“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next.” Alexandre Dumas
Without realising it at the time, Insomniac games couldn’t have picked a better writer than Dumas as inspiration for the latest Ratchet and Clank title. ‘All for one’ might spark depths of spirit and unity from within but they are words that come from a scribe almost obsessed by the omnipresence of despair. Here was a man who once claimed that if God had experienced his life, he would of committed suicide. He was a man whose skill as a writer was to present the depths of despondency but in the most glorious of fashions and somehow by borrowing one his most famous phrases, Insomniac have managed to create a title that captures this duality of experience.
As the quote mentions above, Insomniac have had little to worry about over recent years. In fact their humour and verve have been responsible for some of my favourite games of the past decade. Now that the Future Trilogy has come to an end the storm is beginning to rage and even though they might not be broken and battered against the rocks, the franchise is certainly starting to get a little soggy.
Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One is a dramatic departure for the series, as for the first time the focus shifts to co-op gameplay rather than the solo experience of the previous titles. It is possible to play Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One on your own but this is a game that has been designed from top to toe to accommodate four players.
By once again failing in his attempts to extinguish the lives of Ratchet, Captain Quark and Clank, Dr. Nefarious kicks into action a contrived plot which brings the four together to fight a common enemy and find their way back home. The game includes much of the same systems of play seen in many of the titles that have gone before it. There are a rich variety of weapons, enemies and platforming puzzles but this time you can choose to be Ratchet, Clank, Quark or Nefarious. However, anyone who has played through most of the series will probably feel just as uncomfortable by the quartet as I.
Even from the start, as a group the four never seem to gel. Mainly due to the fact that their past encounters are mostly ignored to suit the new style of play. Firstly Captain Quark has a prestigious record of being the biggest scaredy-cat of the series, but suddenly he has become a proficient and competent fighter. Strange though this is, Dr. Nefarious is the most unsettling addition of all. Why he even sticks with the group throughout the entire narrative is something that is never made clear and symptomatic of what is an ill-conceived story. Even in cutscenes he drifts in the back ground and is never connected with any of the events in any tangible way. Considering the wealth of characters and allies that could have been used by Insomniac, it is a surprise that they thought it was worth sacrificing years of character development just to have an excuse to put the series stalwarts on screen at once.
As you would expect from any Ratchet and Clank game, there is wealth to see and do, from precarious platforming to plenty of cacophonous combat and it is all presented in the usual style. Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One shines quality in presentation and certainly could be the funniest edition to the series, but the worlds, animation and styling have all been marred by an experience so focused on other things. The biggest culprit of which is the camera.
The second biggest change to the series is the camera is now placed in a fixed position to better capture the action of all four players in one go. Once a great cinematic staple of the series, the camera in All 4 One never gets the balance right between action and context. Platforms can be hidden behind where the camera refuses to go and routes blocked until the last minute when the camera decides to move on. At times this makes the exploration and enjoyment of the world an unrewarding affair. As if controlled by an overactive director, the camera always tracks the player out in front to help keep the action going, though this is often to the disadvantage to those who are either struggling with platforming elements or others who want to take their time to explore.
Level design is also lacklustre when in the shadow of the franchise, as everything is designed to be inhabited by four players. If you’re looking to play on your own, you’ll find that the world feels soulless and empty. The wide expanses of platforms and the huge vistas on which to do battle are the perfect size for four, but never feel home to someone who wants to keep the experience to themselves. Constantly the design never accounts for the solo player. Even the over game commentary refers to all four characters being on screen at once, though when playing alone, they will only join you when needed in cutscences.
Teaming up with a group of people is easy work though. I often hopped online by myself and waited for people to migrate to my game whilst I made my way through several levels. It is hit or miss if you’re going to find people that are willing to perform as part of the team, however. Even though the title exudes the want for unity there is also a staunch competitive element to proceedings, with those collecting the most bolts, killing the most enemies or performing the most co-op actions being declared winner at the end of each stage. Whereas in games like Little Big Planet, these moments to collect and horde were well balanced and used to break up the pace. In Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One however, the bolts, enemies and collectables appear with such frequency that more often than not you’ll encounter players more concerned with winning a level than playing as a team.
There will be plenty of occasions though that even these selfish online denizens will have to perform co-operative tasks. When playing on your own, these are dealt with by a very competent AI Clank. He is triggered into action whenever a gap needs jumping or enemies need a little trimming down. Of course the best fun comes with three other ‘live’ players on screen to take care of the team tasks. Using the Vac-U to suck up bolts and then hurl a pal over to another platform is mechanically satisfying. Other times you’ll be called to direct a raft in unison and even weapons are more powerful when used together. There isn’t that much variety in the co-op tasks and you’ll encounter the same ones over and again but they at least prove that Insomniac have included practical and fun team mechanics, even if they quickly become monotonous.
Due to the fact that play can essentially be dictated by the one player who reaches an area first or starts a chain of co-op moves, communication is a key aspect to making sure that a random bunch of online hobbyists get along. It would make sense then to include voice-chat in such a multi-player heavy experience. However during my many hours playing online I never encountered one person using the feature and my own attempts to use the headset yielded no response. There was not even an on-screen display to show that I was using the device or any in-game messaging service to let others know that I wanted to communicate. It is of no surprise then that this serious omission of either design or function made much of the online experience at times a desperate chore. Add to this several glitches which forced me on more than one occasion to quit an entire game and the world quickly becomes frustrating and diluted.
You expect such a level of quality from Insomniac because they have been in the sunshine for so long, but the misfit narrative, disastrous bunch of characters, a camera that is essentially biased to the fastest player, and all of Insomniac’s hard work quickly becomes undone. Everything in-between the sloppy plot never reaches above competent. Enemies are the same variations of those you’ve seen before and the controls feel clumsier than in previous games.
In ways I feel that I’m putting the hammer down hard because I expect so much from an Insomniac title and there are things in Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One that have taken my interest and shown promise. However, overall the game would have made a better dual experience rather than once forced into four, as in essence there is too much going on to ever provide a coherent title.
What you have here is a game that looks great and is full of life, but so much of it gets either recycled and reused, or is badly focused and poorly conceived. The ambition here far outweighs the results. If it was a shorter, much cheaper title then there could have been more possibilities, but Insomniac have stretched both the series and the characters too far.
MLG Rating: 5/10
Platform: PS3 Release Date: 21/10/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.