Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time
Is comparing Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, the latest adventure for everyone’s favourite (and most likely only) Lombax, to the globe trotting exploits of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2 a good idea? We just can’t help ourselves, and it’s made all the more tempting by the fact that the two games arrived mere weeks apart from one another. With both games fresh in the memory, it’s relatively easy to spot the similarities – both are PS3 exclusives, immaculately presented with mind-blowing visuals, again demonstrating the advantage that Sony’s studios seemingly have in navigating the complex architecture of the Playstation hardware. A more accurate observation, however, would be to recognise the sheer talent that both Insomniac and Naughty Dog possess, with both of their latest games being vast tapestries of creative excellence. Looking closer at their work reveals many finer, incidental details that are intricately woven into the piece with not a seam in sight. Truly, both titles are a labour of love, but their greatest strength is that they are as satisfying to play from a mechanical perspective as much as an artistic one. Uncharted 2 in particular, with a much more potent mix of exploration, combat and narrative than its predecessor as well as a superb online component, has taken the previous yardstick and snapped it clean in half over its knee.
While the Uncharted franchise is the equivalent to a prodigal child relatively fresh on the scene, Ratchet and Clank are a completely different proposition altogether. The odd couple have been here before – they’ve tasted the glory of being attributed to consistent excellence over many years and bathed in critical adulation over two console generations. Now though, Ratchet is faced with his biggest challenge, and it doesn’t involve trawling the four corners of the universe in search of his best friend, nor is it surviving waves of flesh hungry gladiators in the Agorian Battleplex. No, the primary concern nowadays for the intrepid Lombax is simple – staying relevant.
It’s a difficult task, make no mistake. Videogame franchises are cyclic, in that there will almost always be something new to replace what has gone before, but through the nostalgic eyes of some it’s often a case of the hole left behind being too deep and too vast to fill. At the same time, franchises evolve (sometimes mutating into an entirely different beast), as well as devolve – old, staid layers of skin and blubber get stripped away to leave nothing but the beating heart, only to rebuild from near anew. Such radical manoeuvres are not as rare as you might think, with developers around the globe paying implicit attention to the needs and wants of the market in a quest for relevancy. The question is, what are Insomniac doing to ensure that the Ratchet franchise has a future?
The basic answer is that – again, like Uncharted 2 – A Crack in Time is a much more focused, finely tuned experience than many (if not all) of its predecessors. Fusing differing gameplay mechanics such as platforming and intense gunplay together is not easy, as there’s always a risk of one taking too much precedent over the other. Indeed, one can only look at Ratchet: Gladiator – a rare misstep which was entirely orientated around combat – to see the detriment that focusing on one element has on the overall game. Insomniac’s flagship franchise has always been a sum of many parts, and in this respect A Crack of Time utterly delivers. From the exploration of the planets and their many moons, to arena battles, to playable Clank sections, every feature that we’ve come to know, love and expect are back. The reason why the series keeps moving forward, however, is two fold.
Firstly, each of these familiar features are arguably the strongest yet seen. The balance between exploration, platforming, combat and puzzle solving is exceptional, giving the game a satisfying rhythm and flow, and also does a good job of pushing the surprisingly engaging narrative along at a jovial pace. It’s a guarantee that you’ll never be doing the same thing for too long, with the duration of said events as well as their placement alongside each other guaranteeing that. This is in no small part due to the second reason, which is the raft of new features which contort the traditional game progression structure of old, as well as opening up new gameplay possibilities.
Like all Ratchet games, the introduction of various types of wild and wacky weaponry encourages the use of strategy, but with A Crack in Time it’s the gadgets that shine. Chief of these are the new hoverboots, which allow Ratchet to boost through environments at blistering pace. With dedicated sections in the game allowing for some Prince of Persia-esque speed running as well as other ingenious platforming sections, they are a superb addition. Effortlessly switching from the gadgets to the weapons to explore the environment has always been one of Ratchet’s biggest draws, and the new instalment delivers such joys in such a seamless fashion largely due to dazzling level design.
The other main change to the traditional structure is the adoption of the hub world format, seemingly becoming more and more popular in contemporary game design. It’s not Grand Theft Auto in space – instead, the five Sectors on offer in this particular Ratchet universe are all relatively modest in size, but packed with side missions to keep a wandering Lombax entertained. Keen observers will note that the number of actual planets to explore is markedly less than previous games, and that exploring the moons in each Sector, a la Super Mario Galaxy, will take up more time than you would initially think. Some might argue that these are a sneaky and cheap method by Insomniac to elongate the games playtime, but it’s really a case of the player scratching their back for them to scratch ours – the rewards for conquering these side missions are plentiful, substantial, and are definitely worth investing your time into. Some moons are inhabited by local populace, who can also offer you missions in return for cold hard bolts. They’re not a huge ask – they usually involve the obliteration of something, or the towing of a ship from point A to B…stopping to blow more things up along the way. Of course these aren’t essential, but like any side mission worth its salt, completing as many as you can will be certainly worth your while.
To return to our original quandary – is Ratchet still relevant? When games such as A Crack in Time are as this much fun to play, then we can see no reason why the franchise can’t run and run. Doubters bemoaning the series’ lack of invention clearly need to reacquaint themselves with the adventures of Ratchet and Clank at their earliest convenience. Insomniac have a gift – the ability to forge games of such a high quality – and to ask them to stop would be a crime against gaming humanity.
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