Ratchet & Clank Retrospective Part 6: A Crack in Time
Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time was a game that passed me by at time of release. It came only two years after the release of its predecessor, Tools of Destruction, and I’m ashamed I didn’t manage to pick this up at the time. I only got around to playing it a few months ago when the idea of this retrospective first occurred, and it is — quite frankly — an excellent game.
Right from the opening it’s clear we’re seeing a more expansive approach. The game uses a mix of in-engine and CGI cut scenes, and unlike many games these gel together quite well. It’s obvious the engine, and PS3 hardware, couldn’t give them the close-up detail and animation quality they wanted, but there isn’t too much of an unfeasible jump in quality or a miss-match of tone when moving from CGI to real-time rendering. This helps with the more fleshed out and continuous story leading on directly from the events of the other Future series games Tools of Destruction and Quest for Booty.
It’s an odd kind of Ratchet & Clank game, because whilst it does feature both characters with relatively equal weight, they spend most of the game separated from each other. It’s like playing a Ratchet game and a Clank game, but the fact that they don’t feel disjointed is a testament to the strength of the story and the universe building. Both interwoven stories feature prominent and well written new characters in the form of Zoni scientist Orvus and Alister Azimuth; both of which are father figures to each of the respective heroes. This give the plot an extra layer of depth as this game deals heavily with themes of friendship, belonging, and in dealing with responsibility and your place in the universe.
The tightness of the both the mechanics, and the characters and story in this game reminds me most of Up Your Arsenal, due in no small part to the well implemented return of Dr. Nefarious as the main antagonist. Everyone is scrambling for control of “The Great Clock,” a giant structure that is meant to stabilize time, but can also manipulate it. Azimuth, Nefarious, and Ratchet all want to find the clock for their own ends, but Clank is intrinsically tied up in its fate as its new caretaker.
The Ratchet sections of the game play much like any other Ratchet & Clank game, but the Clank sections deal with various puzzles and mini-games related to the operation, as well as navigation of the Great Clock. The temporal recording based puzzles are very visually and mechanically enjoyable (a rare thing for video game puzzles), and they do a great job of creating compelling mechanics out of time manipulation.
The game is infused with this theme of time; from the clock-like appearance of the gears and sprockets that act as the collectable bolts, to the time anomalies Ratchet and Clank both encounter, to even the design of he Great Clock itself. The game is very well designed and graphically very pleasing to look at. It hasn’t been overdone with effects, so its framerate doesn’t bust, but the look of the game has enhanced from previous iterations still.
The game has strong visual themes, and these are matched by an equally strong musical score. Composed this time by the talented Boris Salchow, it fits the more emotive and epic scope of the story and universe. The main theme of the game re-appears and threads in and out of all kinds of places, and comes in giving crucial moments a well needed musical sting. All in all, it feels like a well-made and quite clever family movie in terms of its story, score, and cut-scenes.
This time around the Gadgets and mechanics have a lot of good stuff on show; Clank’s Chronoscepter allows him to throw time-bombs that create a bubble of slowed down time. This can be done to aid with combat, or solve puzzles. The main addition for Ratchet this time are the Hoverboots which allow Ratchet to traverse small courses within levels, as well as give a small amount of glide to aid platforming. They are a halfway-house between a vehicle and a Gadget, and provide much needed variety within levels. New as well is the OmniSoaker, a gadget used to move liquids somewhat like the Hydrodisplacer in the original game. The OmniSoaker can spray liquids on useful locations to grow plants and form platforms.
A Crack in Time has a more streamlined weapon system in this installment, and it does away with the devices system. But it does keep the best of them as weapons — like the Groovitron Glove and Mr. Zurkon. This time they included little animated explanation videos for each weapon that are both useful and charming. They just ooze personality.
Once again Insomniac puts creative and fun weapons centre stage. For instance, when you hold down fire with the RYNO V, it plays the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — a reference to the cannon fire featured in the piece. You wouldn’t get weapons like the Sonic Eruptor, a weapon made of a giant belching frog/slug creature which is more powerful when its cheeks are puffed up, in any other game.
The more basic weapons also have a twist this time; gone is the passive upgrade grid of the previous game, and in its place we have three Constructo weapons. As the game progresses, you can pick up Constructo parts to augment and alter each of the weapons to your taste. For example the Constructo Shotgun has a series of different chokes that can be used to alter spread, and the Constructo Pistol has burst-fire and different bullet types. These weapons can also be given custom colour schemes to suit your preference.
Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time also completely revamps the way space is used in the game. The space sections function less as combat zones and more as an over world between missions and side quests. You move from system to system, and planet to planet, in a logical and satisfying way, and it really helps increase the sense of galactic adventure at play without reducing your ship-time to frantic combat sections that never really worked in the previous games in the first place.
The optional planets themselves vary from platforming, to hover-boot courses, “kill all the things” missions or “locate the thing” missions, all with a healthy supply of Zoni and gold Bolts to collect. The Zoni allow you to upgrade your ship, and includes upgrades like the ship tether and enhanced thrusters that are required for you to reach certain main story planets. As Zoni appear on most regular planets excessive grinding isn’t required in this title either. The optional missions are not as slick as the main game, but they are still enjoyable. As is the battle arena for this game, “The Argonian Battleplex.” This is the type of arena combat we are used to by now in the series, but with a nice little bit of story arc involving Quark.
Also returning in A Crack in Time, for the first time since Up Your Arsenal, is the Insomniac Museum in its most expansive iteration to date. To access the museum you need to complete the game, including an extra boss, and have collected all 40 Zoni. This unlocks the Insomniac Moon that you can access at any time. The museum even features a very well-produced and charming behind the scenes video from the developers, as well as the usual crop of concept art and assets that were cut from the game. There is a lot to explore here, including an unused time puzzle, a cut hoverboot racing mode, and a prototype procedurally generated platforming puzzle.
Above all, A Crack in Time retained the Ratchet & Clank series’ commitment to free skins, collectables, and an effort to not only create a great and complete game, but for the developers to share their love of gaming and some of their design process to boot. This commitment goes above and beyond most other developers, and makes the game shine.
You can hardly get a free alternate skin out of developers and publishers these days in modern HD releases, so Sony and Insomniac not giving into the nickle and dime temptation here makes the game shine all the brighter. Picking this up today you will still get as complete of an experience as buying it new on Day One. This is what will make the game continue to age well, as many of its contemporaries already feel incomplete and outdated. We’ve lived in the era of online passes, multiplayer server shutdowns, microtransactions, and mountains of DLC for far too long. A Crack in Time is only five years old, but it feels like it dates from another era — a better era — of gaming.
As a fan of the Ratchet & Clank series, A Crack in Time was an absolute joy and represents the pinnacle of the series to me. We can argue all day about what the best game was for its time, but the fact remains that Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time manages to both retain all the strong points of the series whilst being a thoroughly modern and expansive video game. Everything came together well for this one, and gave us a glimpse of a bigger universe in which the Ratchet & Clank series exists, and one I still hope will get a fitting sequel. But as we will see next week, things didn’t exactly continue on this upward trajectory forever.
Favourite Gadget: The Hoverboots
Favourite Weapon: I can finally say the Groovitron Glove
Next time we venture Into the Nexus!
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