You probably know Naughty Dog for either the Uncharted or The Last of Us games – and for good reason. It’s pretty much all the esteemed studio has been working on over the past 15 years. Since 2007, the company’s focus has been on popcorn action-adventure games, and soulful stories about faux parental relationships in a ruined post-apocalyptic wasteland.
But what if I was to tell you that the kernels for these games were sewn long before Drake was even a glint in the developer’s proverbial eye? What if I was to tell you that the studio’s penchant for heart-rending character development actually began before either of these PlayStation juggernaut series was even conceived? Way back in 2003, Naughty Dog was teasing out the foundations of what would become some of the most successful franchises of all time in a little game called Jak 2.
If you played the first game in the series – or indeed any of the Crash Bandicoot games that preceded that – Jak 2 is a shock to the system. Naughty Dog, in a breath, discarded the rainbow palettes and mild peril of everything that had come before to instead focus on a grim, industrialised sci-fi GTA-like sandbox.
The non-linear platforming levels of Jak & Daxter are left behind as you enter Haven – a city where the locals live under an oppressive, military-facist regime. The poor (or useless) are sequestered into slums, the workers crammed into over-populated suburbs. Police take bribes, intimidate the locals. A small underground resistance – operating out of a bar, naturally – takes beatings, threats, kidnappings and all other manners of horror on the chin. This is a story of resistance, personal sacrifice, and fighting for what’s right, no matter what. It’s as impactful in 2022 as it was in 2003.
Inspired by Rockstar, Naughty Dog opted for a mission-centric layout in Jak 2, and even the icons on the map and the way you start up tasks rhymes with its GTA counterpart. You can kick Haven locals off their motorbikes or hover cars, and ride their vehicles to your destination. You can get a Wanted level by aggravating the ‘police’. You can find collectibles squirreled away in bafflingly-conceived architectural anomalies in the city. This is, to all intents and purposes, a Grand Theft Auto game for all the kids that were too young to play them (and did behind their parents' backs, anyway).
It’s also the most early-00s thing you’ll ever see. Protagonist Jak – his blood coursing with Eco that basically turns him into a vile-tempered nu metal frontman – only needs a wallet chain and a Sony Walkman attached to his hip, and he’ll be every stereotype of the era. For some reason, this kids game had a penchant for booze, cursing, and lingering shots of the female characters’ curves. It’s ‘mature’ for people that are immature, basically. But beneath the schlocky 00’s 2edgy5u aesthetic, there is a solid, impeccable game – one that holds up even today, nearly 20 years later. Importantly, Jak remains likable at all times – even through his werewolf transformations and brilliantly realised distaste for the law. Jak 2 says ACAB without ever actually saying ACAB, and that’s to be lauded.
A lot of its charm comes down to Naughty Dog’s magic touch when it comes to world-building; something we’ve since seen in both Uncharted and TLOU. For a PS2 game, Haven City is deeply impressive – the scope and scale of the thing blew most other games out of the water, and embarrasses other GTA derivatives in their droves. Even if the game kept you within the smoke-choked streets of Haven, it would have been impressive – but Naughty Dog actually took you further; to ruins, wastelands, sewers, and temples on the city’s outskirts. As you learn the truth about it all – about the world that this post-industrial nightmare was erected on – you come to appreciate the beauty of the shattered stone monoliths you end up hoverboarding over (for some reason).
The core platforming of the first game is still intact, of course. But as well as the satisfying rubber-hose animations that see Jak stretched out to hilarious proportions as he mantles, jumps and rolls through the world, we have an extensive armory of guns that’d make even Ratchet & Clank blush. Throw in some armoured vehicles, mech battles, and peculiar little arenas you need to skate – no, sorry, hoverboard – around, and you’ve got a game quite unlike anything before. Or, indeed, since.
The most notable thing about the game, though, is its tightly-paced story. Missions are punchy (and hard!) and serve to keep the elaborate plot ticking over at all times. At no one point do things feel safe – there’s no descending status quo in this game that gives you a breather. There’s always a new threat, some new intrigue, a character you thought something about that has been cast in a totally new light. This same pace – and gift for effortless characterisation – would follow through into Uncharted and The Last of Us, and become the core pillar upon Naughty Dog builds its prestige projects.
Jak 2 was an experiment – but a successful one. On the surface, its dark, Linkin Park-esque aesthetic might be a turn off in the 2020s, but dig down and give it a go, and you’ll understand so much more about why Naughty Dog is held in such high esteem today.
You don’t even need to play the more formulaic and basic first game in the trilogy, really – Jak 2 stands alone. If you’ve got a PS Plus Premium subscription, you’ve got literally nothing to lose in downloading this and giving it a go. You should be able to find it via your PS5 menu, in theory.