I have always been a fan of the Ratchet & Clank games. I’m not typically a platformer aficionado, but the R&C games are just so much fun. Plus they are surprisingly deep, low stress games, which makes a nice break from all that sweet digital murder I’ve committed in the majority of games on the market today. They also appeal to all ages, so it is a good game for anyone to jump in. So taking that model and making it co-op makes sense–at least on paper.
But in making the changes necessary to transform Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One into a four-player co-op title, it lost some of what makes the series so beloved. It still can offer a lot of mindless fun that you and up to three others can probably squeeze a lot out of the co-op, but it is also very dumbed down.
Putting aside the other Ratchet & Clank games—which are some of the best platforming games ever made—and judging R&C: A4O on its own, the game is still lacking in a few key areas. Despite the co-op design and the numerous weapons at your disposal, it is a confiningly linear button masher and little else.
Once More With Feeling
One of the first sacrifices that R&C: A4O makes is in the story, and most people will probably just skip through it in order to get to the next section of beating on enemies, but that is to be expected with a game designed to be played by four people. The dialog and one-liners, however, are good, and the characterizations are well done and funny.
The game begins in the city of Luminopolis, when series antagonist Dr. Nefarious springs a trap designed to finally crush his enemies Ratchet, Clank and Captain Quark (now President Quark). It backfires in spectacular fashion, and all four are captured by a mysterious new enemy known as the Creature Collector, then transported to the planet Magnus.
The four must put aside their differences and put foot to alien butt in order to return home. Along the way, the inhabitants of the planet Magnus convince the heroes to help them overthrow their robotic overlords because that’s the kind of thing Ratchet & Clank do.
The story to R&C: A4O is used primarily to push the game in the direction you need to go. You will have tasks like defeating a boss, but to get there you will need to travel through several areas first. It just reinforces that R&C: A4O is all about the gameplay. The writing, however, is good when it comes to the banter between the characters, and it’s best to play with four people to avoid missing out on some of the best one-liners, especially from Dr. Nefarious and Quark.
There is also plenty of dialog from the enemies, and it is usually chuckle-worthy. The best though is the robotic AI with a female voice aboard the Creature Collector which has some very funny lines, but bears more than a passing resemblance to Portal’s GLaDOS. There is even a line used to trick enemy soldiers into fighting by promising them a party and cake. Whether this is an homage to Portal or a “reboot” of the jokes isn’t clear, but it’s still funny.
The Nerf Gun
While previous R&C games have had more of a story, the real focus of the series has always been the gameplay. The franchise is a platformer before anything else, but it has always managed to go beyond that and constantly surprise fans. R&C: A4O loses a bit of that and feels slightly diminished and predictable as a result.
Compared to the other games in the series, the robust weapon upgrades have taken a major hit and are dumbed way down. In its place is a three tier upgrade system that allows you to simply buy more ammo, higher damage, and an elite augmenter that modifies each weapon. The problem is that not all weapons are as useful as others, so most players will probably end up choosing two or three of their favorites and sticking with them throughout the game, since there is no real benefit or point in using the others. The cash/bolt system for upgrades also makes it far too easy to purchase upgrades and forget about them, and there is a good chance you could have most—if not all the weapons maxed out by the end of the game, yet only fired a few of them a handful of times. It makes the incredible weapon selection somewhat pointless, and hurts both the depth of the game and the replay value.
And while there are a lot of weapons, playing a co-op game makes the weapons selection wheel a pain to navigate. It is awkward to change weapons using the right stick and triggers buttons. On single player the game freezes to give you time, but in co-op you need to do it on the fly, and it becomes clumsy.
A new set of tools is also introduced, including a gun that shoots heavy goop, and a power drill. These are only used in specific areas that require that tool to either progress or to find bolts. The vac-u 400 gun is a bit more integral and useful, as it allows you to suck in, then fire out both enemies and friends, and it is necessary to solve a few puzzles–usually just by using it on a specific switch. It quickly becomes an essential gameplay feature, but there are very few real challenges to utilize it. The most common use will be to grab a teammate—human or AI—load them up and fire them at designated targets. You can then use a swingshot tether to cross over to them. It is a way to cover distances you can’t jump, but it quickly becomes repetitive. There are a few instances where you use the gun to defeat bosses or solve puzzles, but they are few and far between.
Where the game does work is when teammates can coordinate in combat. When everyone is using the same weapon on the same target, the results are impressive, and certain weapons change slightly when all four players use them at once. You can see this a bit when playing single player, as your AI companion will try to match weapons with you, but you really need four players to get the most out of each weapon. Having all four weapons fully upgraded on top of it can devastate a screen full of enemies, or a boss.
Still, the combat quickly devolves into button mashing repetition. Mainly this is due to the linear and constricting nature of the levels, which force you into relatively small and unremarkable areas where you need to clear the area to progress. The boss fights, however, are different. While the enemies typically require you to hold down the fire button and maybe get nutty with an odd jump or two, the boss battles tend to require a bit more. They also look great, as the bosses are usually giants. The scope is impressive, and the teamwork required can make for an entertaining battle—even if you are playing alone and using an AI teammate.
Don’t Get Lost
The levels in R&C: A4O are lush and attractive. The cartoony nature means the graphics don’t bother trying to be photo-realistic, and instead rely on creativity. Certain areas are incredible to look at, as are the boss fights where you take on monsters that dominate the entire screen. But the levels are also linear to a fault, and completely do away with any sense of exploration. Each area is also small, which feels confining with four players and multiple enemies. There are no off-track areas, and very few hidden collectibles either.
The flow of the game pushes players along well, but the sections are somewhat indistinguishable. They may look a bit different but jumping over one bridge on a mountain is much the same as jumping over a bridge on a river. It also might make online matchmaking tricky, as specific areas don’t really stand out.
There are a few moments of co-op competition in the form of the odd mini-game and an occasional point breakdown that awards a winner, but these are rare and forgettable.
The co-op is actually something of a contradiction. R&C: A4O is designed to be played as a co-op game. The levels are designed that way, and the action is tailored for four-player attacks. Even when playing solo you need to utilize your AI teammate to proceed, and yet there is never really much done with the co-op. Sometimes you will need to have one player stand in a location to complete an action while another is at a different spot waiting to help, but that’s about it. And once you take away the co-op’s benefits, the game is slightly generic. And for a campaign-specific co-op game, having no additional game modes is a surprising omission. A few mini-games separate from the main story would have gone a long way.
Take away the technically demanding design and lush graphics that require a lot of space to render, and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One could easily be a downloadable arcade game on the PlayStation Network. It can be a good co-op game, but mainly for people that already have a group of friends lined up. Even then the fun will come as much from playing with friends as from the game itself.
Fans of the series will likely be disappointed at the simplification of the game. Too much—especially the weapon upgrades—have been dumbed down. If nothing else, the changes kill some of the potential replay value that would be there with the old weapon system. Even excluding other R&C games, it just isn’t a very good weapon system to begin with. There is no art to it, and it feels like a regurgitation rather than an evolution.
If you are desperate for a four-person co-op on the PS3, and you already have friends willing to play either online or via split-screen, you and your buddies might find plenty of mindless fun to enjoy in the game as you rip through it in 10 hours or so at most. Fans of the series hoping for a fresh new entry will likely be a bit disappointed though. It is a simple and good natured masher, but it lacks the depth that made the previous games in the series what they are.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)