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Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault fuses tower defense with many familiar beats

Insomniac Games revealed Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault back in May 2012, shortly before E3. The planned fall 2012 PlayStation Network release turns sharply away from its predecessors in a lot of ways, starting with the fact that it will be released as a downloadable title for PlayStation 3. Sony offered media a first look at the game earlier this week at a holiday preview event, and I can indeed confirm that, as familiar as the play might look, this is definitely a new direction for the series.

Let me summarize: Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault carries over the core third-person traversal, exploration, and combat mechanics from the series’ core games and drops them into the framework of an action-oriented tower defense game, sort of like Orcs Must Die. Save for a few added HUD elements, the play looks immediately familiar, right down to the crate-smashing for bolts (currency in the Ratchetverse) and rail-grinding into secret areas. The new bits of HUD relate entirely to tower defense play, and they’re easy enough to figure out for anyone who’s familiar with the genre.

Full Frontal Assault is currently being demoed as an eyes-on-only affair, but I got a pretty good sense of how things work from my time staring at the game. A given level starts out with your chosen player character — Ratchet, Clank, and Captain Qwark are all on the table — being dropped into an open environment. The map shown during my preview was heavy on narrow lanes leading to open clearings — a very tower defense-friendly setup — but it was otherwise indistinguishable from what you’d see from any other game in the series.

Bizarre weapons are sort of Insomniac’s thing, and the wacky arsenal is used to great effect in Full Frontal Assault. While there are some brand-new weapons in the game, players can also expect to find a “greatest hits” assortment of enemy-smashing tools pulled from previous games in the series. The big difference in FFA is that you’re getting your weapons from weapon pods scattered around the map. There’s some sort of malfunction or glitch in whichever fictional computer handles the dropping of Ratchet’s weapons, and so these pods often end up in bizarre locations, sometimes even in straight-up hidden areas. 

When you first approach a pod, you’ll have to complete a brief hacking minigame in order to access what’s inside. Each of the pod carries 1-3 weapons in all, and the assortment generally falls into some broader category or another. So while one pod might give you a selection of basic high-ammo/low-damage firearms, another might specialize in heavy weapons. There’s a tough choice to be made, however. Whenever you come to a weapon pod and you make your choice, whatever you didn’t take can’t be returned to and picked up later. There’s no right or wrong answer per se; you can’t equip the “wrong” combination of weapons and guarantee a mission failure. It’s just that some combinations might be more effective for you than others.

Since you’re finding weapons rather than buying them, the bolts that you collect are instead spent on a variety of tower defense emplacements. I saw a couple of different turrets in action, including a basic low-damage blaster and a higher-damage/shorter-range flame turret. Mines too. There’s one that slows down time, another that spawns a disco ball and forces your attackers to dance, and yet another that morphs incoming enemies into harmless sheep. All of which should be immediately familiar to Ratchet fans.

An on-screen meter indicates where approaching enemies are in relation to your base. Once the attack begins, the key to success appears to be always staying on the move. You can easily look down the approach lanes and see what’s headed your way. Some enemies are more or less susceptible to certain attacks, so you need to be able to gauge when your emplacements can handle things on their own and when you need to step in and deal with the problem directly. Certain Grungarians, for example, hang back and launch artillery shots at your defenses, weakening and eventually destroying them. With those, it looks like the best bet is to simply wade into the fray and take them on yourself.

It’s impossible to say more about the game until I’ve actually tried the thing, but Insomniac certainly knows its way around Ratchet games. FFA will support local and online co-op for two players and it will also feature a competitive mode, though details surrounding the latter aren’t being discussed yet. This might be a little something different than fans are used to, but by all appearances it hits all of the necessary beats that Ratchet-lovers would want. Stay tuned for more on Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault as the game’s fall 2012 release draws nearer.

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