By Redhotchilimist 5 Comments
I reviewed the Ratchet & Clank Trilogy back in March, the HD PS3 ports of those classic PS2 titles. But the one PS2 Ratchet game not included on there was 2005's Ratchet Gladiator (Ratchet Deadlocked for the Americans in the audience), which instead was released as a standalone port a year later. Now I somewhat regret doing that review before playing this one. It definitely belongs to the same series, and it's strange that they weren't packaged together.
Presumably that was just a business decision - they figured a package with three games for that price was the way to go. But considering the quality of the Gladiator port, and the shifts it made from the previous games, it feels more like they tried to bury it.
To get the obvious out of the way first, this port is bad, far and away the most janky of the HD ports. Idol Minds are responsible for all of them(they're the people behind Neopets: The Darkest Faerie and Life is Strange: Before the Storm), so who knows what happened. I dunno what the cause is, but the symptoms are clear:
- Some serious clipping in cutscenes, with parts of the main characters' heads clipping through their face in the introductory scenes.
- Certain textures and effects don't work as intended. For instance, sunglasses don't have the proper transparency.
- A weird bug with the animation of the characters. In every in-engine cinematic, the characters constantly jitter during their animations. It's like they've got their key poses, but they lack tweening or something. It looks terrible.
These graphical glitches combine with other flaws in the game and kinda cancel each other out. The game's story is noticably shorter than the other games, limiting the time you spend looking at cutscenes. Like the other HD ports, there's also pre-rendered cutscenes taken directly from the PS2 games with no change( I didn't think that was worth calling out during the review of those games). Idol Minds probably didn't have the assets or whatever to re-render those scenes. It's unfortunate, but I could live with it.
What you end up with is a story that's shorter than before, with mostly pre-rendered old PS2 cutscenes, only rarely broken up by shitty HD-ified real time cutscenes. They haven't even got subtitles. But at least the reliance on unchanged scenes means you don't gotta deal with the jank, and the short story means you don't gotta deal with cutscenes much as a whole. It's not ideal, but it's not as bad as I feared.
Insomniac must've been tired of Ratchet at this point, which I don't blame them for. Annual franchises have got to be rough. The initial game was a mixture of 3d platformers and shooters, with large multiple-path stages to explore and NPCs to interact with. You got the joyful mascot platformer antics, but you also got shooting, buddy cop stuff, innuendos, cynical satire and dry wit. It's a fun, unique mix. The two sequels since moved gradually closer to wacky animated kids movie comedies and multiplayer shooter gameplay. The previous one, Up Your Arsenal, gave you complete control over the aiming from stage 1 and had a story that was way more interested in being funny than being thematically coherent.
Gladiator takes the gameplay from UYA to its logical extreme. Every stage is now essentially a repurposed multiplayer map. All you do is shooting and driving some vehicles that also shoot. You've always got two AI buddies helping you out in combat that you can also command to pull levers and such. Clank is now a side character that only talks to you over the radio. But the story is probably the closest to Ratchet 1 of any of these later games. I don't think it's as tightly written (some lines and jokes feel a lot more "kiddie", when in 1 they would've been more dry), but it fits well thematically as a continuation of that game.
Ratchet & Clank( and also Big Al, one of the Ratchet 1 NPCs that joined the galactic rangers in the last game) are kidnapped by the Gleeman Vox Media Empire, get explosive collars stuck around their necks and have to fight for their lives in the Dreadzone, an illegal gladitorial space station Vox broadcasts from. Big Al hooks Ratchet up with a new power armor and two robot buddies, and together they start working towards the top of the rankings and finally break out.
It's a simple setup, and establishes a framework effortlessly. Dreadzone is a TV show, so you've got two commenters talking over the matches and about the heroes' progress in-between them, usually painting Ratchet as a scumbag with no chance to succeed. You also get to see various promos and commercials for the bosses you're going up against and occupied planets you're fighting on, and see Gleeman Vox get increasingly flustered as merchandise of his main gladiator stagnates while Ratchet's popularity skyrockets.
This all works really well with the themes of the series, and especially the first game. The galaxy was obsessed with money and celebrity worship, blinded by fake news and bullshit commercials. Some of that remained in Up Your Arsenal, but it was mostly gone in favour of wacky supervillain antics. Here it's all put to the forefront again, through an expanded take on the Arenas introduced in ratchet 2. And it's so satisfying to see Ratchet go through the machine and tear it all down when he could just accept the money and stay as a star. In fact, this game has Ratchet as the closest he was to 1, where he was more self-interested. At the beginning, he's tempted by the money and fame of the arena even though he was kidnapped. It's a bit unearned considering how much of a boy scout he was in the last two games, but still appreciated. He actually gets to have some growth again.
Having said all this, while the story is solid it does have its flaws. Most of the time is spent with commercials, promos and cutscenes of Gleeman Vox himself. Don't get me wrong, Vox is spectacular. It's hard to imagine a better version of his slimy, greedy, corporate scumbaggery, and he's voiced perfectly by Michael Bell (who's also voicing Lawrence and some other minor characters in the series). But there's very little time spent with our main characters this time around, and that does make it feel a bit distant. There's a couple episodes of the Justice League cartoon where Joker takes over a TV studio and broadcasts the heroes fighting his team of bad guys while trying to dismantle bombs. Most of the episodes are viewed through his cameras, with him giving the live commentary. That's what you're in for here. It works out okay, but only if you already know Ratchet & Clank from the other games, and even then it feels a bit slight.
And because we're mostly viewing the events through the lenses of the Vox News, there's not enough time to get into the characters. Ace Hardlight, for instance, is a pretty good foil to Ratchet. He's a great example of what Ratchet could've become had he not met Clank and earned a conscience, what could've happened if Ratchet just stayed in the Arena for the fame. Given the proper time and presence then, Ace could've been a really memorable character, a Vergil to Ratchet's Dante. But because of the way the story is handled, he only really sneers at you until he's defeated. I felt the most attached to the Vox News anchors by the end, and they're just a comedic banter duo with no agency in the story.
The shootin' around
The gameplay, then. It's mostly unchanged from the controls in UYA, although the free aiming is now the default rather than an option. Without Clank on your back, you also can't do any manouvers he was used for in the previous games, limiting your mobility. The weapon wheel is slicker, largely because the weapon count has been reduced. You only have the archetypes, but can then add different effects to them. Ice, acid, electricity and so on. It works out fine. Every weapon can now be upgraded even more than in UYA( I'm fairly certain it's 10 times on new game, and then endless on new game +), resulting in some pretty crazy weapons. The game's shotgun starts out identical to the shotguns of old, but by the end of the game every buckshot fired powerful homing lasers into every enemy on screen.
I played on the hardest available difficulty from the beginning. Ratchet 1-3 had no difficulty slider, but the remaining bolts and experience after death made sure that you were eventually going to beat any level. Ratchet Gladiator on Hero is definitely difficult, which makes it exciting to play. But the same self-adjusting principle from the previous games still applies, and by the end the only enemies able to keep me at bay were the bosses.
The big changes are in the level design. One old trope has been added back in: The grind rails, mysteriously gone from UYA. You can even shoot while grinding on them now. However, this is limited to the blaster weapon. You can't get up on a grind rail and let loose a barrage of missiles or a deafening shotgun blast, which is a shame. You're also never expected to do a lot of fighting on them, or use them for a boss fight. They're mostly used just for commutes between arenas, with you now having to shoot enemies standing on floatng platforms who'll nail you if you don't shoot them first. The return of the grind rails is welcome, and shooting from them is a cool little innovation, but it's not a massive step ahead and it isn't used in a mindblowing way. Back in Ratchet 1 you could use them during the final boss fight to dodge Drek's attacks, and I wish they had built on that. I suppose I kinda got my wish years later when Insomniac made Sunset Overdrive? Pretty sure they're all over that game, as the core of your manouverability in fights.
Any semblance of multiple paths, platforming and exploration are now entirely gone from the series. Ratchet & Clank has this tradition where the first shot you see of a stage (after a short animation of the characters getting out of a spaceship, in most of the games) is a beautiful, zoomed out landscape. Deadlocked still does this, but it's laughably out of place on most of these stages. During the final stage, it tries to do this pulled-out beautiful landscape shot with a corridor.
Instead of all that platformy stuff, your time is split between doing arena challenges on Dreadzone proper and being flown out to multiplayer map-like stages on planets that Vox and his mooks either own or are occupying. There, you're stuck doing the same objectives over and over. Get here. Go there. Blow up this or that, push those switches, drive a vehicle over there. Defend the point. Defeat this wave of mooks. Just follow the waypoint markers.
At first, this was alright, but it sure became tedious after a while. Arena challenges back in Ratchet 2 were a lot of fun. You got to play around with the at the time new shooter mecanics in an area specifically designed for them. But by the time UYA rolled around, I felt like I got enough shooting in the main campaign. In Gladiator, every single stage is a boring checklist of objectives, and there's no context to it beyond "we're participating in Dreadzone, and this is our next fight". You could replace them with basically anything and it wouldn't change a thing about the plot.
You've got a ladder of fun bosses to look forward to fighting after every second planet or so, but the main gameplay loop of this game is seriously boring to me. Up Your Arsenal, for all its flaws in level design, had a completely new system of aiming and still provided a story about going on a funny adventure to defeat an evil dude. As reduced as it was, there was still some variety, and within the story things were constantly happening that demanded your immediate action. In this game you're stuck doing multiplayer challenge maps for an arbitrary amount of time until Clank hacks the explosive collars(spoiler: It's at the top of the in-game Dreadzone ranking) and you can take the fight to Vox.
Ratchet Gladiator is the only Ratchet game where I started putting on a podcast during the latter half of the game. The conceit of the setting, the cool new music, the story, that could only hold my attention so long. When it came time to actually go down on a planet and crank four new bolts into place before moving on to the next objective, I just got so tired. Even the difficulty didn't help to liven things up after so much of the same.
So after all that, would I recommend Ratchet Gladiator? Probably not. The port is full of glaring issues. The shooting is as polished as ever, but it's also all that's left of the huge variety of gameplay and grand level design this franchise used to have. And while the story is quite good, it's also spread thin over a dozen dull multiplayer map-planets. I didn't have a bad time, but I sure got bored before the end, and it's not a good look when the game is this short on content and still feels padded.
There are aspects of Gladiator I respect and enjoy - the solid shooting, the slick new UI, the cool new music tracks, the general story, some funny gags here and there. That edgy-ass power armor that looks so, so cool. There are many likeable things about Gladiator, and you can still go back to it in 2019 without feeling like it's terribly aged despite it being 14 years old now. But it's easily the game in the franchise so far I've had the most problems with, and the one I feel the least inclined to return to. This honor used to go to Going Commando, but while that game's story left me unsatisfied and confused I was never bored like this during it.
Despite being the last of its ilk, the final game in the PS2 series, Gladiator doesn't really feel like a conclusive ending to the earlier games. More like one more adventure for ol' Ratchet & Clank, a short aside rather than a grand finale. Ratchet getting some mermaid's phone number and and some admittedly funny post-credit scenes don't really work as an ending to the PS2 era. This is where the series would've benefited from some overarching goal, like something the characters could've been looking for for all these games. Maybe that sort of thing might just be tempting fate when you don't know if you're ever gonna get to make that next sequel. However, I think they did attempt something a little bit like this with the PS3 series, so I guess we'll see.
Check it out if you really care for more of the classic Ratchet shooting, and don't if you don't. Watching the cutscenes is done in a flash if you only care for the story and not hours upon hours of challenges. You can have some fun with Ratchet Gladiator, but there are better old games to spend your time on, like the first three games in the series. Or you know, Wind Waker or whatever. Resident Evil 4. Dawn of Sorrow. There are a lot of amazing early to mid 2000s games that are worth checking out if you're looking to dig into games from this era, and I don't think Gladiator warrants much priority there.
Next up is Tools of Destruction, the first PS3 game. I have been playing other games this year besides old Ratchet too, so hey, maybe a review of one of those is in order first. Devil May Cry 5 might be a pretty good game, just saying.