When the PlayStation 4 launched in late 2013, only one high-profile exclusive franchise was really represented: Killzone. No Uncharted, no God of War, no Resistance, no Gran Turismo. Any one of those would have met the requirements of the first-impressions-count launch window: graphically awesome, sonically powerful, and spectacularly realistic. They would have sold units. But one genre that didn't feel necessary straight away, mainly due to its prevalence in previous console generations, was the 3D platform adventure. Knack tried to be that game anyway, and Knack failed. But Sony always knew what it had up its sleeve. It had Ratchet & Clank.
The work of California studio Insomniac Games, also the creators of the original Spyro titles, the Ratchet & Clank series earned critical praise aplenty and a spaceship load of cash during the PlayStation 2 era. A cartoony sci-fi action-platformer where gunplay frequently comes into the equation, starring a "Lombax" mechanic called Ratchet—he's an anthropomorphized alien cat, I suppose—and a teeny robot called Clank, the series ran on through the PS3 period, with releases like the coop-orientated All 4 One and A Crack in Time. Into the Nexus came out in 2013—around the time of the PS4's commercial debut, but strictly for Sony's past-gen system. That was the last anyone heard of this unlikely duo and its colorful array of allies and enemies—until now, and a new Ratchet & Clank that, in the time-honored tradition of reboots across all media, is simply titled Ratchet & Clank.
This reimagining of the first Ratchet & Clank might lean on the past for its inspiration—its story, narrated by an incarcerated Captain Qwark, is a retelling of what unfolded back in 2002, where grease monkey Ratchet and his pal become Galactic Rangers, and, you know, save the universe. But after a couple of hours in the company of a preview version, it's perfectly at home on today's hardware. Critics often lean on the tired cliché of how blockbuster video games are like "playing a movie," due to the linearity and astounding aesthetic qualities of so many triple-A releases—but Ratchet & Clank really is like that, and with good reason.
The first Ratchet and Clank film is out at the end of April, mere days after this game, and follows a very similar plot: The Blarg, led by Chairman Drek, have fucked up their world, so now they're going after other ones with only Ratchet and company to stop them. With Paul Giamatti, Sylvester Stallone, and John Goodman among the voice cast, the picture is no cheap tie-in—rather, these two products are designed to perfectly compliment each other, which is why the game has to be as beautiful as possible. And it certainly is.
'Ratchet & Clank,' press conference demo from PlayStation Experience 2015
It plays like its predecessors, but improved, tightened, and tuned. Ratchet can arm himself with a dazzlingly creative selection of weaponry, from distracting disco balls to a blaster that transforms enemies into pixels; the leaping and swinging, climbing, and thumping is as slickly executed as you'd expect from such an experienced studio; and the variety of enemies is both amusing and impressive. The backpack-carried Clank becomes modified a number of ways—a helicopter attachment to allow for longer leaps comes as standard, and when the pair find themselves submerged, he produces a pair of engines for rapid underwater movement. At times, it gets incredibly hectic, with laser fire scorching the scenery; at others, it allows you to drink in the view and just be wowed by its sense of scale.
There's a more than healthy dose of fourth-wall breaking humor at play, too, with supporting characters expressing déjà vu at meeting Ratchet for a "first" time. That said, there's no reason why some of the more cringe-worthy elements of the lore couldn't have been retconned into less-wincingly woeful forms. I mean, do we really need an air-headed bro-dude extreme sports character called Skidd McMarx in 2016? Nope, but then again, this is a series that's featured games subtitled Quest for Booty and Up Your Arsenal. And it's still more PG-rated Viz in tone than Pixar rib tickling, which is a shame.
Article continues after the video below
How it looks, however, is nothing like any series entry before it. This is truly sumptuous in motion, with backgrounds stretching miles into the distance, every inch of Ratchet's fur looking good enough to pet, and Clank's flapping jaw and steely body making him seem like a toy you could just pick up, right out of the screen. The plot might be mostly recycled, but Ratchet & Clank isn't popping into existence simply to turn a few nostalgia dollars—there's palpable love and care here, enough to make newcomers to the franchise turn their heads. Each and every character is decently introduced, so while prior knowledge helps, it's not essential; and the difficulty level on regular mode is challenging enough that experienced gamers will get a real test. Hands up: I knocked it down to casual during a train ride into fiery obliteration.
I haven't seen all that Ratchet & Clank has to offer, by a long shot—just a handful of early planets. But each is uniquely styled and adds to the cinematic (uh, but you know what I mean here) presentation of the game. There's the gloriously green world, the dark- and rain-lashed one, and another that's overrun with sandsharks and crisscrossed by deadly swamps. The environment artists at Insomniac must have had a ball. There are some problems with plants and blocks, signs and the like getting in the way of the camera and obscuring frenzied combat situations—which isn't ideal when your enemy's a massive tank. But that's nothing major in the grand scheme and might be remedied come the final, retail version.
There are distractions from the main story: golden screws to collect in order to unlock cheats, hoverboard races to enter, and a card-collection system that I don't fully understand at this stage, but I do know that certain special cards will unlock snazzy new weapons, which is always nice. So long as it's nothing like Gwent, we're fine. There are tons of potential for weapon upgrades, with mystery perks unlocked beside your usual increases in damage and fire rate. Depth, then, is what I'm saying.
And what else I'm saying, based on what I've seen so far, is that Ratchet & Clank might well be the best current-gen reboot so far. We haven't had many, admittedly—Need for Speed, Star Wars: Battlefront (if we're counting it), Thief, and Killer Instinct come to mind. But all the same: Unlike those revivals, this one feels like it matters now. The time is right for this brand of (just about) all-ages experience. The game hasn't changed, and yet it has. At launch, it might have drowned under expectations for something much grander, but having been given a little breathing room, Ratchet & Clank has blossomed. I'm really excited to play more, which is something I never expected to be writing about a game of this genre, in 2016.
Ratchet & Clank will be released for the PlayStation 4 on April 12. Find more information at the game's official website.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.