When I was a kid, it seems like just about every game I liked was a platformer. Indeed, platformers defined gaming for me for many years. So it is with great interest that I have been following the evolution of platformers on this generation of consoles. The Xbox has seen Blinx and the overhyped but underwhelming Malice, but that’s about it. Even the almighty Nintendo has only really managed to spit out Super Mario Sunshine, a game that I enjoyed but certainly not one the pushed the genre in new directions (at least not like Super Mario 64 had done a console generation before). The multiplatform offerings of Ty, Tak and Whiplash have similarly been lacking. Without a doubt, Sony is home to the genre’s current greats, Ratchet, Jak, and Sly. Although each of these franchises are of outstanding overall quality on the strength of their platform level design alone, they have all also contributed to the evolution of the platformer as a genre.
Ratchet and Clank was first about a variety of silly weapons, allowing different people to play through the game in completely unique manners. As a series, it has become about RPG character and weapon building. These are elements never before so deeply realized in a platformer. Sly Cooper introduced the concept of stealth gameplay to platform conventions, and its sequel proffered elaborate heists where each mission tied into multiple others carried out by other members of the team, potentially occurring at the same time. These are remarkably insightful and original additions to a genre that has remained largely stagnant for most of its existence.
US: Jul 2007
Platformers have never been known for their strong storytelling abilities, and admittedly the narratives behind both the Ratchet and Sly franchises are fairly underdeveloped. The Ratchet series has our heroes jumping from planet to planet as a vehicle for providing diverse levels and enemies. It doesn’t really matter against what menace the world is being saved. It’s all an excuse to blow something up with your weapon of choice. Similarly, Sly Cooper, with its nonviolent revenge against the evil robot owl that stole a book from the family of our hero, wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s book.
Jak and Daxter, whose first iteration was a thinly veiled love letter to the item collecting madness of Super Mario 64, has since evolved to offer the branching mission options and vehicle-jacking of Grand Theft Auto. Further, it has taken one of the defining features of other great platformers (the minigames) and crafted a coherent game out of it. Finally, though the first game in the series was explained by a story that did nothing more than allow for the game to exist, the series has since evolved to have pseudo religious overtones, and the third chapter in the trilogy has wrapped up the overarching story quite nicely.
If Jak 2 was a little too much like Grand Theft Auto, the third game in the series wisely turns the adoration down a notch. Until you get to Haven City, in fact, there are no vehicles to hijack. Moving around the desert city must be done entirely on foot or, much later, hoverboard. Much of the character of the first sections of the game come instead from various dune buggies you’ll use to accomplish missions in the vast expanse of the surrounding desert. Each of these vehicles handles distinctly and, given the ridiculous hydraulic jumping abilities available, some are quite fun to drive.
The return to Haven City at first feels forced. It’s not as impressive to pump out a third game in the franchise in as many years when half the playing arena is reused. It becomes clear as the game progresses, however, that even if development time was shortened by this decision, which may not be the case given the massive overhaul to many areas, the choice was likely made in an effort to contribute to a familiar playground and cohesive plot for the series.
When I allude to grand ideas for the storyline, I speak of nothing less than the creation of the Universe, and the nature of the Gods, at least as far as this mythology goes. I hope not to spoil anything by saying this, but you do, finally, get to see the Precursors in their true form. What comes of this is certainly entertaining, if not necessarily brilliantly conceived and written. Again, though, platformers are not known for their attempts to incorporate these sorts of issues, so an attempt this good is welcome.
Finally, what separates Jak 3 from the rest of the platforming pack is the way that each missions is entirely different from almost all the others you’ll play. Indeed, the game might as well be a Mario Party-esque series of minigames. The sheer amount of diversity is stunning. In the end, the intensity of the game suffers a little for this lack of focus. I certainly have more fun blasting things in Ratchet or sneaking around in Sly. But in this sense, i>Jak 3 is better viewed as the collage work of a phenomenal DJ, taking many different things you’re familiar with and offering a new spin. It offers a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.