It's not often that we ask you to forget what you know about a game, but it will certainly make things easier to get your head around Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. This third-person four-player cooperative game picks up after Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time and pairs four unlikely cohorts in Dr. Nefarious, Captain Qwark, and the namesake duo.
The setup has Ratchet, Clank, and Qwark on the way to a dubious-sounding award ceremony. Our suspicions were confirmed when Qwark took the makeshift podium and walked into Dr. Nefarious' latest plan. As the good doctor reanimates a giant monster, the four (including Nefarious) are snatched up and made part of an intergalactic animal collection, forcing them to put aside their differences and team up.
Our hands-on demo consisted of the N.E.S.T. Cliffs level and gave us a chance to take Clank through his paces. Each character has its own unique ability, and in our case we were able to toss out a bomb that would temporarily slow down time. The level consisted of basic platforming using sea creatures as bounce pads, knocking electrified ocean life off piers, smashing boxes, and fighting a giant fish boss.
While ordinarily our four central characters may not necessarily hang out and have space beers on weekends, developer Insomniac Games has been crafty in the way it straddles the line between cooperative and competitive gameplay. Each player has kills and bolts tracked independently, so you'll want to break away from the pack to smash crates and hoard loot before the rest of the team can catch up. This isn't a game for lone wolves though, and it works best when everyone is communicating and working towards the same goal. An example of this was when all of the players selected the same weapon (using the right analog stick to scroll through a hovering radial menu) and damage bonuses were rewarded--hitting harder and consuming fewer rounds of ammunition. It's a great idea to encourage cohesive play, but we did find that the menus obscured the playfield more than necessary when four people were doing it at once.
Camera control is handled automatically and takes all the need for panning movement out of your hands. It's a smart choice and works two ways. First, it stops each player from attempting to wrest control away from everyone else to see what it is they want (instead of what the group needs to be focusing on shooting), and second, it lets the game designers create locked cinematic angles for platforming sections. All four players in our demo spent some time missing from the game after losing track of their own character or misjudging gaps, winding up dead or sinking after falling off a ledge. We did get to grips with it eventually.
A tether system is in play that lets you throw out a safety line and grab hold of a player ahead by pressing the triangle button. It's not a guaranteed get-out-of-jail card, and while we used it a few times to try to correct a bad jump, it can quickly spell your downfall if the person in front is in the same boat. There is a low penalty for death here, though, and while it will have an impact on the scoreboard, you'll simply rejoin the game when the rest of the group gets close to the next spawn point.
Should you fall in combat after taking too much damage, a helpful fellow player need only make his way over to your incapacitated state and hold the circle button long enough to revive you. It does take a few seconds, but since the rest of the group offered some covering fire, we weren't often interrupted playing saviour.
Our demo was built with variety in mind, forcing us to navigate jumping between moving-sea-creatures-turned-platforms, knocking electrified fish off piers and into the water below, smashing boxes, and confronting a giant fish boss where we all needed to hit a bait release device within a small timing window to keep our target occupied as we hit it with everything we had.
While we enjoyed the play, we do have some concerns about the game's camera. It always did a great job of framing the action happening onscreen, but it also tended to obscure some environmental traps that need to be traversed, making jumping difficult. Combat is fun and frenetic, though you'll want to keep a firm eye on your character rather than looking at what the group is doing if you want to stay alive. As you'd expect, the game is playable solo, but it also supports a mixture of drop-in, drop-out local and online support. We're hoping for another look at the game in June at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Stay tuned for more on this upcoming collaborative brawler heading to the PlayStation 3 in the later part of 2011.