Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (PS3)
Ever since the PlayStation 3 came out a year ago, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction was exactly what Sony's next-gen system needed: a well-known franchise with proven gameplay and lots of fancy graphics whirling wildly and merrily. Blu-ray, schmu-ray. We're gamers. Get that little furry guy and his robot buddy in here so we can tear it up. And that's exactly what Tools of Destruction finally does.
The Ratchet & Clank series is a bit of an odd duck for how it marries platformers with shooters. Imagine a hybrid of Mario's charm, minus the kiddie-stigma, and those Unreal Tournament guns, minus the Goth, grit, and gore. Over the last five years, the developers at Insomniac have honed to perfection their platformer/shooter hybrid. It has the constant forward pull of a platformer, complete with collecting and cheerful splashy visuals. But it has the glorious gunplay of a shooter, with outrageous and upgradeable weapons. And perhaps most remarkably, Insomniac has worked wonders with the PlayStation 2, consistently pushing the envelope of what the hardware could do, even as it was going obsolete.
The PS3's next-gen hardware is a huge asset to the Ratchet & Clank series. There's no slowdown in Tools of Destruction, despite gratuitous showers of glowing golden bolts, swarms of elaborate clanking robots, and bits of the environment breaking obligingly under your swinging wrench. If you're looking closely, you'll appreciate Ratchet's finely detailed fur and ear physics. You might even notice that the goodie-crates are actual stacked objects that can be toppled over. Technically speaking, this is a great showcase for the PS3, and it gives the series the hardware power it's long deserved.
But in terms of gameplay, there's something sadly unambitious about Ratchet & Clank Future. You can hardly blame Insomniac, since they're doing what they do best, and no one expects them to reinvent the wheel. But the previous games in the series all have had a touch of new, whether it's sphere worlds, multiplayer support, cool new mini-games or fresh and inventive weapons.
Instead, Tools of Destruction offers somewhat of a comfort-food vibe by resorting to the same old gimmicks: the rail grinding, the arena challenges, the Clank missions, the magnetic walkways and the goofy robot bad guys. Even the supposedly new weapons elicit a response of 'Ah, yes, this is the Tools of Destruction version of that old gun!' Even if it is a bit too familiar, it's awfully comfortable. Of course, if you're new to Ratchet & Clank, then you're in for one hell of a ride.
There are a few new touches. The teleport cannons on one level are a bit like Super Mario Galaxy. The funky space station's gravity tricks are a bit like an elaborate version of the sphere worlds. Clank's new time control powers figure prominently in his puzzle missions, which feature mystical floating creatures instead of the cute robots who used to tag along behind him. But for all intents and purposes, the Clank missions play the same as they always have. You need to accumulate a certain number of the creatures to open doors, and you'll need to use their tricks to get past certain puzzles.
The new spaceship levels are a welcome return. But with their independent controls for moving and firing, they're a bit of a handful. Insomniac is clearly attempting a bit of retro shooter gameplay, giving it some extra oomph with these next-gen graphics. Once the controls click, it works wonderfully. The spaceship missions are gorgeous orgies of color, light and movement.
It wouldn't be a Ratchet & Clank without a robust collection sub-game. This is based mainly on bolts, but there's also Raritanium for upgrading your weapons (which can even be upgraded to produce more bolts and Raritanium). There are points in the game where you have to collect "Leviathan souls" by fighting what are essentially mini-bosses. And, of course, there are gold bolts hidden around the galaxy that unlock costumes. You can unlock cheats by finishing secret achievements on each world, and there are hidden blueprints that you'll need to find for the ultimate weapon.
The weapon upgrades are a compromise between fussiness and autopilot simplicity, which are both errors Insomniac has made in the previous Ratchet & Clank games. In Tools of Destruction, you navigate a tree of upgrades for each weapon, with a special mystery upgrade nestled at the far end of the tree. There's nothing like getting to peer underneath a question mark to make you want to reach a distant point on a tech tree. There are also one-off devices taking the place of the more powerful weapons. The disco ball alone is almost worth the price of admission.
Of course, Sony's mandatory Sixaxis gimmicks are present. They're only mildly annoying. You can steer a tornado by tilting the gamepad, which is harder than it sounds, particularly if you're also trying to move Ratchet. A Sixaxis-controlled gyro cycle appears in a couple of sequences that can't end soon enough, but it's nowhere near as aggravating at the hacking mini-games, which have you rolling a ball around a tilting tray. Ratchet & Clank Future grinds to a screeching halt when you come to these sequences. There's also a pointless but innocuous gimmick where you use the Sixaxis to steer a cutting laser. Equally pointless are a few conversation trees. Exposition in a Ratchet & Clank game? Hey, you got your Mass Effect in my platformer!
But it's worth noting that the storyline is actually interesting this time around. There are still plenty of jokes, slightly less juvenile than usual, but with just as much stupid potty humor. However, under the funny is a strange hint of genocide and corporate guilt. There's also an intriguing mystery about the Zoni, Clank's ghostly new friends.
The sensation longtime fans might feel while hurtling through Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is mild disappointment. There's nothing new here, and it's so forgiving that your first play-through will fly by in a couple of evenings. It's an easy-going reiteration of the same slick combat, wacky weapons, cute enemies and lowbrow cut scenes that have made the series so good all along. But that's the problem with starting out almost perfect. After five years, there's only so much further you can go.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.