With all of this talk about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. The world of gamers seems to have drastically tipped in the direction of open-design, 3D action games, and the wonderful world of platformers, which ruled the roost back in the 16-bit days, is desperately trying to find its way in this brave new era.
Insomniac Games, famous for its Spyro the Dragon series on PlayStation, has been undercover for years now developing its most impressive new 3D platformer, Ratchet and Clank, a hybrid game involving an arsenal of weapons and a big bag of bolts for currency. While players play through a series of platform-style missions, they're meant to attack, arm and defend themselves by different means. Which is where the game stands out most from the system's other big platformer, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy.
Insomniac's current-generation debut is a natural progression of the 3D platform genre, gleaning elements from many games before it, including its own Spyro the Dragon as well as Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and lots from Super Mario 64. In many ways, it closely resembles bits and pieces of those games, while branching out into slightly new territory. And that's the big point, really, isn't it? We bought these new systems to experience something different and new, and Insomniac's game delivers a comfortable combination of familiar gameplay elements and a few new ways of playing the game. It's not revolutionary, but that's OK, because it's good, solid long-lasting fun.
Ratchet and Clank situates players in a fantasy world of messy, destructive aliens and young rogue daredevils waiting for their chance to shine. Ratchet is a young upstart, a vaguely furry alien creature who fixes things. He's the classic young male character desperately trying to leave home in search of adventure, riches, and perhaps fame and glory, too. But what is he exactly? Insomniac has carefully avoided explaining precisely what he is, other than to say he's furry and an alien. No real backstory, nothing. He's a quintessential platform character: Pointed ears (the new trend), furry, likes "cool" stuff (gadgets, hoverboards, etc.), and naturally, he's got attitude (a la Sonic the Hedgehog). Hm...
Clank, on the other hand, is a robot on the run. The evil Blarg race has moved off its planet, polluted and over-populated beyond recognition, and plans to build an entirely new planet using resources from other planets, at their expense and demise, of course. Clank was to be used as "parts" for the new rebuilding process, but instead he ran. He takes off and his spacecraft is shot down in Ratchet's backyard; they meet, discuss the horrible state of the world, and team up to do something about it.
What's interesting here is that each character has slightly different ambitions and reactions to the obstacles in their way. The young buck Ratchet wants to kick some evil tyrannical butt, but also desires adventure, coolness and perhaps a little glory -- and not necessarily in that order. Clank is more virtuous, i.e. innocent and logical, but is determined to play by the rules and save the galaxy. So, while Ratchet carries Clank on his back, they're not always in agreement. The two often argue with one another, 'dis each other and occasionally wander on their own. Like Banjo-Kazooie, Rare's platfom duo, players get to play as both characters, but in this case, they get to play as Ratchet and Clank entirely on their own (unlike Jak and Daxter where you only played as Jak).
While the missions aren't structured linearly, the world is, at least initially. In the 20-plus missions, each one a planet, Ratchet and Clank complete the planet/missions in order to open the next one. Players can buy weapons and gadgets (of which there are 35 in total), or earn them, refill their ammo supplies and complete tasks, and in each level, there are usually numerous paths to complete missions.
But some weapons cost far more bolts (the game's currency) than the amount collectible on that planet. So players must move on and collect more from other planets. For instance, in one level, a mission objective is to buy the RYNO, which costs some extraordinary amount of bolts, and you'll have to earn that money from other planets, save up, and return to buy it. But that's a special case, and thankfully, for most missions, players can buy items using the Gadgetron Vendor.
Players can access weapons in two ways, via a quick HUD or by pressing Start. Using the QuickStart HUD menu, players can place and organize up to eight weapons or gadgets on a circular menu, which enables quick access to the weapons while playing. The map system works well, indicating where players have or haven't traveled, and shows the location of your ship and the end point. A help function explains the uses of each weapon, while also explaining the basic moves, in case you forget.
Insomniac's game is filled with immense, moving and convincingly animated worlds, where simple things like saving don't get in the way of a good time. Saving is done automatically between levels. Sharing technology and proprietary techniques with Naughty Dog, Insomniac's game also never once delivers a loading screen after the game initially loads up. As Ratchet and Clank progress from one planet to another in their spaceship, the new world loads transparently. The smooth flow of gameplay is never interrupted, an excellent feature more developers could use in their own games.
Ratchet and Clank is a solid platformer, built on many well-established premises. You jump, smack and run, while collecting stuff, and in doing so, you open up new items and worlds. You use dexterity and hand-eye coordination to avoid enemies, and learn their patterns to attack and destroy them. Insomniac's game doesn't stray from the classic definition of a platformer in this regard, though it does put a slightly new spin on the genre. Players are monetarily rewarded for beating up enemies and for collecting, and the rewards aren't new levels, they're more powerful weapons and gadgets. There is no limit to the amount you can collect, so there is always the ability to return to previous worlds, in which enemies re-spawn, to collect more.
Ratchet can perform various moves. The basic move set consists of walk, run, swim, jump, double jump, hang, shimmy, and sideways jump. With Ratchet's wrench, the game's default tool, he can hit enemies from in front, jump up to perform a jump-attack, and he can throw it out like a boomerang, a medium-length projectile. And Ratchet never loses the ability to use the wrench. Clank is pretty useless at first, but as players progress, the two buy parts to modify and improve his abilities. After only two levels, by purchasing an upgrade at Al's RoboShack, Clank provides players with a Heli-Pack upgrade, enabling long jumps and high jumps, exactly like those found in Super Mario 64. Later on that becomes a jetpack upgrade, and so forth. After about 10 levels, players find that they're loaded with weapons and gadgets, modifications and whatnot, enabling both Ratchet and Clank some extraordinary and highly entertaining moves.
Controlling Ratchet is interesting. His moves feel somewhat like those of Spyro the Dragon's, in that he doesn't stop on a dime, and instead provides a half-second slide when commanded to stop. You have to build in that extra distance if you want a jump to be precise. He doesn't feel like Jak of Jak and Daxter, who had the uncanny ability to stop from a long jump right where he landed. Ratchet's control provides a feeling that you more or less you get used to, rather than fall in love with. But having said that, he does control well. His character responds to every command quickly, with only a few, minor animations (changing weapons, or follow-through swings) getting in the way. He moves fluidly and with a cute thumping patter, and with the extra upgrades, Ratchet is a delight to control.
Controlling Clank is more of a challenge, but it's just as fun. He's smaller and less agile, and taking him out on narrow bridges is a challenge. He doesn't have all the abilities Ratchet does, but in almost all of the Clank levels, players are given a set of abilities unique to Clank. By freeing little robots scattered about the levels, he can command them to follow, attack, wait and enter. Progressing through these missions is great fun, since the bots are cute and funny to watch, and they're also unlimited. You can send them to fight a beast five times their size and they will run in bravely without flinching. If one dies, another one replaces it. Clank's levels are filled with puzzles that use these little guys, providing an immense amount of entertainment.
While Ratchet is by no means an original character, his set of weapons is indeed unusual, and the weapon abilities often make up in innovative ways for his lack of charisma. The weapons are seemingly endless, with standard guns to flamethowers to bombs, cannons, etc. And nearly all of them are larger in size than Ratchet, which adds a funny little quirk to game's look.
Though we won't reveal the entire list, we have 20 of them right here. They include the Blaster (machine gun), Bomb Glove (enables you to throw bombs), Glove of Doom (hurls out little munchkin robots that explode with enemies on contact), Grind boots (like inline skates), Heli-Pack (enables higher and farther jumping), Hydrodisplacer (sucks in and spits out water), Decoy Glove (sets up decoys), MagneBoots (enables Ratchet to walk upside down), Morph-o-Ray (morphs characters), Pyrociter (flame-thrower), Devastator (missile launcher), R.Y.N.O. (massive cannon that stands for Rip You a New One?), Suck Gun (sucks in enemies and shoots them out), Swingshot (like a Bionic Commando-grappling hook), Taunter (does what it says), Tesla Claw (zaps enemies), Trespasser (tool to unlock doors), Visi-Bomb (sends out remote-controlled bombs), Walloper (packs a mean punch), and the Wrench (already described).
While it may seem that there are too many weapons, and that many might overlap one another, many levels are designed for specific weapons, such as the Hydrodisplacer and its ability to solve water puzzles by sucking and spitting up water; the Trespasser, which enables players to unlock security-tight door; and the SwingShot, with its ability to swing from point to point. But other locales are open for debate. Should you use the Pyrociter or the Blaster to take out the sand sharks, toads, or robotic dogs? Should you use the Decoy Glove, Taunter or Glove of Doom to dispatch others? It's all up to you. That's a distinct pleasure: Finding and then experimenting with each new weapon or gadget and analyzing which one works best in each new location.
Gadgets such as the MagneBoots provide a great thrill as you walk upside down or sideways, while the Grind boots provide a feeling similar to riding a skateboard. Bolstering the concept of multiple useful weapons is the need to get more. As the game progresses, players need more powerful tools to defeat even greater enemies. And no, you can't simply bust through harder levels with smaller weapons. You might be able to, but only with serious consequences.
As for the AI, it's simplistic in certain scenarios, purposely comic and somewhat sophisticated in others. For instance, Naughty Dog made a big deal in Jak and Daxter about its AI leaving the standard territory and following Jak until it killed or was killed. That AI jumped creeks, leaped across platforms and showed some spine. Unfortunately, the AI in Ratchet and Clank isn't always that intelligent. The enemies function like AI in Spyro the Dragon. Enter an AI territory, and it fires. Occasionally, numerous races of enemies enter into a room together and you can get them to fight each other. You can toy with them and then watch them fight too, which is good fun. Also, sometimes same-race enemies shoot each other, which is a big help if you're low on health. These situations are clever, but they're in no way new.
On other levels, the AI is predictable. The first major sub-bosses are all ridiculously slain without blinking an eye. The first boss takes a little bit of thinking, and once his pattern becomes clear, he looks a lot like any of the bosses from either Naughty Dog's or Insomniac's 32-bit games. No real significant change can be seen in these bosses, just the alteration in their patterns.
So really, the only thing that seems to hold Insomniac's game back is the team's relentless need to conform in nearly all matters of gameplay and design. The characters Ratchet and Clank lack the charm of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sly Cooper, or even Nintendo's simple Italian plumber, Mario. Ratchet is an easily digestible, by-the-book platform character. He is moderately likeable but he also delivers that undeniable look and feeling of generic fuzzy animal with an attitude. If only he were "wacky," he'd be the perfect sterotype.
In a genre that's in need of a serious overhaul, Insomniac's title works to break free of some the shackles of the past, while still standing in place. In many spots it lacks originality. Overall, many of the character moves in this game are straight from Super Mario 64, except they're easier. The game is often too easy as well: It doesn't set up enough difficult challenges to make the reward worth the effort. Many of the scenarios are simplified, more streamlined, and more mathematically precise versions of gameplay ideas seen in Nintendo's famous line of platform games. In fact, nearly every aspect of the design feels perfectly logical, perfectly engineered, like it's some kind of equation, rather than the design of a creative, whimsical genius. Not that everyone can be a genius. I'm no genius; far from it. But I like playing games where some things simply don't make sense, they just are.
For instance, (in many Mario games) running in circles around a wooden pole enough times rewards you with coins. Or doing a handstand on top of a tree somehow feels right, or smacking butterflies gives you coins, racing against penguins, or picking them up and running with them. These are all stupidly silly, but they're the stuff of genius, too. While Ratchet and Clank delivers top of the line graphics, immense landscapes, and a technologically excellent engine, it sill borrows heavily without enough new material, and lacks the charm and distinctions to make it truly reach above the very best platformers.
When it comes to looks, however, Insomniac's game is an impressive looking contender. Regardless of the planet they're on, the landscapes in which Ratchet and Clank live are beautiful, well-crafted affairs, with a feeling of having been heavily examined, tested, and finely polished. These worlds are artfully created, packing an amazing quantity of polygons and textures, with nary an aliasing problem and no shimmering at all. The game boasts a 60 FPS world, without ever a hitch, and it runs smoothly and seamlessly.
The best level to show off the game's graphic abilities, in my opinion, is Metropolis on Planet Kerwan. Streams of traffic zip across the airscape, while incredibly high skyscrapers appear to reach miles into the sky. Ratchet and Clank play high up in the buildings, where, it seems one can view the city for miles at end. Players can zipline from island to island through the massive space, or travel along a space train. Everything shows off an excellent polished look, with solidly built polygons and clean textures.
There is an immense amount of details to discuss, but essentially, you'll have to see them to believe. When the sheer size of the world isn't amazing you (much in the same way Jak and Daxter's large world's did), the complex mix of respectable texture design, seamless cutscenes, and effortless special effects will. There seems to be hundreds of different kinds of flowers and trees about. The water shows off a good level of believability and physics, and the smoking pipes, shimmering heat effects, and excellent particle effects help to create an excellent visual picture. Even more impressive is that there are so many moving things on screen at once, whether it's in this level, or in any other.
Given the genre's history, the music in platform-style games is generally harmless stuff, ranging from simple carnival music to various forms of techno. Insomniac's game offers a compelling score, comprising watered down techno beats and orchestral tunes that are, oddly, good to listen to while playing. Normally, watered down techno is not my idea of god listening, but there are numerous memorable tunes here that are catchy and hummable, unlike the rather overly simplistic beats in Jak and Daxter.
The voice acting is solid, if not familiar, too. While Ratchet strives for that perfect dude-like teenager vibe, the voice actor generally hits the mark. Clank is also quite engaging, and in some cases, charming, especially when he finishes a level or gains a weapon. Many of the supporting characters offer the same kind of commercial quality voices found in Jak and Daxter, and some of the times they're quite funny. Other times they just sound commercial. The quirkier ones are best (such as the weird athletic woman at the end of the stunt course), but few stand above the standard and obvious stereotypes. If you want to experience something really cool, just go to options and switch the language (there are five from which to choose). Now that's fun stuff!
Insomniac's game offers support for Dolby Pro Logic II, which, when connected, offers players a large, clear sound experience. You'll be pleasantly surprised by zooming rockets and backgrounds explosions, and the overall quality of the sound experience.
Click here to see more PlayStation 2 Video Game Reviews