In Defence of Jak II’s Haven City

Through reading various reviews of what has been my favourite video game for most of my life, it appears that the overwhelming consensus is that even those who like Jak II like it only despite the hub world, Haven City. I’ve seen it criticised for the sheer amount of time the player spends in it, the supposed lifelessness of the city, and the repetitive boredom of driving through it again and again. However, as someone who has spent a frankly disturbing amount of time playing this game throughout my life, I want to present and defend an alternative opinion.

Yes, throughout Jak II, a roughly 12-14 hour game to complete the main story, the player will be driving through Haven City from every completed mission toward every successive mission, with the game containing around 60 missions, and I understand that this can get a little wearisome for many. However, not once have I ever found this to be boring. It’s a pacebreaker, but I feel this illustrates that sometimes breaking pace is a good thing. Jak II is a difficult action game with a constant flow of challenging platforming, gunplay, and driving against fairly powerful foes and obstacles, with decently short missions with few checkpoints, and there is an honest-to-god need to slow down and allow the player to get their bearings after each mission. Every drive is pretty soothing, especially when combined with the great music, a masterful combination of calm and threatening. It gave me time to let the story of the previous mission sink in while also allowing time to wonder where the story may go, at least on a first playthrough. On playthroughs two to twelve, in my case, it gives me time to calm down, and prepare mentally for the next mission, especially if I know a difficult one is coming up. I feel this is enough to justify the hub world’s presence in the game, as well as to immerse the player in the game’s tough and stifling environment, while also hammering home the thematic elements of entrapment and control that the game explores.

But I’d like to address the complaint that the hub world is boring and lifeless, the biggest complaints which I also feel are rather unfair to the game. Firstly, unlike Novacamoo’s complaints that it’s like going through 1-1 after each level of Super Mario Bros., I would argue it’s more like going through another Mario level with the same background. Yes, you’re traversing the same environment, but at least personally I rarely do so the same way. One can choose the more agile Jetboard, useful for short distances but sacrificing speed, or drive a speeder, of which there are three types with different forms of control. This is accompanied by a choice between two vertical lanes, as well as the presence of Krimzon Guards. Do you go slower to avoid them, or throw caution to the wind and let them chase you? I’ll even provoke them for fun every now and again. And because the game has perfected movement on foot, it’s fun no matter which  method one chooses. In Mario, there will one ideal way to go through 1-1, but in this case traversal will be affected by the distance between missions, random positioning of other cars and KG’s, and other factors. There’s even the option of the side missions available from kiosks, although I personally find few of these actually enjoyable.

Finally, I would absolutely disagree with Haven City’s lack of character, which I feel is more concrete than my other defences mostly being me enjoying things other people complain about. Not only are there five very distinct Haven areas, but the whole map is littered with details like posters and advertisements, references like the Ratchet and Clank billboard, and differences in geometry and design. For example, the areas surrounding the stadium are full of straight lines and walkways, as well as clearly more high-end housing, and it’s obvious that this is the richer area of the city, especially with the presence of the racing stadium that is probably difficult for citizens of the slums to afford, what with them living in very lopsided and ramshackle housing, as well as leaking, unclean water and visible sewage trenches, and this is never addressed with any real detail in the game’s story outside of one of the first missions. Even the question of ”What do they eat?’ is answered with an entire agricultural sector filled with strange plants and vegetables, along with Yakows as livestock (and as a reference to the first game).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people prefer the streamlining that Jak 3 brought. Not everyone likes the pace of an action game to constantly be speeding up and slowing down, and I get that people feel too much time is spent doing boring things. However, I always felt that in Jak 3 the city was vestigial. If the player is going to spend basically no time in Haven City, why have it be there at all? And I feel a far more egregious sin was committed in that game with the Wasteland, which controlled terribly and strikes me as the definition of boring. I just feel Jak II gets an overly bad reputation for what I feel is one of it’s strongest assets, and I rarely see this opinion represented by fans of the games. I hope to see other opinions in the comments, both for and against.

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