To Not Sleep, Perchance to Dream
There’s a stage of insomnia where everything becomes hallucinatory, and the line between the waking world and the dream-world becomes very thin and at-odds with ‘reality’ as you know it. The offices of Insomniac Studios are aptly-named: You know the building is cooking there under the bleaching Burbank sun, doing business much like any other company…but once inside, the ambient light-level is dark, the mood is pleasantly chill, and there’s a general hush about the place—you’re subliminally-tempted to take a nap…or at least, maybe have a few dreams.
[image1]Wander into any given room at Insomniac, and you’ll see something appropriately dreamlike on some high-res flatscreen. In the case of our recent visit, it was all living, sci-fantasy landscapes, pirate-robots, disco-dancing penguins and weaponized Slinkys—and most of that was before they had any possible chance to spike our lunch with LSD. From early in the morning to well into the afternoon, we finally got our hands on playable levels of Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction—and when 3pm rolled around, the Insomniac folks were lucky to get us away from the gameplay stations and out of their offices without having to resort to tasers and bean-bag guns. Yeah—the game is looking that cool.
The new entry in the Ratchet and Clank series owes a lot to the lessons learned from the development of Resistance: Fall of Man (have a listen as Art Director Chad Dezern talks a bit about visual evolution, and what he eloquently refers to as the “things blowing up” aesthetic of the game) . The two titles look nothing alike in terms of visual tone, of course, but the bright, candy-colored realms of Insomniac’s newest venture are even more immersive (and certainly more steeped in ambient detail) than the ravaged, war-torn battlefields of Resistance.
For starters, the draw-distances are huge—a fact that sits well with the new game’s sprawling, continuous environments (which allow for a much more free-roaming style of play than previous Ratchet titles). The power of the PS3 hardware gives the worlds a glowing look that’s both crisp and lush, with lighting effects that will drop the jaw of those who are paying attention. Here again—and please pardon the initial few seconds of jostly camera-work—is Chad Dezern on the technical merits of Ratchet’s new look. Insomniac is aiming for a 60 FPS framerate, and from land-exploration to deep-space battles, have created meticulous palette-schemes for every environment to ensure that each enemy, backdrop and explosion really jumps out.
[image2]One word we happily kept hearing during the course of our visit was “variety”—Tools of Destruction will offer a heapin’ helpin’ of distractions, mini-games and differing modes of play to keep things interesting. Some of the examples we saw included a high-altitude free-fall challenge (with the looming ground ever coming into sharper and sharper focus), some Indiana Jones-esque run-while-the-bridge-crumbles-under-you moments, an extended deep-space rail-shooter segment around the awesomely-rendered accretion disk of a black hole, a dance-a-pirate-jig mini-game (more on pirates in a bit, yarrr), some flight-ring challenges (for Clank’s new Robo-Wings enhancement, which lets players cruise the skies from scattered launch-pads), and a number of side challenges and quests (which can actually be picked up from some of the NPCs in the game, including an alien Antonio Banderas-wannabe smuggler character).
In fact, character—both literal and figurative—is also at the heart of Ratchet & Clank’s new adventure. Chris Nicholls, Animation Director: “As we’ve become more comfortable with this new round of hardware, I think things are really shifting in emphasis to the point where we’re looking at it more as artists and craftspersons and really thinking 'Well, we have all this power—what can we use this to do? What can we use it for?'”
The answer is partly rooted in the principles of animation, and how the characters are brought to life through their elaborate facial expressions and endlessly-detailed (and entertaining) animations. At one point, we found ourselves faced with hulking, exoskeletal power-suits that were clearly being operated by evil goldfish in head-mounted tanks (sure, why not): After finally blowing the powered suits out from under them, the bulgy-eyed fishies still remained, flopping helplessly around on the ground, still glaring balefully at us until we took a wrench to them. We were laughing, but Nicholls assures us that, in the final game, such emasculated enemies will have even more complex behaviors.
[image3]But the weirdness hardly even begins there: If Insomniac is known iconically for anything, it’s off-the-wall weaponry. “Weapon Guy” and Gameplay Lead Anthony “Moo” Yu gave us a rundown of some of the odder ones. By now, most interested gamers know about the Groovatron—it launches a disco-ball that hovers, immediately holding all enemies beneath it in thrall to pulsing dance-beats complete with awesome cheesy disco-floor lighting effects…and while they’re busy getting down, you can put them down, permanently. The great thing is that if you can manage to lob the Groovatron over a large cluster of foes, they’ll all start shaking their money-makers, often in choreography with their fellow slaves-to-the-rhythm.
This weapon works on any enemy, and in combination with other area-effect weapons. What this means is, you can nail a massive, boss-sized creature with it, and he will start doing his own Richter-scale Rumba. Or, should you first hit the enemies in question with the transmogrifying weapon that temporarily turns all your foes into different varieties of I-shit-you-not penguin (did I mention there’s a turn-things-into-penguins weapon? No? Well, there is), then you’ll have a virtual Ice Follies of dancing penguins before you, helpless slaves to the beat—little hats, mittens and all—until you mow them down with whatever godawful weapon cycles up next in your aresenal. Disclaimer: Lots of penguins were harmed in the making of this game.
[An editorial aside: I repeatedly asked, but never quite got a straight answer, if using the transmogrifying weapon on some two-story Boss would result in a single, gigantic penguin (which could then be made to dance, etc.); if Insomniac has not already implemented this feature, I would like to start a petition to push them in said direction—any volunteers?]
Another handy weapon is Mr. Zurkon/James the Galactic Defender, a two-sides-of-the-same-coin wingman in a flying saucer who follows you around and shoots up anything that isn’t you. Some of the other weapons were straightforwardly wicked, such as the Negotiator rocket-launcher, a multi-lock weapon that just creams the enemy with drunken-missile swarms. Another, the Gelatinator, uses in-game Gelatonium to blop out large, wobbling cubes of Jell-O™-style translucent goo, which can be used as bouncy-bouncy platforms to reach hitherto-inaccessible areas (for you D&D folks out there, imagine a portable weapon that just craps out Gelatinous Cubes on demand). Others still were still goofier—the Death Springs weapon randomly litters an area with little boinging Slinkys, that kind of wobble around, looking for something to slink up on and detonate next to. They're the boneless, equally-brainless little suicide-bombers of the Ratchet ‘Verse. You can’t win ‘em all.
[image4]The loving attention to goofy detail doesn’t stop with the armament, however. I gotta say, my favorite part of the whole demo-day had to be the Pirates. The Robo-Pirates, actually—Captain Slag, Rusty Pete, and their clanky, oft' peg-legged, minions. These guys are great not only because they’re pirates, but because, if you sneak up on them and just sort of eavesdrop, they can be heard grumbling to each other in salty accents (clustered around campfires their robotic bodies don’t need) about their lack of health-benefits and other amusing, workaday bitchings that one doesn’t normally associate with pirates; there’s a certain tip of the captain’s hat here to the humor found in the classic Monkey Island games.
However, these guys are all business if you just roll up on them—they’ll man the swivel-cannons and light you up, or come rushing at your with their blades. However, one of the game’s many Tools is the Pirate Disguise, wherein Ratchet and Clank don a hideous, cobbled-together Pirate Outfit, complete with progress-slowing, wonky pegleg; you can’t do very much while it’s on, but you can blend in as one of the Crew, walk right up to your enemies and not get stomped from all sides. One mini-game, previously mentioned, requires the dressed-up player to dance a pirate jig (following the cues of pirate back-up dancers, of course) in order to fool a door into opening. Yo ho ho.
The sprawling, gorgeous visuals and more open-ended environmental approach instinctively made us want to explore the new worlds of Ratchet and Clank—and even at this stage, Tools of Destruction rewards that automatic curiosity with detail upon gag upon detail. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full version of Insomniac’s forthcoming, epic romp; come back and join us for a full review, when we hope to be wading wrench-deep through aliens, robo-pirates and penguins.
HUGE penguins, if we can get enough signatures.