The rise and fall of Ratchet & Clank
In the days of the PS2, if you asked me what my favourite videogame series was, I almost certainly would have said Ratchet & Clank. It’s somewhat depressing then, that the last couple of R&C games seemed hell-bent on destroying everything that was good about the series. This is one disillusioned fan’s take on the revered rise and unfortunate fall of Ratchet & Clank.
The original Ratchet & Clank game was released back in November 2002. I first played it around a friend’s house, and it instantly guaranteed itself a spot on my Christmas list. Being nearly 13 years old at the time, visiting far-off worlds was something I’d never experienced in a videogame (this was years before Mass Effect, after all), and the idea really captured my imagination.
Like Spyro the Dragon on PSone, the inventive gameplay would keep me entertained for hours on end, and is still as playable today as it was 11 years ago (as last year’s HD remaster will attest). The crazy weapons-based combat, enjoyable platforming and charming humour crafted a solid foundation that Insomniac Games successfully built upon for years to come.
Sure enough, 2003 saw the release of Ratchet & Clank 2, which added several new features including upgradeable weapons; this introduced an even greater level of addictiveness to the gameplay. Another addition, that people seem to forget, is the use of 720-degree mini worlds that could be fully explored (a technique that was later used, to critical acclaim, in the Super Mario Galaxy games).
By 2004’s Ratchet & Clank 3, it felt like Insomniac had perfected the R&C formula, with a genuinely engaging story and a ridiculous amount of content. Amongst the biggest additions were arena-style levels, which would go onto spawn their own game a year later in Ratchet: Gladiator (or Ratchet: Deadlocked, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from).
It was difficult to see how the series could improve, but it turns out it was with the PlayStation 3. Arriving at a time when the console was starved for AAA games, Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction certainly caused a stir upon its release in November 2007. The R&C formula married with the power of the PS3 created a game that was simply a blast to play, and even the Sixaxis minigames were pretty fun!
This was followed just under a year later with the second game in the Future trilogy, Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty. The only game in the franchise to launch primarily on PSN, the title was a bit of an experiment for the series, but was a qualified success at the very least. It proved to be an unexpected treat for fans, and acted as a nice bridge between Tools of Destruction and the next big game in the series.
That game was Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, arguably the pinnacle of the franchise on PS3. It must have been difficult for Insomniac to meet players’ expectations with the conclusion of a story that had spanned three games, but the studio absolutely delivered. They even managed to squeeze in some new mechanics, including truly open-area space sections for the first time in the series, and the best Clank gameplay of any R&C game.
But then things all went a bit wrong. With the Future storyline over, in a way Insomniac should be praised for taking R&C in a new direction. I just wish it was in a different direction to Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. As soon as the developer announced it as a co-op game, I was instantly worried. Then it was released in October 2011, and my fears were fully realised.
It isn’t a terrible game, it’s just an extremely disappointing Ratchet & Clank game. Placing the focus on multiplayer meant the singleplayer experience was pushed by the wayside; even when playing solo, you’re forced to have a computer-controlled partner. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing if not for the AI’s suicidal tendencies and the often atrocious fixed camera, which rendered certain sections frustrating at best and almost unplayable at worst.
Even the best videogame franchises make the occasional misstep, so at that stage I was willing to forgive All 4 One’s shortcomings and look to the future. To that end, I greeted the announcement of the hapless duo’s next game, Ratchet & Clank: QForce (known as the superiorly named Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault in North America), with interest.
Regrettably, from my first glance at the jagged edges around Ratchet’s ship on the start screen, I knew I would come away disappointed. And unfortunately anti-aliasing isn’t the only thing absent in QForce. Other items on the missing list include humour, interesting and varied gameplay, and a story that I actually care about; in short, everything that made the previous Ratchet & Clank games so awesome (well, with the exception of All 4 One).
However, the real catalyst for this article was the game’s recently released Vita port. Despite not particularly enjoying QForce on PS3, I held out a little hope for the handheld version because I thought the novelty of playing it on Vita would help me to see past its flaws. Let’s just say it didn’t pan out that way.
Hiring small studios to develop ports is a strategy that has paid off for Sony in the past (e.g. Mass Media’s superb work with the Jak and Daxter Trilogy), but for whatever reason it just didn’t work this time. Not only was it delayed, and then delayed again, but when it finally arrived it was in no way worth the wait. Sub-par graphics and shockingly low-res textures made it look more like a PSP game than a current-gen title, and even then it’s still hampered by various performance issues and cut content.
It would be easy to blame Tin Giant, the developer responsible for the port, but I feel this would be unfair to the tiny studio that clearly wasn’t given the resources necessary to achieve its goal. We saw a similar thing happen last year with Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, which was all but abandoned by Activision, leaving developer Nihilistic Software to take all the blame. I just hope this whole fiasco at least teaches Sony a lesson.
If the 2015 release date for the upcoming Ratchet & Clank movie is anything to go by, it looks like the series will still be around for a long time to come. A few years ago that thought would have made me very happy indeed, but now that happiness has been replaced with apprehension.
And then there’s the lukewarm reception to Insomniac’s new co-op shooter Fuse. To be honest, I can’t help but worry the team has somehow lost the spark that made them such a powerhouse developer during the late 90s and 00s. Or maybe they just don’t know how to design multiplayer games.