Typically, the release of a new Ratchet & Clank console game can shine through the dim haze of any packed holiday season, as Insomniac Games is one of only a tiny handful of developers that consistently delivers knockout-amazing action-platformers. Such was certainly the case with Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and follow-up A Crack in Time, both of which proved that colourful and funny experiences can stand toe to toe with the typical fall deluge of violent shooters (at least in noteworthiness).
But Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One is very much a different beast, as evidenced by its title, which shares the all-important bit of knowledge here: for the first time, this series entry is a four-player co-op experience. It's not unlike the LEGO games of recent years, where the prime directives include blasting and bashing enemies, solving light puzzles, and nabbing thousands of little pieces of virtual currency. So much of what made Ratchet shine over the last nine years is still present here, from the creative weaponry to the amusing jokes and fabulous visuals, but it doesn't all come together with quite the same impact as the more traditional entries. And a handful of late game issues sadly kill its momentum just before the adventure concludes.
All 4 One's easy drop-in co-op is available for same-screen or online adventures (or some combination of the two), with the 8+ hour campaign split between several worlds, which again are divided up into even smaller, more easily digestible chunks. Ratchet, Clank, Captain Qwark, and Doctor Nefarious are the playable protagonists, and despite adding a couple of atypical heroes to the mix, the blend of over-the-top shooting and up-close enemy pummelling should feel pretty familiar to fans of the recent PlayStation 3 entries. When playing with pals, the game tosses in competitive elements -- like quick races to the top of a cliff -- and lets players battle it out for the most bolts and other collectables, even awarding badges at the end of segments for certain actions.
No cartoon-stylized series can fill the screen with explosions and swirling collectables quite like Ratchet & Clank, and as expected, it's amplified by the four-player focus. Plus, the new Overload mechanic -- which lets all on-screen players blast the same enemy with rapid-fire attacks and an explosive payoff -- almost completely marginalizes the wrench and fist-based action at times, changing the tone of the experience to some extent.
While the series' myriad unique weapons have always kept the firearm combat thrilling through the years, All 4 One doesn't offer quite the same array of new option, and the core action does lose its flavour before the campaign is completed. Thankfully, that hard edge is frequently softened by the many diverse diversions thrown into the ring, including rolling up into Metroid-like metallic balls, grinding on rails or navigating jetpacks around hazards, and even guiding a raft through dangerous waters using a vacuum -- an important new tool that serves a couple cooperative purposes during the campaign.
All 4 One also arrives as an optional single-player experience, with an A.I. ally taking the form of Clank or Qwark, but it feels like a subdued take on the formula we know and love. With less of a focus on exploration and narrative, the blast-a-thon approach isn't quite as enthralling without buddies around, and the automated partner isn't always up to the task. I noticed moments in which he would get stuck teetering over a ledge or endlessly running into a platform he needed to jump on.
As I entered the last couple hours of the campaign having logged a mix of single-player and co-op play, the occasionally great quest started showing major holes. Instead of further scaling up the adventure by introducing new and more interesting enemies, later stages simply bunched up scads of existing foes in back-to-back fashion, often without the ability to refresh your ammo between waves. It seemed so plainly clear that the idea well ran out by that point, and it would've been comical how out-of-place these enemy bottlenecks seemed if the gauntlet weren't so painfully frustrating.
Even more surprising were glitches not present in the early stages, such as intense slowdown and flickering backdrops. Worse yet, the final boss battle hit me with a pair of nasty bugs -- one that resulted in a minute of watching my A.I. partner run aimlessly around the screen, and another that forced me to restart the multi-stage fight. But online multiplayer has its own share of annoyances in all parts of the game, as the up-close camera hampers movement, and I encountered a bug that prevented me from buying weapons during one match, leaving me severely underpowered for a time.
Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One does so many things right that it's a shame to see the clear moments when it falters. Highly entertaining in parts and stunningly animated throughout, it's still a far sight better than the LEGO games for my money; but that's weaker competition, and compared within the series that spawned it, All 4 One lacks the eminent magic of its console predecessors. It's still worth the time for aficionados and platform nuts, but All 4 One is much less likely to pull casual fans away from the season's other heavyweight fare.