It's been a long time coming, but thanks to the power of the PlayStation 3, the team at Insomniac Games has been able to realize a longtime goal for its "Ratchet & Clank" series.
At any given moment in "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction," whenever a player's mood strikes, they can stop blasting cartoon aliens with overpowered sci-fi weaponry and hoist a disco ball in the air. What happens next is something the development team wanted to do since the first "Ratchet" game, simply titled "Ratchet & Clank," was released five years ago on the PlayStation 2.
"One of the things that came out of all of this is just the fact that we could have these characters dancing," said Brian Allgeier, creative director on "Ratchet & Clank Future." That's right: Players can make their enemies dance on command. Just toss a Groovitron disco ball to the sky.
Insomniac is one of the first development teams to ship a second high-end PS3 game. That head start has allowed the studio to deeply explore the potential of a console that is not even a year old. That amount of progress has also allowed them to target some of the usual ambitious claims — "We've bandied the Pixar name around a lot, in terms of our visual goals," Allgeier said — but this time offer proof that the team has hit the mark. How well they hit may help some consumers decide whether now is the time to pick up the recently price-dropped $500 Sony system.
Do dancing enemies do it for gamers? How about a return to form for the "Ratchet & Clank" series, a return to the cheerful cartoon ballistics of the early games and away from "Ratchet: Deadlocked," which darkened the look and tone of the game? How about a mix of standard linear levels and some new exploration-based planets, a swirl Allgeier said was designed for "both types of players, the hunters and the gatherers, the people who wanted to burn straight through it ... [and the] people who want to take it a little bit slower and find secrets"?
The new game is designed to sell itself at a glance. The hook is the image, the approaching-Pixar graphical quality. It's the product of 125 developers at Insomniac, a surprisingly small increase in team size from the 110 who made the third "Ratchet" game, "Up Your Arsenal," for PS2. Allgeier conveyed some stats to emphasize the boost in graphical quality: 90 joints in Ratchet's face in the PS3 game compared to 112 joints in his whole body in the PS2 games; "tens of thousands" of particle effects on the screen at any one time on PS3 compared to 3,000 in the PS2 "Ratchet" games. The game's action glides at 60 frames per second, double the rate of Insomniac's "Resistance" game. But, again, it's not numbers that count. It's just supposed to take a glance.
Can graphics matter the most? Should they? "I feel like there's two sides to this," Allgeier said. "My game-designer side wants to say graphics don't matter and it's all about what the player is doing. But the other side is that it really immerses you in a world. ... Our burden is to create a world that is very convincing. So the fact that we can improve the visuals and the graphics adds to that."
Some of the graphics are gameplay, after all. Take the game's tornado launcher, the weapon Allgeier said does the most to give the PS3 a workout. Players can shoot a tornado from a gun, then tilt the PS3 Sixaxis controller to drive the tornado around the cartoon battlefield. The tornado picks up a swirl of enemies, crates and bolts. At its highest level, it emits lightning bolts. That's graphics, advanced physics computations and gameplay wrapped up into one. It's also rumble — or at least it will be. When the PS3's DualShock 3 controller is released in the spring, players will discover that shooting the tornado makes the upcoming controller shake.
The game could have been made so impressive for box-art gawkers that it would have been impossible to play. That's the pitfall of detailed graphics: clutter. "We wanted to avoid the temptation of going crazy with the detail just because we could," Allgeier said. "We wanted to be very tasteful and stylistic." That meant they tried to avoid the mistakes of some of the early computer-generated graphics in movies, which the team found gaudy. "One of the key things we decided would be a good visual direction was to have broad simple shapes with high clusters of detail in certain areas," he said. That fit the gameplay. The Insomniac team gave Ratchet a clear path to run through and waterfalls of visual details in the distance. And it fit the game's character design. One space pirate in the game, for example, has a big hunchback that is easily noticeable in the distance. Up close, he's designed to show off highly detailed gears and cogs all around his arms.
There are some less apparent bullet points to note about "Tools of Destruction." It will connect to the 2008 PSP spinoff "Secret Agent Clank" in some secret, undisclosed way. It isn't designed to connect to PS3's delayed Home service and doesn't cross over to Insomniac's other weapon-focused game, "Resistance." Said Allgeier, "We wouldn't want a Mature game and an E10 game talking to each other." It also doesn't include multiplayer, a feature that had been added to the third and fourth games in the series but was dropped for this one. "We had a blast developing multiplayer, and we loved it," Allgeier said. "People in the office and at Sony still play it occasionally. But we were kind of disappointed to find that less than 5 percent of players actually played it who actually played the game for both 'Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal' and 'Deadlocked.' And so, in looking at 'Ratchet & Clank Future,' we thought, well we could spend 30 percent of our resources on multiplayer, but that would take 30 percent away from the single-player experience."
It's not that Insomniac doesn't know how to do multiplayer game design well. The company's launch PS3 game, "Resistance: Fall of Man," has established a faithful online community of players. For "Ratchet," Allgeier said he would like to "go down that road again someday" and that "for future games, it is certainly a possibility."
When the previous "Ratchet" games were released, they rode the wave of the best-selling console of their generation. In the U.S., the PS3 is in third place. So does everything Insomniac add up? And is it the product of new stress? "I think we feel plenty of pressure," Allgeier said. "Sometimes we have to just ignore it and stay in our own little insular world and try to make the best game possible. We try not to pay too much attention to what's changing out there in the market. I think we always feel pressure to create a quality product. A lot of it is self-imposed."
"Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction," which was advertised for release for next week, is actually shipping earlier and should be in stores for PS3 this week.
More from the world of video games:
The Nintendo Wii isn't changing yet, but the PS3 and Xbox 360 continue to get new models and new prices to attract wider audiences. Last week Sony announced that the 80GB model of the PS3 will drop from $599 to $499 immediately. The company also announced that a 40GB model will be available on November 2 for $399. This model will not feature backward compatibility to PlayStation 2 games. "We're choosing to focus on the PlayStation 2 consumer with the PlayStation 2, which remains incredibly relevant, and focus on the PlayStation 3 consumer with the new 40-gigabyte model and the great software coming out," Sony Computer Entertainment of America President Jack Tretton told Reuters last week. "Backward compatibility is a nice secondary consideration, but it's far from the number-one priority." ...
The Xbox 360, meanwhile, is available in a new model as of Tuesday (October 23). Microsoft has announced the availability of a $279 Xbox 360 Arcade system, which replaces the hard-drive-free Core model. The Arcade system won't have a hard-drive either but will include a 256MB memory card and five Xbox Live Arcade games, including "Pac-Man Championship Edition." ...
Last week, games publisher Capcom announced a slew of new projects, including a next-gen "Bionic Commando," the first made-for-DS (rather than ported-from-Game-Boy-Advance) game in the "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" series, and a port of the PS2 critical hit "Okami" to the Wii. Those games are all set for release next year. Far more mysterious, though, was the announcement of "Street Fighter IV: Project Start," a new game in the famous fighting series. Capcom only released a trailer, but it doesn't reveal much.
For much more games news — including an interview with Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs for Nintendo — check out our gaming blog at Multiplayer.MTV.com.