Hands-on: Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier

The Jak and Daxter franchise has been dormant for quite a long time. It's been more than three years since the release of the last game of the franchise, Daxter, and over five years since Jak 3 on PS2. Considering the strong fan following of the franchise, we were surprised that SCEA had done so little to promote the existence of the next true continuation of the series: The Lost Frontier for PSP (and PS2). However, after spending some time with a preview build, we can see why Sony would stay so secretive: it's not very good.

Ready at Dawn proved with Daxter that the formula can be done well on the handheld. The studio intelligently streamlined the experience for the PSP, creating level designs that constantly drove the player forward. The controls always felt natural with Daxter's bugspray pack easing platforming sections -- a necessary feature, considering the PSP's less-than-ideal analog nub. Three years after Daxter's release, High Impact Games (developers of last year's mediocre Secret Agent Clank) ignores all the small innovations made by Ready at Dawn, and The Lost Frontier suffers greatly for it.

It's not immediately evident how flawed The Lost Frontier is when you begin playing it. Perhaps it's because that's exactly what you don't do for the first ten minutes. From the moment the PSP logo fades away, players are thrust into a lengthy cutscene with Jak, Daxter and Keira searching for more eco. What's eco, you ask? If you're new to the franchise (or you've simply forgotten in the five years since Jak 3), The Last Frontier makes no attempt at reintroducing the world or the characters that inhabit it. What is Jak's secret ability? Who are the Precursors? Don't expect any answers. Perhaps this is simply an oversight of the preview code, but we're certain many people would appreciate a "previously on" recap of the franchise's lengthy story.

Eventually, players will take control of Jak's ship in an air combat battle against sky pirates. The gameplay should be familiar to anyone that's played any flight combat game before. There's no lock-on -- at least at the beginning of the game -- so players will have to manually aim at the targets. There are also a few evasive maneuvers mapped to the D-Pad, although the lack of any threat didn't really encourage much fancy flying.

The aerial combat wasn't broken, nor was it particularly inspired. The controls did feel spot-on, though, so there's the possibility that later levels may reach the chaotic fun of a Star Wars or even a Ratchet & Clank game. The platforming, however, felt broken even in this close-to-release state. Considering platforming makes up most of a Jak game, this seems rather troublesome.

The act of jumping shouldn't be such a trial, but it is in The Lost Frontier. See, Jak doesn't have a jetpack like Daxter, so players are relegated to using his double jump (and spin). Unfortunately, the spin doesn't really give players a boost of any sort, making platforming a bit more difficult than it should be. The camera is also problematic, with players needing to constantly make manual adjustments to see where to go. Even worse, the camera can only be moved on the X axis. The default low angle makes it difficult to gauge distances, and adds to the problematic nature of the platforming sequences.

Unfortunately, combat is no better, with the camera significantly hampering the experience. Melee combat is not fun; needing to manually adjust the camera as enemies constantly move out of view is frustrating. Gunplay is also not particularly exciting, with the over-generous auto-lock removing any semblance of challenge. Why not take a page from Ratchet & Clank and give players an over-the-shoulder option in addition to standard lock-on controls? And yes, once again, the camera refuses to follow enemies in any way, making The Lost Frontier a constant battle with the PSP's shoulder buttons.

The best moments of The Lost Frontier look to happen beyond the core platforming gameplay. For example, the Dark Jak sequences promise adrenaline for a game that otherwise feels stagnant and boring. It also helps that players won't need to fight the camera during these sequences.

It's a shame that The Lost Frontier isn't any better than it is -- at least, in the preview code we've begrudgingly played. Fans have waited so long for a proper continuation of the Jak and Daxter franchise, and it doesn't seem like they're going to find it in this PSP game.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.