The platform genre is well-worn territory. The 2D platformer was driven completely into the ground back in the 16-bit era, and we're starting to see an awful lot of repetition in the 3D platformer arena, as well. Most 3D platformers are full of backtracking, poor camera work, and countless little doodads to collect. However, Ratchet & Clank skillfully avoids most of the traps that hold back the majority of modern platform games. Developed by Insomniac Games, the company behind the first three games in the popular Spyro the Dragon series, Ratchet & Clank presents a fantastic, well-balanced, story-driven adventure that can easily be recommended to anyone.
Ratchet is an alien creature that looks a bit like a cross between a cat and a rabbit. He's handy with his tools and is busy working on his spaceship when a small robot named Clank falls out of the sky. Clank relays a tale of a world in peril, hops onto Ratchet's back, and the duo set off to save the world from Drek, an evil corporate suit who, like President Skroob in the Mel Brooks classic Spaceballs, is the leader of a dead, polluted world. Drek and his minions are remedying their situation by ripping apart other, cleaner planets and using their resources to build a new home. Ratchet and Clank are an odd couple of sorts, so many of the game's cutscenes show the duo trying to pull their quest in two different directions. The game maintains a nice, lighthearted feel from start to finish, complete with a colorful cast of very well animated characters and a well-written script.
Each level in Ratchet & Clank is actually a different planet. You'll start out not knowing where to go next. New planets are revealed to you by "infobots," small robot storage devices that contain a brief video clip. The cutscenes shown when accessing an infobot are sometimes intercepted communiqués between Drek and his army, others are newscasts that talk about the havoc Drek has unleashed, and still others are commercials that advertise various spots in the universe. The cutscenes also provide an initial reason for visiting a planet, though you'll usually receive other objectives as you explore each world.
While Ratchet & Clank is structured a lot like most other platformers, it's much more focused on skillful combat than on making difficult jumps. Your standard weapon is a large wrench, which you can swing around or toss like a boomerang. You'll also start with one of the game's many weapons, the bomb glove. As you might expect, equipping the bomb glove lets you toss bombs at enemies. All your enemies are robotic, and when they're destroyed, they explode in a shower of nuts and bolts. As you move through the game, you'll be collecting these nuts and bolts at a near-constant rate. These serve as the game's currency, and you can use them to purchase items and ammo for your weapons at various shops.
As you make your way from level to level, you'll find or purchase a lot of other weapons, including a cannon that lets you suck up small foes and spit them out, a flamethrower, a machine gun, a minelayer, homing and guided rockets, and several more. The weapons provide a really nice variety of ways to deal with the game's enemies, and players with different playing styles will find certain weapons more effective than others. The game gives you the standard complement of attacks and jumping options. You can steer Ratchet around with the left stick, but it's actually easier to steer with the right stick, which swings the camera around. Other platformers have given you camera control, but most of the cameras like to swing back around to the default viewpoint as soon as you stop adjusting them. With the exception of a few tight spots, Ratchet & Clank's camera stays where you put it. You'll run into a few occasions where you're surrounded by enemies and can't see them all, but once you get the hang of things, this isn't really a problem.
Aside from the game's large supply of weapons, you'll also earn a collection of upgrades and gadgets that are mainly used for puzzle solving. The swing shot is probably the coolest of the lot. It gives you a Bionic Commando-like hook shot that grapples onto special targets, letting you swing back and forth or quickly move from one spot to another. You'll eventually earn hover upgrades, masks, a door opener, a water displacement device, and a cool little gadget that lets you disguise yourself as a robot, which you'll use to infiltrate a robot factory. Some sections of the game break from the standard course of action. You'll ride a hoverboard in a couple of races, and you'll fly a starfighter, man a couple of turrets, and even directly control Clank in areas that Ratchet can't reach. These brief bits of gameplay aren't terribly difficult, but they break up the action effectively and really lend a lot of variety to the game.
As most of the game's levels have multiple objectives, you'll usually have two or three paths branching off of your starting position. Each one will eventually lead to some sort of payoff. At that point, most games would ask you to backtrack through the section you just completed to get back to the beginning of the level and try a different path. But the levels are designed in such a way that you'll almost never have to backtrack through a section you've already played. Many paths loop all the way around to the starting point, while others do this artificially by placing a teleporter or other form of instant transport at the end of the track. The lack of backtracking really keeps the game moving by almost completely eliminating downtime. The levels seem extremely large and really look great.
Ratchet & Clank is a fantastic-looking PlayStation 2 game. The sheer size of the levels is really impressive, and you'll often find yourself fighting a screen full of small enemies amid these huge environments, but the game's incredibly smooth frame rate never slows down. The frame rate doesn't come at the cost of texture quality or animation quality, either, and these aspects of Ratchet & Clank also look terrific. The game's environments are colorful, and the game features some really great animated sequences, too. Convincingly done facial animations convey a wide range of emotions for both Ratchet and Clank during the game's amusing cutscenes. And while you'll see quite a bit of repetition of enemies within a given level, there is a good range of different enemies to be found in the game, overall. The game's bosses look especially good.
The graphics are backed up by a fantastic soundtrack. Each level is given its own feel, thanks in part to music that can convey tension, creepiness, and more, but without giving up the game's generally upbeat, lighthearted tone. The sound effects are also generally outstanding, though the perpetual sound of bolts being collected can get pretty grating over time. The game's voice actors had a strong script to work with, and the game's dialogue is all well done. Ratchet & Clank has support for Dolby Pro Logic II, so players with surround sound systems will be able to hear things happening behind Ratchet in their rear speakers.
Ratchet & Clank isn't a difficult game, at first. It starts out pretty easy, so you'll cover a lot of ground quickly. Later on, the game's difficulty really picks up, though it never becomes needlessly difficult or unfair. When you run out of health, you'll quickly respawn at the last checkpoint you crossed. Checkpoints aren't actually visible, but there are enough of them that you'll rarely have to spend a lot of time working your way through previously seen territory. The game is also a lot longer than you might have come to expect from games of this type. Ratchet & Clank spends a lot of time leading up to its final confrontation, and it tosses in a few extra levels and quests while you're hot on the trail of the game's lead antagonists. Overall, it's longer than many similar platformers, yet the game doesn't feel artificially lengthened by late-game fetch quests. There are optional items to be found in the game, such as gold bolts and skill points, and finishing the game will allow you to play through again and unlock special items.
The team at Insomniac did a fantastic job of balancing the game between various types of combat and standard platforming action, and the overall design sidesteps most of the common platformer failings really, really well. Anyone looking for a lengthy platformer will find a lot to like here, and fans of third-person shooters will also have a lot of fun with the game due to its heavy focus on various outrageous projectile weapons. Ratchet & Clank is certainly a fantastic platformer in every way and qualifies as one of the best games the genre has seen since consoles went polygonal.