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Probably Not "Back and Better Than Ever" But Certainly "Back and Better Than Nothing"

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    Ratchet & Clank

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    Probably Not "Back and Better Than Ever" But Certainly "Back and Better Than Nothing"

    Ratchet & Clank makes me feel old, and not just because when I see an adorable cartoon mascots I reflexively grab a hose and mutter under my breath how those darn kids need to get off my lawn. No, Ratchet & Clank makes me feel old because it is a reboot of Ratchet & Clank, a game with exactly the same name just to make it confusing if you ever want to try to talk about either of these games ever again. This is a reboot of a PS2 game, and for some reason it hasn’t reached my brain that yes, a game from 2002 is old enough to need a reboot. For some reason, the PS2 is a relatively recent technology in my mind, while something like the NES or SNES is old enough that they were likely invented around the same basic time as the wheel or fire. Now that the PS2 is received reboots though, I have to come to terms with the fact that kids today look at the PS2 the same way I used to look at the original Atari, as a weird old piece of technology used exclusively by weird old people that can’t get with the times. I don’t appreciate this, Ratchet & Clank, particularly due to the fact that you aren’t a particularly good reboot. If I’m going to be traumatized, I at least what to be assured there is a good reason for it. Now, this isn’t to say that this is a bad game, because it certainly isn’t and it is actually a good deal of fun, and in some ways it is even better than the original. At the same time though, the reason Ratchet & Clank has endured this long is because the originals were amazing pieces of technology with interesting stories and lovable characters. This reboot has none of those qualities, and it is this very weird combination where the game is really good and kind of disappointing at the same time.

    When you’re rebooting a classic series like this, there’s a couple different routes you could go. You could copy the original as closely as possible, just giving it a fresh coat of paints and putting in a couple upgrades here or there. You could expand upon the original, keeping the feel and gameplay roughly the same but taking the series in entirely new directions. Or, you could do what Ratchet & Clank does and drink a bunch of paint thinner and vomit all over the original design document. This is an utterly bizarre reboot, because it feels like a good third of the original game has been cut out entirely. Entire levels are missing here, and the special collectible gold bolts have been cut down from 40 to 28. This ¡°new and improved¡± game has substantially less game to it, which begs the question as to why the hell anyone would want to buy the reboot at all. The original is bigger, better, and can be found on the PS2, PS3, or something called a ¡°Vita¡±. With so much missing for no reason the game just comes off as lazy, like they wanted to do the bare minimum to get this out and couldn’t be asked to even just give us the same amount of content we saw in the original fifteen years ago. I get why they might want to change some things, but what I don’t understand is why they’d want to chop out such a big chunk in order to replace it with a big heaping bowl of absolutely nothing.

    Even with some content missing, anyone who played the original should be quite familiar with the story in this reboot as it follows the same basic plot of the first with a couple of minor changes. There is apparently a movie on Netflix that came out sometime last year that this game is based around, something one of the characters breathlessly tells you within the first two minutes of the game starting up. ¡°Oh man the holofilm and the game based on the holofilm, how awesome were they,¡± he says, and I was legitimately waiting for him to look into the camera and give you the 1-800 number you could call to secure you copy of the movie today. The story this time is told from Qwark’s point of view for…reasons that aren’t entirely clear…as he sits in his jail cell, recouting the events of the game. I’m not entirely sure why this was framed this way, other than the fact that Qwark is the only one in the game with a personality and letting anyone else here talk for too long is a good way to put someone to sleep. Minor tweaks aside though, the framework here is the same basic concept as the PS2 original. Ratchet wants to join the Galactic Rangers, Clank is a rejected kill-bot that discovers the nefarious plans of Chairman Drek, and together the two of them team up to stop him from causing chaos throughout the galaxy.

    The story is bad, which happens sometimes in games, but what is weird is that the story is somehow worse than in the original. You would think it would be fairly easy to just copy what they did last time, but no, that was too much work. With so much cut out, it often feels like we’re at a full sprint towards the finish line as pages of the script fly out of our hands. I have absolutely no idea what the rush here was, but it almost feels like the game doesn’t want to be bothered to tell a story at all. Whenever we try to sit down and get some plot, the game rolls its eye and lights a cigarette before begrudgingly giving us the most abbreviated version of events as possible. This is a game based on a movie, so you would think that plot was something they’d already be set on, but it still feels like a rushed, unstructured mess. None of the supporting cast here gets any real screen time, and I didn’t even realize the main villain was the main villain until like the last level since he had like two lines of dialogue up to that point. There are a couple of the supporting cast members here that I couldn’t pick out of a lineup of just them and mops with faces drawn on them because they rarely talk. Nothing is developed or built up in any way, and it almost feels like you’re playing half of a game at times, while you look around confused and try to figure out if you accidentally skipped a level.

    Partially as a result of this, almost all of the characters here are downright terrible. Qwark is the lone exception, the same amazing mix of vain, braggadocios phony and charismatic dope we all knew and loved from the original. He is far and away the greatest source of comic relief in the entire title, and the only character with any sort of arch at all, so it almost makes sense that he is narrating the plot and not the characters we’re playing as. He is the only character in the entire game with any semblance of a personality, the only real character is a sea of cardboard cutouts so he stands out all the more. His narration is frequently funny, as are his quips and asides and it really helps impart some life into what can feel like a soulless game.

    The other characters do not fare nearly as well. The supporting cast is forgettable, but it is really Ratchet and Clank that suffer the most in this remake. Again, it has been some time since I played the original but I cannot imagine they were ever this bad in that. You can’t build any series of characters this bland, I don’t care how good the gameplay is. Clank is a robot and thus just as robotic as you’d expect. Imagine a robot from a poorly written sci-fi movie and that’s basically what you have here. Ratchet is not a robot but somehow almost as robotic as Clank. It’s weird how bad a character Ratchet is, but he really has almost no discernable personality traits. He feels like an author insertion fanfiction character who immediately shows up and is somehow the best at everything. He starts the game as an assistant mechanic with a ship that is barely operational, and like two chapters later he is fighting off an entire invasion that a planet’s entire defense force couldn’t. He is instantly the best at everything, and there isn’t any sort of build up or struggle at any point in the game. And like Clank, he doesn’t really have any sort of personality. He’s just a smiling empty shell that everyone loves and is amazing and perfect and zzzzzzzzzzz. It isn’t that Ratchet or Clank are bad characters, it’s that they aren’t really characters at all.

    If there is anything the game does have going for it in terms of story, it is that the writing is surprisingly good when the game gives it a chance to breathe a little bit. It feels like they’re should probably be 50% more of it, but what is here is fairly solid and there are plenty of times I smiled at one of the jokes. It is strange that most of the characters don’t have any sort of a personality, because there clearly was at least one person on staff that could write and had a sense of humor. Most of the best bits of dialogue are these quick little quips or jokes, some of which occur over an intercom or are going on in the background. An invasion is going on, and the overrun mayor keeps breaking in over the loudspeaker to try and dissuade them from going any further, with each interruption a bit sillier and funnier than the last. It isn’t anything that is laugh out loud hilarious, but there are a bunch of these funny little moments spread out throughout the game that keep the entire game entertaining. It is weird that the dialogue is solid while the plot itself and the characters themselves are definitely not, but the dialogue is at least good enough to salvage some parts of the story.

    Fortunately, I’m willing to overlook most of my complaints about the story here because the gameplay is so damn fun. At least in this they largely capture the magic of the original, and this is every bit as addicting as it was when it first came out way back on the PS2. It can best be described as an action-platformer, where the action half jumps in front of the platforming half and starts flexing if it is off screen for too long. This is at its core a shooter, but very different from the cover based slogs that became popular during the last couple gaming generations. Ratchet & Clank looks at those, laughs under its breath, then flies away using its jetpack powered by elephant farts. The weapons here are somewhere between silly and bonkers crazy, and the firefights themselves have a focus on fast paced, hectic action with as little realism to them as humanly possible. There is a nice variety of weapons here, which slowly unlock as you make your way further into the story. And while there are certainly many other aspects to the gameplay, the major focus here is definitely the shooting as that will be what you spend the majority of your time doing.

    The variety of weapons is fantastic, and almost all of them have some use in battle. The game can be truly difficult at times, making optimal usage of all your toys essential if you’re going to get through some of the hairier battles. There is a gun that fires disco balls, forcing all your opponents (and I do mean all, up to and including the final boss) to stop what they’re doing so they can dance their hearts out. Another gun fires off these little buzzsaws that bounce all over the place, while another fires off a series of rockets that can hit one or more enemies at a time. In some of the best encounters, you’ll be swapping weapons on the fly, firing off attacks as fast as you can and hoping you don’t get caught by a stray bullet. It is a tremendously fun system, balancing some really weird and unique weapons and great encounters to make the game borderline addicting. Almost all of the weapons have some use with only a couple of duds in the arsenal, like the Sheepinator, which turns enemies into sheep. It is a fun idea, but it takes too long to get the transformation to work, and it is easier to just shoot whoever it is that is barreling towards you. Some other combinations are nearly broken, and for example the gun that makes people dance is powerful enough to get you through most of the game. Still, there is a good balance here and while most of the weapons here are not traditional at all, this is a much more enjoyable shooter than most others on the market.

    One definite improvement over the original comes from the ability to upgrade every single weapon in the game. Either scatter throughout the levels or dropped by enemies are very shiny crystals known as ¡°raritanium¡±, which seems like kind of a terrible name for it considering the fact that every enemy seems to be carrying around a handful of it at all times. The weapons all have a little upgrade map, and using raritanium on one of the available slots will unlock all the adjacent slots for further upgrades. Some upgrades will allow you to carry more ammo, or increase the number of shots you can fire at once, or even boost things like your likeliness to find raritanium. There is a definite progression here if you upgrade your favorites all the way, and there is something satisfying about making a powerful weapon a bonkers cuckoo crazy overpowered weapon. Suddenly you’re able to mow through groups of enemies that might’ve been more challenging before, and the way the game incentivizes collecting these crystals feeds back into the gameplay really well. It does lead to scenarios where you are likely to ignore some weapons just because you’ve spent all your crystals building up others, but I still think this adds a nice element to the gameplay that was missing in the original.

    And it isn’t just a pure shooter, either, as Ratchet & Clank does a great job integrating a variety of gameplay elements together. It is hard to say exactly when I realized the gameplay had gone from ¡°really good¡± to ¡°great¡±, but it was probably the boss fight where I first got to use the jetback, and was flying around a bunch of enemies and unleashing my entire arsenal while dodging incoming fire. There are a smattering of fights and a couple of really good boss encounters that use the jetpack quite well, although it would have been nice for it to have been featured a bit more. The jetpack is a bit underutilized, primarily because they wanted to at least pretend to be a platformer some times and giving you a jetpack in a platformer is lot like giving you a tank in a knife fight. When it is given to you though, it both leads to some great combat and some great exploration, and it really helps to open up the maps in new ways that the poor jetpack-less levels don’t have. In those levels the platforming can be a bit basic, but it does serve as a nice enough way to break up the combat and at least give you an occasional breather. This clearly wasn’t meant to be a game where the emphasis was on the platforming, and the little bit that is here is more of a sorbet to the main course that is the shooting.

    There is much more here than just that though, including plenty of hidden goodies to find if you explore hard enough, a couple of hoverboard races, puzzle sections with Clank, and rail grinding portions where you must hop around to avoid obstacles. What is surprising is a lot of these little asides are actually quite good. The hoverboard races are surprisingly fun, and while they aren’t the most complex racing game you’ll find, there is enough complexity here to make both of the races worth playing. You can build up your boost by smashing boxes or doing tricks, and using certain ramps will let you use shortcuts. It’s a fun little aside and its nice the game put something like this in when it must’ve taken some time to create and plays such a small role in the game. The combat is great, but it is still nice to have little asides like this once in a while to break up the action.

    There is also a minor emphasis on exploration that works well in the title, and while there aren’t huge secret areas to uncover, there are enough hidden little bits off the main path to make it so you can’t just rush through the levels if you want to get all the extra stuff. Levels tend to be somewhat linear, and a bit basic to be honest, but there are usually a couple paths here or there that lead to new areas with some extra goodies. Some of the hidden goodies are somewhere off the beaten path, while others are locked behind special puzzle doors you will need to solve to open up. Rings of lasers can be rotated, and the goal is to get all of the targets to light up without the lasers blocking each other from doing so. It, like a lot of the non core gameplay elements, is somewhat basic, but still it is complex enough to be a bit of fun in small doses. Overall, the exploration here is a very nice way to help round out the gameplay, and it is worth checking out every corner of every level because there is usually some fun waiting for you anyway. It helps that all of the extras usually do something. Golden bolts unlock some cool extra features, and collecting a set of cards will give you some minor boost for a weapon or special characteristics. One of the sidequests here is collecting sets of cards, some of which describe the events of previous games. It sounds like a neat idea, but honestly it just made me sad because every single other game these talk about sounded vastly more interesting than what was going on here.

    Still, in spite of my high praise for the gameplay, there are certainly some elements here that are weaker than others. The puzzle segments with Clank are a little disappointing, mainly because they are so easy that failing to complete one sends out an alert to the federal government letting them know you probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car any longer. It is an interesting premise, and Clank can go around picking up little helper bots that can swap between being a bridge, a trampoline, and an energy source. It isn’t a bad idea, but the problem is they don’t ever really get around to creating any interesting puzzles, and usually these things just kind of solve themselves because there is only a couple of things you can possibly do. Clank in general is a bit of a drag to play as, and there are two different ¡°boss¡± fights with him that just involve him running in circles until the game decides it’s bored you long enough to let you continue. And then there are these ship battles, a handful of really basic encounters where you fly a ship around and shoot lasers at things. Again, it is something that sounds interesting in premise but they never really set up any good challenges here, and the controls are so basic that you can’t have any real fun with it. The good news is that even the bad ideas in this game aren’t so much bad as they are kind of boring, and the vast majority of the gameplay here is thoroughly enjoyable, making these sorts of things in the minority.

    Visually, the game certainly looks better than the PS2 original, with plenty of pretty animation and backgrounds along the way. The game has this great cartoon-y feel to it, with plenty of bright vibrant colors and beautifully designed backgrounds. It is certainly a pretty looking game, although some of the character models feel kind of generic. Qwark and Ratchet and Clank all have a great unique look, but outside of that everyone just kind of blends together and looks like extras in the background of some bad sci-fi movie. Also, there are some bizarre character animations here, and for example Ratchet doesn’t really move right in any of the little dialogue scenes he’s in. His body just sort of freezes while his head moves, and he looks like that awkward first time actor in a high school play that doesn’t know what to do with his body when he’s talking. He somehow looks scared to be on stage, and he’s a video game character so unless the AI has become sentient this shouldn’t be a problem we have to deal with. The visuals are nice overall though, as is the voice acting, and they did a commendable job upgrading Ratchet & Clank to the newest console generation in terms of presentation.

    Overall, Ratchet & Clank is a really good game, but a pretty bad reboot. Considering the legacy of the series, it can be hard to judge this game by its own merits at times and it is only natural to want to compare this to the originals. And it is certainly missing something when comparing it to those. Things feel rushed, a big chunk of the original game is cut out, and the story is uneven and boring. This certainly doesn’t feel like it was made with the same amount of love as the original. It’s pretty clear this thing was made to be a movie first and the game was thrown together after to capitalize on it. Still, even though this feels a bit lazy and isn’t on par with the originals, that doesn’t mean this is bad. In fact, in spite of all my complaining, this is actually quite fun. The combat works well, the action is fast paced and frantic, and nearly every aspect of the gameplay is well designed and well integrated into the game. It’s this weird combo of very good and somehow still not good as it could have been, and if this had been designed as a game first and movie second I’m almost positive we could’ve seen something truly great here. It is still absolutely worth checking out, but fans of the series should be prepared that our beloved Ratchet has sold out and gone Hollywood on us.

    Clank (THE GOOD):
    +Combat is an absolute blast, with a perfect mix of zany weapons and frantic action
    +Difficulty level is nearly perfect, and the game does a great job tailoring the fights to the tools you have
    +A lot of fun and creative weapons make the fights even more engaging
    +Some really good boss fights here cap off the combat almost perfectly
    +Good exploration with plenty of stuff to find even if the game is a little on the linear side
    +Many different facets of the gameplay, almost all of which work well from puzzles to hoverboard races
    +Qwark is a great character and the dialogue can be genuinely funny at times

    Clunk (THE BAD):
    -Game feels short, most likely because around a third of the content from the game this was based on has been removed.
    -Story feels rushed and as a result the plot is dreadfully boring
    -Almost all of the characters here are boring and forgettable, including the leads of Ratchet and Clank
    -It feels like a waste of a reboot considering the original was longer, better written, and made with some actual affection
    -Battles can get kind of same-y at times, particularly once you find an overpowered weapon combination
    -In spite of how fun it is, it still feels like a bit of cash grab and not as polished as it could be

    Chunk (THE UGLY): Going into the first boss battle I was feeling pretty good about myself. The enormous behemoth of a boss proceeded to take my hubris and jam it down my throat before backing over me in his cement truck. It didn’t take me long to figure out a good pattern, but it was definitely a kick in the teeth the first couple of times. Or a metal facsimile of a mouth, in Clank’s case.

    THE VERDICT: 7.75/10.00

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