To many, Naughty Dog set the bar for storytelling in modern video games. Ever since its inception, the studio has made critically beloved and commercially successful games that have gone down in history as all-time greats. Known for iconic PlayStation mascot Crash Bandicoot, the team continued to champion 3D platforming with the creation of Jak and Daxter for the PS2 and Uncharted on the PS3. Now, it’s more well known for the dark and character driven Last of Us series. However, I believe its first foray into that style of storytelling began with Jak 2.
Jak 2 was the first game that made me think, “This is how stories should be told.” Naughty Dog brought to life a wonderful roster of characters, each with their own fleshed out motivations and backstories – some I love, some I hate, but all are written brilliantly. The game had the most cutscenes of any game at the time, a feat that echoes Naughty Dog’s ongoing dedication to cinematic storytelling. The tale told in Jak 2 is a dark one. Gone are the bright colours, silent protagonists, and lush landscapes of the studio’s previous games. Jak 2 is an open world shooter set in a gritty, dystopian, authoritarian city. It tells a story of revenge, exploitation, and hatred – about as far as Naughty Dog could get from the goofiness of Crash Bandicoot.
Jak 2 opens with our titular protagonist and his mates being catapulted through a portal they found at the end of The Precursor Legacy. Their craft breaks up and they’re scattered apart in the rift. Jak and Daxter land in the middle of the crowded Haven City, and a Krimzon Guard – menacing soldiers in red armour who sport face tattoos and steel spiked boots – promptly knocks Jak out with a gun butt to the head. Our hero spends the next two years being tortured in prison by the city’s cruel ruler, Baron Praxis, and his right hand man and head of the Krimzon Guard, Errol. By the time Daxter manages to save him, Jak’s been warped into a rage-filled, Dark Eco-fuelled brute, with murder on his mind. “I’m gonna kill Praxis!”, he roars as he breaks free from his restraints. The once silent protagonist is silent no more, and his first words are a clear message that Jak 2 is very unlike the bubbly platformer that came before it.
Jak 2 is the first game from Naughty Dog that features a complex narrative. It turns out, Haven City is built on the ruins of Jak’s hometown – the portal didn’t send them to a far off land, it sent them into the future. The time travel errs on the right side of convoluted, just shying away from becoming overly confusing while still bearing intrigue. Jak has to save his younger self from both Praxis and the Metal Heads, as he is the child of a Precursor prophecy, an ancient race that left behind nothing but ruins and technology sought after by both the Baron and Metal Heads – vicious creatures that sport lifeless eyes, Predator-esque jaws, and glowing gems in their heads; they’re the scary big brother of the original game’s bumbling Lurkers.
Jak is quickly thrust into an underground resistance movement, led by Torn, an ex-member of the Guard who grew tired of licking Praxis’ boot. Also conspiring against the Baron is his daughter, Ashley. Jak is quickly roped into the criminal underworld of the city. Krew, a gargantuan bar owner who sits in a hovering seat deals with smuggling and monster hunting, and tasks Jak with doing some dirty work for him. The story is all about the underbelly of a crumbling city, one rife with corruption and teetering on the brink of war with Metal Heads lurking just outside the city walls. This all shows a massive tonal shift from the original. Sure, in both games, the fate of the world is at stake, but in Jak 2, the threat feels far more pronounced. The villains aren’t cartoonish, they have real, effective plans for domination, and at the start of the game, they’re winning. The game does a great job of mixing large scale conflicts with deeply personal ones, and it kept me invested in Jak, Daxter, and the Underground, while also caring about the fate of the entire city. That’s no small feat.
The impactful gunplay, precise platforming, sarcastic wit, and playful flirtation present in Jak 2 really paved the way for Uncharted. On the flipside, its dystopian world, honest approach to death, and character-driven narrative also laid the foundations for The Last of Us. It’s also worth noting that both Uncharted and The Last of Us began life as Jak projects, but the Jak concepts were dropped because they “weren’t doing service to the fans,” according to Neil Druckmann, who started out at Naughty Dog as an intern on Jak 3.
Jak 2 was something special, and I’m glad its legacy inspired some of the best video games in recent memory. No one could have predicted a city full of pointy eared, tattooed, moody fighters would lead to Joel’s heartbreak or Nathan Drake’s success, but that’s the beauty of art – you never know what will come next, or what fire a piece will spark in you.
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