Can multiplayer Ratchet only cause grief?
Starter for four
Despite evidence to the contrary, Insomniac Games do know how to count.
When it is released in October Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One will, in fact, be the 10th game to feature Sony’s furry mascot since he made his debut in 2002.All 4 One’s subtitle – rather than adopting the ‘F3AR’ school of unpronounceable sequel numeration – refers to the potential number of players on-screen simultaneously. That’s right; Ratchet & Clank is going multiplayer. Lock up your griefers.
It’s not a huge leap for the platforming Lombax and his robot side-kick. While Clank has at times functioned as little more than a glorified backpack attachment, he has always had his time to shine in each game (even taking top billing in his PSP spin-off Secret Agent Clank) and fans have long demanded the two player co-op mode that seems the next logical step for the series.
Allies and antagonists
It may have taken nine years, but Insomniac are finally delivering on that promise and apparently making up for lost time by throwing two more cohorts in to the mix. When self-styled superhero, President Qwark receives an invitation to be named an ‘International Tool of Justice’ (for those complaining All 4 One’s subtitle lacks the customary innuendo of the Ratchet & Clank canon) he is of course helpless to resist and finds himself walking in to a trap laid out by the unambiguously-christened, Dr. Nefarious, whom the title’s heroic duo defeated only two years earlier. Needless to say, all does not go to plan for anyone involved and a mysterious ‘creature collector’ named Ephemeris whisks the four of them away to an alien planet, leaving them with the choice of co-operating or facing the wrath of the planet’s inhabitants.
A solid buddy-cop movie plot if ever there was one, but rather than acting as a slightly forced conceit to bring together four characters, the reluctant origins of their alliance also plays in to the dynamics of the game. Following in the footsteps of New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s infuriating brand of antagonistic platforming, Studio Director of Insomniac North Carolina, Chad Dezern acknowledges that a key part of the game involves ‘spite and competitiveness’. Co-operation may be an essential element in successfully navigating the majority of a level’s obstacles, but at the end of each stage a reward is given to the player who has collected the most bolts, with a demerit going to the player with the most deaths. This also establishes a hierarchy of which players will be given first choice of new hardware when preparing for the following level, perhaps revealing the ‘all for one’ of the subtitle isn’t the selfless motto it seems.
As ever, the new weapon set is an important factor in a new Ratchet & Clank game, with co-operation being an obvious central theme this time around. The Darkstar Fission Tether sustains a powerful electric current between the players that have it equipped, the Thundersmack sends a percussive bolt that accumulates in to a more effective burst when used in tandem, and the Vac-U 4000 allows you to fire companions to otherwise inaccessible platforms and switches – the latter being a prime opportunity for impromptu trust-fall exercises and vengeance griefing, as it proves extremely easy to ‘accidentally’ send an ally plummeting to their death.
The Swingshot makes a welcome return here as it can now function as a last-ditch attempt to cling on to an ally and avoid death (which is less effective if your ally is similarly doomed). One stage demoed sees it being used to great effect by four players whipping the fourth around to reach the next hook. Death is a set-back but checkpoints allow deceased team members to respawn at a small cost, and when defeated in battle an ally will be able to revive you (and presumably the game will include less-than-altruistic incentives for doing so).
It’s all about perspective
Obviously quadrupling the number of active players on the screen necessitates a change from the manual camera of previous games. Chad Dezern boasts that All 4 One features a ‘director-style camera’ that will frame the action in a ‘cinematic’, largely forward-facing, way. The reasoning is sound and the execution pretty impressive, but already there is the feeling that the restricted camera may be the game’s downfall. Despite platforming sections being notably widened from previous games to accommodate three more bodies, there are issues with ledges which can be easily missed due to an obscuring camera angle, players’ individual HUDs filling up the screen or the slightly sluggish 30fps making a misjudged jump all too common.
Dezern goes on to say that the camera also allows for moments where the action drops away and players can appreciate the wider environment. We saw one such example of this where all four players cling on to a transporter that sees them floating through a sweeping canyon. All 4 One is undoubtedly a great-looking game – contrasting a newly-tweaked, almost cel-shaded style of animation in the foreground against comparatively pastel background vistas – but it’s hard to see these more lyrical moments translating in the frenetic drop-in/drop-out online environment Insomniac seem keen to foster.
The familiar burst of explosives and clatter of falling bolts has a reassuring prominence in the soundtrack with the musical score providing suitable background pomp. The ‘wit’ exhibited by each character’s exclamations is predictably hit-and-miss and with four characters all clammering to be heard they could become tiresome quickly (and this is before you add four disparate voices making themselves known other the headset).
Knowing where you stand
As a game that takes what makes Ratchet & Clank work and extends it to allow three other players to join in the fun, All 4 One may well succeed. Already there are clear transcending moments of brilliance, like the four-man Slingshot whip, the collaborative escorting of a floating chest through danger and the wind-tunnel where players must balance the Sixaxis, creating enough surface area and therefore wind resistance to reach a platform.
Insomniac’s main hurdle may be avoiding becoming a victim of their own success. Having set out to create a game of ‘spite and competitiveness’ the majority of signs point to them succeeding, and so suggestions of cinematic interludes, a ‘full single-player mode’ that amounts to AI-assisted co-op and a potential setting to turn all competitive elements off seem to compromise their design brief in order to avoid alienating their existing audience. The issue boils down to this: no-one likes a griefer, but at least with a griefer you know where you stand. Those who act like they want the same thing as you, but also want to collect as many bolts as possible? They’re the ones that can let you down.