Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Epic Butt-Kicking

I broke down and bought a PlayStation 3 the other day. It's ironic; after examining the horrors of Sony's attempts to provide (and later remove) PS2 backwards compatibility, thinking a $600 price point was the best of ideas, and my general attitude about Sony's business practices, I was dead-set that I would never touch a PS3 willingly. But then something happened.

I examined their library of titles -- LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted and Uncharted 2, Demon's Souls, and so forth. There were too many good exclusive titles for me to ignore. And then the hammer drop: the price cuts. $299 for a new 120GB system. Or better yet, $349 with two bundled games. I could wait no longer.

I picked up the bundle, along with a copy of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The bundle came with LittleBigPlanet and, of all things, Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time. I set those aside for the time being and booted up Drake's Fortune, which I liked quite a bit. They did a lot of things right, but I can analyze that in another post. Once I completed it, I had intended to settle down with LBP and get my Sackboy on. I played a couple of levels, but decided I should probably at least give R&C a shot. So I fired that up, and played the first level.

And then I played ten more.

If I were asked when I first bought the PS3 what game I'd gush about in a post about amazing 3D shooter combat, you could bet that I would've envisioned a Drake's Fortune post. But as much as I liked it, I honestly think R&C did combat that much better. Possibly one of the best interpretations I've seen on a shooter in years. And trust me, folks, that's saying a lot.

First, if you have any competence in shooter games at all, put the thing on hard. It's an E10 game, and you'd expect it to be a cakewalk. I sure did. But then I started getting smacked for 14 damage from enemy attacks with a total lifebar capacity of 37, and I realized that this game was no slouch. On hard, combat was at points a white-knuckle affair. You had to pay attention, you had to know where the enemies are, and you had to be prepared to use the right weapon for the job. With a selection of some 16 weapons if I recall correctly, that's no easy task. Enemies may not have the same arsenal of tactics that the mercenaries hunting Nathan Drake had, but their attack patterns are so varied and so inventive that you'll be in just as much danger. And this time without the regenerating health bar.

In "On Regenerating Health", I discussed the kind of game that a constantly recovering hit point system would serve. Drake's Fortune is just such a system. Enemies flank, think tactically, move for advantage, and punish you under a hail of bullets. You will take hits, and you will take them often. It's built on setpiece combat, and without the break you get by hiding for a couple of seconds, the game would be impossible.

Not so with Ratchet. It's a different game, and it's not entirely fair to compare the two. Your health doesn't regenerate, and there's not much to go around. But enemy attacks are more quality over quantity. If you take damage, it's your own fault. In classic platformer style, there's a way over, around, or under every shot fired by your adversaries. A large bipedal tank might fire a heavy barrage from twin plasma turrets, which sweeps across the battlefield. Keep moving or jump over the stream. The next might launch an elecrified barrier either at your feet or above you. Jump over or walk underneath it. Time bombs? Run away, or better yet, snag 'em with your wrench and throw them back!

The shooting controls are very, very tight. You have a reticle on screen that varies with your equipped weapon. Using the pistol, you'll have a precise dot in the middle of the screen. The bomb glove, on the other hand, plants a circular target mark on the ground where your projectile will land. The angling is not 100% perfect, but in large part it's intuitive and you should be able to put your shots on target the vast majority of the time. Movement feels like a hybrid of an FPS and Devil May Cry -- dodge jumps/rolls, strafing, even odd objects in the environment to use for cover. (There's no "cover system" per se, in the style of Gears of War or similar, but it's not necessary.)

The platforming isn't perfect, but 3D platform games are notoriously hard to get right, and Ratchet provides the best experience I've seen yet. I've only suffered a couple of cheap deaths, mostly from bounding box issues with environmental objects. The small mistakes are forgiveable, particularly in light of the very small penalty for death. (Checkpoints are quite frequent, and help to deter frustration.)

The weapon list is extensive, and each one serves its particular purpose, with very few repeats. The pistol and shotgun do exactly what they suggest; the bomb glove provides pinpoint grenade throws; the Negotiator is a solid RPG weapon; the Dynamo of Doom fires a large electric ball that can be rolled around the map independent of Ratchet's movement; the Tesla spikes plant a pseudo-minefield that electrifies anything in the vicinity; the list goes on. The only duplication in functionality I saw was the "Groovitron Glove", which throws out a large disco ball that forces nearby enemies to dance, and the "Cryo Mines", which freeze enemies in place. You don't really need both, and their effects and timing are similar; the Cryo Mines trade a smaller radius for larger ammo capacity. Considering this is the only violation of my standard "each weapon should serve a unique purpose" rule, I commend Insomniac for their selection, particularly considering no weapon is bad. Each one has its purpose, and none are throwaways. You won't feel "stuck" if you're forced to use one, even if it's suboptimal for the job.

A post discussing the value of Crack in Time would be remiss if it didn't mention the pervasive sense that Insomniac put a lot of love into every area of this game. The environments are lovingly detailed. Ratchet's movements are believable and generally look good. Enemies will taunt you and provide amusing idle animations. The story is, if a bit cliche, hilarious at every turn. Even Mr. Zurkon, your gun-platform companion droid, provides hours of amusement with his hilariously violent taunts. The puzzles are well thought-out, fair, and provide a sense of satisfaction on completion, something that doesn't happen all that often these days. There are hours upon hours of levels and optional areas, each of which feels fun. Nothing is tacked on or unnecessary.

I commend Insomniac Games for providing one of the best-designed games I've seen in a long time, and showing me that even today, a game can be pure, 100% fun.

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