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Preview: Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One

Thanks to the wonderful folks at in association with Insomniac Games, I won beta access to Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, which is slated for public release on October 18, 2011. The conceit of this title is that it is a cooperative multiplayer-driven experience, unlike the previous R&C titles. Want to learn more about how this plays out? More after the jump!

In R&C:A4O, you can choose among four different character to play: Ratchet, Clank, Cpt. Qwark, and Dr. Nefarious. In practice, each of these characters plays the same; I did not notice any differences between them in speed, reach, etc., and all have access to the same store of weapons. It is rather odd to be teamed up with Ratchet’s archenemy, Dr. Nefarious (and I found Nefarious’s commentary when playing him to be grating and annoying, as one might well expect), but I trust that the full version of the game will provide a suitably comical and absurd rationale for the unlikely partnership.

Cooperative play generally means cooperatively blowing things up and then racing to collect bolts (the currency of the game, which can be gained by obliterating objects and enemies). There are some minor multi-player puzzling elements, but these feel rather forced and unnecessary, at least in these beta levels. For example, a common “puzzle” requires that one use a vacuum-cleaner-like device to suck up a partner and shoot him to a far ledge, at which point you can pull yourself over to him with a grappling hook. But mainly you’ll be shooting things, and that mechanic generally works quite well. You can free shoot or auto-lock on a target just as in other R&C games, and it’s easy to identify your target as it will be highlighted in your player color (orange for Ratchet, green for Qwark, etc. – and by the way devs, are we back in 1998? What’s with the color-blind unfriendly colors?). A cool feature is that when multiple players target the same enemy, the players are able to shoot more quickly than usual, thereby inflicting more damage faster.

Just as in any other R&C game, there can be a lot going on at any given time, but I still felt capably in command of the environment. The playable characters are so radically different in form, size, and color that they’re easy to tell apart (this is not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where you rely on a little strip of color to differentiate turtles), and it’s easy to see what you’re targeting.

Some differences in gameplay when compared to past R&C titles: First, ammo is obtained not by breaking ammo boxes but by stepping on ammo pads. These pads replenish all of your ammo (not just the ammo for one weapon), and each player can only step once on any given pad. Second, the camera is fixed, which is a drag, but which did not cause any confusion for me in the demo levels. Third, when you die, you respawn after about five seconds with the rest of your friends. If you all die, you all respawn at the last checkpoint. When a new player enters the game, your entire party immediately respawns with the new player at the last checkpoint. Happily checkpoints are copious.

The game can be played single-player, but the AI will create a partner for you when required for certain tasks (e.g. vacuum-jumping), and the partner then goes away when he’s no longer necessary. In practice, this means that when playing solo as Ratchet, Clank is your backpack (a familiar notion to longtime R&C players), and he hops on or off your back as needed. Out of curiosity, I tried playing solo as Clank, and I had a miniature Qwark backpack. Seriously. Very strange. He’d hop off my back and expand to, you know, six times my size… and then shrink back to a quarter of my size as he remounted by back.

Sadly, graphical quality seems to have suffered somewhat give then exigencies of developing the multiplayer experience. Textures seem muddier, edges are aliased, models are less complex. I find that to be a shame; Insomniac progressively raised the proverbial graphical bar, making the R&C titles look more and more like a playable Pixar film. Is the cooperative play worth the trade-off? We won’t know until we see the final release, but I’m afraid that I remain somewhat doubtful. Coop may be fun, but it seems a bit gimmicky. Maybe if I had kids, I’d feel differently? I’d just as soon enjoy a pristine and cutting-edge R&C title on my own, and leave similar coop play for those who enjoy the ever-proliferating entries in the LEGO series of games.

Have any of you all been playing the R&C:A4O beta? What do you think of it?