Sony's first attempt at an original platformer on the PlayStation 2 was Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, a Mario-influenced fantasy built around the adventures of the two titular heroes. Though the two subsequent games in the series were more action-influenced, they were certainly created in the same vein, weaving the familiar characters and story into new adventures. Although Jak X: Combat Racing is the fourth installment in the Jak and Daxter franchise, it, as the name implies, leaves its platforming roots completely in the dust and favors a number of different modes that centralize around...well, combat and racing. Though a turn from all of the series' games to date, Jak X still manages to infuse the same style of exposition and tale telling into between-race cinematics and in-game banter. Naughty Dog does a good job of tying all the pieces together, especially across two completely different genres; however, a few elements of gameplay aren't as strong as they were in the platform iterations. Jak X is a fun combat-racing game; the story will appeal to fans of the franchise, and there are a lot of cool secrets and unlockables. But there are some functional drawbacks--especially noticeable in the later levels--that prevent this game from being truly excellent.
Jak and Daxter trade in their legs for a nice set of wheels.
Despite the complete genre change, the story in Jak X picks up shortly after the previous game in the series. This time, Jak and Daxter have been summoned to Kras City for the reading of Krew's will. You might remember Krew as the thug lord who doled out a number of missions in Jak II, and who had to be defeated toward the end of the game. As is evidenced by the opening premise, you will spend a lot of time dealing with story that picks up from the three previous games in the franchise. You won't need to have played any of the games to be able to appreciate what's going on, but you will probably miss a ton of innuendo and self-references if you haven't. Gathering to hear the will's reading are a number of familiar faces, including Sig and Ashelin, as well as new ones, such as Krew's daughter, Rayn. At the will reading, everyone toasts and drinks a vintage wine that is, unsurprisingly, poisoned at Krew's request. The hologram of Krew that serves as the will then lays down the challenge. If one of the people present can win the upcoming Kras City Grand Championship race in his name, they'll all be presented with the antidote, and he will have fulfilled his dying wish. Of course, what doesn't quite make sense is that you will all be racing against each other and hurting each other, instead of working together to ensure that at least one of the team wins. Other than this small detail, the story is consistent and surprisingly deep for a racing game. After many of the races and all of the major ones, you'll be treated to a cinematic, whether it's a group meeting to discuss the race events, a challenge from one of the competitive teams, or an interview with the championship's annoying TV representative, G.T. Blitz.
Though the story plays a fundamental role both in making the game cohesive in and of itself and in tying the rest of the games together, the crux of the gameplay is in the races. The main single-player mode is the adventure mode, which allows you to compete in four different cups, consisting of 20 different competitions each. Limited races are available at the start, but as you win medals and earn one, two, or three points, respectively, for bronze, silver, and gold finishes, additional tracks and challenges unlock. Aside from earning medals, you also accumulate points based on the different accomplishments of your race, such as the number of enemies taken down or the length of your longest drift, which can be used to purchase car upgrades, new vehicles, and a number of different goodies from the secret shop.
In a standard race, you'll come across the threat of other racers and various obstacles within the environment. Most of the environmental challenges are simply the twists and turns of the track, although a few levels have more immediate threats, such as giant rolling snowballs or lava. There are four types of eco that can be collected from the track. Green and blue eco are used to replenish your car's health and to give you turbo boosts, respectively. Red eco is responsible for the weapons that you shoot out of the back of the car, and yellow for the forward projectiles. Weapons that you drop behind you include oil slicks, mines, stationary turrets, and attack drones. One of the best tactical maneuvers is to drop your rear weapon once you've been targeted; if timed correctly, generally it will deflect all incoming attacks. Forward projectiles include homing missiles, grenades, and the all-encompassing and destroying supernova.
Since you can hold on to the boosts and both of the weapons to fire at your own discretion, there is a fair amount of strategy to employ during any given race. In the earlier levels, the races feel a bit like a lesser version of Burnout, and as you cause crashes, the camera will cut away to a slow-motion view of the crash. You can get away without braking and simply power-slide around corners, turboing out of the power slide to ensure that you're coming away with the most speed. However--and this is what's most noticeable in the races--the competitors are all always extremely close by. No matter how well you've played the race, it's pretty much a guarantee that at your first crash or flip-over, you'll be passed by at least three or four racers. This is sure to keep you on your toes, and once you're familiar with the game, you'll typically be able to gain that lead back again soon. But this shows that many races depend on the timing of your last crash. So if you run a perfect race, but take a dive right before the finish line, chances are that you're not going to win. As the levels get more difficult, this just becomes worse, and in the final cup, you'll feel like some of those wins had more to do with chance than with the skill you've earned by racing through the three previous cups.
Though the game is extremely smooth, the automatic respawn of the car always flashes to a pitch black screen for a moment, which is so jarring, it looks like it's a bug of some sort. To further agitate the situation, cars that are deemed better by the game aren't, necessarily. Winning the first two cups will let you unlock level-two and three cars, which have better statistics regarding the engine, gearbox, armor, and turbo capacity. They'll also have more empty slots, which you can fill by purchasing additional points in these categories. But having a more fully upgraded vehicle does not make it necessarily better, and you'll find that not only are the higher level cars more rickety, they aren't noticeably much faster than the lower classes. Once you figure this out, you'll probably race all the final cup races with a level-two car, wondering why you bothered to purchase all the upgrades and additional vehicles in the first place.
The story is still hilarious, and a little cheesy.
Of course, one of the best things about Jak X's adventure mode is that not all of the races are, in fact, races. The variety and uniqueness of the game's different challenges are one of its greatest strengths. There are more than 10 different modes in total, and most of them can be played in either the single-player or multiplayer events. Throughout the story, you'll come across many instances of Turbo Dash, a challenge that tasks you to collect and use up more turbo pickups than your opponents within a time limit. In Death Race, there are no competitive racers on the track, but merely a bunch of yellow dummy cars, and your objective is to take down as many as possible by either running into them or shooting them with your weapons. Most of the races that require you to tally scores like this give you a bonus, depending on what lap of the track you're on. As you complete laps, the lap counter acts like a multiplier; on the third lap, one kill counts for three. This encourages you to keep moving forward, quickly, and it works extremely well in the context of the game. There are also a few different challenges that must be performed on the circular arena levels, including capture, a capture-the-flag mode, and sport hunt, a race to kill more game than any of your competitors.