After a second successful installment of the RATCHET AND CLANK series that added weapon and character growth, it didn't seem like there were many obvious ways to take the series in a new direction, especially in the short yearly turnaround time that Insomniac Games wanted to operate on. Count me as surprised, amazed, and utterly floored by the project that made it out the door.
Originally a multiplayer online game UP YOUR ARSENAL might have upset fans that there was no one-player game. Instead, the one-player game that got put in might be the best of the three. Focusing on Dr. Nefarious' war on the galaxy, the story involves our heroes meeting up and working with Captain Qwark in the Q force. Along the way are the typical Ratchet missions, some new Clank and Monkey Friend areas (mostly replacing Clank with mini-robots, though they do show), some side-scrolling "Classic Qwark" missions, as well as the battlefield areas.
What perhaps stands out the most clearly in the one-player game is the game's structure. Whereas the first two games had mission after mission that sent Ratchet to go pick up some item on another planet in order to open an area on another planet, UP YOUR ARSENAL sends Ratchet on missions to advance the story. In fact, the gadgets that open level areas almost seem secondary to the main story that's going on, tools to accomplish a task, rather than the task themselves.
Among the new gadgets is a new version of the hacker that plays like a game of TEMPEST almost. It's actually the most fun hacker mini-game the game has ever had, and it's good to see some fresh ideas in this category. There is also the refractor which allows Ratchet to bend power beams in order to activate machinery and other objects in the levels. The Tyranoid costume lets Ratchet blend in with enemies and bring up a button-timing mini-game in order to converse with other enemies.
As usual, the game offers a wide-range of weapons, some based on previous games, others brand new. Perhaps the most innovative for the game series is the Plasma Whip. This little gadget is similar to Ratchet's, well, ratchet. But it has a much longer reach, the ability to be completely whipped around, and can be thrown just like Ratchet's basically melee weapon. Other new toys include a temporary shield that can be thrown in front of Ratchet. It's perfect for those open areas when you need some cover to snipe behind. The Lava gun and sniper rifle return, along with rifle, rocket launcher and shotgun variants. As always, the morph-a-ray is back, except now it converts enemies into ducks. It's actually the most powerful weapon in the single-player version of the game the first time you play through.
As in GOING COMMANDO, the game features an "extra mode" where you can play through the story again. This time, the enemies are a lot tougher, your fully leveled up weapons (which all have 5 levels) can become "Mega weapons" for a lot of bolts, there is better armor, and the RYNO (Rip-Ya-a-New-One) shows up in the store. All of this can be financed with the bolt multiplier. For each enemy you kill without getting hit, the multiplier increases by one. Add in one of the handy "x2" boxes laying around and you'll be rolling in the money (tools?).
While all of the additions are well and good, the general quality of the game is what stands out the most. It's just absolutely amazing how well this game plays and feels. The story seems so critical, so important. When you land on a planet and have rangers greet you and go out with you, it adds to the wartime effect. Then ultimately, the battlefield missions help the epic nature.
Using the multiplayer maps, the battlefield missions vary between trying to capture the landing pad for the hovercraft, to defending your base, to taking the enemy base. They are all contrived situations from the multiplayer, but all work to vary the gameplay up a bit and give you the chance to upgrade your weapons.
No other game makes me as much as a completionist as this one. From wanting all my weapons fully leveled up, to finding the best armor, to getting the platinum bolts for new skins and the skill points to unlock things like the hilarious commercials, everything in the game is worth doing and fun. When I first got this game I got home several nights around 2 am and decided I needed to play for twenty minutes for bed, I usually ended up forcing myself to shut the game off around the time the sun was coming up.
If this was a single-player game only, it would get great review scores and be counted as a solid addition to the RATCHET series. The multiplayer sends it over the top. Split-screen and online multiplayer takes place across ten maps. There are plenty of battle types revolving capturing the flag and bringing it back to your base, to just getting control of the base (after taking out formidable automated defense) to pure deathmatch. I had the chance to check out the online play with some of the Insomniacs and other media. Besides getting totally dominated by the testers in a game of Capture the Flag, your humble correspondent did very well with the deathmatch involving only Sheepinators, charge boots and handy ratchet for taking out the farmyard animals. Nothing is better than chasing a sheep across a field to whack it into a puff of wool.
The multiplayer features nodes (BATTLEFIELD style) along with vehicles that support multiple players. There is a jeep that is useful, as well as a hovercraft that can inflict some serious damage. For fans who might not like the traditional control set-up, there is a "lock-strafe" mode as well as a first-person view.
The battlefields range from very large for eight-player games to quite a bit smaller for the split-screen players or when you just want to play with a few friends. They are set-up very well, and a lot of strategy comes into play on how you attack your opponent's base. I'm really looking forward to new maps, weapons and vehicles in future versions of the game.
The online experience is expanded with plenty of stats, rankings, clans and the inclusion of USB Headset support for team play. Insomniac seems to have figured out how to set up a great online experience, and it should show for those gamers who get online with the game.
The game continues to look as good as ever. There is plenty of color and even a few moments where the opening "vista" blew me away. The only graphical problem I had was a little bit of slowdown when I had a lot of enemies on the screen, mini-turrets, agents of doom, and generally a weapon like the blade glove that continues to split. That's relatively minor though, and it only happened a few times in the game. It seems the graphics are scaled back a bit in the multiplayer to keep the framerate completely smooth a wise decision.
The sound in the game is excellent as well. The voice acting is once again top-notch, the musical score is great, and the weapons all sound great on my sound system. Someone described it as "It sounds like World War III is happening in your room". With all of the ammo I've used over the time I've spent with the game, it very well could have.
As this is a game that revolves around weapons, let us resolve this point blank: RATCHET AND CLANK: UP YOUR ARSENAL may be the best game on the PlayStation 2. This is MARIO 64 level quality folks. If you own a PS2 and don't play this game, I'll come to your house personally with a Sheepinator and remove you from the gaming gene pool. So go ahead, up your arsenal, you won't regret it.