Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ratchet & Clank: Hijinks and Homicide

Ah, Insomniac games.

Since the original Spyro the Dragon Insomniac has shown they know the formula for making a successful action platformer. Make a 3D world with lots of areas to explore and absolutely inundate it with things to collect which will be measured at the end of each level.  Going through one level of a Spyro title is all you need to know why Insomniac is so aptly named.  Did I say one level?  I meant eight, because you'll be about that far before you realize it's 4 in the morning.

"Okay . . . ONE more level."

This one ended up on my backlog after I was wandering through GameStop and saw it without the Greatest Hits label.  You know you've got a problem when you convince yourself it's worth owning a game you didn't want previously simply because the label of black instead of red.  It didn't matter that I was in the middle of playing other stuff (Persona 4 at the time, I think) that was going to take me awhile, or that I already had dozens of other games sitting around waiting to be played.  I had here Ratchet & Clank in the original case, and dammit, I was going to get it.  Not only that, I was going to get the whole trilogy just to prove how committed I was to this idea.  If you're gonna do it, do it all the way.

Above: Precedent
I'll tell you, though, I'm glad I did.  This turned out to be a lot of fun, and gave me a lot to talk about.

Now, Ratchet & Clank is a kid's game.  There's nothing overly complicated about the puzzles, none of the jumps or levels are that challenging (though you will die, many, many times, if you just jaunt along without looking), and really only the final boss is difficult to fight.  The story, dialogue, and even some of the animation seem like they were lifted right from a Disney movie.  That's why it really struck me that this game focuses so much around mass genocide.

I'm going to start by saying Ratchet & Clank the characters were almost the complete opposite of what I expected them to be.  Having no experience with the series, I imagined Ratchet to be the serious, down-to-business type with Clank playing the role of a wise-cracking pint-sized sidekick.  What I found instead was that Clank was less Mushu and more Jiminy Cricket, continually appealing to Ratchet's better nature as he is repeatedly sidetracked from important goals by his own desires.

"Ratchet, you should really stop
shooting peop - godDAMMIT Ratchet."

The Disney comparison is still apt, however.  Ratchet & Clank features a story which would not be out of place in a Pixar feature.  It all begins when a giant robot sentry factory pops out an error.  Out of the assembly line pops Clank, assembled differently from all his robot brothers for a purpose.  The mother computer, you later learn, has developed both conscious and conscience (seriously, they should have made Clank a cricket) after realizing the plans of Supreme Executive Chairman Drek's plans to create a Frankenstein planet using bits of other worlds throughout the galaxy.  Out goes Clank to stop his nefarious plot, but is quickly shot down by Drek's robot goons while attempting to escape.  That might have been the end of it - if he didn't land on planet Veldin, where Ratchet is currently living, apparently a mechanic of some kind.

Clank informs Ratchet as to Drek's nefarious scheme, to which our hero replies basically "well, that's a shame.  Can't help you."  Fortunately for the galaxy, Clank doesn't want Ratchet's help - he wants Captain Qwark, the greatest super hero ever.  Since Clank is capable of powering Ratchet's derelict spaceship and getting him off the planet he's been stuck on, the mechanic agrees to at least take him to try and find Qwark.  That begins the series of adventures as they travel from planet to planet, thwarting Drek's schemes and evading his attempts to destroy them.  It's a lot of fun from there on out, with crazy weapons and gadgets, incredible environments, and engaging gameplay that keeps you wanting more.

Oh, and also, murder.  Lots of murder.

His immediate reaction was asking to tone it down.

One of the first cutscenes in the game is the Supreme Executive Chairman himself.  He explains that because the home world of his people, the Blarg, has become so polluted and overpopulated, they have no choice but to leave.  So he's going to build a new planet - which involves stealing huge portions of existing, populated worlds and piecing them together to create an ideal new celestial body.  Unfortunately, Drek explains, the loss of mass will cause each planet to drift out of orbit and plunge into the sun where they'll explode in a giant cosmic fireball, killing everybody.  He tells this to entire planets, to their faces, as he's doing it.

His enormous balls wouldn't fit in the shot.

So, I'm going to give out a spoiler here; by the end of the game, Drek's planet is complete.  That means that totally happened.  To a lot of other worlds.

But Drek's the bad guy, right?  So it's okay, conceptually, for him to commit unspeakable acts of genocide.  He's what we're fighting against.

And we do need a bad guy.

Okay, but what about all those people Ratchet and Clank straight-up waste?

In the first couple of missions in the game, your enemies are just robots.  You hit them with a wrench or a gadget and they explode in a shower of bolts. You then trade the bolts for new weapons and ammunition.  That seems feasible - these pieces come from complicated machines which were also walking attack drones.  You should totally be able to repurpose whatever you find on them for battle purposes.  But then you find out that bolts are, in fact, the currency of this galaxy.  So when you start fighting actual sentient, living beings and they spray bolts in all directions after you beat them to death, it's because you just mugged their corpse.

Make no mistake about it, either - those people you hit are coming down with a case of dead.  I'm sure an argument could have been made for them just being knocked unconscious and then teleported away or something, except that the game takes great pains to make it clear that Ratchet dies every time you run out of health or fall down a pit.  If you get hit too much, we see Ratchet suddenly lose motor control, flopping feebly to the ground, mouth agape as his eyes roll back into his head.  If you miss a jump, you either plunge into lava or acid where the Lombax makes a panicked, futile struggle as he is dissolved, or fall screaming into an infinite abyss.  They even recorded a scream, just so you're aware that Ratchet's final moments were filled with fear and regret.  Best case scenario is you fall into deep water, which at least affords you two chances to jump out before you're devoured by a giant fish.  So death is very real - and you can knock your enemies off of those same precipices from which Ratchet himself might fall.

And let's examine another facet of the story.  Drek's title is "Supreme Executive Chairman."  If he's the leader of the Blarg, that means the entire planet must be run like a giant corporation.  Those guys you run around beating to death with a wrench or shooting with missiles are just doing their 9-to-5 job.

They discuss funerals instead of football.

If I can give another spoiler (which shouldn't really be a spoiler since this game has 9 sequels/spin-offs) our heroes win in the end.  They defeat Drek while he's piloting a giant mech and he shoots off into space towards the paint-by-numbers planet he built.  Clank spies the giant world-destroying laser the Chairman was going to use to blow up Ratchet's planet is now aimed up at the new Blarg world instead.  So, acting quickly, Ratchet & Clank activate the laser and blow up the planet, killing Drek in the most insanely unnecessarily violent way possible.  They'd already destroyed his robot and sent him plummeting towards said planet where he'd doubtlessly be burned to cinders upon entering the atmosphere, they just decided that they need to make double sure not even atomic traces of his genetic code remained. It would be like if the Allies had decided the only way to make sure Hitler was dead was to shoot him into the moon and then nuke it.

His plan was to crash the moon into Germany.

What that leaves us with is another Death Star scenario.  Just like the Rebel Alliance blew up two moon-sized weapons without regard for the maintenance crews and civilians undoubtedly aboard, Ratchet blows up an entire planet.  Now, I've never built a planet before, but I'm guessing such an undertaking would require a great deal of work on the ground.  The kind of scientific data which could be gathered would be unprecedented, and every major scientist from across the galaxy would be trying to get a piece of that.  The pointlessly bloodthirsty finishing move of our heroes probably set back their solar system by a hundred years.

Not only that, but this was supposed to be a new planet for Drek's people, the Blarg.  Drek admits that he was the one who masterminded making their planet uninhabitable in the first place, so they would pay him to build a new one.  Again, they're just employees of a corrupt and ruthless C.E.O.  Now, they have nowhere to live at all.  Ratchet & Clank destroyed the future of their entire species to get rid of Drek all because fuck Drek, that's why.  Because their leader was a douchebag, they've been relegated to being the gypsies of the galaxy forever.

Later they'll be forced to suffer the ignominy
of being persecuted by the French.

Man, Clank is a terrible Jiminy Cricket.

"Pinocchio, that fox is leading you into temptation.
Shoot him in the face."

All that being said, I still can't recommend against anyone playing Ratchet & Clank.  This is one of the most creative and inventive platformers I can recall playing, and the gadget/weapon game mechanic fulfills its promise to keep you roaming around the world blasting things in new and creative ways.  GameFAQs was even a help rather than a hinderance this time because the game is so fast-paced that stopping to follow a guide in my search for all the Gold Bolts and skill point locations actually helped me appreciate how clever the designers were in some spots.

You get a pass.  THIS time.

Within an hour of playing through it I had already made my mind up to buy the first PS3 entry; Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, because the scope of what Insomniac accomplished on the PS2 made the prospect of seeing them work with a next-gen console beyond intriguing.  It's a fun, entertaining, and creative game that kept me involved all the way to the end.  You can't really ask for more than that.

Currently, I'm already most of the way through the first sequel, Going Commando.  My plan had been to play through the R&C trilogy before moving on to its friendly neighbor Naughty Dog's offering Jak and Daxter.  After five straight action platformers in a row though, I don't know.  I'm kind of hurting for a good RPG.  Maybe I'll pop in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.  A friend of mine told me its story makes Devil May Cry 2 make sense, which means it's gotta be the best game ever.

Until next time, keep playing.

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