Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is shaping up to be a PS5 showpiece. Our in-depth preview delves into environments, weapons, and how Spider-Man helped to shape it.
When Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart begins, the eponymous pair are already famous, celebrated heroes, utterly assured in their abilities even as they're cast a bit awkwardly into the spotlight. It's a feeling that may be familiar to their creators, Insomniac Games. The studio has been steadily making a reputation as a rock-solid developer with a particularly firm grasp on PlayStation technology, but the mega-success of 2018's Spider-Man and its follow-up, Miles Morales, gave its profile an overdue boost. Now as a headliner studio for the new PlayStation 5, the developer is confidently displaying its tech prowess while managing high expectations. GameSpot received a lengthy final look at Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart ahead of its release next month, which appears to be meeting its moment in the spotlight handily.
The concept of Rift Apart and its new co-protagonist Rivet are built around duality. After Ratchet and Clank are pulled into a rift by returning villain Dr. Nefarious, they find themselves in an alternate dimension where the mastermind has been dubbed Emperor Nefarious. Separated from Ratchet in this new realm, Clank eventually meets Rivet, an alternate-universe version of his best pal who sports blue fur and a cybernetic arm.
Insomniac says it considered making Nefarious' alternate dimension a nemesis story, a dark mirror that reflects the inverse of everything we know. Instead, creative director Marcus Smith said, the studio settled on the alternate dimension showing characters' true selves but altered by the circumstances of their surroundings. So as a result, Rivet is naturally heroic but a little impulsive like Ratchet. Whereas Ratchet has celebrated his victories and grown up a bit, Rivet's impulsivity has helped keep her alive in the oppressive totalitarian regime. Insomniac told us it wanted Rivet to be a loner, but being alone has made her a little awkward, not cynical or mean-spirited. In the small snippets we've seen so far, that comes through in the performance of Jennifer Hale, most known for a very different energy in her confident portrayal of Mass Effect's female version of Shepard (aka FemShep).
Rift Apart runs with the concept of showcasing alternate-universe versions of familiar characters, like the goofy character Skid McMarx who has been reimagined as a freedom fighter called "The Phantom." Each familiar character is still the same person deep down, but they've evolved differently due to their circumstances in Emperor Nefarious' universe. The duality extends to the different worlds too, which have been reworked both to show this alternate dimension and to take advantage of the PS5's hardware power. And what a difference it makes.
The demonstration showed two versions of the returning setting of Megalopolis from Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando. Initially we see it with the ticker-tape celebration of the titular heroes, swarming with crowds and particle effects, all of which serves as the tutorial. The bright and sunny setting is then replaced by its doppelganger, Nefarious City, which is cast at night with saturated neon lights and traffic constantly buzzing around its exterior. The Ratchet & Clank series has handled cities before, but this time it looks like it could be an actual, thriving city. The team said it took a page from Spider-Man to have cityscape content streaming all around you at all times for a sense of constant bustling activity. Though it isn't an open-world game structure, it feels similarly expansive. You're dwarfed by massive art deco buildings, and at the street level, constant movement and small details help to push the idea that the same is happening throughout the massive urban landscape. In a watery environment, you can track mud, watch sharks leave trails in the water, and even see your discarded weapon shells causing ripples in the water.
While some worlds are their own static environments, other planets will show off the conflict of dimensions in flux. These "sync planets" will let you explore a world caught between both realms, by constantly swapping between their varied states in a snap.
The bulk of a Ratchet game isn't spent gawking at the environments, but rather causing havoc inside of them. On that front, Rift Apart looks more familiar, if gorgeous. Ratchet & Clank gameplay has already been fine-tuned over more than a dozen games, and there's not much reason for Insomniac to reinvent the wheel. What we see instead are refinements and new toys to tinker with, blending the studio's eye for varied platforming challenges with its fine sense of weapon design.
And even within that action set piece with Rivet and Clank on the run, Rift Apart found time to insert little moments of humor and heart.
That's where you get elements like the Topiary Sprinkler, a glove (with a green thumb) that turns your enemies into shrubs inspired by the greenery art at Disneyland. Insomniac said it wanted to introduce a freezing mechanic without just making another "freeze ray," and the result is more cheeky and comical. A Ricochet gun, based on pinball complete with a round and silvery projectile, rewards pinpoint timing as you bounce it repeatedly off the heads of unsuspecting foes. The Void Repulsor combines a shield with a shotgun-like short-range burst. And the Negatron Collider is said to exemplify the mechanical implications of the new DualSense controller. Insomniac noted that previous charge mechanics needed to rely on a separate input or releasing the trigger to fire, while the DualSense lets you charge and then pull through the adaptive trigger's resistance to let it rip.
What's striking is how the fidelity of the visual design helps create player feedback for the weapons. We've heard about the Enforcer in other previews, and how it makes use of the DualSense controller by firing one barrel with a partial squeeze and then both if you click past the resistance. But on top of that, you can actually see this reflected on the weapon itself, without glancing at the weapon HUD. Two indicator lights on the back of the gun show when it's empty, partially full, or ready for a full two-barrel blast. The over-the-top size of the weapon makes this small touch legible at a glance.
That same level of care and attention to detail seems to reflect in the platforming segments, which transition seamlessly with quick cinematic flourishes. One major action set piece, as Rivet and Clank escape from a rampaging robot, blends rail-jumping, wall-running, and the new rift-pulling mechanic into an array of frenetic action that may seem dizzying if it weren't so imminently readable in the heat of the action. Rift Apart also adds more traversal tools to make you more nimble, like a Phantom Dash that has you phase out of reality for a short time for a side-strafe maneuver, unaffected by gravity or enemy attacks.
And even within that action set piece with Rivet and Clank on the run, Rift Apart found time to insert little moments of humor and heart. After obtaining a power-up that was said to be discontinued due to spine fractures, Rivet uses it for the first time and can be heard grunting, "Ow, my spine!" When Clank has a moment of insecurity because of his missing arm, Rivet--also sporting a mechanical arm--reassures him that neither of them are broken. All of this happens within the snappy moment-to-moment gameplay, rather than pausing to watch some story happen. And when cutscenes do occur, they're fun to watch and usually pan right into a moment of gameplay. It's the trick Insomniac pulled with the opening of 2018's Spider-Man--transitioning straight from a cutscene to swinging through Manhattan so seamlessly you may not have even noticed the cutscene was over--but repeated multiple times over, as part of a single action spectacle.
That filmic quality is most visible in the characters themselves. If the world has gotten a significant upgrade to take advantage of the PS5, it didn't come at the cost of Ratchet, Clank, or Rivet. In the case of the two organic creatures, their faces are stretchy and expressive like an animated film, and their fur is beautifully detailed. You can actually see the direction their fur is brushed on various parts of their faces and arms. Clank is built to look like he was made of actual metal materials, with a visible difference between shiny reflective steel and coarse brushed nickel. His eyes look like dappled LED arrays. And being a metallic companion, you can see ray traced reflections on his face and body.
The usual action-platforming is complemented by a few twists to add a dash of variety. Pocket dimensions are opportunities for Insomniac to mix-and-mash different stage elements that don't necessarily go together or obey the laws of physics, so you may see a floating platform in a different position than it could possibly be in the "real" world. And Clank-centric puzzles use the rift plot device to run several Clank "possibilities" through the stage sequentially as part of a puzzle solution. Ratchet also has a new arachnid droid with its own platforming puzzle mechanics.
Insomniac recently boasted that it will have tons of accessibility options as well. Though we didn't see all of them in action, we did hear about one handy tool: a global time slow that can be mapped to a shortcut on the D-pad, letting you slow the world if you need it to get past any dexterity challenges. The studio says it is possible to complete all of the Trophies with the accessibility options turned on.
Insomniac doesn't appear to be reinventing Ratchet & Clank for Rift Apart. The series has been so finely tuned and refined over the years that it's clear Insomniac knows exactly what it is. The bells and whistles here seem to be variations on its framework, so it will probably feel very mechanically familiar when the final game releases on June 11. But like comfort food at a five-star restaurant, the taste is familiar and cozy, and the presentation has never looked better.
For more on Ratchet & Clank, check out our interview with Rift Apart game director Mike Daly.