Friday, January 28, 2011

Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando - Double the Murder, Double the Fun

The original Ratchet & Clank was a pretty powerful example of how a simple game concept - 3D platforming - can become deeply engrossing and a whole lot of fun when you combine it with great game mechanics.  Using the gadgets, weapons, and various Clank-related accessories to maneuver through obstacles and blow things up kept me coming back for more.  It's not a formula you really want to mess with, since any significant tinkering might screw up what made people like it in the first place.  Going Commando, though, manages to not only recapture the original magic but add additional layers to make it more enjoyable and rewarding than ever.

I sought this out after buying the original, since as I detailed earlier my thought process was that if I was going to buy one game I wouldn't play, I might as well buy them all.  With the original finally out of the way, that cleared a path for me to go all-out on this one.  Ratchet & Clank was enough fun that it didn't take much for me to get started on this - I put it in the next day and beat it inside a week.

So what was it like?  Well, they threw in some elements that made this a whole lot of fun, but unfortunately the story suffered a few setbacks.  A big part of the appeal of the first game was the sense that you were watching a Pixar film play out with you in control of the protagonist.  Going Commando starts out strong, but ends up lacking the kind of depth and imagination of the first.  So it ends up winning out over the first entry in terms of gameplay, but runs way behind as a narrative.

Like if this were a video game.

We pick up a few months after the first game leaves off.  Ratchet & Clank are heroes across the galaxy for their defeat of Drek, despite the fact that they were too late to stop him from tearing apart a dozen inhabited worlds first.  One of the first things we learn is that since then, they've done the standard hand-shaking and baby-kissing, but otherwise the galaxy has been pretty dull.  Well yes, it would be, most of its planets were destroyed.  Glossing over that, knowledge of their existence reaches the ears of MegaCorp C.E.O. Abercrombie Fizzwidget.  He beams the duo into a spaceship and alerts them to a grave threat facing his entire galaxy.

When koosh balls gain sentience, all is lost.

Our heroes are then separated.  Ratchet goes off to infiltrate the aerial headquarters of the thief who stole the fuzzy atrocity against man and God and combat the legions of chainsaw-wielding robot guards, and Clank is taken to a penthouse apartment where he's given robo-massages that presumably include happy robo-endings.

"This is totally cool with you, right Ratchet?"

So right around this time we start seeing where the differences between this game and the first one come in.  For one, they introduce some RPG-like elements in that Ratchet's nanotech (hit points) and his weapons can now gain experience.  This is, of course, dependent upon how many enemies you can kill, so the game gives you even more incentive to murder than before.  Get enough experience, Ratchet gains another hit point, or his weapons upgrade to an even deadlier version.  Some of the upgrades are pretty fantastic, so it is definitely to your advantage to switch out weapons often and kill as much stuff as you can in as varied ways as possible.

Now at first I thought this was pretty awesome.  See, in the first game, Ratchet started out with 4 nanotech spheres and could upgrade all the way to 8, and each one represented one hit he was capable of surviving.  In Going Commando it seemed like they pumped his survivability up by a factor of about a hundred - until you realize that enemies can do 2-4 times the damage they used to be able to. This is where the other new game mechanic, armor, comes in.  At various places in the game you can purchase armor capable of reducing the damage you take by anywhere from a quarter all the way up to 90%.  Armor is prohibitively expensive though, meaning you've got to spend long hours murdering - I mean, farming bolts.

They're comin' in nice this year.

That is probably the biggest difference I found between this game and the last.  There was at least one point I found in Ratchet & Clank where you could fight an endless supply of enemies to accumulate the 150,000 bolts you needed for the game's best weapon, the R.Y.N.O.  Going Commando offers a flavor reminiscent of many action game sequels to come before it - make the currency of the game twice as easy to obtain, but then make everything you can buy with it three times as expensive.  Though in this case by "three times" I mean almost 7 because the R.Y.N.O. II is going to run you - wait for it -

1,000,000 bolts.  And eventually your only real way of getting them is to run back and forth to different worlds over and over again.  You COULD skip out getting the R.Y.N.O. II (and the Carbonex Armor, also a cool million) if you feel fine beating the game without buying everything, but then you would be a failure.  A disgusting, unmentionable failure.  There's a caste system in India and you are outside of it, fit only for panhandling or working with the dead. 

Or back up dancing.

Of course if none of this phases you, I suppose you could just beat the game and start a New Game+, which lets you get a multiplier on the amount of bolts you receive by killing things without getting hit yourself.  Using this method you can get up to 20 times the normal reward from each enemy or broken crate.  But really man.  Untouchable.

And not the good kind.

So they tweaked the combat a little to include RPG elements, jacked up the cost of everything, and all-in-all made this a game somewhat stretched out by artificial content.  That said, when you DO level up a weapon and it goes from shooting out a bomb to shooting out five or advances from "force field" to "death sphere," there is something to be said for the level of joy that brings when watching things fall to your hard-earned toys.  If nothing else keeps you going through each planet, it'll be the struggle to get each of your weapons to its ultimate form.

Also added to Going Commando is an element somewhat less enjoyable.  They threw in a couple dozen more of the challenges from the first game, creating this time not just a racing game, but also space battles and a gladiator arena.  The arena is fun, and rewarding in terms of bolts, but a few of the challenges they put you up against, especially in New Game+, can quickly become frustrating after doing them over and over again without success.  The space battles are just monotonous, and thankfully there aren't that many of them and they're usually over fast.  What irks me most, really, is how the reward for completing each challenge drops by about 75% each time you do it, until some things which are truly difficult become worthless.

Like trade-in credit at GameStop.

Also, while we're talking about difficulty, I should hearken back to the R.Y.N.O. II for a moment.  The original Rip Ya a New One made the last boss of Ratchet & Clank beatable.  Without it, he was pretty damn hard for a kid's game, usually involving expelling all your strongest ammo on him and then waiting for it to be replenished and hoping he didn't kill you in the meantime.  While this was happening, Drek would transform the entire landscape around you into an obstacle course which you'd have to avoid being murdered while running.  Having the R.Y.N.O. turned this into something just a little harder than the game's other bosses.  By contrast, having the R.Y.N.O. II makes the entirety of Going Commando a complete joke.  The last boss went down in less than 30 seconds to its crazily overpowered barrage. 

For something so expensive, it sure is cheap.

I guess they figure if you're willing to spend the time gathering a million bolts for the thing you deserve to switch the game over to Easy mode, but a weapon with (for all intents and purposes) limitless ammunition which one-shots everything is a little over the top.

And not the so-bad-it's-good kind.

The story, as I mentioned before, lags a bit from the original.  It ties up one of the more glaring loose ends from the first game, but in a more or less wholly unsatisfactory way.  Don't get me wrong, it was still fun, and a good playthrough, but it doesn't really take long to figure out what's going on.  Insomniac's signature humor and witty banter is intact, but it's got significantly less to work with here than they did before. 

All in all, though I just did quite a bit of complaining about it, I can't fault Going Commando in entertainment value.  The worlds are just as complex and immersive, the regular missions even more challenging than before, and the weapons even more imaginative and impressive.  The game has a lot going for it, and is, in many ways, an improvement over the first.  Though they did change Ratchet's voice actor.  I looked it up later and found out that it was the same guy who voiced Tidus in Final Fantasy X.

This explains why I spent the first hour compelled to fling Ratchet off a cliff.

They also changed his attitude a lot, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.  I guess he's a galaxy-saving, armor-clad space commando now, not a shirtless, stranded mechanic, but for some reason he felt more toned down than anything.  The adjustment reflects a more grown-up Ratchet than in the first game, and I guess the transition from cocky teenager to responsible adult does come part and parcel with the whole hero thing.

With this one out of the way, I'm going to take a break from action games before I move on to the third installment, Up Your Arsenal.  It's been long enough for me without a good strategy game or RPG that I've got to go take a hit, and Atlus's Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity is going to be my drug of choice this time around.  Although, before I finish this up, I do have one last conclusion to draw about Ratchet's whole merit as a hero in the first place.

Remember from my post about the original game, I likened his blowing up of Drek's planet as tantamount to the Death Star explosion in Star Wars.  Countless innocent lives were no doubt lost in a senseless act of planetary destruction.

This is Ratchet in his Carbonex Armor.

Now I ask you - who do remember wearing a full suit of body armor, complete with face mask, going around indiscriminately blowing up planets and murdering billions of people?

"How ya doin'?"

 Until next time, keep playing.

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