The problem with the Ratchet & Clank games being consistently good, annual release after annual release, is that it's hard for them to seem spectacular. For the first time in a while, a new one does.
Since the Ratchet & Clank series launched just back in 2002, Insomniac Games has developed four installments for the PlayStation 2 and three — including the new entry, A Crack In Time, officially releasing this month — for the PlayStation 3. Another development studio has created a pair of PlayStation Portable games for the series as well.
That's a lot of Ratchet: A lot of a fuzzy hero jumping and shooting his absurd variety of weapons which become more powerful the more they connect with their hundreds of targets. That's a lot of Clank: A lot of a diminutive robot starring in side missions that usually feature a new and sequel-unique style gameplay. That's a lot of Captain Qwark, a lot of Dr. Nefarious. It's a lot of flying from planet to planet, collecting gold bolts to unlock alternate character models, jumping from floating platforms, shooting futuristic corridors, entering gladiator arena challenges, collecting comedy guns that make enemies dance, and unlocking post-credits challenge modes. Every time.
That's a lot of formula, and finally with A Crack In Time, the supposed conclusion to a three-part story on the PS3 that separated and now reunites the two title characters, there is enough new and enough changed to merit attention by those who may have grown weary. Ratchet is still flying to planets and doing his expected gun-slinging, but Clank's got his best new styles of gameplay yet. Plus, the mission flow, which brings Ratchet into contact with a mysterious other member of his supposedly lost species, finally gets the shake-up it's been needing.
Clank Makes Me Smarter: Long ago, Clank stole the show in these games thanks to his fun character design and mischievous sense of humor. Now he's stolen it because of his gameplay as well. He starts the game and, between the breaks of Ratchet's inter-galactic adventures, learns an expanding set of moves that help him puzzle his way through a massive clockwork space station floating in the middle of the universe.
The core Clank gameplay involves time-manipulated 3D platforming. The player makes Clank run to a switch that should open a door. But as soon as they step off, the door shuts. The solution is to rewind time and let a recording of the player's Clank — now a color-coded ghost — run to that platform while the real Clank is made to run out the door. Eventually, Insomniac has the player saving and playing back four Clank ghosts and mixing in time-slowing bomb blasts to boot. These puzzle-room challenges are just involved and devious enough to require thought, and they are the most satisfying thing in the game to complete.
Ratchet Makes Me Hold My Breath: The core Ratchet gameplay is what series veterans would expect. You fly to planets, kill funny-looking aliens with an evolving toolset of absurd guns that includes a massive bowling ball of energy, a bomb-gun that has ordinance that detonates upward, a bundle of sticks that dig into the ground to network a web of tripwires and more conventional stuff like a pistol that shoots ricocheting lasers. The oldest of Ratchet ideas — the weapons level up into more powerful versions as you kill more enemies with them — are merged with more recent experiments with modular customization of some of the gun parts. You can imagine this and be on steady ground with your expectations. But once the game introduces two things — its moons and Ratchet's hover boots — something special happens.
Ratchet's planet visits are mostly conventional, fairly easy escapades. His visits to moons, however, are reminiscent of Mario's visits to the difficult no-hoverpack hidden stages in Super Mario Sunshine. The moons, which are presented as spherical levels — a design both the Ratchet and Mario games have used before — provide optional and tricky platforming challenges. These are the stages the more confident gamer will relish, especially once they are forced to activate Ratchet's hover-boots, which are essentially a stand-in for a futuristic skateboard, and precisely and quickly dash along platforms and off ramps that hover high over a magma moon's surface. Finally, physical movement in this series is tricky and exhilarating again. Mario shouldn't have all that fun.
Insomniac Makes Me Gape: More realistic-looking games tend to get the graphics awards, but the cartoon reality of A Crack In Time deserves commendation. As well as the game's heroes animate, its ordinary enemies animate even better. They clamber and dive and die dramatically with a visual flair one usually has to get from Looney Tunes. The game's environments are stunning, as a distant planet's rings peek over the horizon of the moon on which Ratchet stands … or in the clockwork complexity of Clank's domain … or amid the dense gray smoke puffs that emanate from the magnificent beast and rider who has just been toppled in front of his dozen lieutenants in a level that has the colorful richness of the deserts of the American southwest. This game looks great at every turn and is presented in a confident manner that masks little of its horizons and fills much of its scenes with visual variety and imagination.
The Story Makes Me Remember: The creeping problem with the Ratchet & Clank games is that it was all seeming the same. The series' many planets, guns and enemies began to blur together. Who could pick a favorite or remember any four of them distinctly? Insomniac, clearly trying to tell a more emotional story, albeit one that hits nothing more than the familiar beats about the value of friendship and sci-fi sanctity of time, has finally constructed a memorable mission flow. The game doesn't end when you think it might. It doesn't even progress in the standard planet-hopping manner of its predecessors. New twists and branches emerge as the player progresses, making it easy to tell the difference between the level that was the city, the one that was the arena and the one that pitted me in a battle near a waterfall to save a village. Those may sound like simple distinctions, but they are ones the series had been missing.
A Small Trick Makes Me Fix Things: It is not a big feature, but it is an example of how refreshing this game is. Clank has a scepter that, when he hits things that are broken, makes them come back together again. They animate their destruction in reverse. Reminiscent a little of Red Faction's repair gun, it is one of A Crack In Time's best visual tricks.
Space Makes Me Sigh: I had high hopes for this game's outer-space sections. The game's mission planets and side-mission moons are contained in several space sectors. Ratchet can fly through each sector, landing on those heavenly bodies or taking side missions while staying in the seat of his craft. Those space tasks include blowing up asteroids, chasing comets and dogfighting enemy squadrons. None of it is challenging or all that fun. And it is not helped by attempted distractions like a quartet of available fake radio stations nor by an upgrade system that alters the lasers and missiles fired by Ratchet's ship. A future Ratchet game might improve the space stuff, but this iteration of it is a visually-attractive bore. At least a player sailing The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker's equally-beautiful but often equally-dull ocean had access to camera controls and could use their traveling time to frame the visuals in lovely ways.
Qwark Bums Me Out: Qwark's latest mini-game, My Blaster Runs Hot, continues the tradition of putting low-fi mini-games into high-def adventures. The joke's worn thin. I resisted the urge to play more than one round of his twin-stick shooter.
Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time retains a lot of what was good about the previous games. But it also continues one of the best traditions of its developers — to compress past accomplishments, quickly give players a lot of the old stuff in the game's early going and then try new things. Earlier games' experiments with dialogue systems and multiplayer didn't thrill me. But, the new game's more dynamic physical movement (hooray for hoverboots), more interesting mission flow, amazing graphics and smart system of relatively easy main missions that branch off to more challenging moon challenges, are good innovations.
The Ratchet gameplay is improved. The Clank gameplay is a revelation. Two years ago, Ratchet & Clank Future showed how good Insomniac could make this series look on PS3. A year ago, Ratchet & Clank: A Quest For Booty showed that Insomniac was still prepared to innovate with gameplay. A Crack In time, the space case notwithstanding, finally shows the series leaping forward.
(Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time was developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America for the PlayStation 3 on October 27. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the campaign, finding about half of the hidden items in just under 10 hours. Unlocked and tried post-game challenge mode.)
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