Ratchet and Clank and The Dilemma Of The Sequel

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

An Editorial By Figboy

Like most of my editorials, this one is also spurred by a growing hypocrisy and double standard ravaging the gaming community and gaming media at large. This time, my laser pointer is aimed at game sequels, and why some can be praised for keeping the status quo, and others criticized for keeping the status quo. How some sequels can be praised for shaking things up, and others criticized for shaking things up.

I recently completed the latest Ratchet and Clank title, A Crack in Time, and prior to getting the game, I had ready plenty of coverage/reviews concerning the game. Despite some overall positive scores, there were a few that criticized the game for staying true to the Ratchet and Clank titles of yesteryear. There is certainly nothing wrong with calling a game out for not progressing, but then again, there are plenty of other sequels that these very same reviewers praised for “keeping the same game play you know and love.”

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For example, Gears of War 2 was very much like the first game. In practically every way. The controls were still the same, the gruff, hard as nails protagonists were still, well, gruff and hard as nails, and the same hectic and visceral game play was in tact. As far as new features go, the game only really added 2 more players in multi-player, bringing the count up from 8 to 10, and a new mode called Horde mode, which let five friends battle it out against, you guessed it, Hordes of increasingly difficult enemies. There were a few tweaks of course, but the core of the series was the same. In short, Gears of War 2 stayed extremely true to the original, but was no less as fun, so it got a pass. It was never docked points in reviews, or criticized negatively for being “more of the same.” In the case of Gears 2, it was “more of the same game play you have grown to know and love.”

On the flip side, the latest Ratchet and Clank was docked points for being “more of the same,” despite the Ratchet and Clank franchise having one of the most polished, enjoyable formulas in gaming. Each game changes things up, but of all the games to receive the most negative criticism about being “more of the same,” Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time has a dirty little secret: it’s not as cookie cutter R&C as the gaming media has lead us to believe. In fact, the game boasts quite a few significant changes to the series, although the core game play (action/platforming and weapons), remains in tact. After all, if you removed those elements from Ratchet and Clank, it wouldn’t be Ratchet and Clank anymore.

Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time

I discuss it in my review, but I’ll briefly reiterate here. While the above mentioned core game play of A Crack in Time is there, the other changes are quite different. For one, you play over 3 quarters of the game as Ratchet. Clank is nowhere to be found, and those that are familiar with the series know that Clank is a rather vital component to the overall game play of the series. He helps Ratchet across chasms, and generally uses some type of gadgets or machines that help solve puzzles in his own mini-games.

Playing as a solo Ratchet was usually a chore in previous games, but one of the big changes Insomniac added to help Ratchet become a more enjoyable stand alone hero is the addition of Hover Boots, which expand his move set to partially make up for the lack of Clank, and he is able to perform more useful things with his wrench, like throw it while moving (before, he would have to stop, crouch, and throw the wrench), and also using it to tether to objects in the world and manipulate them to advance (like using it to grip a floating platform and move it to a point where he could jump onto it). Basically, Ratchet is a blast to play with now. Quite a change, and yet it is ignored by those wanting to cry more of the same.

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Even the Clank game play is vastly different from any of the games before it. Gone are the helpful bots or Zoni that Clank commands, and in it’s place are a series of cleverly designed time puzzles, in which Clank must record and utilize past versions of himself to solve the puzzle. It is ingenious, and it’s a shame that are so few of them in the game. He also gains a Time Bomb, which allows him to throw a bomb that slows down anything caught in it’s area of effect, like enemies or fast-spinning platforms that then slow to the point where he can leap on them. Another addition is the Time Scepter, which lets him fix broken segments of the environment with a whack, or repelling enemy projectiles. These sections alone show a vast maturation of the game design abilities of Insomniac Games, and yet they are just as ignored and dismissed by the gaming media as Ratchet’s improved game play.

But by far the biggest change to the series, and the one that should be spoken of more, are the free form space segments. Gone are choosing the next planet from a list and warping to it (although you can still warp to the destination if you choose), and in it’s place are 6 huge sectors of explorable space with small moons to explore, sub-quests to complete, enemy ships to destroy, and of course, the various planets and ships that will be your mission objectives for the story. Exploring the small moons is a treat, as they are reminiscent of the few moon sections in previous games, but their level design is often quite creative, and are almost puzzles in themselves as you try and find every Gold Bolt and Zoni scattered throughout the 6 sectors.

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I think, by this point, you can see that while Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time is still true to what makes the R&C franchise so enjoyable, Insomniac Games altered enough game play (even certain weapons and how you customize them), that the “more of the same” argument hardly applies. Whatever happened to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Ratchet’s game play is hardly broke, and even the very reviews that condemn it say, “Fans of the Ratchet games will find more of the same fun game play here, but…” Why add the “but?” Why not just leave it at what it is: a fun new entry in the series that fans and newcomers will enjoy. After all, the fans will buy the game because they are fans, and since the game play is still top notch, they won’t mind if there are some similar elements to past games. And if you are a newcomer to the series, you will have never played a R&C game before, so it will be all new to you anyway, so what’s the problem?

There are plenty of other sequels that don’t change a thing about their game play and they aren’t dinged for it. The latest Resident Evil is a good example, Halo 3 is another, but there is another, more baffling phenomena amongst the masses and the media that I can’t help but understand when a developer plays it safe.

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There is a rather vocal bunch of the gaming media and gaming community that complain when a sequel DOES change up the status quo. For example, GTAIV. The game received rave reviews from the critics (most critics), but received an incredible amount of fallout from the fans. The game had a more realistic aesthetic, down to the game play, and despite rendering a fantastically believable facsimile of New York City (in the form of Liberty City), and improving some niggling GTA issues (like driving mechanics and shooting mechanics), people didn’t like the change.

Resistance 2 (another Insomniac Games title), while improving upon the original in all areas from controls, to graphics, to narrative, it was still criticized for changing game mechanics like the weapon wheel, removing the narrator from the first game and focusing more on evolving the game’s actual protagonist, Nathan Hale. They even changed the multi-player and co-op by bumping up the player count from 40 to 60, and eliminating story based co-op in favor of a deeper, more involved class based co-op system for up to 8 players.

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All of these changes were met with harsh criticism and disdain. I suppose my question is: Which is it? Do gamers and the gaming media want games that are constantly changing the status quo, altering game play just to satiate some urge on the gamers part for more and different types of game play, even at the cost of the core of the series? As noted above, changing that status quo is often met with a negative reaction. The message that the gamers are sending to the game development community is, “What the hell are you doing to the game I know and love? Don’t change a thing!”

But then, hypocritically, when a developer keeps the core the same, and iterates on it (ie, as in Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time), the message gamers and reviewers are sending to the game development community is “This is the same game as before! Why don’t you change anything? Shake it up some!” It’s mixed signals, to say the least.

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, is, on the surface, very similar to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The action/platformer/shooter feels nearly identical, and yet developer Naughty Dog managed to deliver a sequel that surpasses the original in every way. The visuals, the pacing, the characterization, it’s all superb. It is a sequel that does not change much of the status quo of the series and it’s characters, and yet it is received with open arms. It’s very confusing to developers when they see fresh ideas/takes on established franchises suffer on the shelves, and same ol’ same ol’ sequels flourish.

That is another issue developers have to consider seriously when creating a follow-up to a game. Contrary to popular belief, the hard working men and women in game development are trying to make a living. They have mouths to feed and are doing this not only as a labor of love for the craft of creating video games, but for their livelihood as well. Because of this, considering what the market wants is very important. If the market wants more of the same, that is what they will get. Look at the Madden and Tony Hawk franchises, which have remained stagnant for decades. Even formerly new franchises like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are just adding new song tracks to what is essentially the same game mechanics since the original releases.

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The reality is that the market dictates a lot of what a sequel will be. Companies like Insomniac Games, which are independent, have more freedom to express themselves creating, which is why the Resistance and Ratchet franchises are able to mix it up more often in terms of game play, regardless of the critical and commercial reaction. But even so, Sony, while not owning Insomniac, owns the rights to Resistance and Ratchet, and will, therefore, want to make sure that the series do well. Fortunately, even with the changes, the series are commercial successes, although Resistance 2 fared worse than the original and the Ratchet and Clank games. Only the future knows what this will spell for the inevitable 3rd entry in the series.

Personally, I just want fun video game experiences, whether brand new, or new coats of paint on game play that I know and love from an established franchise. I happen to adore Resistance 2, even though it did shake up quite a bit about the series and it’s game play. I also happen to adore the latest Ratchet and Clank game, even though it still stays true to the core of the series, but alters the presentation and execution enough to keep it feeling fresh and exciting (not to mention that the stories in sequels, as well as locations and setpieces are generally different). I love Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for being more of the same with a new coat of paint, because the core game play from the original was excellent to begin with. If a sequel happens to innovate or take a new approach to the series and it works out, that’s great, and I’m all for it too.

I don’t think game developers should institute radical changes just for the sake of it, or to appease whiny fanboys or the overly critical gaming media. In the case of Ratchet, Insomniac changed the game in ways the series needed to, and naturally, evolved to. Those changes should be celebrated, as well as the overall evolution of Insomniac as a game development house. A Crack in Time is truly the best Ratchet game yet, refining what makes the series great to a fine sheen. The same applies to Uncharted 2. Unlike Ratchet, it isn’t the 8th in the series, but it polishes the core Uncharted game play and sets a new standard for visuals and storytelling presentation.

Thoughts: Do you want sequels to be more of the same game play you love, or a radical change in the status quo of the franchise?

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One Response to “Ratchet and Clank and The Dilemma Of The Sequel”

  1. I don’t mind if a sequel is more of the same game play if its backed by significant development in the game’s characters and overall plot.

    Halo and Gears of War illustrate the point. I’m not saying they’re the epitome of good video game writing, but the development of their respective plots was sufficiently engaging and epic in scope (at least for me) to gloss over a lack of significant change in game play.

    On the other hand, there’s Tomb Raider; a game that went on for far too long with sequels with largely unchanged game play in addition to a lack of any significant story/character development or direction.

    By the time it occurred to Eidos that they really should start to shake things up in terms of plot and character development with Angel of Darkness and Underworld, years have passed and hardly anyone cared because there wasn’t enough there to keep the fans engaged in the face of “more of the same.”

    If games studios aren’t going to offer the incentive of significant changes in game play, they need another carrot to keep players hooked and I believe that’s where decent writing should fill the gap. Good writing, good story can keep players engaged without the need to radically change the existing game engine.

    Granted, decent story development may not be enough for some gamers (you’ll never please everyone) but in absence of radical game play change, significant story and character development can still give a franchise some needed extra lift.

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