As I've mentioned before, games often attempt to emulate Hollywood films. This is particularly true when it comes to sequels. For years now, Hollywood has operated under the notion that a sequel must take the first film and simply up the stakes in every way imaginable—more conflict, more explosions, more death, more dramaeverything seems to be exponentially bigger than the original. Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando lets gamers know that this game is going to be bigger and badder than the previous release right off the bat-the game's title comes up, then explodes into about a billion pieces. Luckily, though, Going Commando is one of those really rare sequels—one that actually lives up to the spirit of the original while improving on it in subtle ways.

Since Going Commando was released a mere year after the first game in the series, I had some trepidation about the game prior to playing it. Even though the guys at Insomniac were simply re-using the Naughty Dog game engine from the first title, a one-year hiatus between releases seems incredibly short. My biggest fear was that players would be treated to a title that was little more than a rehash of the first game instead of a new experience. Luckily, I couldn't have been more wrong.

While Going Commando has a lot in common with the first Ratchet & Clank title, the developers have gone out of their way to tweak the core gameplay in ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The addition of a pseudo leveling-up system for both Ratchet and his weapons is a stroke of genius. Now players are encouraged to take out every enemy on the screen in order to gain another life bar. Similarly, weapons get stronger with use, meaning that relying almost exclusively on Ratchet's wrench is a thing of the past.

All of which brings me to another issue that Insomniac saw in the first game and addressed in the sequel: the weapons.

In the first game, weapons were cool, but it was entirely possible to go through the majority of the game without using anything but the standard wrench. Because of this, many of the game's guns and other items seemed more like tacked on gimmicks than organic outgrowths of the gameplay. This time out, that's been remedied. Since enemies are stronger, more numerous, and seem to have different strengths and vulnerabilities, using the game's weapons is not only encouraged, it's essential. In fact, most gamers will spend a fair amount of time figuring out what weapon works against which type of enemy (because, fortunately enough, there's no one weapon that is so unbalanced it eliminates the need for others) and only using the wrench for crate smashing.

Keeping with the sequel maxim that "bigger is better," the game features a galaxy of worlds to explore that is significantly larger than the original. Planets are varied and unique throughout, including the platformer standard ice world as well as mines, space stations, and assorted other exotic locales to check out. Worlds are filled with enemies, secret areas, hidden goodies, and more so using the map to ensure that every inch of land is checked out is essential for those who want to find everything the first time through.

The game does have replay value, though. Some of the high-end items in the game cost an exorbitant amount of bolts—meaning players will spend hours collecting cash to get them or will have to wait until they beat the game and can play through challenge mode.

Challenge mode, as the name suggests, is a more difficult version of the game. Weapons can be upgraded again into even more powerful forms, bosses are harder, regular enemies are harder, Ratchet keeps his health level from the main game, and the rewards are greater. Challenge mode features a multiplier; hitting enemies causes the multiplier to increase (up to 20), which multiplies the number of bolts earned. Taking a hit from an enemy sends the multiplier back to one, though, so players have to execute caution in their attacks. At any rate, getting enough bolts to buy the expensive items isn't a problem the second time through, and the game is actually worth playing again just to see the rare items in action. It's genuinely one of the few games I've played that is just as much fun the second time around as it was the first.

When exploration, platforming, and beating down hordes of enemies get old, players can engage in one of several different mini-games. There are hoverbike races to be won, intergalactic space battles to fight, and several gladiatorial arenas. Winning events in each place earns Ratchet bolts (which return as the game's currency), various special items, raritanium (for upgrading his ship), and other goodies. All of the mini-games are integrated into the core game quite nicely—even the space ship fighting, which many critics seem to have found lacking.

However, when it's all said and done, what really puts Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando over the top is the game's writing. Simply put, this game is funny. I found myself laughing at the cutscenes on numerous occasions, and not laughing at them because they were bad but because they were genuinely funny. The game features a great cast of characters, with only one (the new-age hippie mystic) who overstays his welcome. Clank still manages to upstage Ratchet for me, personally, but Ratchet is a better character this time out. Players who like an entertaining story to break up their platforming and shooting should be pleased.

What a yearI was all set to give Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time my vote for best game of 2003, and then Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando comes along and casts doubt on my original decision. The beauty of it is that there's no real loser here—least of all gamers, who've been treated to two really great games in less than a two-month span. If nothing else, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando should serve as a blueprint for future sequels in the gaming world. It's proof positive that developers can make a game that's bigger than the original in nearly every way while tweaking the core mechanics and making it better at the same time. Rating: 9 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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