In this day and age of realistic squad tactics, sandbox crime sprees, and sports simulations, the platform genre, which defined video games for many in their formative years, seems to be fading. In the last console generation, Nintendo released the underrated Super Mario Sunshine, but the home of platform gaming was clearly Sony. Between Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, and Jak and Daxter, the Playstation 2 saw several stellar platform games in a short period of time. In particular, Jak‘s Naughty Dog Studios and Ratchet‘s Insomniac Games maintained a close relationship with each other that saw both series pushing each other to further refinement.
The development studios behind all three of these franchises have now started to branch out to new material. Insomniac was present at the launch of the PlayStation 3 with Resistance: Fall of Man, a return to its FPS roots. Naughty Dog has recently released the Tomb Raider-esque Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Finally, Sucker Punch, the talent behind Sly Cooper, is working on Infamous, which looks to be a sandbox game in which the characters will have super powers.
Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction represents the first effort by any of those three studios, then, to return to their keystone platforming franchise after having stepped away. Aside from providing a break from the Ratchet & Clank franchise for both the developers and fans, Insomniac’s work on Resistance: Fall of Man surely gave them hands-on experience with squeezing performance out of the PS3. Given that the Ratchet & Clank series has long been characterized by very polished graphical presentation, such practice was almost certainly beneficial. Tools of Destruction looks and sounds great, as would be expected given its predecessors. Even so, it is the stellar level design and inventive weapons that have given the series its longevity. These too are present in Tools of Destruction.
The Ratchet & Clank formula has been refined over the course of several iterations, with an RPG-like system of weapons powering up as you use them, and modifications available for currency. Fundamentally, however, all of the games in the series (with the exception of Ratchet: Deadlocked, which threw the characters into a much more Running Man-style, combat-oriented affair) are extremely similar, if very solid. What the PS3 affords the franchise, then, is primarily a degree of visual polish not possible on the PS2. Insomniac was very near the forefront of graphical prowess when it came to squeezing performance out of the PS2, and given how early it is in the console lifecycle of the PS3, here they are given room to breathe, and it shows. The characters and backgrounds are lively and colorful, a perfect match to the cartoon world on display.
Disco dancing is fun and all…
The SIXAXIS motion functionality, regardless of the varying opinions on those features of the control itself, are generally implemented well, and don’t feel too tacked on. The sections that utilize it do, however, contribute to a sense that Tools of Destruction uses more minigame style segments than the series has before. Constantly changing game mechanics have become a strength of the Jak and Daxter games, but such mechanics here, while unobtrusive, don’t necessarily add that much to the game. The only exception comes in the form of a “Simon Says” style dancing minigame, which pops up often enough to eventually wear out its welcome.
One of the qualities that makes for a successful platforming franchise in the long term is affection for the lead characters. It is interesting to note, then, that much of the reaction to Ratchet himself was fairly lukewarm following the release of the first game. Clank certianly had more charm and wit than the generically designed Lombax. Still, Ratchet & Clank excels as a franchise in squeezing personality not just from ancillary characters, but from the levels and environments themselves, and this entry is no exception. The whole experience is light-hearted and cartoony. The choice to make the enemies primarily mechanical allows for a level of mayhem that could be off-putting if characters spewed blood.
...but you will eventually have to blow stuff up.
The point is that Insomniac has, over the course of several years, successfully created a world that could conceivably be used in other forms of media, should they so choose. These characters are endearing. Certainly, in a different time, someone would have tried to make a cartoon from these characters, and that is an achievement in and of itself.
In the landscape of platform gaming today, however, Insomniac may be expected to reinvent the franchise at some point soon. Admittedly, they attempted to do that with Ratchet: Deadlocked, but enjoyable though that game was, it felt like a very dissimilar experience that happened to be occurring within the same universe. A sequel to Tools of Destruction is virtually guaranteed, but if the franchise is to survive beyond that without wearing thin, it may have to bring some new tricks to the table. In the post-Super Mario 64 world of platform games, Ratchet & Clank undoubtedly has one of the highest batting averages of quality given the number of titles that have been released in a relatively short period of time. But Nintendo, for example, has made the most effective evolutionary changes to its keystone franchises in massive jumps, proven again with the release of the superb Super Mario Galaxy. It would be very interesting to see Insomniac attempt something similar with its own flagship series.