Monday, September 17, 2012

Ratchet & Clank PS2 Trilogy Reviews


Come one, come all, for it is that time of year once again. 2012 is the tenth anniversary of yet another prolific series that started on the PlayStation 2: namely, a quaint little platforming franchise by the name of “Ratchet & Clank”. One of the PS2’s mascots back in the 2000’s alongside the likes of Jak and Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank seamlessly combined the elements of a typical platformer with a third-person shooter, something that was expanded upon by later installments that have gone on well into the PS3 era. Fortunately, unlike former mascot Spyro the Dragon, the series has remained under the control of the original developer and thus has yet to devolve into a hollow, despicable shell of its former self. That is, unless you hated All 4 One just that much. Anyway, in honor of this occasion, I will be reviewing the original trilogy for the PlayStation 2. I was going to review the entire series like I did with Kingdom Hearts, but unfortunately, I soon found I was too preoccupied with other games and such to do so. Nonetheless, off we go.

Ratchet & Clank
Ratchet & Clank introduces us to our two titular protagonists: Ratchet, an alien being known as a Lombax; and Clank, a tiny robot.  After being born on an assembly line due to a glitch, Clank finds a recording on an Infobot that tells the plight of the “Blargs”, led by Supreme Executive Chairman Drek.  As it turns out, their home planet has become much too polluted to support life, and so they intend to create a new planet using the pieces of other planets, which will inevitably lead to said other planets’ destruction. Clank escapes, but after an epic space battle, he is sent crashing down to the surface of the Planet Veldin, where he meets Ratchet, who is currently working on a spaceship. Clank, as luck would have it, has the parts necessary to make the spaceship run, and Ratchet agrees to help Clank if he would be so kind as to provide them. Thus begins an adventure of epic proportions.

The storyline of Ratchet & Clank…really isn’t much to write home about. It’s mildly interesting and gets points for some solid writing, which leads to a number of funny lines and moments, as well as some stellar voice acting. However, there are some pretty big problems holding it back. In particular, those two problems would be the main protagonist and the main villain. Clank is a decent enough character and Ratchet comes off as okay at first, but after a big moment in the plot, he immediately becomes a total jerk to his adventuring buddy and generally starts to come off as quite selfish, wanting to chase after a secondary villain while the main one is basically committing mass homicide. This could have been handled well if it hadn’t been emphasized too much, but for the next few hours of the game, it’s like it becomes his main character trait. Of course, once the secondary villain is defeated, he apologizes and snaps back to his old self just as quickly and is ready to once again take on Drek. Bottom line, he’s far from a likable protagonist, just as Drek is far from an interesting villain. He has some funny lines here and there, but in the end comes off as very clich├ęd, especially at the game’s end.

But anyone playing a platformer for the story should probably reevaluate their lives. Of course, Ratchet & Clank is more than just a platformer. As already stated, Ratchet & Clank opted to seamlessly blend platforming and shooting, as did its eventual sequels. Did the mix work? I suppose it should go without saying at this point that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Over the course of the game, you will gain a variety of weapons, which, while considerably “tamer” than the toys later installments would give us to play with, are quite a bit of fun to use. Especially notable are the Pyrocitor, a flamethrower; the Devastator, a rocket launcher; and my personal favorite, the Visibomb Gun, a remote-controlled missile launcher. Oh, and Ratchet also has a giant freaking wrench that he uses to smack people around with. But even the most fun of weapons can’t help a game much when there aren’t any challenging enemies to use them on, and I’ll admit, when the game starts out, it will seem pretty lacking in this department. The enemies will come off as ludicrously easy in the opening areas, but things quickly pick up once you get to Nebula G34 and the difficulty steadily increases from there, to the point of becoming quite tough towards the end.

As for the platforming, equally emphasized as the game’s weapons are “gadgets”, which are various little utilities you collect over the course of the game that help you to overcome the obstacles and puzzles that stand in your way. There are quite a few of these, but the most notable ones are Clank’s upgrades, which include such accessories as the Heli-Pack, Hydro Pack, and even a Jet Pack. Each of these, aside from being incredibly cool, helps to meaningfully improve Ratchet’s mobility by allowing him to cross larger gaps, do ground pounds, swim faster, or what have you. There are also the Grind Boots and Gravity Boots, which allow you to grind on rails and walk on special walls and ceilings (respectively), as well as the Swingshot (basically a glorified grappling hook), and the Hydrodisplacer, which allows you to empty and fill certain bodies of water, along with many others. Much like the shooting aspect, platforming starts out fairly simplistic and easy, but as more and more of these gadgets become available to you, the level designs grow significantly in complexity and challenge level. What’s also interesting is that, while each planet is technically linear in design, they still contain different objectives for you to complete and give you a bit of freedom as to your approach thereof. The design thus ends up being very solid overall, but Ratchet & Clank also gives you a very satisfying sense of progression as you collect more weapons and upgrades, something that not too many platformers have to offer.

What’s almost as impressive as the gameplay is Ratchet & Clank’s presentation. Obviously, the game doesn’t look as stunning as it did ten years ago, but it still holds up surprisingly well, especially in terms of animations. They’re incredibly fluid, both during gameplay and in cutscenes, and one tiny thing that I always thought was amazing was the fact that Ratchet actually points all weapons upward if you approach a wall. This is something not even a lot of first-person shooters do even today. Sure, it’s a little thing, but back then, it was always a surprise to see that kind of attention to detail. The weapons themselves all have different animations upon being summoned as well as accompanying sound effects thereof, and the environments really don’t look half-bad either. There’s one moment in an area late in the game where you’re basically walking upside down on a giant space ship carrying a half-finished planetary body with another nearby planet visible off in the distance, and I swear, it still accomplishes that feeling of “Holy crap, I am walking upside down on a giant space ship carrying a half-finished planetary body with another planet visible off in the distance”. On a technical level, this game was pretty ahead of its time. On top of that, each location just feels alive in its own way. As already noted, each planet contains several different areas to visit. There is a different soundtrack and atmosphere for each, and the enemies you encounter on every planet only add to this feeling. A planet often used as a logging site, for instance, sees you going up against lumberjack robots and buzz saw-wielding enemies, and a planet in the throes of war pits you against soldiers, tanks and battleships. Enemies are rarely rehashed for other locations and when they are, they feel like they belong.

Worth noting is that there are a few areas in the game that are played with Clank alone. His move set is very limited when compared to Ratchet’s and he’s not a very good fighter either, but what makes these segments interesting is that you can take control of “Gadgebots”. Aside from attacking enemies for you, these are also necessary for solving puzzles, and the fact that you have to keep them alive also creates an interesting challenge. Clank’s sections are nothing spectacular, but are pretty neat in their own right.
I couldn't find any other good screenshots of the first game, so instead enjoy these two adorable puppies.
 The only real problem with Ratchet & Clank’s gameplay is the Trespasser puzzles. Early on in the game, you get a gadget called the “Trespasser”, which you will need to use to open certain locks. This is done by solving a puzzle, which involves rotating a set of yellow lights so that they shine green into certain slots, maneuvering the parts of the puzzle board so that nothing is blocking their way. The puzzles aren’t necessarily poorly-designed, but they are tedious and feel time-consuming in such a way that breaks the game’s otherwise fast pace.

In short, Ratchet & Clank, while far from the series’ best, was excellent for its time and is still a quite worthy title today. It does feel pretty dated after playing the later games, but that’s really not its fault. Speaking of which…

Going Commando
Ah, Going Commando. This is the game that started the endearing little title running gag. Anyway, in Going Commando, Ratchet & Clank are suddenly transported to the Bogon Galaxy, where a company known as Megacorp has a monopoly on all commerce.  They had been called there by CEO Ambercrombie Fizzwidget, who informs them that an experiment had been stolen by a mysterious thief and then hires them to stop said thief. Then the plot thickens, crap hits the fan and lots of stuff happens. The storyline, while still nothing really special, is quite a bit more interesting than the first game’s. Ratchet also gets a much-needed characterization overhaul that makes him a far more likable character, complete with a voice change. He is now Tidus from Final Fantasy X. Haw haw haw. All that aside, the writing is even funnier this time around and the plot twist at the end regarding the villain does a lot to add to the story as well. In short, it’s pretty nice.

But the story isn’t the only thing you can expect to have improved in Going Commando. In fact, I’m going to say this right now: Going Commando is an almost perfect sequel. Not just to the original Ratchet & Clank, but period. It’s a paragon of how to build on to an already solid experience. As for why, let’s start with the game’s weapons. Not only is the selection far larger than it was in the original, but it’s simply cooler. The original Ratchet & Clank’s arsenal is utterly bland by comparison. Gone are the simple flamethrowers, bomb gloves and the like. Instead, Going Commando gives us such firepower as the electrified Plasma Coil, which can damage several enemies at once; the Synthenoids, robotic buddies that come to your aid; the Seeker Gun, which shoots out missiles that home in on targets once they pass by; the Bouncer, which explodes into tiny, destructive grenades on impact, and many more.

But the coolest thing actually isn’t the weapons themselves so much as the fact that you can actually upgrade them this time around, a feature would take even more prominence in later installments. The more you use a weapon, the more EXP it gains, and it eventually transforms into something even more awesome. An early weapon, the Gravity Bomb launcher, for instance, transforms into the Mini-Nuke launcher, which actually remains quite useful throughout the game’s entire duration. The Minirocket Tube becomes the Megarocket Cannon, which allows for charged shots, and so on and so forth. RPG elements also come into play in regards to upgrading Ratchet’s health in this game, as the more enemies you kill, the more EXP you gain, which eventually leads to health upgrades. This not only adds an incredible amount of depth to the gameplay, but it’s also necessary to make use of this, as the difficulty becomes quite brutal as the game goes on. And unlike the first game, Going Commando doesn’t pull too many punches for new players; it’s reasonably challenging from the get-go. Of course, the game remains fair throughout its duration, so it comes off as more of a fun challenge than a frustrating one. Just be prepared.

The platformer side of the game has been expanded upon brilliantly as well. The game does focus a bit more on puzzle solving than the first game, but the straight-up platforming this game offers is still very strong. In general, the amount of creativity that has gone into the game’s various challenges is really quite astounding, and there are some nice new gadgets to go along with them. Particularly noteworthy are the Dynamo and Tractor Beam, the latter of which powers up or creates objects briefly and the former of which allows you to maneuver certain objects. And while it doesn’t have much to do with actual platforming, the game also gives you Glider and Levitator gadgets, both of which lead to some very fun and challenging flying sections. But even that isn’t all this game has to offer. Over the course of this game, you will play through space dogfighting levels, a fun racing mini-game, and, in what would become a series staple, fighting tournaments. Most missions involving these are optional, but they are very nice and are yet another excellent example of how much more this game has to offer than the first game. Even Clank’s few solo areas have been expanded on a bit. Not only are they generally more interesting in design, but they give you more robots to control, such as the Bridge Bot and Hammer Bot, that have different uses.

Going Commando has equivalents to the Trespasser of old, but they’re much more fun to use. These gadgets would be the Electrolyzer and Infiltrator. The Electrolyzer requires you to manipulate connectors with the press of the “X” button in order for an electrical charge to enter each, and the Infiltrator puzzles ask you to move an electrical charge along sections of a sphere, wrapping around it until it makes it back to the start. Both types of puzzles are actually pretty enjoyable and are much less annoying and pace-breaking than the Trespasser puzzles. The one problem I do have with Going Commando is with the sections played as Giant Clank. There were a couple of short ones in the first, and they were alright, but here they just come off as repetitive and dull. You have a few more weapons at your disposal, but they’re not incredibly useful against the bosses thereof. Not only that, but they tend to drag on for quite a while. There are only two of these areas in the entire game, but they’re pretty dang annoying. That aside, Going Commando is a gaming masterpiece and easily one of the best platformers of the PS2 era. As for the next game…

Up Your Arsenal
The third game in the series and last of the original trilogy, Up Your Arsenal at first sees Ratchet & Clank going up against an alien race known as the “Tyhrranoids” alongside a cowardly group of soldiers. It turns out that the mastermind behind this is Dr. Nefarious, aided by his ever-faithful butler, Lawrence.  His evil plan is to rid the galaxy of all organic life forms. Naturally, that doesn’t fly, but it turns out that the only one who was ever able to defeat Dr. Nefarious was Captain Qwark, who has mysteriously disappeared. Ratchet & Clank find him…under strange circumstances, but once Qwark has his memory back, he organizes a group called the “Q-Force” that will go up against Nefarious’ forces. Thus begins yet another adventure of epic proportions.

The storyline of Up Your Arsenal is actually quite enjoyable. Not only is the writing even better than in the previous two games, but the villain, Dr. Nefarious, is pretty awesome. I’ve not seen many villains as intentionally hammy as this guy. He makes Ghirahim from Skyward Sword seem subtle. Lawrence is pretty funny, too, specifically thanks to his attitude about his job and the guy he happens to be working under. Most of the other characters are very enjoyable as well, and, in comparison to the previous games, the general plot is pretty interesting. Overall, Up Your Arsenal definitely has the best storyline of the PS2 trilogy.

In terms of gameplay, though, what can you expect? Well, I suppose I should say right now that Up Your Arsenal’s level designs are pretty bland in comparison to the first game’s and Going Commando’s. The platforming is still there, but in much smaller amounts, and while there are some pretty nice areas here and there - Annihilation Nation’s deathcourses, in particular - most of it isn’t terribly interesting. Even the puzzles, what few there are, aren’t anything to write home about either. Most of the time, they just consist of you using the Refractor gadget to redirect lasers, which holds very little challenge and doesn’t require much thought. Most of the new gadgets aren’t anything too remarkable either; the Hypershot is simply a combination of the Swingshot and Dynamo without any of the interesting platforming and puzzle segments that went along with the latter and the creatively-named Hacker leads to this game’s door-hacking mini-games, which aren’t really anything special. You simply collect green blobs and shoot the red ones; there’s really not much of a challenge to it. The only really interesting new gadget is the Tyhrra-Guise, which turns you into a Tyhrranoid. You will need to make use of this to get past certain doors and barriers, and I have to say, I think it’s pretty creative how conversations with other Tyhrranoids are played as a rhythm game. Most of Up Your Arsenal’s levels are more explicitly linear than those of the previous two games, as well, only having one path that you stick to the entire time rather than having two or three different paths that take you to different objectives. However, this was probably done to keep the story moving at a solid pace, so it’s not a problem.

With all that said, it’s clear that platforming and puzzle-solving were downplayed so that Up Your Arsenal could focus on the shooting elements. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the shooting elements are incredibly strong. You are given a very wide variety of awesome and even downright creative weapons to use in this game. From exploding nitro bombs to homing buzz saws of death to interdimensional black holes of doom to plasma whips to a gun that locks onto a number of enemies before shooting out massive blasts of electricity, the weapons are simply amazing and very fun to take down your enemies with. Up Your Arsenal also expands on Going Commando’s RPG elements even more, with each weapon now going through four different upgraded versions before reaching its most powerful form. Words cannot express just how rewarding it feels when a weapon you’ve used for so long finally reaches the peak of its evolution and you experience the satisfaction of blowing the enemies before you away with ease.

Of course, like Going Commando, Up Your Arsenal’s difficulty curves very naturally and some weapons that work amazingly well at the beginning might not work so well at the end. You will also need to make sure your weapons are always up to the coming challenges. Thus, Up Your Arsenal encourages you to change things up even more so than Going Commando did, something I also appreciate. In the end, though, while Going Commando felt like the ultimate logical evolution of the Ratchet & Clank gameplay at that point, thanks to the way the levels are designed, Up Your Arsenal feels more like it’s just a really fun third-person shooter with some platforming elements. Again, I suppose this isn’t an inherently bad thing, but I wish they would have tried to push every aspect of the franchise forward rather than placing the game’s focus on one thing.

Though Up Your Arsenal still has the fighting tournaments from Going Commando alongside new, challenging “deathcourses” where most of the game’s platforming takes place, the racing and space combat mini-games are gone. Instead, some areas have missions that throw you into a war-zone where you have to help robotic soldiers fend off a Tyhrranoid invasion by completing various objectives. Aside from some boring vehicle and turret segments, the majority of these are quite enjoyable. There are also Captain Qwark “vid-comics” that you find throughout the game, which are played as simplistic 2-D platformer-shooters. They’re surprisingly enjoyable and offer a nice break from the rest of the game.

Aside from my problems with the game’s level design, I also have to say that I’m not too big of a fan of this game’s bosses. Up Your Arsenal has much more of them than the two games that preceded it, and, aside from the final boss, most of them don’t put up much of a fight. Pretty much all you have to do is spam your weapons until they die, maybe moving left and right a bit to avoid some attacks. Up Your Arsenal is also a fair bit shorter than Going Commando from my experience, lasting about ten hours as opposed to Going Commando’s fifteen. It’s still long enough for a platformer, but it does feel like a step down.

But while it’s not quite as awesome as the game that preceded it, Up Your Arsenal is a very fun game. The strength of the shooting elements does more than enough to make up for the weak level design, the story is quite nice, and the fighting tournaments and various other little distractions are still great. And one thing that I actually didn’t mention about the other two games that also holds true for this one is that you unlock a Challenge Mode once you complete the game for the first time. This allows you to buy even better versions of the weapons you have already upgraded and allows you to upgrade them further along with your max health, which will be necessary in order to go up against even tougher enemies. It also makes money-making much faster thanks to score multipliers that build up as you kill enemies. It’s a fantastic way to add replay value and if you loved the experience, chances are you’re going to want to play through it again.

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There was one other Ratchet game released for the PS2, which is quite different from the main trilogy. It will receive its own review later on in this (*ahem* NOW CANCELLED) review series. In the meantime, though, I suppose I should mention that each of these three games has been remastered for the PS3. These remasters are available in the Ratchet & Clank Collection and also individually for download on PSN for $15 each. I can’t personally comment on the quality of the ports, but the critical reviews for the collection have been solid, so if you own a PS3 and have never played these games, it would probably be a worthwhile investment. Well, until next time, farewell.