Remember when it was fashionable for action-adventure series to "go dark" a few instalments in? Jak II: Now With Guns, Prince of Persia: He's Got Dreads, Tomb Raider: Miserytits etc etc. Developers thought giving their characters an attitude problem and a stupid haircut made their games cool and edgy, when in fact it just made them dull and rubbish.
Thank goodness some developers managed to resist. How different games would be today if Mario had been given a goatee and forced to clear his name after being accused of a crime he didn't commit, rohypnolling Princess Peach perhaps. Insomniac was also smart enough to stick with its successful formula. It created a more grown-up, darker series in Resistance, keeping the more Emo members of staff happy by letting them draw monsters and war. But more or less, the Ratchet & Clank games stuck to their big, stupid, brightly coloured guns.
The good news is that's not about to change with Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, the second full-length PS3 instalment in the series. Insomniac isn't threatening to take the series in an entirely new direction or redefine the genre or any of that daft old gubbins. In fact, when asked what are the key differences between this game and Tools of Destruction, project manager Bryan Bernal is refreshingly honest. "Well, there are a lot of things that are similar," he says. "We don't want to alienate players and just completely go in a different direction."
You can tell he's not making it up just by glancing at the game in action. There's Ratchet, running and jumping as smoothly as ever around pretty, colourful environments. Everywhere you look there are crates to smash and bullets to collect and enemies to dispatch. According to Bernal there have been some technical improvements, such as self-shadowing and new water effects, which came out of developing Resistance 2. The game runs fully at 60 frames-per-second. Environments and weapon effects are a bit more stylised. Overall, though, the general look is the same.
That's not to say nothing has changed, however: for starters, Ratchet has a new sidekick. Those who finished PSN adventure Quest for Booty - SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know what happens at the end - will know it ended with Clank being spirited away by the Zoni. In A Crack in Time, Ratchet has worked out an approximate location for Clank and is on a mission to track him down.
Along the way he meets General Azimuth, a grizzled old Lombax who has been in exile for many years - "He's like an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure," as Bernal puts it. You may remember him from the teaser trailer - yes, that old buffer is Azimuth, not an elderly Ratchet, and R&C hasn't gone all MGS4.
Having said that, you can expect some meaty cut-scenes. "We've often been compared to Pixar in terms of visuals," says Bernal. "That's nice and we really appreciate it, but we know Pixar doesn't just do what they do because of the great visuals they provide. They also tell a great story.
"One of the things we're really trying to focus on for this game is to add some more dimension to our characters, and tell the best story ever in a Ratchet & Clank game." He won't reveal any further details, but does promise the story will "have more heart, tug those emotional strings and just be better all round".
But who wants to spend their time crying over big hairy catmonkeys, or whatever Ratchet is supposed to be anyway, when there are big shiny guns to play with? Bernal reckons the number of new weapons will "probably be on the same level as Tools of Destruction", so around 15 or so.
His personal favourite is the Sonic Erupter, unofficially referred to as the frog gun. This is because it looks like a normal gun with a big frog stuck on the end. When you press fire the frog does a big belch, sending enemies and objects in the vicinity flying. This is great fun just to muck about with, but Bernal explains there's another level to it - pay attention to the frog's animation, time your button press just as he's breathing in, and he'll unleash an even bigger, more powerful burp for massive damage.
In other words, casual players can use the weapon effectively - but those who put a bit of care into it will be rewarded for their efforts. This seems to be the thinking behind the emphasis in ACIT on using weapons together. That doesn't mean combining them by putting sniper scopes on rocket launchers or anything as tedious as that; it's about the sequence of use.
"We want to give more dimension to the weapons by giving players an opportunity to use them in layers," says Bernal. To demonstrate this, he shows us how some larger enemies now have special targets on them. Hitting the target does triple the damage.
This is hard to do when enemies are running round all over the place, so Bernal switches to another new weapon - the CryoMine Glove. It encases enemies in blocks of ice, making it handy for crowd control and, in this instance, for creating sitting ducks. Bernal freezes the big monster he's facing, then switches to the Plasma Striker - a sniper rifle, in the old money - and neatly pops away at the special targets.
Naturally there are new gadgets and gizmos to play with. These include the hover boots, which allow Ratchet to glide without the aid of Clank and his propeller. They also allow him to cover long distances more quickly. This is useful as some of the new levels are massive, such as Krell Canyon, the area Bernal is demoing today. "It's basically our biggest level ever in a Ratchet game. It's huge," he says. "It's about 20 per cent bigger than what was previously the biggest level."
The Kinetic Tether from Quest for Booty is back, and once again you can use it to move platforms, pull switches and so on. However, the tether also works as a weapon now too. Bernal shows how it can be used to whip off one of the heads of a three-headed hydra, thereby considerably increasing Ratchet's odds of survival.
But what about Clank? Don't worry, Ratchet's talking metal baby features heavily in ACIT: "We actually have more Clank in this game than in any of the other full-length Ratchet games in the past," Bernal says.
In some levels you get to play as Clank and experiment with his new abilities, which allow him to manipulate and control time. These levels will be more sedate in tone, revolving around puzzles rather than combat, and are designed to provide a break from all the smashing and shooting Ratchet gets up to.
To demonstrate this, Bernal boots up a level where Clank is standing alone in a large, space age-looking room. Ahead of him is a big door and two giant locks. On the floor are two pressure pads. You guessed it, there has to be weight on both pads for the doors to open - but there are no wooden crates or stone blocks to push around anywhere. So how is Clank supposed to solve the puzzle?
The key lies in his new ability to record and replay time. Bernal shows how you can record Clank running over to one of the pressure pads and standing on top of it. He then plays back the recording and we see a ghost Clank perform the exact same actions, to the same effect, with the real-time Clank present as a solid form within the same room. Yes all right it's a bit "I need you to go back to Oxford University and find my mother so she can shoot me in the face", but bear with us.
Bernal then records Clank activating the second pressure pad, so he has two recordings stored. He plays them back simultaneously and both ghost Clanks take up their positions. The real-time Clank can then run through the open door, problem solved. But not all such puzzles will revolve around simple pressure pads, explains Bernal.
"Right now we're planning on having up to four Clanks you can control. You can imagine all the possibilities for different types of puzzle mechanics with this," he says. "You record yourself and it logs everything you're doing - swinging, slamming, deflecting shots, standing on buttons... In addition to the switchers there are cylindrical doors to manipulate, elevators to control, lots of cool stuff. We're going to reveal a whole lot more of it in the future."
They're also keeping any multiplayer plans under wraps, though it doesn't sound like they're going to bother much. "We're not talking about that a whole lot right now. We're trying to evaluate and find out what is the best match for this game," Bernal says. "In the past we had the giant, multiplayer competitive deathmatch mode, and we found it wasn't really the best match. Only a very small percentage of our players actually played it. So we are researching and evaluating at the moment."
Another sensible decision from Insomniac, then - not to waste too much time on a feature no one cares about anyway. It's clear that A Crack in Time is designed first and foremost to give Ratchet & Clank fans more of what they want. Insomniac isn't mucking about with the formula too much and they're not implementing features for the sake of it. Gripers might complain this shows a lack of imagination and daring, but gripers should shut up and have a go of the frog gun.
"I would also say overall, we're going for a bigger and more explosive experience," says Bernal. "Bigger levels, bigger enemies, bigger weapons, more destruction and just a lot more fun." Seeing as Ratchet & Clank's an awful lot of fun to begin with, that sounds like a good plan.
Excuse me sir, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 this autumn.