Ratchet & Clank Updated Preview

We take a closer look at Sony and Insomniac's dynamic duo.

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The platforming genre has seen its fair share of duos throughout the years. Some, such as Mario and Luigi, Sonic and Tails, and Banjo and Kazooie, have managed to earn a place in gamers' consciousness, while others, like Bubba and Stix and Mohawk and Headphone Jack, haven't quite made the cut. The latest pair of heroes aiming for success is Insomniac's Ratchet and Clank, a furry alien and his robotic ally. We first got a look at the pair and their game earlier this year and have been keeping an eye on its development as the months have passed. We recently got our hands on previewable build of the game that has allowed us to check out some more of the game, and we're pleased to report that it's coming together nicely.

Ratchet. Alien? Dog? Alien dog? We may never know.

For those who aren't familiar with the game's story, Ratchet & Clank follows the comic platforming misadventures of Ratchet, a budding mechanic, and Clank, a robot who's on the lam from an evil race of aliens on the prowl for all things mechanical. When the pair meets, they both see that they have something to offer each other, and, in the great tradition of opportunism, they decide to work together. The unlikely pair's adventures will span a galaxy and feature plot twists and interpersonal conflict aplenty.

Folks here probably don't take too kindly to surprise visitors.

While the story is pretty much in line with what you'd expect out of a platformer, Ratchet & Clank's gameplay is a marked change from the norms of the genre. On the surface, Ratchet & Clank's gameplay has all the trappings of a platformer. You'll find platforms to jump off, boxes to smash, items to collect, huge areas to explore, and an eclectic mix of enemies to dispatch. However, that's really just one facet of the game. A major aspect of the gameplay revolves around buying gadgets, ranging from weapons to useful equipment that will let Ratchet and Clank access new areas and solve puzzles. In truth, the game is less a Mario-style platformer and more a Zelda-style action RPG. As in Link's classic adventures, you'll collect currency--in this case bolts--that you can use to purchase the aforementioned items from stores or characters you encounter in the game. As you build your gadget collection, the duo's repertoire of moves and abilities will grow. Exploring the worlds you find yourself in will reward you with infobots, small robots who provide story exposition and information on how to find new worlds in the game. The game's structure is surprisingly open-ended and offers you quite a bit of freedom in determining how to make it through a world. For example, you may find more than one infobot on a world, which gives you the option of going to one of two worlds. How you decide to tackle them is entirely up to you. If you'd like to try to plow through them, you're more than welcome to, but if you're a bit more cautious, you can also take your time and stock up on bolts and gadgets.

A World Away

The worlds you'll explore are massive and varied in appearance, and the current preview build has given us a chance to check out several planets. Batalia, home of Fort Krontos, featured a darker color palette to complement the battle-weary planet surface and the rainy weather. Gaspar offered an arid desert with pools of lava and a Blarg refueling depot. Orxon presented a toxic nightmare of poisonous green gas that wafted from the Kogor refinery. Umbris offered a beachhead-at-Normandy-like obstacle course straight from Saving Private Ryan, which made it the perfect space for the headquarters of the game's resident action hero, Captain Qwark. Rilgar featured Blackwater City, a seaside town complemented by a detailed nighttime scene. Eudora offered a sharp contrast to the decidedly unfriendly environments of the other levels in the game and featured a large forest. Unfortunately, in keeping with the game's rather loopy humor, the trees were all being cut down by machines, but the ones that were still standing were a nice touch. Aridia presented a bizarre hybrid of a nighttime desert environment with deadly pools of tar spread throughout it. Kerwan featured the massive, Jetsons-like city of Metropolis, which teemed with activity. Novalis offered the Torbruk Crater, a fairly lush environment being pummeled by alien invaders. The final world we were able to check out was a nebula that housed a Blarg space station. The level was actually made up of sequences set in the interior and exterior of the station, which offered quite a bit of visual variety.

Ordinarily, spiky balls of explosives would be a problem, but they're nothing if you're packing gadgets.

If you spend any amount of time with the game, you'll quickly find that the gameplay in Ratchet & Clank is as varied as its selection of levels. In addition to the standard platformer elements we mentioned, you'll find puzzles to solve and sequences in which you'll have to go solo as Clank in areas inaccessible to Ratchet. When the duo is together, you'll find that later levels will require some thought in order to use the right combination of gadgets and their abilities. The selection of gadgets in the game includes a flamethrower (called a pyrociter), a blaster, bomb gloves, assorted missile launchers, a variety of boots, and upgrades to Clank, among other things.

You'll also find that, although Ratchet & Clank eventually gain a ton of moves, controlling the pair is a breeze. The game's difficulty borrows a page from the better platformers on the market and starts you out with a basic set of skills that are gradually enhanced as you play. You'll never really be overwhelmed, as the game's nicely tweaked balance introduces you gradually to the pair's moves. The same approach is taken with the game's gadgets, which start out simple enough--simply aim and shoot--but become more complex, offering different targeting options and assorted uses.

Clank is definitely a useful little guy.

Graphically, the game is very easy on the eyes, offering polished visuals that rank among the best seen on the PlayStation 2. The massive environments are huge and seamless, keeping transitions and loading to a bare minimum. The worlds are detailed and feature of variety of environments that are teeming with activity in both the background and the foreground, and the preview build's clean textures and highly respectable draw distance with very few instances of pop-up bode well for the final game. As for the dynamic duo themselves, Ratchet and Clank both look quite fetching, with highly detailed polygon models that animate smoothly. We'd also like to point out that Ratchet, Clank, and just about every character you'll encounter in the game sport a great deal of personality thanks to the excellent animation and voice work used to bring them to life. Ratchet & Clank plays to one of Insomniac's greatest strength as a developer: character design. The company has consistently managed to create well-designed characters with distinct personalities and then build worlds that suit them. Ratchet & Clank definitely finds the developer in fine form, offering the most ambitious cast it has created yet and featuring some truly funny dialogue that really works well.

Judging from what we've played so far, Ratchet & Clank has a great deal of promise. The game's excellent graphics, varied gameplay, and tight control definitely make it a game platformer fans, and maybe even action RPG fans, will want to keep an eye out for. Ratchet & Clank is currently slated to ship this November for the PlayStation 2. Look for more on the game soon.

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