Happy Birthday, Jak 2! You stirred controversy in ways that games are no longer permitted to do
Jak 2, released exactly 20 years ago today, was a game that sparked contrasting opinions among players, and that divisive nature persists even now. De...
Jak 2, released exactly 20 years ago today, was a game that sparked contrasting opinions among players, and that divisive nature persists even now. Despite its respectable Metacritic score of 87, it falls short compared to the likes of The Last of Us Part 2 with 93, Breath of the Wild with 97, and Cyberpunk 2077 with 86. A game can be widely adored and yet still generate significant divisions, and Jak 2 finds itself in that category. However, it isn't often discussed in these terms, and as it reaches its 20th anniversary, perhaps it's time to examine the reasons behind this phenomenon.
One significant factor is the mere fact that it has reached the 20-year mark. The gaming industry tends to swiftly overshadow its own history, constantly fixated on the future, seeking faster, larger, and visually enhanced games, often disregarding its own legacy. Whenever gaming does reflect on the past, it is seldom to honor and appreciate, but rather to exploit, as evidenced by the abundance of remakes and remasters aimed at capitalizing on nostalgia. Naughty Dog serves as an intriguing case in point: having already subjected The Last of Us Part 1 to two rounds of visual enhancements, the studio appears poised to further refine The Last of Us Part 2. However, it has divested itself of Crash Bandicoot, the franchise that propelled its success, and tends to overlook Jak in favor of its photorealistic blockbusters such as The Last of Us and Uncharted.
Another factor lies in the nature of the controversy surrounding these games. The Last of Us, Breath of the Wild, and Cyberpunk 2077 all promised to usher in new eras for gaming. It is widely accepted that The Last of Us and Breath of the Wild, to some extent, succeeded in delivering on these aspirations, while supporters of Cyberpunk 2077 defend it, particularly when played on high-end PCs with several years' worth of patches and a significant expansion. In the current gaming landscape, titles tend to be labeled as either masterpieces or failures. While The Last of Us Part 2 took a daring narrative leap, most games become divisive because they either overpromise or fail to meet the lofty expectations of being game-changing experiences and end up being merely "okay." Jak 2, however, stirred controversy in a vastly different manner.
Jak 2 was released in 2003, which you would have already deduced if you learned subtraction in school. The first Jak game debuted in 2001, followed by the third installment in 2004. Jak X: Combat Racing was released in 2005, and the PSP spin-off game Daxter followed in 2006. In total, there were five games released within a span of six years. In contrast, The Last of Us Part 2 arrived seven years after the release of Part 1. During this gap, an Uncharted game and spin-off were released, indicating that the intervals between entries in series are growing significantly longer. There was a six-year gap between Breath of the Wild and its sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, marking the longest wait between two mainline Zelda games to date. Cyberpunk 2077 arrived five years after The Witcher 3 (and didn't function as intended until three years later), but most notably, it was released eight years after its initial announcement.
In present times, game development requires significantly more time, which in turn raises the expectation that games must be flawless and revolutionary. This leaves little room for second chances. Studios often struggle to recover from a single disappointing game due to the immense costs involved, and it may take several years before the next installment is released to address any shortcomings. Jak 2 underwent a significant transformation, transitioning from the vibrant and jungle-themed world of its predecessor to a darker, grungier, and more steampunk-inspired setting. This shift allowed Jak to explore his darker side and become more powerful, introducing urban gameplay elements and firearms. The game drew inspiration from the success of GTA 3 while staying true to its own identity. During that era, games had more freedom to experiment with different concepts and identities, making it easier to try new things and see if they resonate with players.
In the current gaming landscape, it would be challenging for a game to undergo such a dramatic transformation without committing to a hard reboot and incurring additional risks. Moreover, the irregular release schedule of game series makes it more difficult for games to cultivate dedicated fanbases. This is why we often see fervent fans emerge purely based on hype, defending a game even before they have experienced it - there is a hunger for new experiences. Jak 2 was undoubtedly a risk, albeit a calculated one, as Naughty Dog aimed to evolve and distance themselves from the lighthearted cartoon fun of the previous installment. If one examines closely, the nihilistic and melancholic tones prevalent in the studio's current works can be traced back to the foundations laid by Jak 2, albeit with some imagination.
These kinds of risks are seldom taken in the present gaming landscape, and games of Jak 2's scale and significance are rare. The only top-tier studio that consistently delivers polished AAA titles without overwhelming frequency is Insomniac. The scope for experimentation is primarily left to the indie scene. While AAA games continue to be exceptional (especially considering the offerings we've seen this year), they often stem from teams of similar size, working on extended development cycles, and adhering to safe parameters. Although 2023 has seen numerous successful releases, studios operate under a "one failure and you're done" policy, which prevents games like Jak 2 from receiving opportunities. Additionally, it is no longer feasible to create a AAA sequel in just two years and release its subsequent sequel the following year.
Technological advancements have undoubtedly improved, but instead of facilitating faster game development, we find ourselves receiving ostensibly superior games that take longer to produce than ever before. Once the backlog caused by the pandemic clears up by 2024, we may find ourselves in a drought-like situation, with only occasional releases of AAA titles every other month. These games may exhibit striking similarities in terms of visuals and gameplay, following a formula established by their predecessors. In such a scenario, we might long for the nostalgic days of daring risks like Jak 2, when the gaming landscape was more diverse and unpredictable.