When Ratchet and Clank debuted on the PlayStation 2 nearly four years ago, it was already less of a platformer than those in the genre that preceded it. Kicking the cuter side of gaming into gear, the lombax and his lovable robot sidekick showed that their bias was in favour of heavy artillery instead of fancy moves.
Now in their fourth iteration, Ratchet and Clank have upped the ante once again by removing almost all semblance of platformer gameplay to concentrate on combat. And though the game successfully reduces the jumping and swinging segments of the gameplay -- due largely to Clank's retirement from action -- the single-player is still, for all its changes, not that different from the previous three games. On the one hand, that works to the game's advantage, as Insomniac Games takes its already stellar gameplay mechanics and fine-tunes them with each addition to the series. On the other hand, it means that each successive entry in the franchise competes with all the previous games, so even the greatest devotees of the franchise will begin to tire of it.
Thankfully, Ratchet: Gladiator makes significant headway with revamped multiplayer and a brand-new co-op mode. Though the gameplay continues to remind us all too much of the previous games in the series, Ratchet: Gladiator is still one of the best platformers you can find, with a clever story, unique and interesting weapons, and compelling multiplayer options.
Ratchet: Gladiator picks up shortly where Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal left off. The heroes - -Ratchet, Clank, and the nerdy mechanic Al -- are floating through space while basking in the spoils of their last efforts to save the universe when they are suddenly captured by nefarious evildoer and corporate tycoon Gleeman Vox. It seems that Vox, who's responsible for the trashy network Vox News, makes his living off a Running Man-style reality show called Dreadzone. Dreadzone pits captured heroes against one another...specifically by removing them from their arduous collective task of saving the world and forcing them to compete for bolts, fame, and, most importantly, ratings. Ratchet and Clank veterans might immediately draw comparisons between Dreadzone and Up Your Arsenal's Annhilation Nation, and those comparisons are not too far off base.
Ratchet: Gladiator maintains the same visual and aural standard set by the previous entries in the series. The game is smooth and beautiful, with bright colours, detailed environments, and splashy weapon effects. It's marred only by slight dips in frame rate, which become more noticeable in later segments when you unlock super-high-powered weapons and bonus visual effects. The music and sound effects are still great, but the voice-over is what really gives the game its special flavour. Most of the levels are narrated by the two quirky Dreadzone announcers, Dallas, a sleazy egomaniac, and Juanita, a sadistic seductress. Their commentary about Ratchet, the competition, and each other persistently adds flavour to the gameplay.
For the first time in the series, Clank is not perched on Ratchet's back. What this means for gameplay is that Clank's participation is confined to supplying gadgets (it's handled automatically, so you won't have to locate or earn them like in previous entries in the series). This also means there's almost no platforming to the game at all. From time to time you'll have to make your way across a few jumps, which is made trickier without the advantage of Clank's gliding capabilities, but those instances are few and far between. The consolation prize is the inclusion of the bots, which, courtesy of extremely adept artificial intelligence, follow you everywhere. Aside from providing extra force against enemies, they make excellent decoys and can be issued to complete various tasks, like tossing electromagnetic pulse grenades on electrically shielded enemies or bypassing "hacker orbs" found throughout the levels. Though the bots can die, they can be revived at any point during the game as frequently as necessary.
Without much platforming, combat takes a more critical role in gameplay. Aside from the wrench that Ratchet carries at all times, you can purchase up to 10 different guns. This is fewer than in the previous games, and you'll notice the artillery has been streamlined to include only the game's more-serious weapons.
Of course, weapons aren't your only means of destruction, as Ratchet: Gladiator also features a few different vehicle types as well. The one you'll encounter the most is the landstalker, a spidery contraption with both machine gun ammunition and explosive charged shots. The puma is a buggy of sorts; the hoverbike is a floating motorcycle; and the hovership is an air-based vehicle that isn't used nearly as much as it should be during the single-player game. All these vehicles can be used during the multiplayer, although they do tend to unbalance the gameplay significantly, given how strong they are.
The game is, unfortunately, much shorter than previous Ratchet offerings. The single-player campaign will take approximately seven or eight hours to complete. Afterward you'll unlock challenge mode, which changes some of the rules of normal gameplay, but not enough of them to warrant playing through a second time. It's neat to check out the higher difficulty modes, and although the normal (or contestant) mode is fairly simple, the exterminator mode is very challenging. Those familiar with the series should try to kick up the difficulty a notch early on, since otherwise you'll breeze through the gameplay with little reason to play a second time, aside from completion.
The game's surprisingly short length is thwarted by its rich multiplayer modes. For the first time ever, you'll be able to play the game cooperatively, which means that any point during the single-player you can opt to play co-op by having a friend jump into the game. Playing two-player co-op means you don't get to have combat bots anymore, but both players will be given all the bots' capabilities, like use of the hacker ray and EMP grenades.
Ratchet: Gladiator is a little on the short side, and it's quite a bit like previous games (to the point of feeling all too familiar). But all in all, it's an excellent game that combines humorous presentation, stylish weaponry, and a ton of different modes into one cohesive package.
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