Criticizing old games is hard. Many of the frustrations and issues they have were much less noticeable in the time they were made, and it’s easy to lose track of how much game design and technology have advanced in the last decade when you’re looking at a game like Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time, which still has nice graphics and plays more or less like a modern game most of the time. It’s easy to get annoyed by issues like not being able to pause cut scenes (WHY did it take so long for this to become somewhat standard?) or not having subtitles for in-game dialog even though the sound mixing is bad, without fully acknowledging that those issues were very common at the time. I am, however, better equipped than most to peer through the mists of time and see the game in something like it’s original context. I still play the PS3 fairly regularly and I even played much of the Ratchet & Clank series last year, stopping before Crack in Time because I was starting to feel burned out. I owned a PS3 when the game was released and was aware of the discourse around it and how it was received. I think I understand enough about games of this era to give an honest assessment, and despite the fact that Giant Bomb’s Vinny Caravella rated the game 5/5 and seems to have loved it, I personally think that Crack in Time feels unfinished and like a step back for the series, especially after Tools of Destruction (Quest for Booty being a smaller downloadable game with a different focus.) I don’t think it’s a bad game by any stretch, but it feels stripped back in a lot of ways, and closer the PS2 iterations of the duo than the Tools of Destruction version.
R&C:CIT starts immediately after the end of Quest for Booty, with Ratchet & Clank still separated and Ratchet searching for his friend while Clank is being held captive by Dr. Nefarious in a place called “The Great Clock.” The game alternates between the two characters, with Ratchet’s sections (the majority of the game) playing like a traditional Ratchet & Clank game while Clank’s segments are linear platforming levels with a little bit of combat and the added wrinkle of Clank’s new time powers, which mostly amount to being able to reflect shots back at enemies and use a “time bomb” to hold moving platforms in place. Ratchet jumps and guns his way across alien worlds, and also zooms around some 2D sections of space in his fighter ship blasting enemies, while Clank focuses on platforming and some puzzle solving. The puzzles primarily take the form of door opening puzzles where Clank must record versions of himself doing various actions and play them back so they can work together in a synchronized fashion to flip switches and open doors. These are clever enough, but I found them boring because of the number of times you need to repeat actions as you build new iterations of each time clone’s activities and I really would have appreciated the ability to jump in mid-recording instead of having to start over from scratch each time.
If the Clank sections of the gameplay fall flat, the Ratchet segments are…fine. I’ve played through 4 main games in this series and two spin offs (Quest for Booty and Deadlocked) previously so at this point I know the controls and how the game plays pretty well. There’s nothing wrong with this particular version, but the level design seems to have taken a step back both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay. Future Tools of Destruction felt like a whole new generation of Ratchet & Clank, with levels that felt dynamic and exciting. From teeming cities to vicious pirate hideouts everything was full of character and a real sense of place. CIT is much more like the PS2 games in level design, except it strips out a lot of elements from those games (like swimming and mini-games like hoverboard racing or mining) and doesn’t replace them with anything. There are only 4 gadgets for environmental obstacles and they are pretty boring. The environments all feel linear and simplistic, even though they look good. Even the rail grinding, which used to be intense and complicated, is stripped back and feels perfunctory.
Of course it’s not all bad. Those signature creative Ratchet & Clank weapons are still there, and while the best of these come from prior games (and none are quite as wacky as the morphing rays) they’re still fun to use. Weapon experience and transformations carry over from the last game (as does the smart system of Ratchet gaining experience from taking damage and upgrading his health that way) and you can also collect mods for 3 specific weapons that lets you add stuff like automatic fire or incineration damage, but the menus are too clunky to switch that stuff up too often. It’s all fine stuff.
Also fine is the ship stuff. Instead of flying from planet to planet through a menu you now explore a bunch of different sectors of the galaxy and you can do things like run short sidequests for NPCs (like fetching them materials to fix their ships) or explore small moons that might contain some collectables and a platforming or combat challenge, and engage in ship to ship combat, which is now on a 2D plane and feels stripped back from prior releases. This is all filler but it’s mostly harmless filler and I enjoyed some of the platforming and combat challenges well enough. There’s also a combat arena with a variety of rewards as there have been in prior games. It’s very standard Ratchet & Clank.
The game keeps Ratchet & Clank apart far longer than I expected and I think it suffers greatly for it. Ratchet & Clank are a duo for a reason and each character is built to compliment the other, not so much in terms of mechanics (Ratchet quickly gets equipment to replace Clank’s hovering function) but in terms of rapport. Ratchet meets up with a bunch of characters on his quest and none of them have Clank’s acerbic wit or fussiness, making Ratchet feel a little bit bland as a hero. For his part Clank is accompanied by a caretaker of the clock who knows quite a bit about his past, and he is too busy learning new information and trying to figure out his origin to bother being sarcastic. This all makes for a boring and forgettable story, and while Ratchet & Clank has never been a great story series it did at least have banter going for it. Not anymore.
In addition to having a story that didn’t hit for me even though the voice acting was quite good, this Ratchet & Clank game felt downright unfinished in spots, despite being a big budget first party release. In addition to a general bugginess that I’m not used to in Insomniac games (especially ones that have had a decade to be patched) there are obvious chunks of this game missing. At one point Ratchet, Clank, and Captain Qwark discuss a daring mission that involves Clank sneaking into some vents so he can get some information about Dr. Nefarious. In any other Ratchet & Clank game this would lead to a Clank level where you navigate the little guy through a bunch of security systems in the vent, but here it just leads to a simple cut scene. Similar situations abound and there were times when cut scenes ended so abruptly that I wondered whether my digital copy was somehow corrupted or if I’d hit a button to skip or something. A late cut scene includes several seconds of voice over played over a totally black screen, which is a clear indicator that they just ran out of time or budget to animate what they originally intended. For what it’s worth the cinematics that do exist in the game are gorgeous and still impressive all those years later, so there was definitely talent and budget behind the game, which are undermined by the cut corners.
The cut sequences are one thing, but the game also has a bunch of glitches. There are collision detection problems that had me plummeting to my death when I shouldn’t have, contextual button prompts that will have you firing off a shot instead of using the swing shot (and thus also plummeting to your death) and at least two cases where a scripting era caused me to have to either die or reload a save because a door that was supposed to open wouldn’t. In one case I spent 15 minutes wandering around trying to figure out where to go while thinking “is this a scripting error? Is that door supposed to open?” I finally reloaded my save, spent 15 more minutes fighting back to that place, and yes, it was a scripting error and I lost half an hour to it. Not the biggest thing in the world but not the smallest, and that’s 10 years after release on a fully patched copy.
Look, I get that nobody really cares about my thoughts on a decade old Ratchet & Clank game that is only available on hardware 2 generations out of date. The truth is that I got the game for $15 and it had some enjoyable aspects even if it was a disappointment. It’s still Ratchet & Clank and I still like that formula. I was just surprised at the lack of memorable locations and characters, all the re-used assets and planets, the simplistic puzzles and the lack of polish, especially because the game reviewed quite well. I kind of get that because if you can get past the lack of polish and other issues there’s still a lot of fun to be had here, and at a time when 3D platformers were starting to feel like an endangered species. They’re not anymore, and in the cold light of 2021 A Crack in Time’s cracks have really started to show. The last game in the Ratchet & Clank Future sub series feels like it takes a step back into the past, and not in a good way.