Version tested: PSP
It's time to put a stop to stealth in games. It was all very well back in the nineties, but then so was Richard Blackwood. Since Sam Fisher and Solid Snake and The One Out Of Syphon Filter first started hiding in cupboards, every other action game on the shelves has featured some kind of stealth element. It's as if game designers think there's nothing more thrilling than pressing no buttons while you wait for a man with a torch to walk the other way.
If it sounds like I'm no fan of stealth games, that's because I find them wholly and unremittingly tedious. For me, videogames shouldn't be about being quiet and keeping still. Videogames should be about running around and jumping about and blowing things up and smashing stuff to bits. They must always involve guns, cars, space, robots, helicopters, wizards or dinosaurs, and ideally all of the above.
This is why I've always enjoyed the Ratchet & Clank games, which feature three of the Noble Elements. You get to shoot a variety of big and increasingly powerful guns, in space, with the assistance of a robot. Now the robot has got his own game, and it's also set in space. However, having taken the series of Insomniac's hands, developer High Impact has seen fit to dump most of the shooting and replace it with stealth. This was a mistake.
Secret Agent Clank is the second game in the R&C series to be developed for PSP, and the first to put Ratchet's sidekick in the starring role. About time too, you might think - Clank has always had more charm than Ratchet, with his weird catmonkey face and giant furry Dorito ears and cold, dead eyes that could suck the life out of a child without blinking. But what Ratchet lacks in appeal, he makes up for by being good at running around firing massive guns. In previous games, the levels where you got to play as Clank were more sedate. And less fun.
The stealth levels in Secret Agent Clank are no fun at all. They usually involve hiding from enemies - you might have to perch on a museum podium pretending to be a statue, or grab a newspaper from a market stall to hide your face. When enemies are looking the other way, you creep up on them from behind and press square. Then you have a couple of seconds to pull off a four-button combo and take them down.
The takedown mechanic doesn't work. You can be an inch away from an enemy but if you're not standing on precisely the right pixel, you won't see the prompt to press square. Get frustrated and press the button anyway, and the enemy will turn round and start battering you. In most situations there will be other enemies nearby and they'll join in. The camera does a terrible job of keeping up with action, so you'll have to fiddle about to see where enemies are while simultaneously trying to attack them. So you'll die, and you'll have to start the mission again, probably from a checkpoint about three tedious stealth kills back.
You could always try to take the enemies out, but you're likely to find yourself with limited ammo - and a limited selection of weapons. There are some nice ideas, such as the Tanglevine Carnation. This plants a Venus flytrap in the path of enemies which promptly swallows them up. However, nothing is effective or powerful enough to make killing baddies really satisfying, which has always been the point of the Ratchet & Clank games. Clank can do kung fu and you can upgrade his skills as you progress through the game, but it all comes down to hammering the same buttons as fast as you can. And again, since when was the Ratchet & Clank series famous for tip-top melee combat action?
At least the combat-based missions are more fun than the stealth levels. The latter don't make up a huge proportion of the game, happily, and some of the other levels are great fun. Take the snowboarding one, where you're zooming down a mountain shoving enemies into trees, jumping off ramps and over bombs, laying mines to blow up ice bridges in your wake and so on. It's fast-paced and frenetic and the controls are smooth and responsive.
Then there are rhythm-action missions, where button-tapping sequences are interspersed with animated scenes that change depending on how well you did. For example, one level sees you dancing with an evil robot countess. The ballroom is laden with hazards - falling chandeliers, fountains flowing with poison and so on. Get the button combo right and Clank will twirl the countess into the path of the chandeliers and dip her so it's her head in the fountain; get it wrong and she'll take the lead and do the same to you. The gameplay is addictive and the animations are funny. And there's no stealth.
The levels where you play as Captain Qwark also add some variety. There's one where you have to battle Godzilla by throwing giant ninjas into power stations, which is enjoyable. It's reminiscent of Godzilla Unleashed, in that it's about battling Godzilla while surrounded by a load of skyscrapers - but also entirely dissimilar, in that it's not tedious and hateful.
Then there are the levels where you play as Ratchet. These are disappointing. Yes, you finally get to muck about with proper weapons, and blam away at enemies like there's no tomorrow and even if there was it wouldn't matter because everyone in the world would be DEAD. Unfortunately that's all you get to do. Ratchet's levels take place in a fighting arena within the prison where he's being held captive. So there's no exploring to do, no collecting. It's just a series of boss levels, essentially.
And they might be a lot more entertaining if the rubbishy camera wasn't up to its old tricks. It's frequently impossible to see what you're supposed to be shooting at. By the time you've made the camera point the right way, Ratchet's doing his stupid fainty thing and you have to start all over again with the first wave of enemies.
So. The rhythm-action, boarding and Qwark levels are great, as are the missions where Clank doesn't have to worry about stealth and just does a bit of exploring, fighting and puzzle-solving. But the Ratchet levels are frustrating, while the stealth missions are unforgiving and tedious. The game looks pretty, with detailed environments and plenty of variation, but the camera won't behave itself. It's like eating a bowl of tasty different flavoured ice creams, but finding a fag-end in every fourth mouthful. Secret Agent Clank is excellent in parts, but it's not consistent enough. And it's got stealth in it.
6 / 10