The second or third sequel to a good video game is usually better than the first. But the seventh — arguably ninth — Ratchet & Clank runs the risk of Friday the 13th diminishing returns. This preview checks for pitfalls.
What Is It?
Ratchet And Clank Future: A Crack In Time is the third PlayStation 3 edition of the Insomniac Games franchise known for its cartoon gunplay, graphically rich platforming and happy humor. It follows the 2007 Blu-Ray release, Tools of Destruction, that reverted to the fundamental gameplay and level design styles of the first three PS2 Ratchets as well as the 2008 downloadable short, Quest For Booty, that added more puzzle-solving to the mix. The series often combines Ratchet gameplay sections full of dynamic jumping and shooting with side sections starring the robot Clank doing something new: cloned platforming, giant robot battles, etc.
What We Saw
A couple of weeks ago in Seattle, an Insomniac rep handed me a preview disc that features the first hour or so worth of gameplay in the game, providing an intergalactic tour of the game's new features. That includes the new outer space hub system which I already previewed. I experienced a magical opening cut-scene I'd rather not spoil, played as Clank twice, the second time learning about his series-new time-manipulating abilities. The Clank stuff sandwiched two on-foot Ratchet levels, one on a planet and one in a giant enemy space ship. Plus I explored the first of the game's several space hub systems, which stitch the game's main planet levels and moon side-levels together.
How Far Along Is It?
The game is set for an October 27 release, meaning it is just about done.
What Needs Improvement?
Invisible Walls and Unrecoverable Falls: Since the release of Prince of Persia last year and Batman: Arkham Asylum this year, it's become less controversial to have a game hero who can get himself pulled out of what would otherwise be a bottomless drop. Ratchet still falls to his doom, which suddenly feels archaic. More frustrating is the series' continued propensity to erect invisible walls to contain Ratchet's exploration. As always, Ratchet's in-game map reveals how little of the visible terrain is actually available for him to traverse, exacerbating the problem that Insomniac's artists continue to illustrate a landscape that is more inviting than Insomniac's level designers will allow me access to.
Dialogue Choices: As with Quest For Booty, the new game lets the player choose Ratchet's words in some situations. The choices are banal, appearing to only create the illusion of choice while depending on the player to select the single right answer. Yes, Ratchet/I can keep a secret. Yes, Ratchet/I will explore the temple. What's the point of a dialogue system if there's no meaningful interplay available?
Boss Battles: Ratchet games have great guns and great enemies at which to aim those guns. Except, I've found, when those enemies are bosses. There was one boss in the preview build and I fought him the same way I've fought every Ratchet boss: From a distance, circle-strafing while unloading each weapon in succession. It's never been very interesting and remains, in my view, a weak part of the series.
What Should Stay The Same?
The Writing: Captain Qwark is back, and he's hilarious, adopting Ratchet as a sidekick for one mission. The weapons vendor is funny. The villains are funny. The cut-scenes are funny. Insomniac writes a zippy game full of colorful characters, getting closer to Pixar-quality expression than just about any other studio.
Floor of the Year: This game is Insomniac's fifth on the PS3. It runs on a modified Resistance 2 engine. And so, not only is it one of the best-looking games on Sony's system in terms of technical achievement — draw distances are mountain-range deep, enemy animation is complicated and mesmerizing — but it is one of the most visually imaginative PS3 games I've played. A gun is rendered as a belching lizard whose opening mouth can occupy a quarter of the screen when shot toward the camera. A puffy, plush graphics style is coupled with cartoon smoke effects. These are clever visual tricks. A better one is the amazing floor in Clank's second level, a floor that is one of the best-looking floors I've seen in years. Dare I declare it now: Floor of the Year. You'll see.
Time Trials: Clank can now slow down time to get himself through his platforming challenges. More importantly, he can record himself trying to go through a level and then work through the obstacle course a second time with one or two recordings of himself assisting. This isn't an option. This is essential, a superb and puzzling mechanic designed to interrupt all the combat and produce some mental challenge.
The Space Hub: As I've written before, the space hub is a fine addition to the series. Thankfully, it allows for quick-travel between star systems and explored planets. More importantly, it serves as an open hub to spherical-world platforming and battle challenges, spontaneous space combat sequences and who knows what else.
Custom Weapons: Weapons still upgrade the more they are used, a series staple. They also can have modular parts added to them and can be repainted. I couldn't get that far with the weapons customization in what I played, but I liked the little bit I could do so far, improving the firing speed of my pistol by upgrading its trigger and switching its paint job to metal gray.
I'm less worried about this Ratchet being stale than I have been for the last few. Fresh ideas abound. Friday The 13ths may get old. But James Bonds do sometimes get better again. Let us not lose hope in sequels. Ratchet signals there's reason to hope even on edition #9.