It's been a long time since Insomniac has come up for air. After the third installment in the Spyro series was released in 2000, the development house shipped the purple dragon down the river to Universal and set out to create another million-selling franchise. The result of more than two years of work behind the scenes is Ratchet & Clank, an action platformer that the studio hopes will be revered for its innovation in the same manner Super Mario 64 is still heralded today.
Ratchet is a yellow-skinned, pointy-eared alien mechanic who likes to build things. His planet has recently come under attack by a resource-seeking force known as the blarg. Hoping to avoid watching his planet be leached to death, Ratchet begins to plan his escape. Enter Clank, a dry-witted half-pint of a robot. After escaping the confines of a robot factory, Clank crash-lands on Ratchet's planet, and an unlikely friendship begins. The two have a symbiotic connection in that they both hope to get off the planet, and Clank has the ignition wire Ratchet needs to fire up his rocket for that very purpose. Soon the vessel is repaired, the pair blasts off, and the adventures of Ratchet and Clank begin.
It's hard to deny that Ratchet & Clank's design owes at least something to a certain bear-and-bird duo that made its home on the Nintendo 64. Walking through Insomniac's offices, you won't have to look hard to find Banjo-Kazooie cartridges strewn about. But while the game certainly takes some of its inspiration from Rare's series of platforming games, its focus on combat and action more than sets it apart from its contemporaries. The first thing that should be mentioned is that there is nothing to collect in Ratchet & Clank. The entire game is driven by currency in the form of nuts and bolts that fall from enemies as they're destroyed. The nuts and bolts can then be used to purchase the game's 35 different gadgets.
And in truth, it's the gadgets that really drive Ratchet & Clank's gameplay. The game's puzzles are set up around figuring out which gadget needs to be used in each situation. Gadgets can come in a number of forms, including weapons, vehicles, code-breaking handhelds, and much more. Some of the gadgets include a blaster, a flamethrower, a bomb glove, a hoverboard, and a hookshot that works like a hybrid of the hookshot in the Zelda games for the N64 and using purple lums in Rayman 2. Gadgets are purchased from NPCs and vendors scattered throughout the game's environments. As long as you have enough bolts, you can buy any gadget you choose. In this way, playing the game will be different for just about everyone. Some may choose to buy the flamethrower first, which can make picking off enemies from afar rather difficult and make some sections of the game more difficult than if you had purchased the blaster first.
There's no limit to the number of gadgets Ratchet and Clank can have at any given time, but just eight can be mapped to a quick select menu system for easy access. To do so, you simply hold the triangle button and tap left or right on the analog stick or directional pad. If you're really in a pinch, you can double-tap the triangle button to cycle through them. Using the selected gadget is accomplished with the circle button, and there's a different control scheme for each one. For instance, if you hold in the circle button while using the bomb glove, a moveable bombing target will appear on the ground. Just move the target to the desired location, release the circle button, and watch enemies go boom. When using gadgets in a third-person perspective, there is some aiming assistance as well. If you'd rather aim manually, you can hold the L1 button to go into a first-person view.
Like acquiring new gadgets, progressing through the game is also governed by the number of bolts you've collected from defeated enemies. Infobots are located throughout the game that, when purchased, open up new levels for play. Insomniac has also made sure that players won't become too frustrated. Even if you find yourself constantly dying, your bolt count will continue to rise so that you may purchase new weapons that will make the level much easier. Shortcuts will also open up after specific objectives have been met, which keeps the backtracking to a minimum. For the completists, there are cleverly hidden golden bolts that will provide you with a nice surprise at the end of the game if all of them are found. Pressing select will bring up a map of each world, complete with icons designating where objectives need to be met. This drastically cuts down on the aimless wandering that is sometimes associated with the genre.
Like Two Sticks of Butter
Despite the fact that what we saw was an early version of the game, the controls in Ratchet & Clank were buttery smooth. While Clank will be an independently playable character in the finished game, he was only seen off Ratchet's back during cutscenes in the first three levels of the game. But the robot is more than just a wisecracking sidekick. For a price, he can be upgraded so that he morphs while on Ratchet's back to provide a variety of new abilities. In one such form, helicopter blades came out of Clank's head, allowing Ratchet to glide after jumping. We were also allowed to put Ratchet's long- and high-jumping abilities through their paces. The duo has a number of stock moves that you're given at the game's outset as well. They can jump, perform side flips and back flips, hold on to ledges and shimmy across them, swim with or against currents, and wall jump. As a sign of the attention to detail that has been applied to the game's controls, you can perform flipping maneuvers and use gadgets at the same time. Ratchet also has a huge wrench that he can use as a melee weapon or hurl at enemies by holding down R1 and pressing the square button. There is no automatic aiming or lock-on feature while using the wrench, but mastering its use is essential to escaping some of the more combat-heavy sequences in the game.
Ratchet & Clank may look like child's play, but there is adequate challenge for experienced fans of platforming games. While jumping is not the crux of the gameplay, there's certainly a great deal of it to be done. Insomniac stated that by the sixth level, the player will reach a high-water mark for using the gadgets and moves, and by level 10, they'll be into the meat of the game and more strategy will come into play. We also saw context-sensitive situations where we were able to slide down zip lines. In the build of the game we were shown, the loading times were minimal and an auto-save feature was in use. For those who may be thinking this is all a bit much, there's a training section in each level of the game to help you learn the ins and outs, and there's always plenty of nanotech laying around the levels to replenish Ratchet and Clank's health.
From a visual perspective, Insomniac has managed to one-up just about every other PlayStation 2 game with Ratchet & Clank. It will make you realize that few developers are squeezing the performance out of the PlayStation 2 that it is capable of. The number of polygons being shown onscreen at once is impressive. One particular level takes place on a floating space station that literally stretches on for about a mile right in front of your face. Making the level all the more impressive, there are dozens of hovercars flying from one side of the level to the other, complete with exhaust flowing from their tailpipes. You can hop on a floating platform that will take you on a scenic tour of the area, and the views simply must be seen to be appreciated. Minute details can be seen at a great distance, and each level takes place on a different planet, which provides for a wide variety of terrain. The texture work is on par with the game's polygonal output. Both the clarity and variety are a cut above what's normally seen on the platform.
Insomniac made sure that the camera was a priority and gave one of its team members nine months to perfect it. The results are encouraging. Occasionally, you'll have to adjust it yourself with the right analog stick or center it by tapping the L1 button, but for the most part, it does a handsome job of following the action all on its own. When engaged in combat, particle effects are everywhere, as explosions and recoils from weapons abound. Real-time lighting emits from weapon blasts, though shadows had yet to be added to the version we played. Being the story-driven game it is, Ratchet & Clank includes plenty of real-time cinemas to keep the plot going forward. The facial animation during the cinematics is particularly impressive, but Clank's morphing animations steal the show. In all, it will be hard to find a more technically proficient game on the PlayStation 2.
The voice acting included in the game thus far is first-rate. Clank features a distinguished, deadpan delivery, while Ratchet is the typical overzealous hero. The pair comes across a wide variety of characters, and the smart scriptwriting looks like it will manage to sell them. There wasn't much music in the three-level demo we were allowed to play, but the sound effects in the final game will be put through various filters depending on location so that they echo in caves or are muffled in confined areas.
Insomniac describes Ratchet & Clank as a game that never lets up. And it's true that there's little downtime in the levels we were allowed to play. The action is nonstop, and the focus is definitely on combat instead of adventuring and discovery. Ratchet & Clank looks to remedy many of the complaints leveled at platforming games in the past by providing a map and shortcuts within the levels, so even those who aren't normally interested in the genre would do well to keep an eye on it. The game is currently scheduled for release in November, and we're excited to see more gadgets and more levels. Look for an update on Ratchet & Clank in the near future.