Ratchet & Clank PS4
Depressingly, it’s been 14 years – a long time in a medium that moves at such a pace. The gap between Donkey Kong and Super Mario 64 is only a year wider; likewise, Pole Position and Gran Turismo. In a similar span of time, we went from Asteroids to Doom. And now Ratchet & Clank to Ratchet & Clank. If at first it suggests we need to accept that change now comes in much smaller increments, it’s also a sign of how far we’ve come. Where the original was likened in critical circles to a Pixar production, this tie-in to a new animated feature makes it clear we’re still some way short of Lasseter and company. Clips from the film scattered throughout a reworked narrative suggest the kind of two-star release that keeps kids occupied while parents fruitlessly check their watches for the duration.
The game part is rather better. It’s a significant reworking of the original by a developer imagining how it might be designed if it were making its debut this year. The thrust of the story is broadly the same – a long-eared feline/human hybrid and a diminutive robot reject from a factory production line team up to save the galaxy from a megalomaniacal businessman – though it works in characters and other plot elements from later entries. It serves its purpose adequately, providing light motivation for the kind of planet-hopping romp that seems to have all but died out since the PS2 era, but that its creator has been trying to defibrillate ever since.
Disregarding spinoffs, this is the tenth Ratchet & Clank game, and anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with the series will have a good idea of what to expect. For its part, Insomniac has no intention of failing to meet those expectations – and, seemingly, little desire to surpass or subvert them. As Ratchet, you’ll run around alien worlds, firing an outlandish arsenal at waves of aggressors while solving the odd light environmental puzzle. Occasionally, you’ll play as Clank, solving marginally more complex conundrums that tend to involve more busywork than mental exertion. Elsewhere, there are objects to fetch, gaps to swing across, rails to grind, hoverboard races to win, guises to don, and doors to hack. Plus ça change.
There is, of course, comfort to be found in such conventions, especially when they’re realised with such competence. There’s a certain effortlessness to Ratchet & Clank that can only have been achieved through hard work: from the responsive handling to the zippy pacing and the snap, crackle and pop of combat, everything speaks of a smart, organised team doing its job well. It may never quite set your pulse spiking, but rarely will you find yourself letting out an irritated huff. And though the script is full of characters you occasionally wish would stop talking, there’s something endearing about its ceaseless attempts to make you smile. Once or twice, it might even succeed. Hardly an enviable hit rate, but it’s more than many games manage.
To describe Ratchet & Clank as a platformer is misleading: the titular Lombax’s jump is more often used to dodge missiles and bullets sprayed from nearby turrets than to leap over gaps. Combat is and always has been the focus, and Insomniac has got pretty good at it over the years. The studio subtly shifts the tempo throughout, asking you to deal with aliens at mid-range before launching waves of robotic attack dogs to snap at your feet. Limited ammo forces you to engage with a wider range of weapons, which have been pulled from the entire series. The Groovitron, introduced in A Crack In Time, pumps out a disco beat to which no enemy grunt can resist getting down. All 4 One’s Warmonger fires rockets that land with a thud. Going Commando’s Sheepinator – well, have a guess. There are fresh additions, too. The Proton Drum fires out throbbing pink shockwaves that zap anything caught within their radius, while the Pixeliser is an instant classic: a shotgun that turns enemies into blocky sprites, eventually causing them to fragment into voxels. Battles are usually challenging enough to avoid mindlessness without ever becoming frustrating roadblocks, and can offer quite the spectacle, especially when multiple Buzz Blades are ricocheting between opponents, as scores of bouncing bolts fountain up from the defeated. Collecting these has always managed to satisfy some deep, primordial desire for all things shiny. And even when you’re not firing, there’s plenty to gawk at. The Pixar references may be obvious ones to make, but such comparisons do Insomniac’s artists a disservice. Consistently imaginative, detailed and gorgeously lit, its settings are a reminder of how the fantastical can easily trump the photorealistic.
So high are the production values, in fact, it’s easy to see why the industry doesn’t make them like this any more. In an era of procedural content and sweeping sandboxes, there’s something quaint about a game featuring lavish, elaborate, hand-crafted spaces in which you rarely spend much more than an hour. It looks and feels expensive, yet it’s being sold at a budget price. Whichever way you slice it, those sums don’t seem to add up, even factoring in the possible attraction to an audience of school-holiday cinemagoers and the swell of goodwill Sony has been riding since PS4’s launch.
If technology’s inexorable march suggests Ratchet & Clank may be among the last of its kind, there are plenty who would respond with a disinterested shrug. This, in truth, will do little to sway that opinion. Nonetheless, it’s solid, three-star entertainment: as pretty as it is inconsequential, as likely to be thoroughly enjoyed for the dozen hours it lasts as it is to be forgotten within weeks. It’s not taxing or provocative, it will leave you neither upset nor elated; it simply wants to give you a good time. Sometimes that’s enough.
So high are the production values that it’s easy to see why the industry doesn’t make them like this any more