Sometimes your girlfriend downloads stuff onto your hard drive and you don’t have the heart to get rid of it. Such is the tale of how Ratchet & Clank; All 4 One, entered my game collection. This is a colorful, zany third-person shooter which emphasizes frequent cooperative play and can support up to four players in the same room in the story mode. Parts of A4O feel very satisfying to play, but the crate-and-barrel premise of the game feels dated. As is the case with most cooperative games though, quality isn’t as important when you’re having fun with a friend; in this case my live-in girlfriend.
While not necessarily a kids game, A4O clearly would have the biggest appeal to a younger audience. The characters are cartoon characters and, with the exception of Ratchet, don’t serve much of a purpose other than to provide comic relief. The story and plot are deliberately trite, but the elements of humor are appreciated. Presumably one of the jokes is that ludicrous, “you need to save the day” situations seem to always suck Ratchet and his partner Clank (who’s really just a C3PO knockoff) back into trouble. Maybe the charm is a little lost on me because I haven’t been on the Ratchet & Clank bandwagon for ten years; this is my first game. Also along are Quark, a vainglorious, but cowardly brute, and Dr. Nefarious a cookie-cutter incompetent mad scientist. Cut scenes are high quality and serve to develop the relationships and group dynamic between the characters. Regardless of who you are rampaging through the levels with, all four characters come along for the ride in the cut scenes.
Graphics are good, but something about this game feels like a PS2 title. Rendering and animations are sometimes stunning, but at other times kind of bland. There is an orgy of colors in every level. This makes perfect sense for a cartoon game, and although that isn’t bad, it feels like this is a distraction. Music isn’t bad, but is definitely not memorable. Area design has a degree of exploration elements, but not enough to foster the illusion that you have some sort of free will in the story mode or can make any choices. The story follows a rail and only allows you to sneak just outside where the camera is trying to corral you into to hide a hidden bolt. Again, this is a crate-and-barrel game. The issue here is that there just isn’t anything really novel or impressive about this world, although its refreshing to see that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
One final note is camera angles, which, in cooperative play generally worked pretty good. One issue that frequently happened though was one player would advance ahead of the other player, which would either cause a loss of visibility or worse, an unplanned trip off the side of a bottomless pit. The only reason this is excusable is because A4O will resurrect a dead teammate without any substantial penalty provided the other teammate stays alive (remember how I said this was a kid’s game?).
The overall gameplay of this game is good, but, absent the cooperative multiplayer story mode, would be a dismal failure. Most action in the game requires you to be constantly be jumping and strafing while pumping out a barrage of whatever the crazy gadget you have equipped shoots out. It’s formulaic and redundant. The poor shooting dynamics are bandaged with the use of an auto-aim system which makes the whole shooting exercise seem unsatisfying. What’s the point of a shooter when you can’t miss? Back in the earlier days of 3D games, auto-aim was something that you needed because nobody had figured out a good way to let the player control both the XY and Z axes at the same time. Although some hugely popular games still use this trick, it just strikes me as lame. Moreover, the worst aspect here is that the auto-aim system is unwieldy. I frequently found myself unable to focus and switch to the correct target; the one my partner was attacking. Given the necessity to use combos to KO a large number of the enemies you’ll encounter effectively, you’d figure that there would be a better system to accommodate switching targets. I get the sneaking suspicion the high degree of eye-candy, colorful explosions, and overall mayhem on screen is just a mask for basic mechanics that just aren’t there. In between action segments there is a contest among players to grab “bolts” or currency in the game. You come across some of this currency naturally through killing enemies, but also through breaking anything that looks breakable. God, please, developers please take these out of your future games. Why would there be some bolts inside a broken trash can or inside a brittle rock? If this is currency why hasn’t anyone else grabbed it already? Although this looks like nice way to make the running around parts seem like something more than just running from point A to B, they just serve to make something boring more tedious.
I like cooperative games that let both players play at the same time. This is a great way to enjoy a game with your friends, and it’s the main reason the Wii was such a hit. The sense of community breaks down with most online gaming console experiences as there are more barriers to communicating with your teammates vs. PC gaming, and because of the excessive emphasis on competition. A4O reminds of me Contra 3 in this respect, and I say that with the highest respect possible for the latter (Stage 4, jumping missile to missile anyone???). Moreover, you NEED your teammate to complete this game, both inside and outside battles. Targeting the same enemy is imperative to really getting the killing-machine momentum going here. Effective teamwork results in the occasional mini-nuclear explosion. Outside combat there are generally easy platform jumper puzzle elements, which require you to launch your buddy onto a target or setup a reflective barrier to provide cover. The best part about this type of embedded cooperative play is that celebrating a minor victory means sharing it with your friend, which is a lot better than one person going to bed while the other slaves away until 2am to kill some arbitrary foozle. The only thing that runs contrary to the co-op system in place seems to be the odd emphasis on competition outside of battle to grab bolts. Why not just share a common currency pool among players?
Lastly, a staple in this series has always been the plethora of goofy weapons, from what I’ve been told at least. There are significant bonuses generated from using the same weapon on the same enemy here. Comboing results in generally either some sort of area effect bonus or extra damage. This comes in handy against the onslaught of bosses you’re confronted with. Again, comparisons to Contra 3 are spot on. The only issue I have seems to be that certain weapons just never seem to work very well, while others maybe work too well. A chance to inject some logic into the battle system was passed on, and some better balancing might accommodate more weapon choices. Why have 15 weapons in a game if only a few are useful enough to use? False choices aren’t really choices. But trust me, you’ll need to get a Critter Strike ASAP.
Rachet and Clank; All 4 One, feels dated and predictable, but saves itself from being dreadful by injecting a healthy amount of forced cooperative play. Don’t consider playing this game alone. Do consider trying to trick your girlfriend into playing it with you, as mine pulled me into. With some tweaking in the future this franchise could keep going for another 10 years. I think cooperative is the way to go for it, provided the underlying game mechanics can be tightened up as well. It’s a 6.5 out of 10 if you put stock into that sort of thing.