Another year, another 15-hour masterpiece to hang proudly in the platform shooting gallery. How does Insomniac churn them out so quickly? Three in as many years is the kind of prolific output that has the partners of hollow-eyed development team members posting wearied accounts of sweatshop working practises and preparing a multimillion dollar lawsuit to redress the balance. Let's hope the Insomniac collective doesn't have to live up to their names in order to roll yet another one off the production line.
But the quickfire sequel route is always a risky route to take. Just look at EA's identikit approach and try not to stifle a yawn. Or, more tellingly, what happened to Core Design and its once proud Tomb Raider series, or Konami with the now-lumbering Silent Hill titles. The law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in sooner rather than later, so we can be forgiven for fearing for the health of a third R&C title. What could they possibly do this time around that hasn't already been done brilliantly twice before? Ah yes, multiplayer. That old fallback. In this case the ceaseless reliance on intense, multi-weapon/gadget-based combat throughout the entire game means tacking on a multiplayer mode was an inevitable progression, and one that potentially adds a degree of longevity to a game that would otherwise most likely sit gathering dust once the single-player campaign has been vanquished.
Do robots need teeth? Can we smash them anyway?
But before we get carried away with a mode that, statistically, only a small fraction of purchasers will ever get to play, it's heartening to note that the main meat of the package is once again as entertaining, polished and amusing a portion of platform-combat kleptomania as you'll ever play. The focus is, once again, on smashing robots to pieces with the most diverse and imaginative (almost bewildering) arsenal of weapons ever seen while progressing to an assortment of beautifully rendered planets (read: platforms). Virtually nothing has significantly changed since the very first one was released back in 2002; it's still very much a case of collecting as many bolts (local currency) as you can lay your hands on, powering up your weapons as soon as you can (by accumulating as much combat experience as possible), and buying new ones whenever you've gathered enough wealth - and then repeating the process until the very end of the game. The chances are if you liked or loathed the original or its follow-up, there's not going to be a whole lot to change your mind in either direction.
But, as any follower of this website will have realised by now, we're firmly in the 'love' camp, having romped through more platforms and ladders over the last twenty-odd years than Donkey Kong himself. After our initial concern over the sense that nothing much had changed at all, we predictably got swept away by the sheer addictive brilliance at the core of the experience. Put simply, it's by far the best platform-combat game out there, with a refined, highly satisfying control system that fits the game like a glove, and with the constant carroting lure of new weapons, upgraded weapons, and more challenging monsters, it's a game you can barely stop playing; even when turns up the heat to flesh-melting proportions later on. You just delight in constantly working out a better strategy, or just how to get hold of a super powerful weapon. That's the beauty of R&C games; no time is ever wasted, because even when you're being trashed, you're constantly gaining more experience points which increase your overall health, while simultaneously making your weapons more powerful.
Each of the twenty weapons available (some easier to procure than others, as you'll discover) can be upgraded to level five, and one of the best-designed aspects of the game is the way it leaves it in the hands of the player as to which of those you'll choose to muscle your way through the game with. The chances are you'll only ever use three or four in the whole game, but stick with them up to the point where they're so good there's no point digging into the underpowered alternatives left languishing in the inventory. Better still, upon completion the game even lets you have a second run through against more challenging opponents with your hard-earned weapons set; plus with even more powerful versions up for grabs should you wish to really go for it. It's one of the very few truly replayable platformers out there, with so many secrets and extra goodies to plunder it frazzles the mind thinking about it. Sometimes games offer the odd new skin or weapon as a reward; R&C3 tantalises us with an entire treasure trove of new stuff to wade through. Whether we will or not is another matter (reviewing 130 games a year doesn't offer much in the way of 'spare time', as you can imagine), but for those who buy their games to last this offers much more than most.
Hit me baby one more time
There are so many areas the game succeeds it's hard to know where to begin; the story once again is the usual wafer-thin good versus evil yarn, but it's delivered and animated with such charm and wit that it makes us want to switch on children's TV just to find out if regular cartoons are ever as much fun these days (Courtney Gears, indeed). They certainly couldn't look much better, with some of the best animation you're ever likely to see in a cartoon interlude of a videogame; but then when a game looks this slick throughout, you almost stop noticing. Starring a mixture of stalwart characters and newcomers, the premise is to stop the mechanically malfunctioning egg-headed Dr Nefarious from turning all the inhabitants of the various planets into robots. Aided and abetted by the perennially amusing lantern-jawed superhero Captain Qwark, his monkey lover (errr), mini-robot lemming-types and so on, Ratchet and his backpack robot buddy Clank embark on what amounts to a fairly epic chase-quest, which normally involves shooting the crap out of anything that gets in the way.
Although the strafe/lock-on weapons combat forms the vast majority of what goes on, it's incredibly rewarding, largely thanks to being expertly balanced and sweetly checkpointed to avoid the kind of red faced angst that could otherwise ruin the progression. And it's populated by the kind of baddies that, while not exactly renowned for their amazing AI (all but the smallest drones bother to chase, for example), usually come in such quantities that it takes serious skill and strategy to prepare yourself for battle. Although such epic battles can stress the PS2 to the point of meltdown at times, there's almost no slowdown, and we're mightily impressed how Insomniac has taken Naughty Dog's wonderful Jak engine to such extremes. Goodness only knows what next-gen stuff the team's working on right now.
Rather than go down the (often tiresome) route of trying to shoehorn multiple genres into the game, Insomniac has been careful to intersperse a few well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable interludes that do the job of breaking the game up without making it feel contrived. Chief among these are the 2D side-scrolling platform sections starring Qwark. Designed as episodes of a comic starring the cheesy super hero, it's a heart-warming hark back to a bygone era complete with dodgy boss monsters and crap guns, while also serving as an enjoyable five/ten minutes of precision platforming that also moves the story on as amusingly as we've come to expect from the games industry's finest comic storytellers.
Elsewhere, Ratchet occasionally finds himself having to hack into security systems, which prompts another piece of teary-eyed retro-tinged gameplay - this time via a Tempest-style top down tunnel viewpoint, with red and green blobs rising to the top from the centre to shoot or collect, respectively. Even on its own, this ferociously challenging mini-game serves as a superb test of mental agility in a way that used to be routine in games two decades ago; inserting them into contemporary games is definitely a welcome means to promote simple games that would otherwise never see the light of day. Meanwhile, the game tries other tricks at various points in the game, with Clank getting a star turn via Munch's Oddysee-style herding levels, whereby micro robots have to be commanded by the D-pad (Attack/Enter/Follow/Stay) and cursor to do your bidding - usually to circumvent some sort of security system. On one occasion you're even accompanied by a Monkey, which will - it seems - do anything for a banana. We know the feeling.
As is seemingly the law for platform games these days, there are the occasional turret sections as well as the odd chopper combat missions, not to mention a few levels that take advantage of the Gravity Boots that you end up with, but in the main it's a typical procession of lush landscapes and a crazy number of enemies all set up to spawn in the same place. Insomniac take the relentless combat to even greater extremes at times, often setting you the task of fighting off wave after wave of drones in arena-based battles. Some are optional experience-building side missions, while others divide themselves up as part of the same mission. They're not especially imaginative, and in some senses pretty unimaginative, but it's a credit to the developer how much fun the weapons are, and how enjoyable the combat is, that not only do you not mind these sections, but that you end up playing them for ages, fighting your way through an almost insane number of challenges. It's that sort of game.
Multiplayer-wise, again, you're not here for imagination or originality. It works because the combat and weapons are enormously well realised. Deathmatch and Capture The Flag won't need too much in the way of explanation, but the more involving Siege mode has more than a little in common with the team-based (in this case 4 vs. 4) Assault modes that we've seen before in everything from Unreal Tournament to Return To Castle Wolfenstein. It's a case of taking out turrets, capturing nodes/spawn points by turning a giant bolt with Ratchet's giant wrench, and eventually duffing up your opponent's base by destroying its power source within. But the 'unique selling point' (Industry Term Of The Day Calendar, Nov 24th) is Ratchet's arsenal of guns and gadgets. Being given the chance to use them against live opponents as opposed to dumb AI is not only hilarious, but a great spin on what has become a slightly tired premise elsewhere (if you've been playing these games for years, at least). Fortunately for the online-deficient there's a basic two-to-four-player split-screen mode to enjoy (and give you a taste of what's to come), but we'd advise finally getting on board the online gravy train because it cannot compare to a full-on eight-player match. With the new slimmed down PS2 sporting a network port there's no excuse now (apart from maybe lacking broadband, in which case, fair enough). We wouldn't go as far to say that it's worth buying the game for this mode alone, but for the real fans, and those that enjoy multiplayer gaming, it's a welcome bonus - if you can tolerate PS2 Online, that is.
More of the same, but more of the best
So, it's a great game. One of the best of its genre, of that there is no doubt. But is it really acceptable to release a game that's so similar to the previous two that it would take the most devoted fan to spot the difference at first glance? With only a few new weapons and a portion of new mini-games to offer, is that really enough? Well, for those who loved the first two, this is definitely going to be what the doctor ordered - especially if the prospect of the new multiplayer mode entices you.
Three broadly identical games in the space of two years, though. That's overkill, surely? Maybe at full price, yes. We're in the happy position of not having to shell out our spare cash for these incremental updates, and yes, we enjoyed it immensely. But would we fork out top dollar for it? Probably not. However, if we did, we couldn't argue that we didn't get our money's worth. It's a tough call. If the game didn't have two cheap prequels to compete against then it'd be a nine all day long, and if you've resisted the temptation to get on board with the series to date, this is definitely one to pick up. But the truth is we're not rating it in isolation; it's much the same as the previous two, adds a great but non-essential multiplayer mode, and then whacks a full price tag on itself. That, to us, spells out an eight, and a worthy one at that for what amounts to an incredibly entertaining game from start to finish and beyond.