For a genre that’s relatively young, the 3D platformer seems to be surprisingly moribund. There are only so many possible variations on the “cute character runs, jumps, hits monsters, and collects shiny objects” formula, and after finally realizing that it takes more than a licensable mascot to make a good game, developers started coming up with ever more inventive ideas to differentiate themselves from the competition: substituting monkeys for coins, rolling giant eggs around, intentional suicide, etc, to the point where a game like Ratchet & Clank is hardly a platformer at all. Naughty Dog, going with a more straightforward approach, had a lot of success with Jak & Daxter, and would probably be given a pass if they simply offered more of the same in their next game, but apparently felt the need to spread their wings a bit. Jak II has the feeling of a big experiment, one that unfortunately isn’t all that successful.

The introductory cutscenes set the tone for the game. After an accident with a time machine, the main characters are cut off from the bright, friendly world of Jak & Daxter and dropped into a dark, mean, dystopia, populated by gangsters, ruled by fascists, and besieged by monsters. Jak is promptly arrested, locked up for two years, and subjected to sketchy medical experiments, which by the time Daxter breaks him out (at which point the game begins) have left him short-tempered and hungry for revenge (and probably bitter about the cheesy goatee the artists planted on his chin). From the violent opening to the giving of voice to Jak (who played “silent protagonist” in the first game), it’s clear from the get-go that Naughty Dog plans to do things differently this time.

Jak II draws most of its inspiration from — where else? — Grand Theft Auto. The city that acts as the central backdrop for the game is huge and thickly populated with hovermobiles just begging to be stolen. Unfortunately, while the game apes GTA’s dank urban setting and street-crime mechanics, it doesn’t replicate that game’s sandbox style of play. The residents of the city are completely passive, never talking or changing their pace except to scream and run when you drive by them or pull out a gun. There are a few minigames, but they take place in separate interfaces, and don’t use the city streets at all, with the exception of a few specific missions that send you on races or scavenger hunts through the streets. The city is really just a set, a background against which the official game is played, as opposed to a field in which you make up your own games like in GTA.

Not every game needs to be a sandbox, though. The real problem is that even though the city is just a backdrop for the game, it ends up being one of the most significant obstacles to gameplay. The streets are a maze that make London or Boston look like paragons of easy navigation. Part of this is probably driven by technical concerns: there are chokepoints between neighborhoods that seem to exist simply to give the graphics engine time to stream the next area’s textures. But a lot of it seems to just be an intentional laying out of impedances to slow down the player and stretch out the driving experience. Which wouldn’t be quite so bad if driving weren’t so annoying. The floaty handling of hoverbikes doesn’t take too long to get used to, but the obnoxiously heavy traffic does. NPC drivers seem to have as much trouble navigating the streets’ narrow lanes and tight corners as the player, leading to constant traffic jams at every key intersection; imagine an entire map drawn up like the I-94/Hennepin/Lyndale interchange in Minneapolis and you start to get the idea. It quickly kills any enjoyment that was ever to be found in driving, and makes it an interminable chore you have to endure while shuttling from point to point between missions (just like commuting in real life). Needless to say, timed missions through the streets are a controller-throwing-worthy exercise in frustration.

The most enjoyable missions are the ones that take place outside the city, where the areas are designed much like the levels in the first J&D game. Playing through these levels, free of the annoyances that plague Haven City, is a refreshing return to basic platformer mechanics — the very thing Naughty Dog is trying to get away from in Jak II. The problem with experimenting with a formula, especially by simply trying to graft another game’s formula onto it, is that you risk diluting what was fun about the genre in the first place.