It's an interesting strategy/happy accident that has seen Sony's PSX character franchises (Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon) replaced by entirely new, and far less childish ones in the form of Jak & Daxter, and now Ratchet & Clank.
And not only have the recent Sony-exclusive platformers become more appealing, but in the case of Naughty Dog's Jak & Daxter, a title to rival Mario himself. One year on from the PS2's finest platformer, Sony stalwarts Insomniac, (the team behind the best selling, but hardly groundbreaking Spyro The Dragon trilogy) has built on the tech behind J&D to come up with another colourful, expansive kleptomaniac romp.
We got to grips with the NTSC review build, which we assume won't be a whole lot different to the eventual PAL version, and after playing through four levels, the game has already made its mark as one of the best examples of its genre on the PS2.
Naturally there's a fair amount of narrative that holds the game together, and for once the story's not bad. In a nutshell, the evil Chairman Drek is hell bent on stealing the bits of other planets to restore his own polluted planet, Orxon. One of his minions, brainy robot Clank, decides to take matters into his own hands, and escapes in a space ship - only to get shot down and wrecked on Ratchet's homeworld.
Fate throws the crack mechanic and the robot together, and the game sees the two united on a quest to traverse the universe to thwart Drek's dastardly plot. Sounds like typical platforming fare, but the scripts are punchy, often quite amusing and welcome diversions from the relentless combat 'n' collect action.
The early stages of the game throw up plenty of Jak & Daxter déjà vu. Firstly the controls mechanics are almost identical, with the left analogue stick controlling movement, while the right gives you control over the camera. Tapping X controls jump, with a double tap, producing, you guessed it, a double jump. Even more familiarly, the weapon/attack system is also broadly the same, with a sort of basic spin attack with the square button, and weapons fire with the circle button, so J&D veterans will slip straight into the action. Sometimes it feels like the same game, with different characters.
Elsewhere, the destruction of the numerous enemies - or boxes - populating the planet results in a shower of nuts and bolts, which are magnetically drawn to Ratchet. Collection of the metallic litter is essential, as it acts as the game's 'currency' with which to upgrade your weapons. And with 35 weapons in the game, this is something you'll be doing regularly. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses. Early on, you get straightforward blasting weapons like the cannon, useful tools like the grappling hook, or downright evil delights as the Glove Of Doom, which sends three giggling nasties scurrying off to do your bidding while you stand back and admire their handiwork. Given the six or seven weapons unlocked so far, we're certainly looking forward to what implements of death are in store.
Spannah in the works
The range of movements is certainly over and above Jak & Daxter. According to the blurb, there are over 20 moves in total. So far we've unlocked a few, such as the ability to produce a helicopter to enable you to reach higher platforms - which doubles up as a glider so you can sail gracefully to previously unreachable areas. Again, we're looking forward to seeing how these manoeuvres affect the gameplay. So far, so good.
However, one area that is something of a let down is the overall visuals. After the often astounding splendour of Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank somehow looks like a retrograde step, with muddy colours and a certain lack of crispness (and before you ask, we're using pin sharp RGB on a big Toshiba widescreen TV). While the various baddies are well animated and full of character, the actual levels look less impressive than J&D. That's not to say they are ropey, because at times they're expansive and very beautiful, just not as impressive as its spiritual predecessor; perhaps we've been spoilt.
It's obvious that Ratchet & Clank uses the camera system employed in J&D, because the same bugbears re-emerge. Often the camera fails to centre properly, and you're forced to grapple frantically with the right analogue stick to stand a chance of seeing where your enemies are. You can tap L1 to centre the viewpoint, but this doesn't always work as well as it should, and can be a slight annoyance. We're hoping that like J&D, you'll get used to it.
Another slightly less impressive element of the all round package is the reappearance of loading pauses between levels. Admittedly each vast level is loaded in at once, and so travelling from one side to another is managed seamlessly with no noticeable loading, but transferring from one planet to another requires a silent animated sequence of about 20 seconds through space. Jak & Daxter's approach was far slicker in this respect, and transition from one area to another was managed very cleverly. It's a minor quibble, but when Insomniac made the point that it was using Naughty Dog's engine and 'no load' tech, we were expecting a more graceful end result - especially one year on.
Ain't got Jak
Given that we're only roughly three hours into the game, it's too early to write off what is obviously a very good game. There's just a sense that Ratchet & Clank feels like a sideways, and even a backward step after the masterpiece that was Jak & Daxter - which is, after all, now available for less than £20. Time will tell, and a few days before its November 8 release we'll give you the full low-down on what is one of the biggest releases in the run up to Crimbo.