They're skating. The Ratchet & Clank team is officially skating.
You have to be suspicious when a franchise starts delivering the same core game every year. Lots of games try it; few succeed at it. After last year's brilliant middle child - Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando - this series was showing serious signs of being the rare success story. Unfortunately, the third R&C game offers very little above the second game, runs over some very familiar ground, offers the worst storyline yet... but then coyly attempts to sidestep the bad reviews with an all-new online multiplayer mode.
We're on a Tomb Raider curve here. Game 1: The world sits up and takes notice. Game 2: New features, new depth, a genuine classic. Game 3: More of Game 2... without even fresh paint. Since I like the series, I'm hoping R&C either snaps to attention for Game 4 (unlike Ms. Croft did) or quietly goes on hiatus until PS3. I would hate to see Ratchet & Clank turn into Crash Bandicoot.
The single player mode of R&C3 is all unfulfilled expectations. From the first game to the second, Insomniac Games went through a severe upgrade. Ratchet gained a numerical hit meter, upgradeable weapons, space flight missions, upgradeable spaceship, arena challenges, sphere worlds, racing and gliding missions, exploration/collection zones... plus a new personality dynamic between lead characters Ratchet and Clank that removed Ratchet's angsty teen attitude.
Up Your Arsenal does not have near the amount of gameplay upgrades and in fact ditches several of what was present in Going Commando. Namely, the space dogfighting, racing, grinding and gliding levels. In addition, there are very few sphere worlds, less opportunities to use Clank's adorable robot training skills, and only one collection zone! There's just less level variety... so either someone at Insomniac thought all those sidebar levels diluted the main game, or the online mode stole most of the dev resources. I'm betting on the latter.
Arsenal is not the single-player experience that Commando was. If you have never played either and don't care about online play, I'd push you towards Commando with no debate. Obviously if you're serious about the online multiplayer, you want Arsenal. And the online mode is worth it, a PS2 Halo with a sense of humor... it just arrives at the expense of Arsenal's single player campaign.
On the good side, Arsenal has a great selection of weapons... almost all of which are worthwhile. (No more stupid Decoy Gun or lame punching glove!) They upgrade as before: the more you use them, the more powerful they become... the only major change being that weapon mods now happen as they upgrade, rather than having to buy them yourself.
There's a new combat arena plus a new VR training arena. The combat arena is set up like a gladiator TV game show (much as before) and has the same structure of selectable "missions." Some are timed, some constrain you to a single weapon or limited ammo. One fun bonus is the random weapon fights, where the game randomly cycles through your available weapons in mid-battle! The VR training arena lets you try out any weapon in the game before you buy it, against mass-produced robot drones. Now, I'm the type that has to buy everything (even that waste of money PDA gadget), but you could focus your investment into specific weapons and skip the crummier ones. Even better news is that the bolts (money) you collect inside the VR arena counts as real once you leave!
The spaceflight levels have been replaced by hovercraft levels, assisting hapless good guy soldierbots. I found the vertical controls on the hovercraft slow and clunky, but I liked being able to fly around over ground-based levels instead of formless outer space. In sort of the same vein, a few places let you climb into a dune buggy and tool around, but it's a poor substitute for the grinding and racing levels from earlier games.
One entirely new bit is five side-scrolling Captain Qwark levels, designed as an homage to old school 2D platform games. These were a big hype point for Arsenal, but they end up mediocre. They're cute and nostalgic, I suppose. the final level even does the old rising water gag to push you through the level. The storyline purpose of these levels is to illustrate Qwark's questionably heroic past against the game's villain.
And a couple times you'll have to freefall to the level's surface, which reminded me of the parachute bits in San Andreas... making 2004 the Official Year of the Freefall.
Ratchet still attacks, leaps, strafes, shoots and wallops like a dream. He is simply fun to control, cutting through a throng of enemies with the Liquid Nitrogen Gun or camping near a path entrance and sniping the baddies from afar. Ratchet himself is un-fooled-around-with... which is good news, because without him this game has nothing. Although there's some mildew around the edges, the core is still perfect.
The storyline is amateur hour. The animation is great, the voices are great... they just aren't allowed to do anything of any meaning. The entire game revolves around a heretofore unmentioned arch-enemy of Captain Qwark's: Dr. Nefarious. He is a cliche supervillain to the same degree Qwark is a cliche superhero. There's no surprise, no third act twist, nothing aside from constantly chasing Nefarious around the galaxy and uninspired lines like "Man, we gotta stop Dr. Nefarious!" The only element worth watching is Nefarious himself, who is so well-animated it's impossible not to like him. Qwark, on the other hand, has been an unwelcome presence in all the R&C games. Unfunny, uninteresting, a one-note throwaway joke. I was disappointed to discover that Arsenal's meager plot is wrapped tightly around this traitorous buffoon.
What's crazy about the storyline is that the game wants you to accept Nefarious as a real threat - he has built a Death Star, after all - even while his every move is undermined by comic book hokum and a butler sidekick who seems to hate him. I'm okay with Nefarious NOT being all dark and scary, but I was waiting the whole time for some switcheroo that would make the plot credible. For example, an endgame reveal that the bitchy butler was the brains behind the whole thing. Or even robot pop-tart Courtney Gears... who has her final appearance as a boss midway through the game.
And then when it all ends, almost nothing happens. Everything blows up, Nefarious is dispatched, and the entire cast gathers in a movie theater to watch the latest clip from the game's running gag, "Secret Agent Clank." That's it. I can't even call that a spoiler, because it's either completely expected (villain loses!) or completely stupid (they all go watch a movie?!)
Storyline aside, you do get the option to continue playing after the credits roll. Just like in Commando, the second quest offers even more power-ups and an accelerated bolt-collecting system to make all those upgraded weapons affordable.
I'm hard on games that disappoint me. Up Your Arsenal is still a great game. This series has more on a bad day than most games ever do. However, this iteration veers away from the all-purpose freestyle of Going Commando and comes out watered-down. The single-player game is mostly a downgrade. The balance is made up by the online mode... but to be honest, I was expecting the game to over-deliver on both fronts because Commando set the innovation bar so high. Insomniac should have taken another year between Commando and Arsenal.
P.S. What's up with this series adopting these badass innuendo subtitles? Nothing in the games lives up to the Conkers-esque rude puns of "Going Commando" or "Up Your Arsenal." I guess it's just bad marketing. I can't wait for Ratchet & Clank: Digitally Penetrated.