By Redhotchilimist 8 Comments
Over the past month I've played through all three of the Ratchet & Clank games on the HD collection that was put out for PS3 back in 2012. That's Ratchet & Clank, Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal, although depending on which region you're from those last two might just be Ratchet 2 and 3 to you. They're all solid games and don't get a ton of buzz anymore, so I figured I'd do a quick review of the trilogy now that I've played through them all for the first time.
Props to Sourcespy91. Since the PS3 is from before the age of the Share button, I couldn't easily capture images myself, and relied on his playthroughs for those.
Ratchet & Clank
The original Ratchet & Clank(2002) became dear to my heart over the course of playing it. The story is the thing I was most surprised I love about it. Chairman Drek, a ruthless Blargian businessman, leads the Blargian invasion of the galaxy as they're pulling apart planets to gather parts for a new one of their own, Frankenstein style. One of their huge war robots comes out a bit jank(being about 2 feet tall, sentient and kind) and flees from Drek with information on the invasion. On the way he crash-lands on the backwater desert planet Veldin, where Ratchet lives. Ratchet's a hot-headed mechanic kid who wants nothing but getting off his planet, and they join forces to stop Drek. It's essentially Star Wars with a lighthearted, satirical consumerism bent to it. Every character you meet is in it to get paid, and the biggest villain of all is the guy who's started a whole war just for money.
It's not exactly common for 3d platformers to have a great story, but Ratchet 1 manages it. Partly by being quite funny. It's a comedy the way something like Ghostbusters is a comedy, you're not gonna be slapping your knees every minute but every bit of dialogue is solid gold. But mostly it's because of the whole buddy cop relationship of Ratchet & Clank. From the beginning, Clank knows what's most important. But he can't really do much on his own, and Ratchet only wants to have a good time. See the galaxy, get in some good fights, go on an adventure. Initially they've got a relationship of convenience. Clank gets Ratchet off of Veldin while Ratchet promises to help him get the information to Captain Qwark, a famous galactic superhero type character.
Even at this early point their chemistry is great. Ratchet is eager to get into any argument and always ready to seize any opportunites coming his way. Clank is more nerdy, more caring, more contemplative, but also a lot more naive, having been literally born yesterday. That's a good hook for a buddy platformer. Their conversations are fun to watch. Later on, the relationship gets strained because of Clank's naivity getting them into trouble, and Ratchet goes berserk and only continues the journey out of being blackmailed.
Ratchet and Clank argue a lot more from this point on, but as Ratchet gets his revenge on the person who fooled them, he realizes how selfish he's been to focus on his own vendetta when the whole galaxy is in danger. The couple become friends for real just in time for the finale, teaming up to take down Drek for good. At the end of the game, you really feel like you were on a journey with these characters, not just in terms of planets but in terms of how their relationship and Ratchet himself have grown. They do feel like an iconic duo, well deserved, and that wouldn't be the case without all of this conflict and development in their friendship. You don't get this kinda character arc from Banjo-Kazooie.
The story focus isn't actually that big. There's only an hour of cutscenes in the game, while the whole game should take you about 15 hours the first time through. Comparatively, Uncharted 4 has over three times that much with the game still taking around 15 hours on average. Ratchet & Clank is mostly gameplay, despite having this stellar story in it, which I think is commendable.
Little of the cutscenes in Ratchet 1 is even directed as a regular (or animated) movie might be. Instead, the story is told through dialogue conversation with unique NPCs on every world, as well as through various presentations, video calls and commercials. It has a unique, low-key feel to it all, the glossy commercials juxtaposed nicely with all of these real down-to-earth conversations. The setting itself also stands out. I suppose it operates in the same general area as Star Wars, with its more messy and dirty sci-fi compared to something like Mass Effect, but there's even more of a mechanical vibe to it, bolts and metal plating everywhere.
All the weapons look like they were cobbled together in someone's garage, even the menus have this old-school CRT vibe. Combined with the overt consumerism spoofs, it all forms a coherent image of this setting. There's a strong thematic core of these weapon businesses and the celebrity worship to build everything else around. It's not like a super deep game, it's not critiquing consumerism all that hard or anything, and themes aren't really the most important aspect of a game for me. But it's worthwhile having all the game systems make sense within the context of setting, and having a common theme for the comedy and characters to draw from. It justifies everything the game wants to do. For instance, R&C has a big focus on collecting bolts as a currency, but concentrates way less on specific collectathons to progress the way other 3d platformers might have done. You get your money just from defeating enemies and busting common crates. Every NPC you meet wants you to give them some bolts, either so you can get an infobot you need to progress the story or for some optional gadget. That in turns encourages exploration so you can get more bolts.
It's a fantastic first try at the mechanics of the series too, mixing shooting in with the 3d platforming that at this point had been fairly played out over the course of the last generation. You don't actually aim in this game, aside from if you go stationary and into first person. Instead, the weapons will auto-aim at enemies in the vicinity, displaying a reticule to always let you know where your bomb or bullet is gonna land. It works perfectly fine for most situations, you aren't really ever required to pick out one specific enemy in direct combat, but it can be a real bother with the occasional flying enemy. The targeting is a little untrustworthy on those. Still, the stages are definitely made around your abilities, I never felt like I was asked to do something I couldn't with the weapons and systems at hand.
Similarly, your jumping abilities aren't that refined. You've got the ability to float slowly downwards, a long jump, a tall jump, an eventual butt stomp, a wall jump that only works on specific walls, and a grappling hook that only attaches to specific points. It's a pretty weak and typical assortment. You can't really build up any momentum (unless you're a speedrunner), and most of the jumps you can do are a little finnicky or only work in contextual circumstances. But combined with the shooting, it all coalesces into a very fun gameplay loop. You never grow tired of either aspect because they interact well and both feel good to play.
Ratchet 1 is a spectacular opener. I think all of the games in this collection are good, but Ratchet 1 is definitely the game that seems like it had the longest development time. You meet a ton of unique NPCs (all well animated, written and voice acted) and each planet has at least one enemy of its own to make it feel like you're exploring a vast galaxy. There's a lot of detail in the environments, lots of good lighting, and always a lot of moving elements in the background, like flying cars. Every planet is richly varied, usually with two or three distinct environments to its setting. The music often changes for each environment in the level, too, and there's a rich variation in the types of challenges you're asked to do. Sometimes there's platforming, sometimes there's some combat, sure, but that's just the basics of Ratchet. You'll also encounter setpieces where you're flying a spacecraft around, traveling on grindrails, participating in hoverboard races, getting chased by a sudden flood in a tunnel, or escaping an exploding space station, Metroid style. Variety is the name of the game.
And speaking of Metroid, Ratchet is a pretty open game, too. There's usually several paths to take right from the start of a stage, leading to either bonus stuff or the main objective, with no way of knowing which is which. Several times a planet will also contain a path that can only be opened with an item acquired later, making you come back after the fact. It's hardly a metroidvania, but it does feel like you're really out in the universe exploring on your own.
The OST is outstanding. Occasionally you get something a bit too bombastic or with too many spooky retro scifi sounds, but overall I dig many of these tracks. Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal both have some amazing songs as well, but I definitely think 1 has the most exceptional lineup of bangers.
A big difference from 1 compared to Ratchet 3 and especially more modern games is the rate of dialogue. Almost all games these days have some kinda audio logs, maybe some minor NPCs talking in the background, perhaps an Oracle talking to you on the radio in your ear. But Ratchet 1 only has chatter whenever you meet an NPC and enter a cutscene. I'd call it delightfully retro. I guess I can see how someone might think it's lonely, or missing out on a chance to further characterize our leads, but honestly I was just relieved I didn't need to have a support character yapping in my ear the whole time. Even Spider-Man has that now, and dude used to just talk to himself. There's something to be said for just playing a game while enjoying the music and the action without someone delivering lines over it all. I don't wanna play Mario Galaxy or whatever and listen to Peach and Luigi doing comedic radio skits over the gameplay. From what I've seen of the later Ratchet games, they do eventually go down this road, and I can't say I'm looking forward to it.
The HD collection has this terrible bug where the final boss doesn't have its music playing, leading to me putting it on in youtube instead, which is hardly ideal. I dunno if it was like this in the original, but the music also doesn't loop at all. It just reaches the end, briefly stops, and then starts up again from the beginning. That's a janky thing to have for what otherwise feels like a polished game.
If there's anything weak here, it's the puzzles, which are comically simple and will remain that way for the rest of the series. In games like Zelda, there's usually multiple ways to use an item. You might be navigating several floors of a dungeon, opening and closing the right doors or lowering and raising water to access new areas. It's not rocket science or anything, but they're decent brain teasers. Even in Breath of the Wild, I'll get stuck on a shrine or Divine Beast puzzle once in a while.
In Ratchet, puzzles usually amount to navigating a straight path by just pressing a button. This is especially clear with the gadget that removes or adds water to specific areas. Unlike Zelda, this gadget adds or removes water from a pool right in front of you rather than changing an entire temple. It's never difficult, and it just feels like tedious busywork. Especially since you don't want to keep gadgets in your quick select when you could be keeping the cool weapons there. It's not much more fun when you gotta pull out a gadget for a hacking minigame, or when Clank takes over for a brief section and has to guide minions through obstacle courses. I'm not sure I ever got stuck on any of these, besides a tricky late-game hacking puzzle or two. But at least the puzzles aren't both tedious and hard, they're easily overcome. You just finish them quickly and move on.
If I'm doing petty nitpicks, then the credits are also pretty crap. They're just static screens of stages with the mega dramatic music from the final level playing, which doesn't really give you that wonderful feeling of closure you'd like at the end of a journey. No Ocarina of Time credits for these guys either, that's for sure. This goes for all of the games. At least the actual ending sequences tend to be good.
I'd also be remiss not to mention the camera controls. For some reason the Ratchet games all default to what me, and I expect most people, would call inverted. Least you can change that instantly.
One rough patch for me was my first encounter with the checkpoints. The game usually only revives you after you've passed whatever counts as a "part", so sometimes you're slowly making your way through a section only to miss one jump and start right back at the beginning, which can be frustrating. Probably a reason modern games tend to only take a point off your health when that happens. Ratchet isn't very punishing, however. Besides getting sent back to the last checkpoint, you keep all your money, so it doesn't feel like much of an hindrance. As long as you earn more bolts than you gotta spend to refill your ammo, you're golden. It's just a bit of old school flavor I forgot was going to be here back in 2002.
It's easy to tell how this became such a long-running series. It's a (for the time) beautiful game that's got a lot of memorable tunes and a stellar story. Even now it moves at mostly 60fps and plays well. It's got it's own identity, too. It might play in the 3d platformer pool, but it brought with it gunplay, snappy dialogue and an uncommon setting. It feels like Sonic for a new age, fitting well with Sony's Dreamworks to Nintendo's Disney. It's not exactly "mature", but it was perfectly positioned to grab the kids for whom Mario started to feel too kiddy. I remember my step-brother, who was like 11 or 12 at the time, sold me his Gamecube while he got himself a PS2 with GTA San Andreas and Ratchet 3. Back then I felt it was his loss, but in retrospect I might value Ratchet & Clank a lot higher than I value Super Mario Sunshine.
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando
The second game in the series sees some clear changes right off the bat. The devs had gotten a lot of responses that people didn't like Ratchet being a jerk, especially to Clank, so efforts were made to make him more likeable. They changed his voice actor to someone doing a voice that sounds a bit older. He always jumps to Clank's defense here, and he no longer picks any fights or acts selfishly. Instead he instantly jumps at the chance to be a hero when it's offered to him by the CEO of Megacorp a galaxy away, and essentially becomes his soldier. Ratchet's lines are rather "Yes Sir, right away Sir!" this time around. He's a lot closer in terms of personality to Clank in 1 in terms of naivity, too. At one point they're obviously betrayed by the man they're working for, and opposite the first game, it's Clank who gets upset while Ratchet doesn't even believe they were betrayed.
I'm not a big fan of this new depiction of Ratchet. I never felt he was annoying in the first game, he was a fun character to watch bounce off the rest of the cast, especially Clank, and he underwent a journey in that first game to become a truly heroic character by the end. I definitely never thought he was too mean to Clank. They had their fights for sure, but that didn't last for all of that game and was an important part of building their relationship. At the ending, I was close to getting teary-eyed at how good friends they had become. Here, he just kinda seems like this dumb, "always follow orders" kinda straightlaced dude. If you were just writing "a hero", this might be what you come up with. There's only a single scene of Ratchet's I enjoyed in Going Commando, and that bummed me out.
There is a reason for his change in the story, with the game opening on Ratchet & Clank having sat on their asses for months with nobody needing their help anymore. Ratchet finding purpose in his new job and enjoying being on an adventure again can explain his sudden shift in behavior to an extent. But there's also no point where he realizes what a mess he's gotten himself into or regrets yes man-ing obviously evil people.
The rest of the plot is kinda frustrating in the same way.
Look, there's a couple of twists in here, so for politiness' sake I'm gonna spoiler tag it all. Suffice to say, if you don't want to be spoiled, let me just say it frustrated me.
The main conceit is that Ratchet & Clank are working for the CEO of Megacorp to retrieve an experiment that was stolen from them, the Protopet. But it's pretty obvious that when a gigantic corporation with an eccentric boss is after a lost experiment of theirs, they're probably not up to anything good. You fight the thief who took the experiment for a while, only for him to reveal that yes, Megacorp are gonna ruin the galaxy with the Protopet. And even then Ratchet believes the man who hired him just hasn't heard about it and spends the rest of the game trying to get him to answer his calls.
The thief, Angela, is easy to figure out is actually a good guy. Naturally. But her personality changes in and out of costume to a ridiculous degree that makes the whole twist not make much sense. At one point she home invades Ratchet & Clank's apartment and straps Clank to a torture rack, electrocuting him.
Like, for what? 'Cause Ratchet alone has been chasing after her tail? You'd think that would get brought up again, right? If only in a "Sorry for giving you the Ocelot treatment", "Don't worry about it, I was once struck by lightning" kinda way. It just doesn't make much sense considering their relationship after that, and the same goes for the stages you chase after her too. She doesn't really need anything to destroy the Protopet besides that big missile at the end(and does she? I kill a lot of protopets just with my guns), so what's with her just traveling from planet to planet? There's no important established reasons for Angela to go where she's going. With Drek, he was going from planet to planet picking up ingredients for his new one. Like it's Bowser's wedding in Mario Odyssey or something. You're just following on his or Qwark's trail that whole game. It's not like there was never a hokey reason to move to a new planet, but you had a feeling that where you were going was actually helping your quest. With Angela it's both more aimless and obviously a set-up, so it just comes off as a wild-goose chase.
Thugs-4-less are funny. The main leader they've got is probably the best bad guy in the game, even if he doesn't have a name. He gets like three boss fights and a lot of cutscenes building him up as this bruiser running a very effective operation. The thug joke as a whole might just be emasculation, all of these barbaric, cutthroat mooks talking about their sensitivities and picnic parties and so on. But the thug leader himself is the closest you've got to someone actually being an active and clear antagonist to Ratchet & Clank. He's good for a joke, but he also works as a threat. It's just a shame they're only hired guns, changing their allegiance when Angela reveals Megacorp is up to no good. If the leader had more of an ambition, I could see him trying to take over the operation and become the final boss himself. That could've been kinda neat.
The final bad guy is the most bizarre writing so far in the series. Mr. Fizzwidget, the Megacorp CEO, was the one who pulled Ratchet & Clank into his galaxy in the first place. He then hires Ratchet & Clank, at various points expects them to die or sends them into obvious death traps, at one point betraying them by breaking their spaceship and stranding them on a desert planet, and later hiring thugs to get them even though they're his own employees. It's played off as if Fizzwidget is getting a bit old, if you see what I mean. "He's not evil, he's probably just confused".
Then right at the end, before the final boss fight, the truth is revealed: It was Qwark all along! After working for Drek in the first game, he ventured to another galaxy to start over. He's been impersonating Fizzwidget all along, and he's planning to show up to stop the Protopets himself, gaining recognition as a hero again. It's a weird turn of events to say the least. There hasn't been a hint of Qwark in any of Fizzwidget's mannerisms, when Qwarks' greatest attempt at disguise last time was changing his name to Steve. Like, it's pretty funny. It's a reasonable thing for Qwark to try to pull off, or at least, it isn't out of character. But it comes out of nowhere and makes little sense considering what came before, and Qwark is such a non-treathening villain that everything kinda fizzles out once it's revealed that he's the brains behind it all.
The intro cutscene is him talking to himself in character as Fizzwidget about how perfect Ratchet & Clank are for the whole experiment mission business. He's sitting there trying to fool the audience rather than anyone else. Later on in the game, there's a lot of buildup about Megacorp's bad business practices - the desert level you get stuck on was a jungle world they ruined, for instance. That's not something Qwark did. His involvement just comes off as something the devs decided on at the last minute, and doesn't solve the frustrating parts of the plot where Ratchet is just following his orders or keeps getting fooled by his excuses. This is the same guy who was suspicious of Qwark after all of a single mission in 1, and here he's got undying faith in the man's acting.
It also means that unlike 1, there's nowhere in the story where things really feel dire for our heroes. Ratchet might occasionally make an angry face, but it's limited to that as far as the emotions go. There's no heart here like Ratchet & Clank's friendship in 1, Clank's mom, Ratchet's quite genuine anger at Drek and so on. A rogue pet killing the population is silly in the first place, but then finding out it's Qwark who's behind it deflates any kinda drama about it. It feels anticlimactic, especially when the final boss is such a pushover. We're not on the third game yet, but unlike 3, I don't think this game nails both being comedic and also having stakes and strong bad guys. It's just got the silly comedy part, and it's also not as funny as 3's comedy is.
Finally, Angela and Clank's girlfriend/stalker are kinda strange as love interests. In Ratchet 1, neither protagonist had anything resembling a love interest, but here they both get one in a fairly non-committal kinda way. Ratchet acts all awkward around Angela, but it doesn't seem as if anything comes of it besides a couch conversation right in the ending. Maybe he just has like a Bond girl every game from now on, considering he ends up making out with Sasha in Up Your Arsenal and I think he's got some other girl come the Future games? Meanwhile, Clank's girlfriend(who's... an infobot?) has no lines, and only seems to be there to help them out of prison and deliver the Qwark video right at the end. It's not exactly a love story for the ages, even if I did laugh when Clank's head spins in excitement as she shows him what she likes to do on weekends.
(This isn't a slight on 2's story, but it's even more out of place when these characters don't have anything to do in 3. I guess it's not unusual to have heroes that go from place to place, meeting new friends and getting involved in a local conflict before moving on. But it's an odd aside in a series that otherwise brings back so many old characters. It's not like Dick Gumshoe, Harry Butz or Edgeworth are abandoned for the sequels to Phoenix Wright, to put it like that. )
None of this ruins the story, but it gives it this overall vague and unsatisfying feeling. The goals are unclear, the plot doesn't totally hang together, the characters feel off and the most recurring bad guy doesn't even get a name.
It's just weird, man. Maybe this story isn't something most people care about, it's still only about an hour of the whole experience, but I was very disappointed at getting this plot as the direct follow-up to Ratchet 1, where I adored the story. I don't think it's a trashfire or anything, but I don't think it completely fits together either.
The gameplay, on the other hand, has seen a lot of positive change. In the first game it was rare to have big combat encounters with multiple enemies. You usually only had to deal with a couple of the bigger ones or many smaller ones that were easily dispatched. Going Commando introduces strafing into the mix, and it made for a big difference. In Ratchet 1 you were stuck with the auto-aim in the direction you looked, and while you could do a few flips and shoot during them it wasn't exactly ideal. Now you can run in whatever direction you want while still aiming at the enemy, gaining easy access to flips in the process, and it's enabled a whole new type of combat.
They can throw enemy after enemy at you, and even then they just won't stand a chance because of your newfound mobility. The hordes you have to face in this game are completely overwhelming compared to 1, and it's an exciting challenge even when you're powerful yourself. Way more enemies spawn in than before, which... can be a little annoying. Fighting a huge swarm of enemies is marvelous. Fighting two or three guys that keep spawning in from teleporters, that's more like playing whack-a-mole. It felt more fair when you could see the enemies up ahead and not be worried that defeating them would send in another wave.
Your weapons have also been changed. Ratchet 1 featured various mines, a glove that produced bombs, a blaster with a limited range, and so on. Many of them were effective and fun, but Going Commando blows them out of the water with the new weapons. The Pyrocitor is made obsolete by the Lava Gun, the Blaster is replaced by the much more powerful Lancer, the Glove of Doom by the Synthenoids, and so on. Most of the old weapons show up in a new form. New additions like the Blitz Gun, the Miniturret Glove and the Seeker Gun become hard to imagine playing the game without, helpful as they are. The Blitz Gun especially has that good FUS RO DAH feling where a huge blast just wrecks enemies right in front of you.
Additionally, there's a bit of an RPG element to the weapons now. The more you use them, the more experience they gain, and upon leveling up the weapon will change into a more powerful version. The bomb is a spectacular introduction to the system, as it changes from a regular explosion to a Mini-Nuke, with an appropriate mushroom-shaped cloud. Ratchet himself gains experience too, gaining more HP once in a while, as opposed to the first game where you could take 4 hits for most of that game. I feel like you die faster in Going Commando, maybe there's less invincibility after you take damage or something, but it works out overall I'd say. Finally, the quick select menu actually pauses the game unlike in the first game, allowing you to easily swap to whatever you need in any given situation, when before you either had to rely on your previous weapon or run away to a safer position. It all adds up to some much more intense action gameplay in this game compared to 1.
You can still get some of the old weapons from Ratchet 1, for free if you've got a save lying around even, which is nice. But the damage scaling has left them behind, and they quickly become completely pointless. The Visibomb in ratchet 1 used to 1-hit kill enemies from across the map. By the end of this game, you need like ten of them to take down a single tank. These weapons also don't evolve. In short, they did a better job with 3, when the weapons from 2 return and are still valuable, the Plasma Coil being one of the most powerful weapons you can get.
Content hasn't been skimped on this time around, either. There are still multiple paths on most of the planets and various smaller mechanics and setpieces all around, like a bit where you fight on a moving train and sections where you're piloting a hangglider(perhaps the hardest part of the game is the last one of these). Grind rails return and are still stellar.
There are a couple of big, open sandboxy areas now, where you can collect crystals for cash. It's a bit of a grind that's not very fun to do, and the second one is probably the worst part of the game for how aggressive and endless its enemies are, but y'know, it's something different to do. The first one is a bit novel since there hasn't been anything else like that in the series so far. The shine just wears of fast when there isn't as much something to explore as it's just a crystal, a big enemy and a swarm of smaller enemies dotting the map every few metres.
I heartily recommend you save the grinding for when you pick up the charge boots, too. They're this cool new gadget that works sort of like the Pegasus Boots from A Link to the Past, where you can activate a thruster in your boots to fly forward at high speeds. Then after a few seconds, the speed slows down considerably and you become more manouverable instead. I wish you could just move more at that same high speed. Ratchet can't run, so besides the long jump this is the only regular movement option he has that makes it feel like you're moving fast. It's fun to move quickly, but not so much when it's mostly useful for just clearing long distances. I wanna dart around the enemies, not only make a commute less tedious.
While Ratchet's moveset has been reduced a bit (there is no longer any difference between the jetpack and the helicopter pack I'm able to tell, leaving it entirely up to personal preference), there's still plenty of platforming here. One new addition is spherical worlds, a couple miniature planets that operate like they later would in Super Mario Galaxy. There's a reason people talk more about the Galaxy planets, however. Maybe it was more impressive back then, but now it just seems like they probably spent a lot of time on making these subpar Mario Galaxy-likes. The gravity boots are more of a success. They were already in Ratchet 1, but here you can actually shoot, walk normally, and jump while walking on walls. It's a solid addition! On one planet you're fighting through a building, walk out onto a balcony, which then folds out and suddenly you're having a shootout on the side of a building. That's awesome.
Hoverboard races have been replaced with Hoverbike races, which seem to move much faster and are a much better change of pace than the hoverboard races were because of it. They feel more exciting to play, regardless of how much technical difference there is. Space combat has been more fleshed out this, with several missions dedicated to it and a whole progression system for your ship, but it's not really my favorite. In Ratchet 1 enemies basically just flew in front of your ship, limiting any issue with aiming, and you only did it for a couple of brief segments. Fleshing it out into a bigger thing is... admirable, but maybe misguided, 'cause I don't think it's satisfying enough to be more than a quick diversion, and the changes they've made to the controls made it less accessible for me than the sections in Ratchet 1.
The Arenas are the big new attraction, the perfect place to showcase how much the combat has changed. You get wave after wave of enemies and bosses, in two different arenas with their own enemies, and a ton of challenges in each. I spent hours in both of them. You get to the first one pretty early on, and it was the most fun I had since I started playing, distracting me from the story I was frustrated with.
While Going Commando is still a good game, I can't see myself playing through it again anytime soon when I disliked the story so much. The context for what you do matters here. There's great gameplay in Going Commando, but if I'm always annoyed at what got me there that's not an enjoyable experience. And while I like some of its side activities, a lot of them I'm kinda "eeeh" on. Although I can easily recommend it for the gameplay, it's the game out of the trilogy I'm the most lukewarm on.
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal
The final game in the collection really shows us how far we've come in the gaming landscape as a whole. Ratchet & Clank started out as a platformer/shooter hybrid, but with this game they dropped almost all of the platforming and exploration and made a shooter campaign instead.
Ratchet & Clank return to their home galaxy after news that a race of aliens called the Tyhrranoids are invading Veldin. Upon their return they're promptly inducted into the Galactic Rangers, an army of robot soldiers working for their commander named Sasha and the president of the galaxy, operating out of the Starship Phoenix. Who knows what they were doing during Drek's invasion in the first game. Maybe the galaxy decided they needed some better defenses after that war? Starship Phoenix acts as a hub, and it's pretty nice to have a homebase in one of these games.
It's soon revealed that the Tyhrranoids are lead by a megalomaniacal supervillain called Dr. Nefarious. He's a mad scientist type character who's also a tall robot, and he's a pretty excellent villain. Nefarious is out of this world, a cartoon character who expresses himself with an shouty voice and extreme body language. Drek was a serious businessman, Qwark was a self-interested, larger-than-life celebrity, the thief was a disgrunted former employee and Fizzwidget was a kooky old CEO. Dr. Nefarious is beyond wacky, and he doesn't tie into the old themes of 1 and 2 about the whole consumerist/capitalist nature of the setting, but there's a reason he's beloved. He's super likeable, getting tons of funny lines and scenes, and he's a clear and direct threat the entire game. They've given him a butler robot named Lawrence, who follows all of his orders while taking the piss out of him on the sly. Together they're a great comedic duo.
Qwark was the oone who beat Nefarious back in the day, somehow, so Ratchet & Clank get hold of him and bring him up to the Starship Phoenix. Soon he's the leader of the whole operation, recruits minor NPCs from Ratchet 1 to serve as sidekicks, and sends you out on missions to locate and stop Dr. Nefarious.
My favorite part of Ratchet 3's story is how hilarious it is. Ratchet 1 was a comedy, but it was very down to earth. It relied on dry, cynical, snappy dialogue rather than any slapstick antics. The villain was a serious threat more than he was a joke delivery system, and there were plenty of dramatic scenes. Ratchet 2 leaned wackier, but here in Ratchet 3 they've gone way beyond that. They've also hired their first proper writer and done a ton of cutscenes that've got more going on than just conversations or commercials. The story overall is more of a focus, with about 20 more minutes of cutscenes, and much more NPC chatter over the radio during missions. It's more of an animated comedy kids movie now, with jokes every second and nothing serious ever really happening. Or being taken very seriously, anyway.
I was kind of afraid I'd loathe this game's story considering how much I liked the tone and storytelling of Ratchet 1, but while Ratchet 3 is silly and there's no real thematic core anymore, all the jokes are so much fun and the cutscenes so animated I had a very good time. Boring military crap and following orders from dumbasses would usually be too annoying for me to bother with. I'd rather go on an adventure on my own. But this game is enough of a spoof that it didn't actually get on my nerves. Ratchet is instantly made sargeant of the regular grunts and doesn't suck up to Qwark the way he did to Fizzwidget, so that's all good.
Up Your Arsenal is the game that gave us Courtney Gears, the Britney Spears robot that had a music video about how organic lifeforms stink and how she's gonna love killing them all. It's phenomenal. I could take or leave the NPC chatter and Ratchet is never gonna return to the character he was, but he gets way more funny lines and scenes this time around. I can't complain about the story when I'm enjoying it this much, even if it is different from how we started out. The focus on Ratchet & Clank, Qwark, Nefarious, Lawrence, Courtney Gears and the crew of the Starship Phoenix fit this more action-movie tale rather than a galactic exploration, everyone getting multiple scenes and more screentime than ever before. They made the right story for the kinda game they were making.
It's not entirely fantastic. Clank has this movie career now that doesn't tie into the plot all that naturally, and Nefarious' hatred for all things organic isn't a natural conclusion from his origin story or challenged by the characters in the game. But I think the funny bits and the clear goals and funny characters help smooth over any plot holes or strange asides.
I'm a bit more split on the gameplay. As I mentioned, Ratchet has now fully transformed into a third person shooter, complete with a control scheme that allows you to aim with the right stick as you move with the left, firing with R1 rather than the circle button(although the game still supports the old controls). This was the game that Sony wanted online multiplayer in, and it shows all over development. Lock on is all fine and good against enemies, but in a PVP environment you want to be able to aim wherever you want.
It allows you to play it even more as an action game than before - you don't have to use it to get through the story, but it definitely helps, and I think it's the way to play. Props for adding a button to the vendors that lets you refill ammo for every weapon at once, that's some needless busywork eliminated. I dunno if I'm all in on weapons evolving more than once, however. Here you can level up a weapon 4 times on your first run through, and while that's effective at making me use them more, it doesn't have that same impact as one weapon level up in the last game, the bonuses each level not really feeling that special. Even then, I adore a lot of the weapons here, the roster is maybe even better than back in 2. While the changes don't feel as overwhelming as the changes from 1 to Going Commando were, I definitely prefer this combat.
The level design has completely changed from Ratchet 1. There's only a single planet I can think of with three paths right from the go, and only a couple of them even have two. You don't explore anymore, meeting funny NPCs along the way, you just travel down to a location to shoot some mooks. This is a military corridor shooter game now, most stages being entirely linear affairs where you go through mostly combat sections(with NPCs along for the ride, natch) and then an occasional simple puzzle or the new hacking minigame. You don't have to go back and forth between planets to open up new paths anymore, on account of there being no paths to open up. There's also no longer any NPCs you gotta pay to keep the story going, one more thematic element removed now that the story is no longer about that, and also for the convenience of the plauer.
Grind rails, the paraglider, space combat, racing, almost all instances of swimming, the jetpack that let you hover around in Going Commando, that's all completely gone. Instead, you get a single arena and one spherical world, a handful of sections where you drive a buggy around an open area, a bunch of horde mode style challenges set in the multiplayer maps and a hovership used exclusively for these maps and the final battle. I like the Arena as a bonus, but when the main game requires you to do so many of these horde mode sections as part of the main path, I think that's a bit of a problem. I'm already getting all the shooting I need just from the regular stages here, which makes them feel like cheap padding.
These multiplayer maps are especially simple looking compared to the stages in earlier games, but even in general, I think most of Up Your Arsenal's stages look worse than the older ones. Don't get me wrong, there are a few good ones here, especially Florana and parts of the Aquatos level. But putting 1's and 3's stages side by side it's clear something has been lost.
In terms of just visual design, 3 follows the shooter trends of the mid 2000s by having a large number of dull desert stages. It's not ideal. After the fact, I have this overwhelming impression of Ratchet 3 as a very red and brown and yellow game. The older Ratchets had desert worlds too, but they were nowhere near as common as here. And, presumably because they didn't need to be huge battlefields, they could afford to put in better details and lighting.
Instead of unique enemies on all the planets you visit, you're stuck with the Tyhrranoids for many stages, mostly broken up with the same humanoid robot troopers. The Tyhrranoids have a good five or six variations so it's not like you're stuck fighting only two enemies, but it does mean you're gonna be seeing a whole lot of these dudes. There are some old enemies that return from Ratchet 1 as well - but like the NPCs that join Qwark's force, it's hard to know if this was a decision based on what made most sense for the story or on reusing old assets. The magnet boots return, but for some reason the camera is nauseating. Maybe combining a third person shooter camera with an environment like that wasn't the best idea ever. You collect crystals in sewer tunnels this time around, which makes it feel like even more of a grind(and a real trial once you get the magnet boots and now can't avoid walking on the walls of the sewer tunnels, spinning the camera constantly).
One entirely new feature are the Qwark vid-comics, a series of short Mega Man-esque platformer levels. I'm sure someone loves these, but for me it's one of the worst 2D platformers I've ever tried. We're talking barely above Pagemaster levels here, people. Less Mega Man and more Daffy Duck. The camera doesn't move how you want it to. The music is unbearable. The jumping is somehow both very steerable and yet never precise (Maybe it's not floaty enough? Maybe it's that you can't adjust your speed and momentum Mario style, yet it's very fast and loose?). And all the enemies seem to be placed to bother you the absolute most.
It makes me respect the people at Nintendo even more for having made so many classics of the genre, when even seasoned devs like Insomniac can't make a good one. To be fair, it is just a minigame in the context of Ratchet 3, but I always dreaded when it was time to play another stage to progress the campaign. I think this sort of stuff is better the less there is of it in the game. Ratchet 1 had a ton of brief diversions, but none of them took up a significant portion of the game the way this does. It doesn't matter if they're shallow as long as they're fun for their ten minutes of screentime. When it takes up as much time as Qwark's vid-comics or the space combat in 2, I kinda expect to get more then they can give me.
Once upon a time, whether you were okay with the reduced content came down to how much fun you thought the multiplayer was. But the multiplayer aspect of Ratchet 3 is dead, the online on the HD collection shut off. Even back on the PS2, you needed an online adapter to get to it, and I can't imagine that was a ton of people. You could still play it locally, but that's about it.
At this point, how you feel about the reduced content mostly comes down to how fine you are with the improvements on the gunplay and the funny story. Variety isn't everything. While it might seem like the focus on the multiplayer interfered with what the single player can do, I think they tried honing in on the combat that would be central to both and make it as good as possible. This game is objectively a poorer game than 2 or especially 1 was in terms of bang for your buck, in terms of variety, in terms of the quality of the art design. But personally, the new shooting and the great script still kept me entertained. I might enjoy more aspects of 2's level design, but 3's jokes and shooting certainly beats it out. And it's such a changed game from 1 that it's difficult to compare the two. I'm totally alright with this game doing something different that was still very fun. It would have benefited from some more inclusions of elements from the first two games (grind rails spring immediately to mind) and prettier environments, and the story isn't necessarily the most coherent despite being very funny. But it still works for what it is, and I could see myself returning to it many times. In part because it is so straightforward, although they also added a sweet bolt multiplier to new game+ for killing several enemies in a row.
For the record, while I watched my brother play through a bunch of Ratchet 3 and played some local multiplayer with him, I barely remembered anything about it except for Courtney Gears' video. It's possible that without any unique setpiece levels or different gameplay modes to set them apart, the stages blend together and make it hard to recall specifics. Same for the story, when everything is a joke.
The HD collection, Deadlocked, the Future series, and the remake
The HD ports of these games are largely decent, translating the old games well into something that still looks good. But there are some glitches here and there, and it's hard for me to tell what visual jank or glitch is the fault of these new devs or the old ones who made these games in the first place.
In particular, the HD port for the fourth Ratchet game, Deadlocked, looks pretty atrocious. Way more than any minor glitches and visual hiccups I've seen in the first three games. There is some occasional jank there, too - the loading seems to take a second longer to kick in or something, so scene transitions are often preceded by a split second of the characters just standing in a level. Ratchet's eyelids and helmet can act a little strangely, some weird clipping issues going on there. Snow effects are missing, and the water occasionally looks... off. The ninja enemies in Ratchet 3 are supposed to drop from the ceiling, so once I just saw them jump up first and then hang in the air waiting for me, presumably meant to be off-screen. Haven't seen that since Origa in Death's Gambit last year.
But it's nothing compared to Deadlocked, where people constantly jitter around from pose to pose in cutscenes, and faces do... very weird things. I dunno if I'll eventually give Deadlocked a shot, but maybe if I hold out long enough it might receive a better port.
Going Commando has one of the more bizarre omissions, in that it doesn't have subtitles in Europe. The American version has English subtitles, but for us it's just a greyed out option. I guess they didn't have the time to sub it all in Spanish or whatever in the original, and some rule says you have to do that if you're going to have subtitles? For that reason I had to watch the Going Commando cutscenes twice, going over them after the fact with the subs to get all the nuance.
It's a bother, and especially for your target demographic. Reading English is one thing, understanding some spoken English goes without saying. But you're asking foreign kids for a lot of vocabulary skills if you expect them to just listen to these cutscenes and understand everything people say with no issue.
Besides Deadlocked, Ratchet had quite a long life on PS3 with the Future saga. All of the mainline Ratchet games have been critically well received, but considering how much the story matters for me, I dunno if I'd agree. The Future games seem to go for a different tone, more mystical space macguffins and less cynical businessmen, and I dunno if that's quite my jam. Feels like it would be pretty strange to take Ratchet & Clank in that direction after these games.
Similarly, the 2016 remake of the first game, meant to coincide with the movie, seems like it combines all tone changes of the later games and drapes them over Ratchet 1. I own the reboot on PSN thanks to PS+, so it doesn't cost me anything to try, but I kinda suspect I won't love it. The movie it takes its story and cutscenes from got like 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, that's not the best sell in the world. Besides, the heavy motion blur/30FPS thing they've got going on now has recently become one of my biggest visual pet peeves of the modern video game era. Just makes my eyes hurt.
That's not to say the remake is a bad game - The actual improvements to the assets look beautiful and I'm sure the controls are pretty tight over 8 games later. I just don't think I could be all in on it if the story changes are as bad as they seem. It's an odd way to remake an already fantastic game, when games like Resident Evil 2 2019 are much more faithful about sticking to the original.
Either way, nothing here is outside of the realm of possibility. I liked these first three games so much I do want to play more Ratchet & Clank adventures eventually.
After playing each game I watched the Developer Commentary by Mike Stout and Tony Garcia, former Insomniac devs who were testers on the first Ratchet and gradually moved up until they were designer and programmer respectively on Up Your Arsenal. Their commentary is invaluable when it comes to learning a bit about the behind the scenes aspects of the games, and they're both funny guys to boot. These guys have been friend since high school and you can tell. Sometimes other people are on it too, most commonly Mike's wife Mary, who was also a tester on several of the games.
Tony's the person responsible for the snow level with the snow beasts in 2, which is probably the worst level in this collection. To be fair, he did it in three days. I wonder if there are similar stories behind all other bad sections of otherwise fun games.
(The commentary was made before 2014, so be ready for the occasional use of "r*tarded" with no shame whatsoever. It's been a long while since the last episode. I hope they get together again for some other game, even if it's not one they worked on).
Insomniac devs usually livestream games... once a week now, I think? I like tuning in for when they have devs commenting over their own games. In this case, a couple of the old devs of Ratchet 1 playing through the first hour or so of that game along with one of their newer employees. Mike and Tony didn't have much creative say in Ratchet 1 so they didn't cover it much, and this episode fills in that gap just a little bit. See also the Ratchet episode of Devs Play with Tim Schafer and Ted Price.
This movie-length critique of the original Ratchet & Clank and its reboot is one of my favorite videos on youtube. It's snappy, funny, really insightful and compares the two games very effectively. Youtube analysis videos of games tend to be either a bit dry or shouty for me. You often get either super dull academic stuff or angry video game nerd yelling. Charlie's cheeky persona here manages to both entertain and critique, and it flows so well I've watched it many times even though it's incredibly long. His love of the old game kinda balances out his loathing for the remake, in my opinion, and his nitpicks are alright 'cause they're funny. This review is what made me want to go search out the Ratchet games in the first place, so if I haven't convinced you with my own review, try this guy.
Anyway, I hope I could bring a little bit of attention to old Ratchet & Clank even as we're sandwiched between releases like the Resident Evil 2 remake, Kingdom Hearts 3, Sekiro and Devil May Cry V. The thematic core, the actual story, that's strongest in the first game, which I feel is often the case. You make one solid, emotional, lowkey, moody game, and then for the next ones you up the action and wackiness gradually until there's hardly anything left of the original tone.
Ratchet & Clank have the advantage that Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal are still excellent games, even if 3 did move away from the original and 2 has some serious story issues. It wouldn't surprise me if lots of folks plain can't go back to Ratchet 1 after 2 and 3 made it into more of a shooter. It just depends on taste. Do you lean closer to good third person shooting or good 3d platforming? Do you value variety and polish or stronger iteration on a combat system? Can you stomach bad 2d platformers or plain space combat sections more easily? Do you prefer something low-key and open or something more intense and linear? Would you rather have a focus on the protags or on the funny bad guys and fside characters?
They're all well worth playing, and I can imagine any of these games being someone's favorite in the series. I might have given 2 some shit, but I still thoroughly enjoyed most aspects of that game.
From the outside you always heard jokes about how the only thing they changed between Ratchet games was the color of the UI, but I've found that to be some bullshit in practice. These games changed a lot despite being annual releases, and I think they all have their place.
If you find yourself missing the 3d platformers of yore but haven't tried these out yet, give the Ratchet & Clank trilogy a shot. In the gaming landscape of today, they're a breath of fresh air. There's nothing else quite like them. Thanks for reading!