Insomniac's newest Ratchet & Clank game took a somewhat different route in Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One (A4O). Designed to be played with at least one other player (up to four total), this 'competitive co-op' title maintains the charm and creativity the series is known for, but with several significant differences, too. While perhaps appealing to a larger audience, it may also be seen as a disappointment to R&C purists, but regardless, that shouldn't keep you from checking it out.
All 4 One can be played offline or online with up to four players who are welcome to come and go thanks to a seamless drop in/out design. The playable characters are Ratchet, Clank, Dr. Nefarious, and Captain Qwark, and while they are very different personalities, each plays very similarly to one another with a single special power being unique to each of them. Gameplay is mostly weapons-based combat, with a dash of melee, and a good portion of 3D platforming as well as some basic puzzles.
For the most part, the action is constant and frantic. The frenzy increases as you add more players, in terms of the amount of stuff blowing up on screen and in the inherent competition with fellow players as you race to pick up bolts, the upgrade currency. Rather than giving upgrades based on weapon usage, a mechanic which previous Ratchet games have used, players spend their collected bolts at vendor areas that appear randomly in the game world. Here you can upgrade existing weapons to hold more ammo, do more damage, and so forth, and buy new weapons as they are unlocked during the course of the story.
As with previous Ratchet games, the weapons are creative and a major part of the experience. Over a dozen weapons are available, with a wide variety of styles, but unlike other Ratchet games, players are encouraged to keep their customization and experimentation somewhat limited. The reason for this, besides weapon usage not counting towards XP, is that when players use the same weapon on the same target, the damage is multiplied. Different colors appear next to the targeted foe to indicate who is locked on, which I thought was nice. Anyway, it's like when the Ghostbusters all target the same enemy and their beams get collectively more intense -- only in the case of A4O, whatever weapon everyone uses gets exponentially more powerful as more players use it together. It promotes teamwork, but potentially at the cost of individual play style. I think it could have been interesting to see variety in the combined firepower mechanic, to where the game encouraged different weapons. Ultimately, it really depends on what you're in the mood for, how you play, and who you are playing with, as to whether or not this really effects your enjoyment.
Playing A4O single player can mitigate any of the unpredictable, or even predictable woes of playing with others, either locally or online. When played solo, A4O is still a competent and enjoyable experience, but clearly a step down from the fun of multiplayer. When played solo, players can choose from any of the four characters. The game will provide you with an AI partner (Clank, unless you play as Clank and then you get Qwark) that pops in seamlessly to help you out, especially during the co-op moments where more than one character is needed. The AI would appear often to help me clear a wave of minions, whose creative diversity was commendable, and get through co-op sequences. These sequences
include hookshot jumps, in which you grapple a object over a huge open space, and then basically leap-frog with your partner to get to the other side. Other instances have you in a vehicle, with the characters having to all form up on one side to steer the vehicle through environmental hazards. There are also doors that require two to open and vacuum gadget "puzzles" too that appear early on. There's a variety of other nicely thought out co-op mechanics, too.
Level design isn't bad, and the story and universe gave the developers a whole lot of leeway in their presentation. Locations include a futuristic metropolis to icy covered outdoor environments and plenty in between. Platforming mechanics such as double jumps and rail grinding are presented in good measure to counteract what would have otherwise become a monotonous action and bolt-gathering grind. Design is quite linear, however, with only some very short alternate paths to take that usually lead to some type of collectible or goodie.
Controls are accessible and largely intuitive. The most difficult part I had was getting used to the fact that I had no control over the camera. That's actually one of the most significant problems I had with A4O; the camera is entirely controlled by the game, you have no ability to zoom or rotate it at all, and the game will suddenly lock out certain areas without warning. For example, say you enter a room with a short path to the left and the continuing path to the right. If you walk just a little too far to the right, the game will prevent you from doing any sort of exploration or back-tracking. Needless to say I missed several destructible objects (containing bolts) because of that design, which I guess was just more annoying than anything, but it's an annoyance that lasted throughout the experience.
Getting back to the controls -- pressing the right stick, rather than having anything to do with the camera, instead pops up a small grid from which you can move the right stick to select the weapon you want. Instantly, you switch weapons, and your HUD updates to show you how much ammo you have for that weapon. L1 is for targeting, R1 to shoot, R2 and Square to toss your short range weapon, L3 to sprint, Circle for the vacuum/blower gadget, Square to melee attack -- other than having to get used to the camera situation, the controls are quite intuitive. Oh, Triangle is used for a hookshot, which is a great way to attach or tether to another player, useful for certain co-op moments or to help out a lesser skilled player. It's also handy for getting in position for a targeted attack on a common foe.
A4O includes a handful of collectibles to look out for, including critters -- cute little alien buggers that you want to collect with your vacuum gadget. If I recall correctly, collecting these unlocks additional character skins. There are also special bolts, I think about forty-two of these, throughout the rather large campaign. Additionally, you can enable cheats once the game is beaten to make successive play-throughs more interesting.
Overall, A4O has a lot going for it, but one area which it does not have a glowing positive is in the presentation. First off, I love the animated cutscenes -- they're detailed, colorful, very well done from top to bottom. The voice acting is also superb, although I did wish there was some more dialog for the characters to use during play. That said, the in-game graphics are a bit of a letdown. There are plenty of colors, and a big variety in the locations of the levels, no doubt about that. But, the game world lacks a level of crispness and detail, that visual punch, that the older Ratchet games (from this generation) had. This could be an engine optimization problem or, I would think less likely, a PS3 hardware limitation. It's not an uncommon practice to reduce the visual density of a game world in order to make up extra frames per second. Given the amount of action and destruction going on with even two players, and having to be ready for four at any moment, with stuttering frame rates being unacceptable -- I think Insomniac did what they had to do here. I suppose the tradeoff could have been to not do seamless drop in/out multiplayer, and instead make it to where the game pauses and loads in lower res textures as more players hop in, but I'm just guessing here. Regardless, it is what it is -- not as visually impressive as previous Ratchet titles from this gen, but still pretty darn good.
To the summary...