Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ratchet & Clank - Review

Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

The Nintendo 64, for all its struggles, was the place for open world platformers that fully embraced the new 3D era of game design that came with the new mid-'90s hardware; from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie.  It would take Sony a whole extra generation to come close to what Nintendo had achieved, and resulted in the PlayStation 2 having a surprisingly large, (and somewhat underrated), bevy of quality 3D platformers, with Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter all making their debut on the console.

It's a testament to Insomniac's abundance of creativity that it's taken us this long, fourteen years in fact, to get what amounts to a semi-reboot/remake of the original Ratchet & Clank. Insomniac have always seemed reluctant to retread old ground with each Ratchet & Clank release adding variety to the existing formula to some degree, or altering it in some way. In the space of fourteen years we've had six main series releases (seven, if you count Quest for Booty) and a host of other spin-off instalments on various pieces of Sony hardware.

And, on the whole, the series has remained relatively strong, even if some releases have been better than others. Fortunately this latest Ratchet & Clank continues that strong trend, making up for the somewhat underwhelming farewell the series had on the PS3 with the budget Into the Nexus back in 2013.

What's perhaps most unusual about this latest instalment is why it exists. It's both a remake and a reboot and a bizarre film tie in to the brand new movie, with the game's plot stitching together elements from the original 2002 game and the new film.

Insomniac though, manage to juggle of these elements fairly well. There's a clever framing narrative that has the game's story be Captain Qwark's explanation of the events of the first game, preventing the tale from simply being a bland retelling with shinier graphics; whilst also ensuring the original isn't wiped from series canon for those that care about that sort of thing.

Likewise, the gameplay avoids simply aping the 2002 version. This is classic Ratchet & Clank, but with the experience and improvements that have been made over many years. Plenty of the original weapons make it back in check, whilst there's also room made for some of the series' other classic weaponry such as Mr Zurkon and the Buzz Blades to name a few, all upgraded with the (honestly, rather bland) raritanium upgrade system used in later games.

Insomniac do an impressive job of modernising the original's gameplay. Despite the ridiculous weaponry, there's a decent level of skill involved in the game's combat, with a core loop of finding the right weapon for whatever challenge you're facing. Swarms of robot dogs will fall quickly to the flame-spewing Pyrorocitor, whilst tougher foes are perfect targets for your bomb glove or rocket launcher. It makes for a surprisingly satisfying combat system for the eight to ten hours it takes to finish the game.

It's slightly disappointing that the enemy types aren't treated with the same love as the weapons, mind. Robot dogs and War-Bots are the enemies early on and they never go away. Even during the game's final level you're stuck mowing down the same three or four enemy types you've faced umpteen times beforehand, meaning that later encounters rarely add any new challenge or broader strategic considerations, other than simply throwing more bad guys at you.

But, much like Super Mario, it's the variety of gameplay that makes the series compelling and Ratchet & Clank ensures that variety remains intact; blending platforming, combat, exploration and basic puzzle solving into a creative mix that ensures no one part drags on for too long. In fact, the game does a clever job of updating what worked in the original title whilst scrapping the weaker moments for something better. Gone are the original's boring moments with Clank, that played out like a bad version of Pikmin. In there place are simple puzzles where Clank must use his little robot pals to open doors and make it across walkways. Simple? Sure, but a welcome alternative that helps the pacing.

Likewise, some levels have been given a complete overhaul, both to improve the pacing and to make use of the PS4's technical prowess. One level is now completely devoted to the jet-pack, with you bunny-hopping from fuel station to fuel-station as you blast away enemies mid-flight.

It's also worth mentioning how darn great the game looks too. This isn't just a case of having nice shiny graphics on modern hardware. The animation and vibrancy of each planet gives everything just the right amount of cartoonish life. In this respect at least, Insomniac's comparisons with Pixar are justified.

Sadly, that doesn't extend to the game's writing. Perhaps it's a result of the game being a movie tie-in, but there's a lot less humour this time around, and what there is feels pared down and made more palatable for a younger crowd. Granted, the series has always been kid-friendly, it's a platformer game after all, but the writers have been especially careful this time. Remember, this is the same series that had Up Your Arsenal as the subtitle to the third game in North America.

Likewise, given the reworked story, the central relationship between Ratchet and Clank has taken a hit. The game's story was not necessarily the primary focus, but there was a charm and simplicity to the original's focus on a heroic mechanic and his clever robot friend. Now there's a whole Avengers squad of generic Galactic Rangers for Ratchet to team up with, and, Captain Qwark aside, they lack the personality and character that the series is otherwise known for.

Ratchet & Clank is fun, solid and enjoyable from start to finish. As a reboot/remake/tie-in (we really need a name for whatever this technically is) it's about as good as anybody could have hoped for. This isn't a crapped out rehash to tide fans over but rather a game that's been laboured on with care and attention. There's the sense that the development team is somewhat hamstrung by the movie tie-in aspect, and it's disappointing that a studio that's capable of creative new ideas is left producing remakes, no matter how good they are. That being said, if you can set those negatives aside for a while, Ratchet & Clank is an adventure worth going on.


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