Version tested: PlayStation 3
Co-op gaming looks easy. Just take a one player game and stick another playable character in it, right? Bingo! Instant co-op! That's the approach that a lot of games take, and it's to Insomniac's credit that it has broken out of the traditional platform game mould for its underdog mascot's first fully co-operative adventure. It's just a shame that breaking out of that mould has left both characters and developer lost in a fog of half-baked ideas, restrictive level design and simplistic gameplay.
The plot, for what it's worth, finds Ratchet and Clank forced to team up with ineffectual superhero Qwark and perennial villain Doctor Nefarious when all four are snatched by something called the Creature Collector. In the tradition of The Defiant Ones and Enemy Mine, former rivals must work together to survive.
"Work together" is a somewhat relative term, however. This is a co-op game in the sense that up to four players are on-screen at the same time. Sometimes two or more players will have to stand in the same spot and press a button at the same time. More rarely, you'll have to collaborate to get an electrical creature into a socket, with one player holding it open while another fires it in. Some larger turrets must be distracted, allowing one player to slip behind and deliver a killer blow to the obligatory weak spot.
Mostly, however, you'll be tumbling your way through a series of long-winded stages, smashing endless crates and destroying wave after wave of enemies. Inventive weapon design is a hallmark of Insomniac's work, so it's no surprise to learn that, while the destruction quickly becomes tiresome, there are at least lots of bizarre ways to wreak mayhem.
There are freeze rays and flamethrowers, decoys and combat drones, guns that produce thunderclouds or turn enemies into fluffy little critters. But, crucially, there's no incentive to use any of them beyond satisfying your curiosity. The first gun you get - the Combuster - is as effective at the end of the game as it is at the start. Smashing things with a melee attack will get you through most of the encounters. And while weapons can be upgraded, it's a simple three-tier process with boosts for ammo, power and "elite", which offers some surprise augmentation for a huge cost.
If players using the same weapon focus their fire on the same enemy, the combined effects can be marginally more useful than just blasting away at random, but not so much that it becomes an essential tactic. There are no enemies that require a particular mode of attack, no obstacles that require anything more than cursory strategies - spam those buttons and you'll be fine.
For all Insomniac's wit and verve in world building, this is a terribly flat game. Anything that might give one player an advantage, or just a point of difference, has been hammered down to ensure the game plays the same for everyone. Even the characters, so distinctive in the original games, are here reduced to four identical avatars with no distinguishing abilities.
While this may, in theory, result in a more accessible game - or at least a game less likely to cause arguments over who gets to be Ratchet - it also results in a game where it doesn't really matter what choices you make. You can pick a character and a favourite weapon and stick with them to the end of the game, with no ill effect.
This need to cater to the wisdom of the crowd impacts the game in other detrimental ways too. Level design is utterly linear, with few diversions from the path that might pull players too far apart. When you do find some hidden area, it generally offers only more crates to smash. There's certainly nothing like the replayability of the Lego games (an obvious inspiration) where returning to a level with different characters and abilities opens up entirely new areas of gameplay. And what the level design can't do to keep players in line, the restrictive camera does instead, funnelling the action relentlessly towards the end.
Not only are levels linear, but they're long and there are lots of them. Normally such generosity would be cause for celebration, but the monotone nature of the game makes each stage feel like a grind. With four players things quickly descend into manic incoherence, where any finesse is counteracted by a bullying automatic lock-on that removes all thought from the combat, while playing solo (with a solitary AI partner) reveals just how threadbare the actual gameplay is. Played in short twenty minute bursts, the effect is less damaging, but for any protracted gameplay session things quickly become stale.
There are some bright spots, though they're mostly restricted to surface details. Insomniac remains one of the best studios for wringing visual treats out of the PS3 and the game often looks more gorgeous and exciting than it actually is. The backdrops, in particular, are always fizzing with background detail and jaw-dropping vistas. The cutscenes, when they arrive, are genuinely funny and better produced than most. And, of course, creature design is another strong point, with some weird and distinctive monsters at the boss end of the scale. It's just a shame that few of them require anything more than constant attack spamming to defeat.
All 4 One is a particularly frustrating game as it bears all the hallmarks of a cheap kids movie tie-in, yet comes from a studio that can do so much better and uses characters with more charm and style than they've been allowed to show. At the most fundamental level there's nothing tragically wrong with the game, it just displays a lack of imagination that chafes against the legacy of a series that has never been short of ideas. For a game with that sort of pedigree, average simply isn't good enough.
5 / 10