I've always been a big fan of Ratchet & Clank. This Insomniac developed action series managed to combine the very best elements from a standard 3D platformer with the explosive weaponry of a third-person shooter. This lethal combination not only gave us two of the most interesting characters in an over-populated pool of mascots, but also introduced us to a 3D platformer that didn't feel like a Super Mario clone. Now comes the second full game for the PlayStation 3, and as a long-time fan of the duo I'm happy to say that this is another must-own entry in an already great franchise.
Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time doesn't attempt to break any new ground, it's goal is to add a few new gameplay mechanics and refine the already stellar presentation. This game picks up soon after the events of the first PlayStation 3 adventure, Tools of Destruction. Thanks to an entertaining "interview" with Captain Quark, we learn that the duo has been split up. Clank has been kidnapped by aliens and is being held in what appears to be a giant clock. Ratchet, on the other hand, is searching the solar system for clues of the whereabouts of his robotic guy Friday.
Because of the split, we spend most of the game playing either Ratchet or Clank. As is to be expected, most of the gameplay revolves around Ratchet going from planet to planet collecting items, killing bad guys, rail surfing, buying new guns and battling giant bosses. These sections will no doubt feel familiar to anybody who played any of the six other Ratchet & Clank games. The levels are a combination of traditional platforming puzzles and action-packed third-person shooting. You have both a large wrench weapon for melee combos and a series of guns we'll talk about in a little bit.
These sections with Ratchet are fun, they represent the very best of traditional Ratchet & Clank gameplay. But no matter how entertaining they are, they certainly aren't very original. Thankfully Insomniac decided to flesh out Clank's adventure in the giant clock world. It's here that he's befriended by another robot, a goofy character that ends up teaching Clank how to manipulate time in order to solve a series of complex puzzles. Never mind that from a story point of view this doesn't make a lot of sense, it was nice to see the developers give something clever for Clank to do instead of just sitting and waiting for Ratchet to show up.
There are a few different ways for Clank to manipulate time. Early on you are given a time bomb, a grenade-type device you throw at something to make it slow down. This is useful for slowing down enemies and jumping on to speeding platforms. Before long you are introduced to special items that allow you to record a version of yourself. The reason you would want to do this is so that you can have your recorded duplicate hold down a button to open the door while you exit the room. It's puzzles like this that make up most of Clank's tasks. Each time you come back to a Clank level you'll find that the puzzles are a little harder and the enemies are a little less forgiving. By the end of the game you are having to record multiple copies and then re-record over those copies. You'll really need to think in a whole new way in order to beat some of these games.
But don't think that just because Clank gets all of these cool new moves that Ratchet is left out of the fun. As you play through Ratchet's lengthy storyline you will earn special moves and items that will allow you to kick butt like never before. At the start of the game you have control over a slingshot that allows you to swing over large gaps. As you progress through the game you'll pick up a few other special abilities, including hover shoes. These special shoes allow him to quickly traverse large areas and even float in the air (something you needed Clank for in previous games). By the end of game it's hard to tell if you're playing Ratchet or a cartoony version of Iron Man.
The nice thing about this game is that you are constantly learning new techniques. These new gameplay techniques are used to solve puzzles and keep you out of trouble as you progress through the game. But they do more than that. These special abilities can also be used on planets you've already been to, allowing you to reach new areas you normally couldn't get to and collect items that you didn't even know existed. It's little touches like this that keep you replaying past levels, even when you know that there are more pressing matters to deal with (such as finding your little buddy, Clank).
But who cares about the hover boots when you have so many weapons to choose from. A Crack in Time offers you a chance to defeat your enemies using 16 powerful weapons. There are a few returning guns (such as the Judicator Missiles and the Groovitron Glove), plus a whole bunch of fresh weapons for you to try out. A lot of the weapons do predictable things, such as fire sharp blades at our enemies, use a space frog to blow back your foes with its burp and fire at aliens from long distance with a sniper-type plasma gun. But there are also a few genuinely creative weapons as well. My personal favorite is the Rift Inducer 5000, device that opens up a dimensional portal that has some huge squid-like space creature attacking from the other side. It's impossible to not feel giddy while watching your foes deal with a bunch of tentacles coming at them from another dimension. It's this type of quirky weaponry that has sustained this franchise for so long.
Long time fans of the series will already know that part of the fun of Ratchet & Clank is powering up the various weapons and seeing what they turn into. A Crack in Time is no different. You gain experience for every enemy you take down, so there's more than enough incentive to keep you using all of the weapons to upgrade them. If you kill enough enemies with the Judicator Missiles they will be upgraded to a super weapon that shoots three powerful missiles at the same time. Or better yet, if you upgrade Mr. Zurkon (a floating robot that will attack anything you get close to) he will become Zurkon the Destroyer. Because it's so easy to gain experience, I found the process to be extremely satisfying and exciting. I couldn't wait to see what even my least favorite weapons were going to turn into.
On top of the special weapons, you also have access to a few guns that can be customized in a number of interesting ways. Throughout the game you will find custom pieces lying around ready to be found. You use these pieces to turn your standard gun and shotgun into, well, tools of destruction. Because these weapons can be personalized, I found myself using these more than any other weapon. This is a great idea that kept me searching the levels for all of the customizable pieces; in the future I hope I will have more control over how I customize some of the more specific weapons.
When you're not playing as Ratchet or Clank, you're probably flying through the solar system in your little space cruiser. The game is split up into a bunch of different sections of space, each with their own planets, moons and stranded space ships. As a means to get around the space cruiser isn't that bad, it does what it's supposed to and gives you plenty of control over where you're headed. But there are times when the game tries to turn these space travels into giant space battles. Needless to say, these battles feel more like an afterthought. They aren't especially difficult to win and some of the combat controls are a little on the awkward side. Thankfully these battles are few and far between. Like Ratchet (and Clank, to a certain extent), your space cruiser can be upgraded to offer better fire power and boosters that will make you go faster. Still, no matter how much you upgrade your ship, these sections are easily the weakest parts of A Crack in Time.
The game gives you a surprising amount of things to do when you're not sticking to the campaign. Surrounding all of the different planets you will find small moons that are just waiting to be explored. These moons act as the games bonus stages, offering a variety of things to do on each. On a lot of the moons you be tracking down Zoni, the race of aliens that kidnapped Clank. In order to catch these dastardly creatures you will need to navigate a series of increasingly complicated platforming puzzles. These small moons share more than a passing similarity to the levels in Super Mario Galaxy, not just from the size of the moon's horizon but also the extremely complicated 3D platforming that you are asked to complete. As a long time platforming fanatic, I had some of my best Ratchet & Clank experiences on this tiny moons.
But not every mini-game is about complex platforming. Sometimes all you will need to do is kill a certain amount of aliens or find the hidden customizable weapon piece. And when you're sick of going to the 27 different moons, there's a whole area devoted to arena fighting. That's right, I said arena fighting. In this mode you go up against waves of enemies in front of an audience to earn money and prizes. Early on these missions are simple, just survive for two minutes or kill a certain amount of baddies with a certain weapon. However, as you progress through the tournaments you will find some difficult challenges. In one challenge you will have to battle back five waves of enemies, all without getting hit. In another challenge you will need to battle two different bosses ... AT ONCE! You may be able to win some of these challenges, but to winning all of them is going to test your mettle.
The story itself lasts around 10 hours, but it will take you close to twice that if you actually want to find all of the missing parts, items and Zoni. The game rarely takes itself too seriously and is often extremely funny, even if it's a little on the corny side. There's no question that you'll definitely get your money's worth with A Crack in Time, there's plenty to do and all kinds of replay.
The graphics are simply outstanding, some of the best I've ever seen in a 3D platform game. All of the characters are as expressive as a Hollywood animated movie, and the different worlds are all unique and visually exciting. This is just a world I love to explore; it's hard to believe that a mascot game like this can look so gorgeous. The cinemas are especially strong, and I suspect that if Insomniac every wanted to, they could put together a feature length movie that could go head to head with anything that Dreamworks puts out. It's not quite Pixar quality just yet, but I would take a Ratchet & Clank movie over another Shrek or Ice Age sequel.
If there's a problem to be found in A Crack in Time, it's that it plays it a little too safe. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate all of the Clank levels and how they were trying to add a new dimension to the game (no pun intended). However, the game still feels like that first PlayStation 2 game that I remember falling in love with back in 2002. I'm not saying they need to reboot the franchise, but I would like to see them take a few more chances. Maybe now that they've concluded the "Future" storyline they can take the franchise in a new direction.
Let's face it, Insomniac has stuck with what works. Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time is the top tier 3D platformer we expect from the developers; they've delivered another must-own game for anybody with even a passing interest in this type of game. There's a great mix of puzzle solving, platforming and weapons-based combat. Throw in some incredible visuals and funny voice acting and you have one of the best PlayStation 3 games of the year.