Four games in three years? Insomniac really must live up to its name, working slavishly to bring up more combat-laced platform goodness that tickles our funny bone without fail. How else do you explain its unbroken string of top-notch releases? Yet, despite each one being better than the last in some small way, this annual approach to the series fires up our cynicism glands like nothing else. What more can they do? Add more weapons? Hmm, no they've done that already. Make the visuals better? Not likely. Take the sandbox approach? Oh please. Focus on the combat side of it a bit more? Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner.
Perhaps realising that making another platforming adventure would test the patience of even the greatest R&C stalwart, Insomniac has taken the superb combat of its recent efforts and broken it down into a more tightly focused encounters. The premise? Ratchet's been abducted by "deranged media mogul" Gleeman Vox, and forced to fight for his life by becoming a contestant on an intergalactic reality show called 'Dreadzone' - a bit like The Running Man with furry ears and acerbic wit.
At this point you're more or less expecting a sort of deathmatch-heavy Ratchet, facing wave upon wave of respawning drones and levelling-up your arsenal in typical action RPG-lite fashion. To begin with, that's certainly the case, with much of the platform adventuring relegated to extremely minor sections of the proceedings. At the start it feels slightly... soulless, as you face off against done-to-death enemies in faceless intergalactic environments. It's as if what made the game such a charm in the first place has merely been boiled down to facing off against a posse of giant grunts and little ankle biters.
Will the real Ratchet & Clank please stand up?
Mercifully, this sense of hollow disappointment doesn't last that long, and before long it feels much closer to the spirit of the 'real' R&C adventures (albeit with Clank's role reduced to the odd cut-scene) than you might initially realise. The endlessly effervescent between-level interludes certainly help, giving it the pantomime edge that Insomniac pulls off so well, and a well-judged difficulty curve and four skill levels means there's likely to be a challenge to meet your tastes.
For reasons not entirely clear to us, all the way through the game you're accompanied by two droids. Not only do they provide a semblance of backup in the field of combat, but also provide help in terms of hacking security, capturing nodes, throwing out grind cables across untraversable gaps, lobbing EMP grenades at indestructible turrets and even planting demolition charges when required. Controllable via the d-pad, context sensitive icons appear, allowing you to stab 'right' to instruct them to - for example - capture the node, followed by a further press to instruct the other droid to throw a protective shield around them. It's neat, instinctive and you'll like having them around.
As ever, weapons play a key role in the general enjoyment, and Ratchet Gladiator doesn't disappoint with an array of fully upgradeable and customisable offerings. Just ten make an appearance this time around, but a proliferation of customisable Omega upgrades make it possible to modify the effect of your weapon in quite a dramatic way. Rather than pile on 40 weapons, each with broadly similar functions, the ability to, say, freeze your enemies, turn them into farm animals or turn them on each other makes some otherwise standard weaponry operate in a completely different way. It's an excellent idea that not only forces you to think about what works best in any given situation, it negates the need to go through layers of menus just to select the right load-out - always a bit of an issue in previous R&Cs. At all times, all ten primary weapon slots are available, allowing you to hit R2 or triangle, pause the action, and select your chosen firearm with the left stick. It's so slick and intuitive you wish they'd done this all along. In addition, there are some quick-select options too, allowing you to switch on the fly without pausing for breath.
In addition, general Alpha upgrades attach themselves automatically through repeat use, meaning you'll gradually level up each weapon to a maximum of 10, gaining faster fire rate, more damage and - naturally - flashier effects. Should you find yourself short of ammo (which is quite a lot), you can always resort to melee combat the good old-fashioned wrench, but in truth it's pretty redundant. More likely, you'll stock up your supplies with the vendor at the start of each level, buy any upgrades you can afford and proceed to pick up anything lying around.
The combat itself feels almost exactly the same as previous Ratchet games, only there's more of it, more often. Essentially the same formula plays out for the entire game: a gaggle of enemies charges towards you all-guns-blazing, they explode in a shower of bolts, sparks and smoke, you Hoover up the debris and move on to the next waypoint on your mini-map. Sometimes it's even less sophisticated than that. Sometimes you're simply duking it out in an arena and wiping out a predetermined number of waves (often with prescribed weaponry) of increasingly difficult enemies before you complete your 'challenge'.
Ah yes, challenges. In Ratchet Gladiator, it's not simply a case of clearing each 'planet' like before, but also completing a set of straightforward tasks at the end of it in order to earn ranking points - points which you're obliged to earn as they go towards unlocking later planets. As a nod to the mini-game obsession of Insomniac's previous efforts, there's the odd 'race through the hoops before the time runs out' affair, a bit of rail-grinding nonsense, some occasional mech combat destruction, spaceship destruction, some quad driving and the aforementioned arena matches. None of them are especially challenging, most take only a few minutes to complete and they won't linger in the memory too long. That's no big deal, though. What Ratchet Gladiator lacks in variety, it makes up for with action, and it's rammed with it from start to finish - which is to say all eight hours of it.
Eight hours? Isn't that a bit lightweight for a Ratchet game? Indeed it is, but there are numerous tenuous reasons to replay the game. For a start there's the 'Challenge' mode, which tinkers with the basic rules of the game, plus you could replay the game in a different difficulty setting for the sake of completion. Also, there are about 450 'skill' points to earn during the game, normally around 15 in each 'level'. These involve all manner of craziness, including seemingly random suggestions like 'kill 20 doobrie wossnames in 30 seconds with the fusion rifle without taking damage' and the like. Many of them you'll solve without even trying, but some of them just sound insane. We've no idea what extras you actually win once you've completed all the skill tasks, but knowing Insomniac it'll be worth it.
Elsewhere, you can also try and beat the game on the higher skill settings, or play it in the alarmingly low-res split-screen 2-player co-op mode (a bit like Sly Raccoon 3 in technical terms, it seems), but once you've beaten all 10 levels and the four arena-based tournaments, it's quite likely you'll have had your fun. Being able to invite a mate into your current game for a sort of 'drop-in' co-op session is a nice touch, though - and worthy of applause. The main difference is the droids are no longer present, meaning you now inherit their capabilities (hacker ray, EMP grenades), for what it's worth. Oh, and you can't both use the same weapon at the same time, seeing as you're sharing the arsenal, nor can you stray too far from one another - lest you enjoy being automatically killed.
If you're patient enough to wait for someone to log into the PS2 online service, then there's always the online multiplayer side of the game to keep you amused. Supporting up to ten players online (or four-player split-screen offline) and packed with 11 maps (and even USB headset support) there are plenty of standard third-person combat thrills to be had, especially with the comedy weaponry available to you. It's pretty standard stuff, mind you: Deathmatch, CTF, and the base-capturing Conquest mode (formerly known as siege) make a return from last year's version, while the addition of Juggernaut (rack up a set number of kills as the hugely-powerful juggernaut) and King of the Hill (two teams aim to control a specific part of the map) beef up the mode count to five. The ability to tweak a plethora of time, weapons, and vehicle options makes it a pretty flexible affair, but the main issue is - as always - finding like-minded souls to actually play it against. It's good fun in theory, though; the maps are big enough, and the variety of weapons gives you just about enough of a reason to want to check it out.
By now, though, the chances are you'll have had your fill of Ratchet games. Four in three years is simply too many for even the most ardent follower to stomach without feeling that dreaded sense of déjŕ vu. In isolation Ratchet Gladiator is an exciting and entertaining game, with the right mixture of well-realised combat and humorous touches. But stood next to the previous games in the series it's not quite as varied and interesting, and forcing the gameplay down the cul-de-sac of almost pure combat makes for a pretty repetitive experience that may feel like an unnecessary release in the eyes of the fan base. It's still a fun game, and an incredibly slick one at that, but the law of diminishing returns has well and truly kicked in. It's time Insomniac got some rest and put Ratchet and Clank out to pasture - goodness knows they deserve it.