Having never played any of the Ratchet and Clank series, I really wasn't sure what to expect with the latest installment entitled Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One. All I really knew about the franchise was that the main protagonist has big ears, a robot buddy, and a penchant for over-the-top weaponry. Regarded as an action platformer with a crazy armory, the good people at Insomniac Games took the reins and gave it a co-op focus. And I have to tell you, my time with Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One was a surprisingly enjoyable, if flawed, experience.
As the game begins, Ratchet and his good buddy Clank are pondering their retirement (after so many adventures, who can blame them) when who should show up but their arch nemesis Doctor Nefarious. The fiend unleashes a Z'Grute on Luminopolis. But after defeating the monstrous creature, our heroes, along with Captain (sorry, make that President) Qwark, and the evil Dr. Nefarious are sucked up by a giant machine and deposited on the planet of Magnus. The unusual quartet soon learn that the machine, called Ephemeris, is collecting up all the most dangerous creatures from all over the galaxy and dumping them on this out-of-the-way planet, much to the annoyance of the indigenous population. Said aliens then enlist their aid to rid them of the machine and its sinister purpose. With a sigh that speaks volumes, they agree... hence the title.
The story is wholly predictable with all the standard twists and turns (the ending is good), but that's doesn't make it any less fun. The off-the-cuff, irreverent humor reminds me a great deal of Pixar's movies. The voice acting is well done, even if some of the dialogue is painfully cliched. The music suffers from a similar conundrum: for the most part it's good and works well to set the mood, but does tend to get far too repetitive during battle. Graphically, the cartoony aesthetic works well, boasting a surprising amount of detail, especially in the environments. I love the little interludes when you unlock a new weapon... for some reason it reminds me of Bioshock.
The gameplay is a mix of gun-based third-person action (with melee elements), platforming, and puzzle solving. Inventive weaponry is what the series is known for and All 4 One doesn't disappoint in this regard. There is a mild upgrade system in place (you collect bolts, which act as currency), but the real joy comes from finding out what you've unlocked next. I don't want to list them all (it would take too long), but I will mention a couple of my favorites. After your standard Combuster (pistol), there is the Warmonger (rocket launcher), and Plasmabomb Launcher (grenade launcher). But personally, I love the Critterstrike. This interesting weapon will, if a direct beam is maintained on the target, turn said target into a pig. It's fantastic, and almost makes the game too easy.
But what is clever (and applies to all weapons beyond the Critterstrike) is that if your partners use the same weapon on the same target, the effect speeds up and will even culminate in a combined-effect explosion called an Overload Attack. Then there is Mr. Zurcon... an armed robot that you can summon to fight alongside you. Not only is he effective, but spouts the best one-liners in the game. Worthy of a chuckle, to say the least.
I also like the level design. I always find with these types of games that the level progression is better than more modern fare simply because it forces you to keep in mind all the things you've learned. There are a series of in-game objectives, as well as an ongoing game involving collecting critters that are scattered throughout the levels. Collect enough and you get to participate in a mini-game where you have to use what you've learned to direct a critter through a maze. Completing the task earns you a piece of the Ryno, the ultimate mech suit. With so much variety to the puzzles and platforming sections mixed in, there is a lot to remember. It's like a test to see if you've actually retained everything the game has been trying to teach you. And the following sense of accomplishment is always rewarding.
This time around the focus is on cooperative gameplay. The idea is that you can play either online or offline with up to four players. It's all about teamwork! The truth is, it's best played on the couch with a friend. Despite having the option to play with three others online, things get a little too chaotic visually. It's difficult to target a particular enemy on a screen full of the combined effects of your colleagues. But teaming up with a buddy (just like the single player campaign) makes things manageable and not so overwhelming. I also like it because it forces communication. You'll find yourself yelling out to switch weapons as ammo gets low.
Speaking of the single player campaign, I have to mention that the ally AI is excellent... for the most part. Clank does a great job of getting in position for the plethora of moments when two players are needed to solve puzzles. He is also proficient in combat, changing his weapon when you do to guarantee greater effect. He'll never be as good as co-oping with a friend, but with a few exceptions where he would get caught on the environment or seemed to be pondering what to do next while getting shot repeatedly, he does a great job.
As fun as All 4 One can be, there are some key issues that hold it back. There are some glitches and interface issues (when trying to change guns, the game pauses, but it can still be a trial to get the right one selected), but it runs quite well. It's only when things get really hectic that you'll see some lag. This is actually a good argument against playing with too many companions (and probably why in the single player, you play as Ratchet with an AI Clank and that's it). Because of the game being designed around four-player co-op, the camera is fixed. This can get annoying, as you'll find yourself unable to see enemies or target them -- not to mention it can make platforming a pain. It's not always a problem, but when it rears its ugly head, you'll definitely notice. This is compounded by the tethering issues inherent with this kind of game. You're kind of stuck on the screen of whoever is hosting, and if you're running in opposite directions, you'll hit invisible walls. This can be severely limiting, especially during intense firefights in a small area.
I always take issue with puzzle games that, while clever in their execution, aren't followed up by mechanics that actually work. For the most part the controls are straightforward (although they can be confusing as you outfit your arsenal), but the targeting can sometimes be difficult. Sometimes I'd have worked out the puzzles in All 4 One, but it took me several tries because the controls didn't make things easy. As the puzzles become more complicated during the latter half of the game, your need to rely on either your partner or the ally AI becomes increasingly greater, and can therefore lead to more frustrating moments. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it did lead to one or more sideways looks at my co-op buddy (or yelling at the computer controlled Clank on the TV).
But my main gripe is that All 4 One is surprisingly long... a good 10 to 12 hour run. The problem is that they stop introducing new elements about two thirds of the way through. The levels themselves are quite long, and things get repetitive. While they go a long way trying to keep things fresh, the same mechanics were used too often, as were some of the platforming segments. To be honest, things got a little boring. Normally I'm not one to take issue with this (as long as it's fun), but you could easily cut huge portions out of it and things would be fine.
I came into this review not knowing what to expect. Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One surprised me. I actually had fun with it! I don't know how fans of the series will take to the fixed camera and co-op focus, but for me, the sense of humor to the story left me chuckling, and the action is nothing if not intense. Despite some technical issues and odd design decisions (namely the overly repetitious parts that elongated the game), if you have friends to play with all the better, as that's definitely the way to go.