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.