A few months back an image was leaked of a protagonist from a popular Naughty Dog title that unfortunately never was; bearded and athletic, it wasn’t a still from a sequel to The Last of Us, it wasn’t even the chiselled, marble-jawed visage of Nathan Drake… It was in fact Jak, the protagonist of one of the studio’s greatest franchises, and the series that pioneered the difficult teenage years of the platformer generation. JAK II: Renegade deserves a retro reflection not only because it strikes at the heartstrings of nostalgia, but because it represented a drastic leap for a franchise in an identity crisis, one that would lead a popular genre into the landscape of early 21st century gaming.
When JAK II: Renegade released back in late 2003, the series, and the wider platforming genre, were in somewhat of a crisis; the younger generation to which it primarily appealed were moving onto larger, more mature games, leaving a gap in the market that developers weren’t quite sure how to fill. Que JAK II, brainchild of the studio behind the seminal Crash Bandicoot series, and follow up to the immensely popular Jak & Daxter.
The sequel takes a drastic departure from the endangered tropical paradise in which the first game takes place.
In terms of both tone and aesthetic, the sequel takes a drastic departure from the endangered tropical paradise in which the first game takes place. Kicking off in the wake of the Jak & Daxter’s closing events, our protagonists wake up isolated and alone in a foreign city, one governed by a militaristic force with daring stylistic references back to a number of far-right political regimes. A dystopian society plagued by social injustice, struggling under the iron fist of Baron Praxis and his Krimson Guard and taking strong aesthetic cues from sci-fi classics like Blade Runner and Total Recall – Haven City looks much more like a level from Killzone than the successor of a Crash title.
Of course, as the game’s setting grew up to reflect that of a more mature audience, so too did it’s protagonist; for many my age who played the first game as a young boy, they came to JAK II: Renegade as a… slightly spottier young boy. Jak’s transformation from sandal wearing eco warrior, however, didn’t just come with a rebellious teenage wardrobe change and some questionable facial hair, in fact it pervaded the game at several levels, twisting the mechanics of the existing platformer.
The most notable of these changes was the introduction of ‘Dark Jak’, a super-powered alter ego Jak can ‘Hulk out’ into as a result of months at the hands of Praxis and his mad scientists. Dark Jak came complete with enhance speed and strength, and a roster of aggressive melee attacks to help players out of stick situations – sound a bit familiar? That’s probably because it is. Refreshing change as it was for the franchise, Dark Jak borrowed heavily from concepts like the Devil Trigger from DMC, or even the Oni power from Onimusha; as a mechanic, it represented a move on the developer’s part to a more mature gameplay style, and a savvy awareness that the platforming genre needed new hooks.
Of course, Dark Jak wasn’t the only noticeable addition to the game’s existing mechanics; JAK II also saw the introduction of the highly versatile (and paradigm shifting) Morph Gun. Incorporating new gunplay mechanics into the classic formula, the Morph Gun – as its name implies – could be transformed into various different firearms as and when the player earned ‘Mods’. Although the weapons themselves weren’t particularly ground breaking (the Scatter gun functioned like a shotgun, the Vulcan mod felt like a rifle), the Morph Gun added a sense of progression and development to the game, rewarding those that stuck with it into the later missions.
Grand Theft Zoomer
Perhaps the game’s biggest, most resounding change, however, accompanied the introduction of vehicular travel, and a shift in game progression and mission structure. Closely mimicking Rockstar’s ground breaking Grand Theft Auto III (October, 2001), players travelled around the crumbling dystopia aboard Zoomers, completing missions for various parties in order to progress through the main narrative. Again, this didn’t just open the title up to a demographic hooked in by mature content and glamorised violence, it provided notable space for character development and narrative depth, introducing 10 year-old me to the concept that not everything is, strictly speaking, always a black and white matter.
“The game took real risks, incorporating a number of features that as yet had hardly been explored within the genre”
They Grow Up So Fast…
Ultimately, JAK II: Renegade has rightfully earned its place amongst our gilded halls of retro glory (unfortunately they’re not literal halls just yet), because for me it was inherently a coming of age game. As a young gamer who had cut his teeth on titles like Crash and the original Jak & Daxter, yet was constantly being drawn away by the mature allure of games like Devil May Cry, JAK II felt like a much-needed homecoming. The game took real risks, incorporating a number of features that as yet had hardly been explored within the genre (Rachet & Clank wouldn’t come along for another year), recognising that the beloved platformer was at series risk of being left on the Platinum shelf. These risks came together to form an exciting, balanced title with tangible character and world development, one that sits comfortably in the collections of gamers young and old to this day.