17 Years Later, Naughty Dog Has Yet to Top Jak and Daxter

Uncharted took gamers on a series of thrilling, worldly expeditions. The Last of Us married brutal survivalist combat with emotionally charged storytelling. Both franchises are the latest proof of game developer Naughty Dog’s evolving talent. But despite their innovations, neither franchise is anywhere near as fun or as visually interesting as the studio’s preceding trilogy, Jak and Daxter.

Satisfying Traversal

Gameplay-wise, the first Jak & Daxter is an homage to the beloved 3D platformers that preceded it (Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Gex). You’re tasked with traversing large levels that require quick, precise movements. Go here, collect this, activate that: Simple stuff.

But here’s where things get interesting. In addition to running and jumping, Jak can roll, punch, spin-kick, uppercut, and swing. Better yet, you can combine these moves to gain further distance and height. And the controls are smooth and responsive, so after just a half-hour of play, maneuvering Jak starts to feel like second nature. Suddenly, you find yourself rolling, bobbing, and weaving about the levels with ease.

Jak II traversal gameplay

And as a player, that’s exactly where Naughty Dog wants you: Confident, but not comfortable. From there, the game’s inventive environments quickly put your skills to the test. Platforms move and disappear, gunshots send you on the run, and enemies give chase with fervent bloodlust.

Jak II traversal

Make no mistake: These aren’t easy games. But despite the occasional frustration, I often found myself in a state of flow while playing Jak. In the most exhilarating moments, I would somehow pull off some olympian-level maneuver, leaving my mouth agape. The movement is incredibly gratifying.

The same can’t be said for traversal in Uncharted or The Last of Us. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is a skilled climber, but most platforming amounts to basic jumps, swings, or tedious wall climbing.

Uncharted 1 climbing gameplay

Both series often just have you holding the analog stick in a single direction. And in The Last of Us, well, you get to push dumpsters around.

Ellie pushing a dumpster in The Last of Us Part II

Gameplay Diversity

In Uncharted and The Last of Us, what you’ll do in the first hour is more or less what you’ll do the entire game. Encountering new enemies or puzzles might keep you on your toes, but by and large, there’s very little gameplay diversity. You run, you shoot, you climb.

The Jak games don’t have this problem. The bulk of Jak & Daxter is open-world platforming, but it keeps things fresh with racing, boss battles, minigames, and more. Jak II and Jak 3 further that variety by introducing gunplay, larger-scale combat, additional vehicles, on-rails shooting, and even more minigames. The minute-to-minute gameplay is so varied that the series feels like Mario Party compared to Uncharted and The Last of Us.

Obviously, having more gameplay variety doesn’t automatically improve a game. In fact, Jak 3 has an overzealous overreliance on minigames. But if a game relies too heavily on a particular gameplay style for too long, it can devalue the overall experience. I recall The Last of Us Part II‘s third act feeling like a slog because Naughty Dog didn’t introduce any new mechanics. As a result, I reluctantly plowed through hours of dull, unchanged close-quarters combat just to see how the story would end. At that point, the game felt like a chore.

Inventive Art Direction

Both Uncharted and The Last of Us opt for a realistic and cinematic art style, which makes sense considering their aims. And thanks to Naughty Dog’s highly skilled artists, the results are impressive. But I wouldn’t call them exciting. For instance, The Last of Us Part II has you navigating the dilapidated, overgrown ruins of Seattle. If I wanted to see a rainy, bleak cityscape, I’d step outside my apartment.

Seattle in The Last of Us Part II

Image sourced from Gamers With Glasses (The Last of Us: Part II)

To be fair, Uncharted is far more varied, depicting ancient ruins and various biomes. But at a glance, many moments closely emulate the series’ action-adventure movie inspirations (Indiana Jones, Lost Horizon, The Bourne Ultimatum): Visually, they’re derivative and not unlike already-existing media.

Overlooking a forest in Uncharted 4

Haven’t I seen this place before? (Uncharted 4)

Meanwhile, with Jak, Naughty Dog’s artists had carte blanche to explore all manner of wacky technologies, beleaguered cities, elaborate ancient temples, and much more. The results are colourful, vivid, and varied — a feast for the eyes.

Jak on a jet board in the forest of Jak II

(Jak II)

Jak standing in a Precursor tent

(Jak II)

Weapons factory in Jak II

(Jak II)

Admittedly, the first game’s visuals are somewhat puerile, at times looking like the goofy, distorted, and psychedelic stylings of cartoonist Vaughn Bode.

An enemy design from the first Jak game

(Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy)

But the sequels embraced the series’ cartoon roots while shedding the awkwardness for slightly more believable, human-inspired environments and characters.

Final Thoughts

It’s no small wonder why Naughty Dog moved away from Jak & Daxter’s platforming-centric and cartoon-inspired design. Advancements in visual fidelity and the necessity of appealing to a widening player demographic catalyzed their inevitable shift to grounded, cinematic titles like Uncharted and The Last of Us.

But artistic accomplishment aside, I can’t help but feel that both franchises haven’t eclipsed Jak & Daxter in terms of raw fun and visual novelty. And for me, that’s what video games are all about.

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