Jak II and GTA Vice City Reviews and Ruminations

I picked up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Jak II for Playstation 2 a while ago, but it took me a week before I had time to play. I was up late last night so I thought it'd be a good chance to unwind. I was surprised by how much the two games had in common. Read on for my opinion on these games and the trends that I fabricate from a couple hours of play time.

The last time I was into Playstation, wide open spaces were still a big issue and everything had a foggy horizon that was a little too close. I'm not used to having wide open spaces to walk around in. Not without a rocket launcher or BFG in front of me. Quake III Arena and some other FPSes have had the open spaces, but not much in the way of scenery that you don't have to kill. I haven't had a lot of variety in the games I play the past few years for some reason. I'd like to say it's because I've been concentrating on the technology to make games. That's partly true. Playing games is distracting when you're trying to make games. But it's also true that flash games don't require any installation so it's impossible to uninstall them. Any distraction will do.

I played GTA: Vice City first. I tried one of the older versions a year or two ago and that's what made me decide to pick this one up from the "greatest hits" collection. It doesn't take long to become a greatest hit apparently. I like the ability to hop in a car and take off, jump out when you like and then try something different. I haven't gotten very far in it because I'm far too entertained by exploring the world. At high speed.

The interactive map leaves something to be desired, so it's a good thing they included the paper version with the disc. Once I care about where I'm going, I plan to have a look at it. While playing, the cut scenes so far aren't long enough to irritate me. I don't like too much storytelling keeping me out of action. And you can make a lot of action. Everyone you meet has something to say, though not much of it is friendly. Vice City is immersive enough to get a feel that you're involved, but not enough to make you forget that you're pushing buttons. The control still feels like your character is just a little bit drunk (maybe he is). You don't quite have total control of where your arms and legs are going. I think this is epitomized by the way you can switch with R3 from third person view (over the shoulder) to first (from the character's eyes), but you can't run around in that first-person view. That bumbling around means you can't walk through a crowd without getting cussed at and possibly starting a fight. That's what the game's about though, right? It's not the Sims after all.

Did I mention how much I love to drive in this game? If you're old enough to have played the original Test Drive or Test Drive II on the Commodore 64, this is what you always wanted that game to be. Hop in, go. Go fast. The fact that I want to jump in and drive a bus for all the wrong reasons tells me this game has something to it. Everything should be this easy. The game seems like it'll be great to pick up, kill an hour, and go get back to life. That's important to me - I'm in that old gamer age bracket where I can't (usually) stay up until 5am learning about how to solve some obtuse puzzle.

After an hour or so of running around Vice City, I popped in Jak II. I know it's one of the ones where they take a game that was successful with the young kids market then make the sequel "dark and gritty." As a parent, let me say that I'm perfectly happy with movies, stories and games that stick to their roots and stay happy and light. I have to qualify this by saying that I didn't play Jak and Daxter outside of GDC, but I did hear the developers give the "dark and gritty" line also at the Game Developer's Conference. Part of the grittying was giving Jak a voice and making him angry. He's so angry that he says "hell" in one of the first cut scenes of the game. Hey, I never said this blog was rated PG. That doesn't mean I want my kid playing some angry character bent on revenge. Jak goes on to pick up some kind of dark energy which ultimately lets him turn into big bad Dark Jak. Dark Jak reminded me of evil Sonic (Shadow the Hedgehog is it? with a gun now?). Anyhow, I'm going to get off my soap box, but I don't think this is a game I'll share with my kid yet. Not that GTA is either...

While playing Jak II, I was surprised at how much it felt like GTA when I was walking around. Well, not at first. I'll rewind; I'm still near the beginning, but the very first part was an escape from a fortress. There are some nice little sequences where Daxter and some on-screen queuing reminds you how to make a high jump and perform a couple fighting maneuvers. What I didn't like was the stupid jumping challenge. Why is jumping across moving platforms such an important skill for a gamer to have? I was disapointed at how long the game let me wallow across the otherwise lovely scenery with my over-the-hill reflexes. At least toward the end they reduce the risk of falling to your death by placing a floor some distance below the platforms you're required to jump between.

So I made it out of the fortress where Jak was imprisoned and into the city surrounding it. The dark and gritty city, of course. When I get out in the street what do I see? A car - well a hover car. Just hit triangle and hop in - displacing the former occupant. At least there are no hookers in Jak II. So far.

So is it GTA for the younger set? No, not really. I think the wide-open venues must be spreading around to a lot of games. It's a great dynamic - it changes the whole feel of a game compared to the ones I played as a kid. It also makes for a great connector between missions and objectives in the game. That's a huge challenge to the writers. It's like writing a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" book instead of a linear story. Do they still have those or did I just date myself?

I could definitely see a game design being built out in a different order than in the past. You can start with the world that your characters live in, define their back story and then set them up in the plot. Now you're dealing with some higher order tools to make an entertaining game happen in the context of the world you create. Pretty heady stuff.

Back to Jak. I did the requisite running around the city while dodging the po-pos. That kept me entertained and I found my way out of the city into the dark and gritty swamps. Either the interactive map in Jak II was a little more helpful or I'm getting better at it. Did I mention that R3 in Jak II also pops the camera inside Jak's head? Striking similarities, I guess it's just the way things are expected to work in first person games on PS2.

Anyhow, I run around in the swamps for a while and I find my way to a tower I have to ascend. While running up in circles around it of course the bricks crumble away and the goal is to jump across the chasms from one crumbling shelf to the next. That was the end of my time for Jak II. So Jak II has lost points for originality. There are some good sequences in there though, and game play is very fluid and easy to learn. I just wish I could spend more time in the driving and fighting parts and less in the plummeting to my death parts.

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