Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction Preview

While Insomniac Games' Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction had a strong E3 showing--to the point where I named it my game of the show--the brief demo left me wanting more. Fortunately, I recently had the chance to dig deeper into the game at Insomniac's Burbank, CA office. The development team showcased three new sections along with a multitude of new weapons, combat devices and gadgets. In short, between the big guns, pretty snow, pirates, epic space battles, and yes, even dinosaurs, there was nary a moment when I wasn't smiling.

Among the new areas is the exotic jungle of Sargasso, which, per series tradition, offers up a few different gameplay possibilities. A local smuggler is willing to trade a few collected items for a useful gadget. Problem is, said items can only acquired by defeating the numerous Tyrannosaurus Rex-esque Grunthors that litter the landscape. Oh, and they can breathe fire too.

Fortunately, Ratchet's expanded arsenal helps compensate for the larger, more powerful enemies. As with most foes in the game, the Grunthors are temporarily distracted by the glittering disco ball and dance music of the Groovitron, their funky moves providing for some of the most enjoyable moments in the game thus far.

The Groovitron-inspired dances are so mesmerizing, in fact, that they help to bring balance to a device that leaves all enemies within an area vulnerable. "Everyone [in a playtest] just makes the whole room stop and watches," laughed gameplay lead Anthony "Moo" Yu. "I'm not entirely sure it's overpowered."

Still, Moo and the crew at Insomniac are taking steps to ensure that items such as the Groovitron don't make the game too easy. Extremely powerful weapons belong to a special class, combat devices, that are difficult to come by and only appear in limited quantities. "When you use them, you feel like they're more powerful, more special," explained Yu, "but you're not going to cheat your way through the game with these things."

Another addition to Ratchet's collection of weaponry is the Predator Launcher, which can lock on to multiple targets and fire numerous rockets at once--the perfect counter-measure against the Grunthor once it stops dancing and starts breathing flames in your general direction.

While hunting for more Grunthors, I ran across several Troglasaurs, the Ratchet & Clank rendition of a Brontosaurus Apatosaurus. The mammoth beast has a series of platforms sticking out of its tail, running along the base of its spine, and even on the top of its head. While climbing the lumbering lifeform, it was hard not to think of Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus.

However, Ratchet isn't the only one obtaining new items throughout the course of the game. Clank also receives some new upgrades, one of which involves the ability to sprout wings at designated points and literally take to the skies. Controlled by either tilting the Sixaxis control or with the more traditional analog stick, players navigate the duo through a series of rings, eventually leading to a new portion of the level.

Later on, the game presents the opportunity to freely soar across Sargasso without those pesky rings. This allowed me to swoop down and skim against the water, gliding through a series of long-standing rib cages, before flapping Clank's wings and flying high alongside Pterodactyls, which provided a sweeping view of the level's impressive draw distance.

The varying shades of blue that mark the next level, an icy comet containing the IRIS Supercomputer, stand as a stark contrast to the warm greens of Sargasso. As flurries of snow alternate between violent swirls and a peaceful drift, the pirate-only doorway proves too cunning for the usual Ratchet and Clank solution of destruction. Instead, I make use of another one of Ratchet's new gadgets: the Holo-Pirate disguise.

When in use, the disguise transforms Ratchet into a tiny, adorable pirate, complete with a peg leg, a hook and the ability to mutter "arg." This then allows access through pirate-only doorways, provided that players can prove their pirate-ness by performing a jig in a rhythm-based mini-game. It's a rather simple affair, just watch and listen to the movements the other pirates, then match them when it's your turn. A few taps of left and right later, I was in.

Furthermore, the Holo-Pirate disguise adds another approach to select situations. Should a player go storming into a pirate stronghold, they would face a turret in addition to an onslaught of well-armored enemies. If a player would venture into the area while wearing the pirate disguise though, none of the enemies, who would likely be discussing their lacking medical and dental plans or the accomplishments of previous Ratchet character Sasha, would pay that much attention, that is, until one overtakes the turret and quickly decimates their forces.

Other highlights from the IRIS Supercomputer area involve repeated encounters against hulking robots reminiscent of the Iron Giant and more amusing dialog: "Tonight's entertainment brought to you by the letter arrrrrrrrrrr."

I also had the chance to try out the game's reworked space combat, taking a stab at the last of its three on-rails space-based levels. Featuring some of the most gorgeous scenery in the game--ranging from a Saturn-like gaseous planet with rings and moons to a glowing nebulae, a passing comet, and a shiny planet apparently consisting of ice--I found the space segment to be technically impressive, but a little difficult to control.

Unlike most on-rail shooters, movement and aiming are controlled independently via the dual-analog sticks. It's a disorienting shift for Star Fox veterans and seems to make things more complicated than they need to be, but given that the game is still being developed and that my first experience was with the hardest of the three space stages, I'll hold off any judgments until I can play through the final version. _PAGE_BREAK_

Beyond the above three sections, the Insomniac team had a good number of the game's 23 weapons and combat devices on display. Of them, my favorite was probably the tornado launcher, which provides control of the tornado by tilting the Sixaxis while still allowing complete control of Ratchet via the analog stick. Unlike the seemingly-forced implementation of Sixaxis functionality in other games, I immediately took to controlling the tornado and running around at the same time. Coming in at a close second were the Death Springs, a combat device that Moo described as a "Slinky minion army that will go out, seek enemies, and destroy them for you."

Of particular note is Insomniac's implementation of aspiring game developer James Westbrook into the game, announced when the company appeared on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition earlier this year. Via an unlockable cheat, Captain James will replace the Mr. Zurkon device--a robotic assistant that automatically destroys foes and exclaims "Mr. Zurkon is only to kill"-- and temporarily fight alongside Ratchet as one of the game's most helpful characters.

Other weapons, devices, and gadgets in the game including the blaster-esque Combuster, the ultra-powerful but slow to charge Alpha Disruptor, the saw blade-tossing Buzz Blades, the Sixaxis-controlled remote Visi-Copter drone and the the Gelatonium-fueled Gelanator, which creates platforms of varying height. Much like past Ratchet titles, weapons gain experience and become more powerful with use. Weapon-specific upgrades can also be purchased using Raritanium, adding more incentive for exploration and replay.

As for the frame rate, the game currently runs at 45 to 50 frames per second. Insomniac is optimistic it will hit its target of a constant 60 frames per second before the game ships in October. Much like Resistance: Fall of Man before it, the cinematics of Ratchet & Clank Future use the actual in-game models, a telling statement of just how detailed and animated the in-game assets have become.

"We really believe we're on par with a computer-animated movie in terms of our animation visual quality," claimed creative director Brian Allgeier.

It's hard to disagree with Allgeier. Simply put, the game looks amazing. There were multiple points during the presentation that I found myself blown away by the game's numerous small touches, from the heat wave distortion on a missile trail to way that Mr. Zurkon's rocket booster gently pushed away a helmet that was rolling towards the robot. It wasn't until later in the day that I noticed the numerous subtle details on Ratchet's model, including scraggly tufts of facial hair.

With the game both looking and playing great, not to mention featuring a host of amusing weapons--it's tough to argue with an army of murderous Slinkys--Ratchet & Clank Future certainly looks like it may just exceed the already-high expectations of current and future PlayStation 3 owners. Look for it October 23.

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