What I Learned From: Ratchet & Clank Collection
The HD versions of the original trilogy of Ratchet & Clank games offers a unique look at AAA game development in the early 2000’s. The update in resolution works particularly well for this series as the cartoon graphics and strong art style don’t age nearly as poorly as some of the more realistically rendered games on the Playstation 2. Furthermore the platforming, exploration, shooting and weapon-switching still remain compelling from a basic gameplay perspective. It’s clear that the game was developed in an era of stricter formulas and padded playtimes but the combat and level design are allowed a chance to shine due to several smart decisions made early in development on the first title.
Apparently Insomniac had started with a much more dark and serious 3D action platformer but people inside and outside the studio felt that the aesthetic wasn’t quite working. The development studio made some big, brave decisions and completely re-tooled the idea to feature bright colors, a more stylized low-poly art direction, and change the story to feature light comedy and a sarcastic main character. These changes work really well for the longevity of the game and there’s been a whole slew of franchise games, both in the original linear style as well as complete spin-offs that trade on the strength of the universe. None of the stories from the games or the over-arching design of the world are all that special or exciting but they are certainly appealing enough and help the provide some context for staying with the many levels in each game.
There is now an animated movie and a complete remake of the first game on the cards and it will be really interesting to see what the precise changes are made by that remake. There have been upwards of five separate sequels since the first game came out and they’ve all added different mechanics and tried a variety of racing and space combat minigames. Strafing, moving side to side while shooting, wasn’t even introduced until the second game but becomes all but essential by the third game and combat overall has become more and more of a focus for the series than platforming or puzzles as time has progressed. I would hope that it drills further into that combat and spends resources on a smaller set of good, strong levels.
The non-core mechanics and minigames in each of the games don’t quite feel tacked on but they’re never totally fulfilling either. It’s no surprise then that these change drastically between games, with whole systems and mechanics replaced completely. These “secondary games” were a big part of big-budget action adventure games of this period and it’s interesting to look at how that variety has been replaced with more open world and quest/mission design. I feel like there is still some of this approach of throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks, but these have become more closely linked to the primary mechanics. For example, the rise and fall of the assassin management minigames in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, where in the latest game nearly all of the side activities, such as bare knuckle boxing or factories to liberate, tie directly in to the primary focus of traversal and combat.
Playing through the trilogy was a fascinating experience, offering me a window into a period of character/mascot action games that I had mostly missed out on. I have been both struck by the competence and execution of these games from what feels like gaming’s “middle” period from this point in history. Equally, though, I have been struck at times by their naivete or obvious padding. It has made me wonder how much of modern games will be quickly looked back on as slightly dated unless future collections take a sharper knife and edit out some material. Instead of both this and the expensive new remake of the first Ratchet & Clank game, there had been a (perhaps still fairly long) stitched together highlights reel of the full trilogy. The new ideas brought in by each edition of the game are genuinely interesting but they too often outstay their welcome through the need for each individual game to hit some mysterious desirable playthrough hour number.
- I guess this is a good time to come clean that I didn't actually complete all three games. After blasting through the first two games, I got quite a ways into Ratchet & Clank 3 before running into a motivation wall brought on by that most predictable of sources, a sewer level. Tons of people have written about the awfulness of sewer levels so I won't elaborate too much but I think it's perfectly fine to drop any game that forces you through one, especially making it an extensive level smack in the middle of the game. I figure my time will be better spent moving on to the most notable of the modern Ratchet & Clank games, A Crack in Time.
- To reiterate my point about the "low poly" cartoon style of the game, I think it's made a big impact on me that this game looks so much better now than the other titles that came out around its time. Realism seems more and more to be a foolish endeavor unless you're at a large studio that is completely focused on it... and even then. I think it's possible to make plenty of serious work while still using heavy stylization and good art direction.
- One of the most interesting systems that evolved over the course of the games was a diversity of weapons versus upgrading your current set of weapons. Different systems were tried and all succeeded or failed to some degree but by the third game, the economy side of things became a little overwhelming. There was more of a focus on doing side missions to earn money but I'm not sure how well this works in terms of motivating people to experiment with combat.