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Jak 3 – a better Jak II

Sometimes a sequel is less focused on new ideas, and more on refining and polishing what was there in the previous entry. This seems to be the goal of Jak 3 in a lot of regards, though that's not to say there's nothing new at all. While this game can't help but feel like a Jak II expansion pack in many ways, there's been enough fine-tuning on the ideas from both games to make this probably the most well-rounded entry in the series.

The story in this game falls into very similar predictable trappings as the last game, to the point that I was able to guess one of the big twists pretty much right away. Without spoiling anything, the other big twist is well executed though, and leads to a great reveal that keeps the implications coming in a few waves. I didn't buy the villain as he was a pretty minor character in the last game, and almost every moment between characters felt weird and forced. Returning characters felt like entirely different people and new characters are either squandered or pretty cut and dry. As a narrative it didn't hook me, but it led to a few good set pieces.

The sheer amount of weapons you get in this game is impressive compared to the last, with most of them having easily identifiable uses and situations where they're helpful. In particular the ricochet blaster and the energy beam were really fun to use. Driving has also been given some much-needed depth thanks to the many different dune buggies you can drive around a big open desert, with each buggy having their own strengths and weaknesses for different situations. I love the dune hopper and the crazy jumps you can pull off, though it's only really helpful a handful of times. The faster ones handle extremely poorly though, so you're going to need to get very good with them to beat the challenges, which are much more interesting this time due to the world itself being more visually distinct. It's mostly good, though the sand shark in particular can be wildly unpredictable and frustrating, sometimes it just feels like it has a mind of its own. There are no police to chase you around, instead you have a band of raiders that show up to ruin your day any and every time you're out in the desert. It can be fun to chase around and shoot them but it feels a bit extreme at times, like you just want them to leave you alone. The world itself though is very interesting to traverse: the terrain is varied and has physical effects on your vehicle, it looks great, and has enough environmental details to make every section look unique. This is the only game in the series where just traversing the world itself is interesting, so the optional challenges are much more enticing this time around.

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The missions in this game have a wide variety of gameplay styles, with many being one-off gimmick missions thrown in the mix with a lot of already scattered mission types. As a result the whole game is extremely unfocused, you're completing so many different kinds of missions that it barely even feels like any of the mechanics of the game could be considered its "core" mechanics. Platforming takes a backseat to shooting, which itself takes a backseat to driving, which sometimes includes vehicular combat, etc. You're rarely doing the same things more than a few times in a row, and it gives the impression that this game just wants to be absolutely everything it can be without focusing on any one thing. All of these different styles are pretty well developed, better than their counterparts in the last game, but since so little time is spent with them at any given time, it's hard to appreciate any of them. There's a lovely Tempest-style segment where you're riding around the inside of a tube and can go around the entire thing while shooting and avoiding hazards, and it's only used twice. The game seems to not trust you to not be bored, so it has to mix things up as often as possible. What this really led to is most of these missions being completely forgettable.

While the lack of focus is more disappointing than it is frustrating, it definitely wouldn't be this way if they hadn't thankfully fixed the checkpoint system from the last game completely. Not only are there reasonable checkpoints for every area, but in missions where you need to destroy a certain number of things, the number you destroyed persists after death. There's also a healing mechanic that can save you a bunch of time in the longer, uninterrupted segments like boss fights. This led to me not just playing it safe, but actually playing around with my move set and experimenting with different guns and approaches, something the last game heavily discouraged. As a result, this was a much shorter and easier playthrough than the last game, but I could most definitely see myself going back and doing some of the bonus challenges, whereas I never want to play Jak II again.

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As a said before though, this game feels like a Jak II expansion pack. Not only does the game play pretty much identically, you even go back to Haven city from II and can drive around the same cars in the same areas, meeting the same characters with some new geometry because of the state of the city. One on hand I like the fact that they could reuse the world from the last game while making it fit into this one, but it's so jarring for it to just feel like you're playing the second game again. Once it shows up it sort of takes priority away from the desert, since all of the important story stuff is happening in the city, so the more interesting world gets the wind taken out of its sails. I will say though, it's really great to be able to drive around the city seeing the war between them and the robots happening without needing to always take part, it lends some much-needed believability to the environment.

If I could describe my time with Jak II with one word, it would likely be "agonizing". To do the same for Jak 3 would be "fun". The amount of breathing room the checkpoints alone give is enough to make me fully interact with all of this game's systems, while being able to appreciate the individual gameplay styles without dreading having to redo them many times. It's a shame that the game doesn't stick with more of it's styles, and instead takes a "more is more" approach, but it's hard to be angry with the game because of the good time I had with it. Even if you don't particularly like a mission type, you probably won't have to grind at it until you get it right, and you might not even see it again for the rest of the game. It's more well-rounded in that there are enough different things to do that a revisit is almost enticing, but it's also more forgettable and left less of an impression than the previous entry, even if that impression was an altogether negative one.

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So there you have it – all three Jak games reviewed. One of the things I was most impressed about in the first game was how it made use of only a few different mechanics, but really felt like it was consistently getting the most out of them. While there are many optional challenges in the sequels that get more out of their many mechanics, I doubt most people will see them because of the sheer number of everything. The first game I felt no problem achieving 100%, whereas I would never dream of going for that in the other games. To that end, I would still rank the first one as my favorite, though I do acknowledge that Jak 3 does almost everything that it does very well, and it does it all without being frustrating. I hope you enjoyed this journey with me into a series I always wanted to see the appeal of – and I think I've definitely arrived at a point where I understand these games and why they are so beloved.


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