental role both in making the game cohesive in and of itself and in tying the rest of the games together, the crux of the gameplay is in the races. The main single-player mode is the adventure mode, which allows you to compete in four different cups, consisting of 20 different competitions each. Limited races are available at the start, but as you win medals and earn one, two, or three points, respectively, for bronze, silver, and gold finishes, additional tracks and challenges unlock. Aside from earning medals, you also accumulate points based on the different accomplishments of your race, such as the number of enemies taken down or the length of your longest drift, which can be used to purchase car upgrades, new vehicles, and a number of different goodies from the secret shop.
In a standard race, you'll come across the threat of other racers and various obstacles within the environment. Most of the environmental challenges are simply the twists and turns of the track, although a few levels have more immediate threats, such as giant rolling snowballs or lava. There are four types of eco that can be collected from the track. Green and blue eco are used to replenish your car's health and to give you turbo boosts, respectively. Red eco is responsible for the weapons that you shoot out of the back of the car, and yellow for the forward projectiles. Weapons that you drop behind you include oil slicks, mines, stationary turrets, and attack drones.
Since you can hold on to the boosts and both of the weapons to fire at your own discretion, there is a fair amount of strategy to employ during any given race. In the earlier levels, the races feel a bit like a lesser version of Burnout, and as you cause crashes, the camera will cut away to a slow-motion view of the crash. You can get away without braking and simply power-slide around corners, turboing out of the power slide to ensure that you're coming away with the most speed. However -- and this is what's most noticeable in the races -- the competitors are all always extremely close by. No matter how well you've played the race, it's pretty much a guarantee that at your first crash or flip-over, you'll be passed by at least three or four racers.
Though the game is extremely smooth, the automatic respawn of the car always flashes to a pitch black screen for a moment, which is so jarring, it looks like it's a bug of some sort. To further agitate the situation, cars that are deemed better by the game aren't, necessarily. Winning the first two cups will let you unlock level-two and three cars, which have better statistics regarding the engine, gearbox, armor, and turbo capacity. They'll also have more empty slots, which you can fill by purchasing additional points in these categories. But having a more fully upgraded vehicle does not make it necessarily better, and you'll find that not only are the higher level cars more rickety, they aren't noticeably much faster than the lower classes. Once you figure this out, you'll probably race all the final cup races with a level-two car, wondering why you bothered to purchase all the upgrades and additional vehicles in the first place.
There are 24 different tracks and seven arenas, with the potential to unlock mirrored races through the secret shop. Despite the variety, many of the straight races feel familiar, and since almost all of them are available during all four cups, you don't get the sense that you're progressing forward to new levels -- merely different areas in the same environment. That being said, the tracks are very well designed, and some of them are extremely long, which makes the races interesting, even if they are often familiar.
The music and sound effects are equally well done. The many different racers make comments as they inflict damage or get hit by other competitors, and on occasion it's too much, but for the most part, there's a nice balance of the roaring sounds of the vehicles, the pops and whizzes of the weapons, and the character voice-overs.
The single-player is fairly long if you're going for the gold, but it has the tendency to get repetitive if you're in for extended sessions of gameplay. The way to get a little variety is to hop into the offline two-player split-screen multiplayer or the online up-to-six-player multiplayer. Not all of the races can be done by split-screen, but for an added bonus, you can take two players online with the same PS2 and play together if the race type allows.
Jak X: Combat Racing does a good job of moving an existing franchise into an entirely new genre. Though there are some problems with the single-player artificial intelligence in the later levels, there is an overwhelming amount of value from the multiplayer modes and unlockable options.
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