Review / Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One (PS3)

You know, for a giant walking cat, super-intelligent robot, egotistic oaf and evil mastermind, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One’s loveable bunch of heroes, somewhat heroes and villains are more relatable than you might first think.

Take Captain Qwark and his nemesis, Doctor Nefarious. Forced to work together in this LEGO-esque take on the franchise, the pair squabble and bicker their way throughout the co-op action, much in the same way I do with my younger sister, who joined me for my playthrough. I need not open my mouth to curse her inferior game-playing abilities, Nefarious will do that for me. And yet, in small moments of triumph, with the high-fiving and fist-bumping, I’m also reminded of the relationship between the two titular characters. I don’t wear the 11-year old on my back, sure, but in the times Ratchet threatens the cutesy enemies to “get away from my pal”, I see a glimpse of that relationship reflected in us two, playing the game there.

This is a family game in a very literal sense, then. And with that approach, as endearing as it is in a story sense, comes a few gameplay changes to the classic formula that will raise an eyebrow or two. No longer does the franchise resemble a weapon-focused Mario, rather it’s closer to a twin-stick shooter. A birds eye camera guides four players along a path that, for the most part, is strewn with enemies just gagging to be shot, hit, electrified or blown up.

Despite the deceptively deep character interaction, story here is much lighter than the Future trilogy that was wrapped up in the last game. It’s a shame we don’t see the emotional highs of A Crack in Time reached again, but there’s little time for it in between the multiplayer-focused action. It gives a reason for all the shooting (and why the series main villain is now working with the heroes), but does little else other than make you laugh based on the witty writing.

The Ratchet & Clank franchise has enjoyed one of the longest and most consistent development cycles in PlayStation history, and even my own review for A Crack in Time two years again called for a fresh face for the series. So hats off to Insomniac for providing said change. No doubt if All 4 One had turned out to be the eighth standard Ratchet game (not including PSP spinoffs), then this review would be a series z’s more than anything else.

Change for the better then, but maybe not change that reaches its best. The first few hours of All 4 One are a worryingly yawn-inducing experience, with players presented with more crates to smash than enemies to fight. Weapons start off woefully plain and underpowered, and a bemusing lack of ammo refills will leave you stranded in boss fights and falling back on melee attacks. You’re meant to be having ‘competitive fun’, but you’re simply going from room to room, fighting more to keep your eyes from glazing over than the enemies on screen.

But power through these opening few levels and All 4 One opens up. The series’ famed arsenal starts dropping delightful weapons of mass destruction into your hands, allowing you to turn rock-armoured scorpions into adorable little pigs or unleashing the fury of Mr Zurkon (who’s best quote this time around reads: “Why collect bolts? Mr. Zurkon’s currency is pain”).

The gunplay gets broken up with jetpacks and puzzles amongst other things, and some of these sections actually prove to be highlights. Speeding down caverns on a rocket-powered backpack requires a challenging amount of platforming skill.

There are still kinks in the gameplay throughout, with lock-on systems that prove a little bit sensitive and camera angles turning some jumping sections into nightmares, but seeing the campaign through proves to be a rewarding experience if done with a friend. It’s unlikely to capture the hearts of those that detest the LEGO craze, but as a new approach to the franchise All 4 One is far more welcome than yet another standard sequel.

As mentioned earlier, the Lombax and co have come a long way since their PS2 debut, as has developer Insomniac. And it shows here, as All 4 One delivers one of the most visually pleasing experiences of the year. A Crack in Time made great strides over Tools of Destruction and Quest for Booty in the looks department, and any rough edges seems to be smoothed out here. It’s the closest we’ve gotten yet to playing the graphical equivalent of a Pixar film; cartoony character models are brought to life with bright colors and fluid animations, while the lush environments demand to be marveled at thanks to the new camera perspective.

In the continued push for photorealism it’s all too easy to forget about the visual splendor this type of art style can deliver but All 4 One is a triumphant reminder that graphical realism can easily be outdone by an imaginative visual design.

All 4 One’s multiplayer action can’t hope to match the brilliance of Ratchet & Clank’s best games, but it definitely provides a fun alternative. Its light-hearted approach makes it easy to love once the first few levels are out of the way. It’s one of those rare games that dedicated gamers can play and get friends with less of an interest to join in with too.

It promotes the importance of family and friends, two things that the pair themselves have become to us over the past nine years. And for that reason alone, whatever kind of direction Insomniac takes the pair in, they’ll always have a home in our hearts.