There aren't many game series that can trot out almost the exact same formula six times in a row and get away with it, but Insomniac has managed just that with the Ratchet & Clank games. The secret? By keeping things fresh and interesting through always changing the weapons and gadgets to the point where you don't mind that - to all intents and purposes - it's a minor variation on a theme.
Anyone expecting some sort of radical next generation reinvention can think again. Sure, the game engine has been polished up beyond belief, but when it comes down to talking about the actual gameplay it's business as usual for the big eared Lombax and his faithful robot backpack. Just like every Ratchet game since 2002, Tools of Destruction is set across a series of (extremely pretty) intergalactic locations. You land your ship, you wander around, ears flapping, you whack a cluster of dinky looking critters with your wrench, and blast away at the bigger, harder-looking monstrosities that hove into view.
Each and every time you kill these Pixar escapees, they erupt into a sea of twisted metal and bolts (whether they're squishy critters or gigantic mechanised monsters of maximum doom, curiously). You scoop up said scrap metal automagically, and all this chaos and destruction works on benefiting Ratchet on several levels. The more you kill and the more boxes you smash up, the quicker you level the furry fiend up (gaining more hit points every time you do so), the more currency you end up with and the quicker you can augment your weapon's death-dealing abilities.
But as crushingly familiar as all this probably sounds, there has been a minor tweak to the way you power-up your arsenal. Rather than simply level-up weapons by using them over and over again, you also gather a special crystal-like substance called 'Raritanium', which allows you to spend it at weapons vendors on on improving things like the rate of fire, the amount of damage dealt, as well as special one-off abilities. As initially satisfying as it is to be given a greater degree of control over which weapons to power-up, after a while it feels a little like micromanagement for the sake of it.
In common with all the other Ratchet & Clank games, it once again delivers a few mini-game diversions to keep things fresh and fun, and, for the most part, Tools of Destruction's are well up to scratch. By far the most prevalent is the hacking minigame which involves rolling a ball around a little circuit board, To borrow Tom's Mercury analogy, it's a bit like tilting a tray with a boiled potato on it, moving the Sixaxis pad to roll the metal ball into place and bridge the points to the goal. Fail, and it short circuits, but guide it to the goal and you'll bypass the security. It'll remind you of the pipe puzzles in BioShock, but is more sedate and more fun, not to mention a great way of utilising the motion sensing capabilities of the pad.
Elsewhere in frivolous mini-game land, there's an amusing-if-pointless riff on dancing games, where you get to 'shake yer booty' (by jiggling the pad, no less) while dressed as a peg-legged pirate. On top of that, there's the usual rail grinding stuff that always seems to find its way into Ratchet games somewhere, not to mention little sky-diving segments where you tilt the pad to dodge missiles and so on, and also some utterly spectacular-looking shoot-'em-up levels. Riffing on Rez and Panzer Dragoon, these on-rails sorties allow you to blast freely or lock-on to multiple targets in as thrilling a way imaginable. In full high definition, these majestic sequences are a real treat for the eyes, if a little undemanding in terms of the actual difficulty these pose. Replete with obligatory boss sections, they certainly do their job in providing the requisite eye candy, and remind you that someone really needs to make another spectacular 3D shooter for the current crop of consoles.
Same again, please
As regards the main game, Insomniac knows full well that that core gameplay has been pretty much nailed since the original came out in 2002, so hasn't exactly gone out of its way to meddle with the successful platform-combat formula. The interest value, as we've said, is providing an absolute array of new toys to play with, upgrade and augment, as well as challenging and inventive new creatures to duke it out with. Whether you like it or not, the game keeps dragging you on because there's always something new to discover around the corner - like the next upgrade to your weapon, or a new weapon or gadget entirely. Admittedly, having pulled this trick so many times on us over the past five years, even most of the so-called new weapons are slight variations on what's gone before, but now and then they'll pull something out of the bag that's so different from anything anyone else has done before, you can almost hear them chuckling in expectation of how much fun you're going to have with them.
With an evident rock, paper, scissors approach to the weapon vs enemy design, you'll be effectively tasked with flicking between weapons constantly, webbing up a teleporting enemy one second, then quickly zapping a shielded enemy with a blast of electricity. Solving such problems are all part of the fun, but executed with a control system that's so intuitive that you don't mind the constant swapping around. With over 30 gadgets and weapons to choose from at any one time, it's obvious that the game needed something that could accommodate all this without overwhelming or confusing the player, and - with great credit to Insomniac - it has done it even better this time around than ever before. By hitting triangle, you'll bring up a ring of 10, and can select the one you want by simply highlighting the one you want with the left stick. As you build up your collection of gizmos, this ring spreads to a second and third page, but far from being a confusing mess, simply switching between them with R1 or L1 makes it an extremely slick process to switch with ease during battle. To make it even more of a challenge, the game offers you the choice over whether to pause the action while making the switch or let it carry on. I know which I prefer, but the choice is very much yours.