Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One hands-on preview

Since we first saw it, we’ve had some lingering doubts about Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. It certainly looks like a great game, but can a four-player adventure that gives off a distinct brawler/party-game vibe really be a “true” Ratchet game? The developers at Insomniac’s North Carolina studio certainly think so, and their enthusiasm for All 4 One is infectious.

“This has been a game that’s been almost criminally fun to make,” said Chad Dezern, studio director at Insomniac North Carolina, during a press event last night. “We’ve been fascinated by the idea of taking these four characters, putting them together, and just seeing what happens.”

“These four characters” refers to Ratchet and Clank, as well as towering space-idiot Captain Qwark (now President Qwark), and their robotic nemesis, Dr. Nefarious. While it retains a lot of the basic mechanics of previous Ratchet games – the heroes can use a variety of interesting sci-fi guns, bash through enemies using close-quarters attacks and collect as many Bolts (used as currency) as possible – All 4 One seems more like Gauntlet, with linear levels and a very heavy emphasis on cooperation.

The game begins just after the end of Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, and President Qwark has been called to receive an award for a heroic deed he never performed. Ratchet and Clank tag along to keep him out of trouble, and it quickly becomes apparent that the “award ceremony” is a painfully obvious trap orchestrated by Dr. Nefarious.

Long story short, he unleashes an enormous beast called a Light-Eating Z’grute on the heroes, which – after it destroys Nefarious’s hovercraft – they defeat with his help. However, the Z’grute attracts the attention of something called Ephemeris the Creature Collector, which immediately kidnaps the heroes and takes them to Planet Magnus.

After the four are rescued from stasis by a little girl, Ratchet discovers that Magnus has been terrorized by Ephemeris, who’s all but destroyed the local civilization and turned the place into an open-air game preserve for the galaxy’s most dangerous monsters. It’s enough to make Ratchet and Clank come out of retirement (again) – and with nothing better to do, Qwark and Nefarious tag along.

After we’d watched a few cutscenes, Insomniac switched gears and showed off a new area, Octonok Reef. Here, the four heroes have to work together to pilot a big, round raft through dangerous, mine-filled waters by using vacuum guns to power four turbines on opposite sides of the raft. In order to negotiate the hazards ahead, you’ll need to coordinate your efforts on specific turbines at just the right times.

Also on display was the new Terawatt Forest level, a gloomy, possibly haunted woody environment in which the heroes busted out a new item: the Orb-o-Matic. Created by Dr. Croid – an inventor who may have had something to do with the creation of Ephemeris, and who the heroes are tracking – the Orb-o-Matic is essentially a giant hamster ball that keeps the heroes safe from harm and enables them to power up certain objects.

After they’d wandered through the woods for a while, the heroes encountered a colossal robot called a Guardian – which, as it turned out, they could power up and ride on. As it lumbered through the forest, the game shifted to a rail-shooter, with each of the four heroes manning a turret on the Guardian’s back. If two or more targeted the same enemy, they’d deal out bonus damage – something that happens during normal combat, as well. Eventually, the small-fry enemies fell away, and the Guardian started going toe-to-toe with other guardians that lurched out of the shadows to attack. We could describe it further, but you’ll glean more from watching the video below:

Finally, we had a chance to try out the game with four players on the previously seen seaside-cliffs level, and while it was anarchic, brawler-flavored fun at first, it quickly became obvious that we’d have to find ways coordinate our efforts in order to get through. For example, while all four characters are free to pick from their own weapon collections with a handy radial menu, it’s a good idea to find complementary ways to use those guns together. Every weapon has a way of playing off every other weapon, Dezern said, although the clearest example of this is the Darkstar Fission Rifle, a gun that creates lightning tethers between players who activate it. This quickly becomes incredibly useful when you’re faced with a large enemy, and want to trap it in an electric net that deals out constant damage.

Also instrumental to cooperation are the heroes’ multipurpose vacuum guns, which are used to activate switches, carry items, open Bolt-filled chests (something that requires the attentions of all four players), or – by pointing them upward – suck up other players and launch them across big gaps, something we had to do pretty frequently during our demo. Aiming your friends over gaps is pretty simple, thanks to an arc that shows where they’ll land, and once they’re across, all you need to do is grapple over to them – a mechanic that works a lot like the grappling hooks in LittleBigPlanet 2 – after which everyone else can grapple to you, as well. Some chasms can only be cleared by all four players grappling together; once you’ve launched a friend at a grapple point, everyone else can form a grapple chain and swing as a team to the next objective. After the player on the bottom gets close enough to let go and swing over, the rest can just grapple onto him and be pulled to safety.

The game’s also filled with cooperative minigames, which during our play session took the form of four-barreled cannons (previously seen during last year’s PAX Prime) that each player needs to “wind” by twirling an analog stick before it’ll launch. More difficult by far was a section in which the heroes fell into a wind tunnel with four alternating turbines, and had to hold hands over the active turbine in order to float back up. This took a few tries; getting close to the other players will link your hands, but then you’ll have to continually move in tandem to stay linked, with the strength of your link indicated by a gradually reddening circle around your hands.

There’s a competitive aspect to the game, too – after all, these characters kind of hate each other. While they’re helping each other negotiate the levels, there are some incentives to collect the most bolts – mainly the ability to buy new weapons and ammo, and bragging rights at each end-of-level tally screen. So griefing is encouraged, and if hurling an ally off a cliff will give you a chance to grab more bolts, well, just bear in mind that they’ll respawn a few seconds later, irritated at you.

To be honest, we’re still not completely sold on the idea of four-player co-op Ratchet, but there’s no denying that All 4 One is shaping up to be an enormously fun, polished experience. Regardless of how similar or dissimilar it is to previous games, it seems to work. Whether it’ll be as much fun in single-player remains to be seen, but with All 4 One slated to ship sometime this fall, it still has plenty of time to convince us.

Apr 18, 2011

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