Formerly the starring duo in a gaggle of third-person action games, Jak & Daxter now find themselves headlining a combat-oriented racing game. This isn't the first time Naughty Dog has transformed a popular action franchise into a racer. We all have fond memories of Crash Bandicoot and his pals bashing it out in the original Crash Team Racing for the PSX. For various reasons, Jak X: Combat Racing doesn't quite tickle the same fancies that Crash Team did. But, this latest effort is so ridiculously fast paced and explosive, and so loaded down with features, that it's hard to punish it for what are primarily just minor gripes.
As I've been playing it, I can't help but think of this as Burnout meets Mario Kart. In order to move up from sixth to first, you have to pick up weapon items and unleash them as quickly and as often as you can–a constant flurry of grenades, missiles, mines, oil slicks, and any of a dozen other goodies is the only way to slow down your opponents enough to overtake them. And once you do take the lead, you have to constantly collect turbo items and keep the boost button held just to hold onto your precarious front-running position, which can instantly drop back to fourth or worse with a well-timed missile on the competition's part. Sure sounds like Mario Kart, doesn't it? Meanwhile, every race has to be run at full tilt, much like the races in Burnout, and you're rewarded for brutal crashes and weapon hits with instant-replays that show the wreck from multiple angles.
Races are fast and furious, almost to the point of absurdity. Turbo items and speed-up ramps constantly increase the pace, and missiles and explosions are constantly going off all around you. On top of all that, there are jump ramps and shortcuts that accelerate the pace and adrenaline even further. One feature that I especially like is the jump button, which doesn't just let you hop, but can give you insane hang time off of the game's lengthier ramps. Hang time, in turn, increases your turbo meter. Basically, the game is one big circular exercise is driving fast and flying high.
So what's not to like? For starters, the rubber band A.I. can be pretty aggravating. You can hog the lead for two and nine-tenths laps only to lose it from a missile hit just prior to the finish line. If you save back a shield item for the last bit of the race, though, you'll protect yourself from some of these situations. Not all of them, however, as there are times when every CPU opponent will assail you with their weapons at the same time. It sucks to be ganged up on, but, sometimes, that's just the way things go. Another thing that bugs me is how the courses are laid out. They're lush and beautiful; don't get me wrong; they look just like the settings in the Jak & Daxter action games, but they're also too wide and not lively enough. Perhaps the developers made the tracks so wide to account for the game's fast pace. Regardless, there aren't many occasions where you have to jockey for position or worry about hairpin curves. Oh, there's the occasional narrow bridge or precision jump ramp to deal with, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. Skillful driving isn't required to excel in the game, so much as constant use of weapon items and a little bit of luck.
Not every racing game has to be a sim, however. It's obvious that Jak X: Combat Racing was designed for the "arcade" crowd, and in light of that fact, the above-mentioned gripes aren't necessarily deal breakers.
It also helps that Jak X isn't just a collection of circuit races. There are actually many different events to tackle. Some take place on standard tracks, such as the normal race, turbo dash, death race, and rush hour events. Others, like the death match and CTF events, take place in enclosed free-roaming arenas. In all, there are approximately a dozen different events to try… and they're all online capable. Personally, I prefer the arena events. First off, you don't have to worry so much about rubber band A.I. or track design, because you're not trying to race to the finish or stay on course. More than that, though, the arena events are all just fun. I especially like the capture the flag event, because it pits two teams against each other. The three members on each team have to work together to steal the other team's power orb. That sort of thing is great fun when you get six live opponents together, all talking smack on voice chat and launching missiles with reckless abandon. Also, kudos to Naughty Dog for implementing a clan organization system into the online infrastructure.
And, of course, the game's presentation is super-slick. If you played the last couple Jak & Daxter games, you wouldn't expect anything less. The courses are sharp and lush. Heck, they look just like the environments in Jak 3, except with roads and pathways going through them. I'm a sucker for crashing waterfalls and exploding lava pits, and Naughty Dog sure didn't disappoint me. The car models aren't anything special, but they are tough looking. You're also not stuck with the same ride the entire time. There are twelve different rides to unlock, and dozens of body parts and paint jobs to outfit them with. Honestly, you don't get much time while playing to look at the car's anyway, what with all of the laser trails and explosions going off. To cap things off, each race in the story mode is followed by a lengthy video sequence that reveals another portion of the game's story. The dialogue is voiced by the same voice cast from previous Jak & Daxter games, and the story itself isn't half bad. In a nutshell, Krew has poisoned Jak and Daxter and now they have to win the Kras City Championship in order to get the antidote. Along the way, they face off with rival gangs, Jak acts all arrogant and butch, and Daxter tells his own brand of off-color jokes. It's good stuff, if you're into that sort of banter.
Ultimately, Jak X: Combat Racing lives up to the hype. Whatever flaws that bugged me in the circuit events were more than forgiven while playing the arena events. You need to take the game online to really get the most out of it, and if you can manage that, this is a definite must buy.