While playing Ratchet & Clank, I found myself having a difficult time justifying to others why I thought it was a good way to spend my time. What's the point in playing platform games nowadays anyway? With the current generation of games, we have enemies with artificial intelligence far more advanced than the predictable patterns of the goombas in platformers. Platformers are among the most archaic of videogame formulas, and with the advent of 3D gaming and after Nintendo's Super Mario 64, the genre has been playing catch-up with the rest of the gaming world. I'll say it right now: There isn't any obvious indication of innovation in Ratchet & Clank, and I have had some trouble deciding what it should finally be graded as.
By now it's obvious what rating I decided on, but as usual we'll start out this evaluative process with the game's premise. Clank is a miniscule but sharp-minded robot created when a computer in a robot factory "glitches." It just so happens the factory belongs to Chairman Drek, leader of the Blargs, who has polluted their planet to the point where he will rip parts from other planets to construct a new planet for his people. When Clank gets wind of this plot, he escapes to the nearby planet of Veldin, where our other hero Ratchet resides. Ratchet is a strange feline-like creature with a knack for mechanics. Clank happens upon Ratchet, and asks him to take him to Captain Quark, a working class superhero, who may help with disrupting Drek's plans. Ratchet agrees to help if Clank would start up his ship, but he eventually gets taken along for the whole ride.
Before we get to anything else, let it be known now that Ratchet is a total prick, especially towards Clank. If Ratchet looks like your stereotypical platform game hero, he certainly doesn't act like one. It's hard to like a hero like Ratchet, who basically doesn't care for the well being of anyone but himself. His only concern is to try out new gadgets and weapons (of which the game has over 36), go for the gusto and seek thrills. Clank is a likeable character that probably has enough spunk to be more of an official Sony mascot than Crash Bandicoot ever was. Unfortunately he's also at the receiving end of Ratchet's merciless torment.
Fortunately controlling Ratchet is a much more relaxing exercise. With your standard jump and crouch functions, he can also swing his multipurpose wrench as a weapon, or throw it as a boomerang. He can also perform your standard action hero double jump, ledge-grabbing, wall-jumps and zip-lining. When you upgrade Clank (attached to Ratchet's back during gameplay), Ratchet will be able to hover and glide his way across pits.
Then there are the weapons that range from guns that turn enemies into chickens to the Nikita-missile-inspired Visibomb gun. You can purchase these from Gadgetron, with retail outlets located all over, with the galaxy's currency of bolts, which can be found scattered around the levels, gathered from broken crates or defeated enemies. You also have to use bolts to progress the game, whether to buy the necessary Clank upgrade or you are bribed by off-beat characters that impede your progress until you pay up. Collecting these necessary trinkets is remarkably smooth going, unlike other platform games that require you to perform difficult feats or not get hit. Ratchet's universe is a land where the bolts flow like the rivers. And the prices are right, low enough to alleviate any frustration in collecting and backtracking (except for the über-powerful rocket launcher RYNO, or Rip Ya a New One), and high enough to give the player incentive to break every crate in the room.
In fact, the most remarkable thing about this game is its impeccable pacing. You have no lives and just start over from pre-set checkpoints, giving you a chance to retry a certain section. The game must be psychic, because every time I only thought about becoming frustrated with a section, all of a sudden it was over. The challenges are never long enough to be tedious, and never difficult enough to be aggravating. For instance, there are three instances where you pilot an aircraft. All three have slightly different twists to them, but none of them are particular exciting. But before you know it, and before you even have a chance to say "I'm bored," the section is over and you're on to the next challenge. The same goes for certain puzzles, bosses and areas where you utilize one of your gadgets for an extended period of time, like the grappling hook, magnet shoes or hoverboard. Even when you control the limited abilities of Clank, the game seems to realize that that kind of gameplay isn't good in extended doses. The game perfects what it means to be a diversion from the main gameplay. While some games tend to integrate various genres and styles into the core gameplay, Ratchet & Clank chooses to keep these on the sidelines, a decision that tends to bring more enjoyment out of these short but sweet segments.
This game isn't revolutionary though. The artificial intelligence is really outdated. Enemies are only "activated" to attack when you're in the vicinity, otherwise they just stay in the background. Picking them off with long distance weapons is all too easy. Plus, it makes finding breathing room during a hectic fight much easier, although that goes along with the whole "frustration-free" mantra of the game. The rest of the game is all old territory, albeit done to near-perfection. Even the jumping abilities of Ratchet are done in a way that he can some times behave like Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series and Dante of Devil May Cry. But again, some of the weapons are utterly useless. There's really little point in using a rocket launcher when the Visibomb gun clearly overshadows it. And the much-hyped Morph-o-Ray, which turns enemies into chickens, isn't even worth getting.
But all this is underscored by competent camera work that you can spin yourself. Sometimes it turns too slowly, but there is a quick-turn feature so enemies creeping from behind won't get in cheap shots. Otherwise there are nearly no camera problems. The game is patient enough for you to adjust the camera whenever needed, and it stays that way until you move it yourself. And if that's not enough, there is absolutely no need for backtracking. Most of the levels have two or three branches, but at the end of all of them lies some way to lead you back to the beginning. Sometimes the level design would be clever enough to lead you back to the beginning. Other times a cab or platform will deliver you back to the beginning. So if you've spent the past half-hour trying to reach that jetpack upgrade and you realize you don't have enough bolts, you'll be eased back to your spaceship, your mode of transportation between planets. Once you get enough bolts, you can take the same platform or opened pathway back to the shop where you get your jetpack.
Any doubt I had over the Playstation 2's graphics capability has been lifted thanks to this game. The sheer amount of activity going on during the screen makes me believe the Playstation 2 can easily achieve Xbox or GameCube level graphics. Each time you begin a level, the camera is panned back so you can see the scope of the level you're about to take. Some levels have a full-blown war going on, other times it'll show what rush hour will look like if the The Jetsons were in a post-apocalyptic world. Naughty Dog, makers of the Crash Bandicoot series and Jak & Daxter, lent their graphics engine to Insomniac. Naughty Dog should be lending their graphics engine to Nintendo as a matter of fact, because this is among the top-tier games in terms of graphics.
So if his game is so good, why did Ratchet have to turn out to be such an ass? The game doesn't seem to have any central theme to it at first. The nonsensical plot weaves through different issues like socio-economic disparity, consumerism, environmentalism, the illusion of celebrities and even the triumph of the Ratchet spirit. Yet Ratchet shirks off everyone's concern except his own, appeasing the economically challenged plumber and saving the environment just so he can continue with his adventures. Perhaps Ratchet is the anti-mascot. Despite his generic appearance and manufactured cool attitude, Ratchet takes everything with a half a grain of salt. Maybe he knows his place in the galaxy, merely an entertainment vessel for players to advance through puzzles and challenges. Who cares if he saves planets or makes someone's life any better? In the end all that matters is that the game is beaten, and the day's adventure is won. Maybe Ratchet realizes sympathizing with anyone else is an exercise in futility, and decides to grind through life on his soap shoes.
Or maybe Ratchet is just a generically designed mascot with attitude, like every other mascot out there. Fortunately he's in what feels like a genetically enhanced platform game. The game's executions of different standards in platforming are almost mathematical in a sense that it's measured with surgical precision. Ratchet & Clank isn't the most revolutionary game out there. It's not the most popular, most hyped or even the prettiest. It's just the best the platforming genre has to offer right now.