What's the most surprising thing about the first PS3 instalment in the Ratchet & Clank series? It's not the return to the classic platforming-shooting-collecting gameplay of the first three games. It's not, whatever the hype might say, because it's exactly like playing a Pixar film. Because it isn't, as even Insomniac will admit. It's this: Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction makes use of the Sixaxis controller's motion-sensing capabilities in a way that isn't completely rubbish.
But first, let's look at Insomniac's decision to go back to Ratchet's roots, specifically those of the original games. The fourth instalment, Ratchet: Gladiator, focused on arena combat. This got the thumbs down from many fans, who saw the shift away from the series' traditional action-adventure gameplay as misguided, unnecessary and rubbish. Ratchet himself "went dark", which suited him no better than it did Jak, the Prince of Persia or Harold Bishop.
The good news is Ratchet's back to his jolly old self in the new game, as Insomniac's Ryan Schneider explains. "In Ratchet: Gladiator we took a turn for the dark side. He was a more sophisticated Ratchet. The fan feedback said they liked Ratchet the way he was, and so do we as developers. Ratchet's personality is more engaging when he's being that confident screwball."
Tools of Destruction's storyline goes even further back to Ratchet's roots. It will reveal more about where our hero came from, why he's the last surviving lombax in the galaxy and, hopefully, what the flip a lombax is anyway.
Back to the future
But the real return to form comes with the gameplay. Tools of Destruction is just as fluid and fun as the games in the original trilogy. Ratchet runs and bounces and wields his axe like he's never been away. There's still sheer satisfaction in smashing up a load of crates and seeing bolts fly towards you, and in simply blasting enemies with a stupidly big gun. We're back to exploring brightly coloured environments, picking up collectables and shooting wave after wave of baddies.
It's all so familiar you can't help but wonder if Insomniac is taking a risk here. Aren't they worried about coming under fire for making a PS3 game which has so much in common with its PS2 predecessors?
"First and foremost, it's important to keep in mind that Ratchet & Clank has sold 13 million copies worldwide. It's a very popular franchise," says Schneider. "We wanted to bring back the best aspects of Ratchet & Clank that people love the most, that's why we say we're returning to our roots. At the same time, we're adding a lot of new stuff too... So I think it's a little unfair to say it's completely the same. But I would say we're retaining the most popular elements of Ratchet & Clank and improving upon them."
One of the most significant improvements can be seen in the visuals. Back in May, the New York Times described Tools of Destruction as "ridiculously sumptuous", adding that it could be the first game to deliver the "'You are playing a Pixar movie' experience". The Pixar comparison was seized on by the rest of the Internet and has been bandied about ever since.
It's true that the visuals are stunning. Not just the level of detail and the sheer amount of stuff happening on-screen, but the unique style and polish to everything. It's all so shiny. As good as a Pixar film, though? Nearly, Schneider concedes.
"We're on the path to that ultimate goal of creating a Pixar-like experience. We're not quite there yet, but we're certainly getting close," he says. "We have the proprietary tools and technology to help us do that, and the PS3 helps us get closer than we ever were on PS2."
But why isn't Tools of Destruction "quite there"? According to Schneider, it's hard to define. "When you look at a Pixar movie, it's that little something that makes it a Pixar movie... We still have a ways to go I think."
Tools of Destruction is certainly a lot closer to a Pixar film than Insomniac's previous title, Resistance: Fall of Man, and not just because there haven't been any Pixar films about massacring hordes of aliens into a bloody pulp. As Schneider explains, ToD runs at nearly double the frame-rate of Resistance and they've made leaps forward when it comes to physics.
"For us, next-gen is about the subtle details. In Resistance there was a lot going on in terms of the amount of physics-based activity, the amount of enemies on-screen, the use of Sixaxis. These are all next-gen things you couldn't do on PlayStation 2. Not to mention storage space.
"That said, we've made a lot of progress from Resistance to Ratchet. Considering you can get up to four times the physics and effects-based activity, there's no denying Ratchet is the first second-generation PS3 game."
Going back to the "next-gen things" thing for a moment... PS2 games didn't use the Sixaxis, but it's hard to recall anyone minding much. Sixaxis control hasn't exactly been a highlight of the PS3 games which do incorporate it. It's hard to recall anyone saying, 'That BioShock's good, but it would be much better if you could aim the gun by wiggling the controller.' Frankly, why bother?
Six of the best
"You're given a new toy and, as a developer, and you want to try it out. Sixaxis is really cool," says Schneider. "Our philosophy is to give people options, and Sixaxis is one of those options." Just to clarify, you can use the analogue sticks to do any of the things you can do with the Sixaxis if you prefer.
Schneider's keen to emphasise that none of the Sixaxis bits are there for the sake of it. "We playtest everything so rigorously, and if it's not fun we drop it." For example, the Gyrocycle (a new vehicle which encases Ratchet in a sphere you have to guide around, Super Monkey Ball-style), was supposed to be controlled using Sixaxis. "Ultimately we decided it was easier and more effective to get the control set we wanted with the analogue sticks. Using the Sixaxis wasn't fun, so we dropped it."
Sixaxis survived as the control mechanism for the Robowings that Ratchet can strap on and use to soar around the skies. Before you're allowed to use them freely you must complete a short challenge that involves flying through a series of rings. It's Pilotwings, except you're twisting the controller instead of pushing buttons. It's tricky, but the controls are responsive and it's actually rather good fun.
Then there are hacking mini-games reminiscent of Super Rub-A-Dub, where you're rolling a metal ball between pairs of magnets and complete an electronic circuit. Again, it's challenging but stays just the right side of frustrating.
There are Sixaxis bits that don't work so well, mind you. One of the new weapons is the Tempest Launcher, which sends a small tornado spinning towards your enemies. Theoretically, you can twist the Sixaxis to direct the tornado while still using the left stick to move Ratchet at the same time. In practice, this is both impossible and rubbish. Schneider won't be dissuaded though. "We can't overstate this enough: the Sixaxis really allows you to get closer to directing Ratchet's arsenal, and Ratchet himself, than ever before."
Ratchet's arsenal, of course, has always been a highlight of the R&C games. As you'd expect there are a host of new weapons in Tools of Destruction, including one that turns enemies into penguins and another that can make enemies disco dance. You can combine them to create disco-dancing penguins if you like. This might sound a bit wacky, but it's genuinely amusing. For a bit.
Other new weapons include Mr Zurkon, a robot who tracks, shoots and endlessly trash-talks enemies. We like the Negotiator, a big fat rocket launcher as big and fat and satisfying as you'd expect to find in a Ratchet & Clank game. There's a new weapons upgrade system and multiple ways to combine different guns. "You hear a lot about sandbox gameplay, especially with Grand Theft Auto," observes Schneider. "We have weapons sandbox gameplay, when you think about it. You can play this game in so many different ways."
There's much more still to be revealed of Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction. More weapons and a new vehicle. Levels where you get to play as Clank. An entirely new species. Some sort of PlayStation Network business they won't talk about at all yet. There's no multiplayer mode because, Schneider says, Insomniac learned its lesson with previous R&C games where it didn't prove popular. "Not to say you won't see Ratchet & Clank in a multiplayer capacity one day," he hints. But for this game, they listened to fans who said they wanted a bigger single-player experience rather than the option to blow each other up.
Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction is clearly a game for the fans. The sense of humour is back and the "dark" nonsense has been dumped. This is about running, jumping, collecting things, smashing things up, killing things off and firing big guns. Visually, the series has certainly taken a great leap forward. Those who were hoping the gameplay would do the same might be disappointed. But if you loved the first three games and want more of the same, this one's for you.