Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sometimes, You Gotta Let a Series Die: Why I Don't Care For the "Ratchet & Clank Future" Games

I've always felt that unless you've got a truly timeless property on your hands, it's best to end a video game series with the (used to be) standard three games, and maybe a spin-off, tops.  Trying to keep a series alive and fresh has unfortunately ushered in the decline for some of gaming's greatest franchises-- Sonic the Hedgehog, Metroid, Crash Bandicoot, the list goes on and on.  This doesn't necessarily mean that the newer games are bad (usually it does), but that the way the games were just might not fit in with the current gaming climate.  Changes have to be made and cornerstones must be sacrificed to ensure that the game can turn a profit and score highly on review sites.  I've seen many of my personal favorite and inspirational games head down this route in the same decade.  The three I listed above are just a handful of them.  But recently, none of them have hit any closer to home than the Ratchet & Clanks series.

The newest game, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One has just been released today, and features the same trademark gameplay, except with four player co-op added to the mix.  And for the longest time, I was actually looking forward to this.  The Ratchet & Clank games were some of the most well-designed games I had played on the PS2, literally inspiring me to want to make games myself.  I had only played the first next-gen Ratchet & Clank Future game, and I honestly didn't like it.  While the game was gorgeous, the artistic direction was bland and the game felt like it was trying to adapt to the climate of popular shooters by getting rid of creative weapons in lieu of your standard pistol, shotgun, rifle, etc.  In short, it was the most "average" game I had ever played.  But many people (most of which had not played the PS2 games) told me that the last release, A Crack in Time was much better.  That it was great game that hearkened back to a simpler time.  Imagine my surprise when I picked it up about a month ago only to find the exact same thing.  The game was way to easy, the NPC character designs looked like they could've come from any generic game, the weapons were boring, and the sense of humor felt too forced.  This was not the Ratchet & Clank I had come to love.

With the original Ratchet & Clank games on the PS2, I felt like it was a natural progression for the developer, Insomniac Games.  They had done everything they could with the Spyro series, and it was refreshing to try something new from them.  The first Ratchet & Clank definitely had echos of Spyro in its gameplay and level design, but it was fresh, creative, and a good game all together.  With the sequels on the system, it became evident that Insomniac was having a field day designing these games.  Stages were gorgeous sci-fi vistas with a unified enemy design and natural creatures.  Each planet felt like it had a history. And the weapons.... goodness.  It never came down to a tactical strategy for what weapons to use, just a matter of "which weapon have I used the least?"  The games were a perfect culmination of late 3D platformers, early shooters, and that magical element of video game exploration.  So what happened?

I think the times eventually caught up to Ratchet & Clank.  The games reflected the types of games on the market just due to the fact that the Future series is more third-person-shooter than it is platformer.  Unfortunately, that sort of cartoony/kid-friendly aesthetic doesn't lend itself to particularly deep shooter gameplay.  With other game like Uncharted and Gears of War doing the massive scale of being in the middle of a war pretty much perfectly, it felt a little too lighthearted for Ratchet & Clank. With the core focus of the games being on the platforming elements, the giant shootout setpieces came down to nothing more than "hold down the fire button, then move around so you don't get hit."  This would be fun if I had multiple ways of going through it like in the node sections of Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, but when the only weapon that's good or simply just made for mid-range tactical gunplay is the generic pistol, it gets old very fast... kinda how you could blow through the first Uncharted using only the pistol from behind the furthest cover (a problem they amazingly remedied in the sequel, I might add).  

After a week of playing the game, I was about 6-8 hours in and decided to just call it quits.  Nothing was really drawing me back to the game.  The narrative elements had fallen flat with a story that written as well as a standard Saturday-morning cartoon and the humor was way too forced this time around.  Maybe it was just the fact that "funny games" have higher expectations now or the fact that Insomniac was trying a little to hard to deliver the "like a Pixar movie" experience with the Future games, but I laughed as much as I did when I somehow saw Shark Tale about eight years ago.  When I thought it was maybe just me, I went back and played the original games, I still found myself compelled to experiment with the gameplay and laughing at the game when it was legitimately funny.  The bit in the beginning of Going Commando where you fight through the mall still gets me to this day. 

So it goes without saying I don't think I'll be picking up All 4 One as my interest has more than waned in the series.  But it isn't the first time this happened to me. I haven't been excited for a single Sonic game since Sonic Heroes.  I have some expectations for Sonic Generations after playing the phenomenal 2D demo, but I still don't like the direction that Sonic Team has chosen to take with most Sonic games these days.  I suppose solid platforming doesn't sell like it used to and it takes unnecessary speed and extra characters to make the games look cool to the new generation.  I dunno, I just don't get it.  Admittedly, I don't even have a problem with a company handing off a game permanently to another studio so long as the original one still chooses to build off what they learned from past games to make new ones.  I haven't played it yet, but I've heard that the Resistance games do a very good job of retaining that element of dozens of creative weapons that was half of the foundation of the Ratchet & Clank games.  But do you think companies like Insomniac and Sonic Team would still be putting out new and interesting original games if they let their previous awesome titles die once they reached the apex of quality with them?  Hell, I'd have been willing to live a decade without Sonic if it meant we got to play with the long-forgotten Ristar just a little bit more.  Since Insomniac has reach a conclusion with Resistance and has definitely done everything they could with Ratchet & Clank, it'd be great to see them try something else.  But the same can be said for many companies.  

Once again, I'm just starting to ramble, but it makes me sad that I can't enjoy a franchise that I loved from a company that I really respect.  It'd be one thing if these were third party games, like the two PSP spin-offs, but I expect more from both Insomniac and Ratchet & Clank.  The Future games are still really solid titles, and more power to you if you can enjoy them in a way I can't, but at this point in my gaming career, I guess I would just like to see something new.  That's how we even got Ratchet & Clank in the first place.

Just something to think about, I guess.

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