There’re certain things we all know to expect from Ratchet & Clank by now: fantastical weaponry, zany antagonists, vivid explosions, witty dialogue, and most of all, fiendish and fulfilling platforming. Notwithstanding one or two critical turkeys along the way – most notably those farmed off to sister-studio, High Impact Games – Insomniac’s stable of offerings over the last decade has been consistently thrilling and engaging.
If you haven’t heard anything about the latest instalment in the series, you might be surprised to hear that Ratchet & Clank: Q-Force (or Full Frontal Assault as it’s known across the Atlantic) makes a departure from its platforming roots in favour of a new tower-defence format. And if you’re a long-standing fan of the franchise, you could be forgiven for worrying – ‘If it ain’t broke’, and all that.
Q-Force doesn’t stray too far from familiar territory, though. Ratchet still bombs around each of the games’ five set-pieces in the usual third-person perspective, and you’ll still spend most of your time smushing various exaggerated robots and vehicles, using an assortment of histrionic firearms. Unlike before, the point of all this is to defend your base against would-be invaders and protect the six generators stored within.
Your depot can be embellished with mines, flamethrowers and rocket-launchers, while your personal arsenal is unlocked via weapon-pods, scattered around each level. The weapon-set is as quirky and endearing as ever – disco-balls and sheep-mines abound.
Perhaps Q-Force’s biggest break with tradition is in its level-design. Rather than the meandering backdrops of the established format, most maps are pseudo-circular and compacted down for condensed chaos. Repeat forays to clear certain objectives – usually taking down an enemy structure of some kind – need to be balanced with being back at base for the frequent enemy assaults, as drop-ships are Fed-Exed in, full of overwrought assailants.
Each level is fun, if formulaic. It’s strange how samey they are, considering how there’s so few. Of the four standard levels available (the last takes a different shape), two play out on the exact same map – there’s different monsters and goals, and there’s some added snow, but each stage is reminiscent of the last. This is true of the way you go about beating each stanza, too. Venturing out to complete a given task will usually be a trigger-point for the next wave of enemies – rush back to base, defend, and head back out again. The difficulty increases appropriately, and new nemeses and defences unlock with each passing level, but the routine lacks imagination.
However, the end-level assaults never grow old. Like clockwork, each final phase populates itself with a sea of flailing robotic appendages. Gangly mechanoids dance their way into your base, knees and elbows protruding, as if piloted by Chas and Dave. Setting up appropriate levels of defence helps, but at its climax, it’s hard to avoid being nose-deep in a screen peppered with rockets, grenades and colourful explosions.
This is where Ratchet &Clank: Q-Force is at its most joyous – both in its visuals and mechanics. In fact, it’s probably not too far a stretch to say that it’s a saving grace. Where the wider world of Q-Force lacks the bustling autonomy of the franchise mainstays – and at times is noticeably bland, the sprites themselves replicate the fantastic variety and brilliant design of Ratchet & Clank’s finest offerings; rotund suicide drones, marauding tanks, squirmy little snail things and clumsy rocketeers all act with marked overenthusiasm; weapons are fantastic, as always – each bizarre gadget guilty of inflicting an hilarious or emphatic end to its recipient – keep your eyes peeled for Mr Zurkon.
In the same vein, the platforming outside of camp feels a little damp, perhaps because it’s broken up into nibbles that run out before ever quite filling you up. This changes drastically as your base fills with mobs – for all the preparation you might do, these moments force you to trade caution for the more cavalier – defending your last generator can be a truly frantic pursuit. It’s as if there’s a magic barrier – I mean, there is a magic barrier, you can buy it with bolts – but it’s as if when the action takes place beyond that little blue line, it becomes more challenging and involved than when annexed outside of it.
Q-Force does a good job of encouraging you to make the most of its limited content. There’s only five campaign levels, but these can take as much as a couple of hours to clear – most don’t, however. There are reasons to return, too - Ratchet’s overall rank and weapon levels are persistent throughout, and these can be strengthened by going back and sanding-off challenges based on time, or how many generators have survived, for example. Given some of the more taxing moments, this can prove a handy tool to help you through. Most importantly, it’s fun to go back to the earlier stages with souped-up weaponry and clear out the chaff. Campaign is playable cooperatively, as well, and there’s online – because that’s a thing now.
It’s hard to imagine that hard-core fans of Ratchet & Clank will see Q-Force as anything more than a Ratchet & Clank ‘lite’. It’s a nebulous concept, though, and I suppose it depends on why you play Ratchet & Clank in the first place. On one hand, if you are in it for hours of outstanding platforming, then you’ll probably come away wanting more. The same can be said for fans of the brand’s self-aware, jocular spirit. It’s there – one chatty weapon in particular, and the game’s leading villain are fantastic at times – but there’s not as much as purists might hope for. Humour aside, there’s a lack of a strong narrative hook, so prevalent in the past – and Clank shouldn’t really have been included on the box-art.
Perhaps these things don’t matter in a game of this ilk, though. If it’s combat, action and rewarding gunplay that’s drawn you to the series over the years, then you’re likely to find plenty to keep you happy, yet again. There’s no lack of character, either, the sheer infectiousness of each enemy is wonderful.
Insomniac hasn’t forgotten what makes Ratchet & Clank great – although the format has changed, the fundamentals haven’t. And while Q-Force might be a lighter-weight offering than its big brothers, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t meant to be an all-out platformer. The developer’s conceit of achieving the core of the Ratchet & Clank experience, while taking it in a whole new direction, is a bold one. It’s one that won’t be for everyone, but one that works.
Audio/Visual – 3/5: Backdrops are pretty enough. The full force of a face-full of violence looks great.
Gameplay – 3.5/5: A game of two parts, the best of it outweighs the worst
Innovation – 4/5: It would have been easier to make Quest for Booty 2
Value – 3.5/5: £14.99 on PSN – possibly worth waiting for a slight price-drop
Final Score: 3.5/5