When Insomniac Games announced that they were done with Spyro The Dragon at the start of the millennium, their fans (myself included) eagerly anticipated the results of their next project. The eventual outcome was a new platforming duo, Ratchet & Clank, who continued Insomniac’s great run of form and became part of a trio of mascots (alongside Jak & Daxter and Sly Cooper) who would keep the platforming genre alive on the Playstation 2. With the recent release of the original trilogy of PS2 games in high definition for the PS3, I went back to play the original three to see how they have held up over time.
RATCHET & CLANK (2002) – INSOMNIAC GAMES
At the start of the first game, Ratchet, a Lombax mechanic from the Planet Veldin with a taste for adventure, meets Clank, a defective robot with a impressive IQ who escapes and crash lands on Veldin. Clank has information that Chairman Drek (a sharp suited and smooth talking leader of the Blarg race) is collecting parts of other planets to create a new homeworld for his people, who have become suffocated by the polluted atmosphere of their current home. Clank convinces Ratchet to help him seek out galactic hero Captain Qwark in a bid to stop Drek and his fiendish plan. However when it becomes clear that Qwark is not quite the hero that he is portrayed to be, it is up to the mismatched duo to save the galaxy. The end result is solid adventure with plenty of wit infused along the way.
For a first attempt, Ratchet & Clank was also a damn good fun game to actually play. For starters, there’s an ample amount of platforming to be getting on with. Ratchet is a pretty versatile hero, being able to run, double jump, swim and hit stuff with his ever trusty OmniWrench 8000; Clank also plays a part, acting as a helicopter and jet pack device to clear bigger gaps. The majority of the controls worked so well in this game that they remained unchanged for the next two adventures. However, the real appeal is the weapons and gadgets that Ratchet has available to him. Whereas Spyro had to make do with flame and horns, Ratchet has all manner of death dealing equipment to blast enemies out of his way. Starting out with a humble gloves that throws small bombs, you can get access to a flamethrower, rocket launchers and a super powered punching fist amongst other things (including the fan favourite ‘R.Y.N.O – Rip ‘Ya A New One’), as well as gadgets that let you swing across ravines, grind along impossibly long rails and suck up gallons of water to be moved about. It’s the gunplay that really makes the game a delight to play – each weapon feels different, and there is often a need to experiment with different guns to get the best results against enemies. Of course, power comes a price, and in this universe the prices is bolts; acting as the collectibles in the Ratchet games, bolts can be earned by defeating enemies and destroying crates that lie around the levels, and are used to purchase weapons, ammo and upgrades.
There’s a fair amount of variety to be found in this game as well – occasionally, in order to proceed you will be tasked with mini-games that help to break up the linearity of platforming. These range from participating in a hoverboard race where Ratchet can pull off tricks that would make Tony Hawk jealous (clearly building upon the excellent skateboarding mini-game from Spyro 3), to shooting down enemies with a big cannon to engaging in dogfights in the skies. At certain points, Clank gets in on the action as well, having his own tailor made stages where he utilises minibots to do his bidding. All of this combines together to offer a respectable 8-10 hours of gameplay.
The other thing that really struck people when playing this game was the general presentation. Even now without HD graphics the original game is still a very good game to look at, and as a early PS2 game it demonstrated just what the new hardware was capable of offering. You can tell Insomniac wanted to show off as well – each level opens with a glorious shot of what lies ahead in the distance, and the skies are ever busy with galactic traffic. Right down to the small things, like the reaction of enemies when they get hit to the explosions of a rocket you can tell them game was made with a lot of care. This game also started a trend for some incredibly catchy background music, which I have always considered a highlight of the series.
Ratchet & Clank is a fine title then; but not without its problems. It can be a pretty unforgiving game at times – for the most part, health is sparse in the harder later levels, and the bolts required to get the really good weapons are also hard to come by. This does get rectified somewhat by the option to restart the game with all of your equipment once you defeat the final boss, as the number of bolts you can earn vastly increases allowing you to purchase a health expansion and the better weapons. The real kicker in this game however is the lack of a proper strafing and aiming system, as some of the later levels are made unnecessarily awkward by the inability to properly land a shot on your foes. Despite this, it was a good game to play, and signalled that better things were to come. Which they did
RATCHET & CLANK 2: GOING COMMANDO (2003) – INSOMNIAC GAMES
In the sequel, time has passed since our duo became the saviours of the galaxy – as Ratchet puts it they are busy ‘in a more domesticated sense’. Seconds later, our heroes are warped to the Bogon Galaxy at the request of Abercrombie Fitzwidget (great name), the head of the Megacorp Corporation. He requires Ratchet’s expertise to get back a top secret experiment which has been stolen by a nefarious thief. As with before however, it quickly becomes clear that something strange is happening behind the scenes, and Ratchet must travel across the galaxy to solve the mystery. Being in a new galaxy also presented the opportunity for a cast of new characters, including the bumbling Mr Fitzwidget and Thugs-4-Less, the resident goons of the Bogon System who promise ‘if it ain’t broke, we’ll break it’. If anything, it’s a funnier game than the first title thanks to a excellent script.
On virtually every front, Going Commando is a serious step up from the first game. The weapons are bigger and better; this time your starter weapon fires miniature nukes and you later get access to a ray gun that turns enemies to sheep and the R.Y.N.O 2, which remains the most overpowered weapon I have ever come across. Weapons also upgrade with consistent use, increasing ammo and range amongst other things. Controls were refined to near perfection – for one thing, you can strafe and dodge attacks, and the quick select of weapons pauses the action allowing you to efficiently pick a weapon whilst not being blown to bits. There are more planets to explore, and certain stages require you to have dogfights in your airship, which can be customised with more powerful shields and artillery. They also included two arena modes, where Ratchet has to fight waves of enemies under differing conditions in order to get big cash prizes. Try hard enough to get all 30 skill points (special tasks that you can do in certain levels) and you will also get access to a very special museum…
Strangely, this was the first exposure I had to the trilogy (I played them in a 2-3-1 order, which made the story a bit hectic to say the least), and I would say on balance it is my personal favourite of the three games; I look to the fact that my save file is currently in its sixth playthrough as evidence of how much I enjoyed it. Like most good sequels, Going Commando doesn’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel – more to the point, it fixes what was wrong in the first game and adds enough new content and humour to pass off as a solid sequel.
RATCHET & CLANK 3: UP YOUR ARSENAL (2004) – INSOMNIAC GAMES
The final instalment of the PS2 trilogy has Ratchet and Clank (who has now become a superstar due to his leading TV role as ‘Secret Agent Clank’) return to Veldin after seeing the planet being invaded on the news. After removing the offenders with the now well established ‘blast through everything’ tactic, Ratchet learns that the man behind the attacks is Dr Nefarious, a robot with a particular dislike for all things organic. After being briefed by the Galactic President that only one man has defeated the evil Nefarious, Captain Quark, Ratchet is sent to find the AWOL hero and stop Nefarious and his Tyharranoid army. Once again, the story is rich in comedy and relationship between our dastardly duo becomes all the more entertaining as Ratchet has to put up with Clank’s new found fame.
Even if the second game is my favourite, I won’t deny that the third game in the trilogy is the best by far from a gameplay point of view – everything comes together in a fantastic cocktail. New elements that had been added to the second game were refined even further for this one – for example, weapons can now upgrade up to eight levels rather than a poncy four, vastly increasing their damage dealing potential. There is more variation to the levels as well; the space combat removed in favour of missions helping the Galactic Rangers (a group of cowardly robots who constantly require Ratchet’s help in pushing back the Tyharranoids) where Ratchet skydives and rides around in a big buggy amongst other things. The game overall is a bit tougher than the second game in my opinion, increasing the challenge. My favourite addition however is the introduction of five ‘Vid Comics’ detailing the adventure of Captain Qwark – besides being damn funny, it gives you the chance to play as Qwark in a series of 2D sidescrolling adventures.
Where Insomniac really spread their wings with this game however was the introduction of multiplayer, which could be played by four people split screen or online. Offering the chance to duke it out in death-matches, capture the flag and Siege modes, this mode utilised the same controls from the single player campaign to make it more accessible. I never had the chance to take the game online, but sparring with friends in split screen was good fun, and the mode will be getting a new lease of life because although servers for the PS2 game have shut down, the HD update is bringing it back for PS3.
The third game also marks the highpoint for the series with regards to presentation, a result of years of refinement from the first two games. The graphics are some of the sharpest that you will find in a PS2 game, and rivalled even some of the early seventh generation games. The game also features a very strong vocal performance from all the actors involved. A fitting end to an excellent trilogy.
The series did not end with the third game as you may expect; an average arena spinoff called Deadlocked was released a year later, and the proper adventures of Ratchet & Clank have continued in the next generation with three games in the ‘Future’ series (Tools Of Destruction, Quest For Booty and A Crack In Time), along with a couple of handheld titles. Insomniac recently declared that they were done with the franchise, and will move onto new projects. Once again, I will find myself eagerly following their progress, but if you ever want a reminder of their expertise, then dig out the old PS2 and play these gems once again…or get the HD collection I guess.