Let 2009 hereby be known as The Year Of The More Interesting Hub World. The spokes of Wolfenstein emanate from a German city overrun by Nazis; those of Halo 3 ODST to New Mombasa. The new Ratchet? An action-packed galaxy.
I got my hands on the outer-space portion of next month's Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time this week in Seattle. The trailer for the space stuff already explained the basics, but here's the Kotaku take.
In a Crack in Time, the levels Ratchet can explore are set on planets and moons to which the player can and must manually fly. He has no hub world, but rather a hub galaxy. Fly it, explore it, use it as a hallway with doorways to the game's levels and side challenges.
Ratchet travels through his hub in armed space-ship that can be upgraded with weapons, a speed boost and tow cable. The ship can be flown through several star systems, all accessed from the game's Galactic Map. The PlayStation 3 controller's left stick steers the ship. The right stick does barrel rolls and flip stunts. Buttons fire guns or land the ship.
The space zone I saw was grand and packed with floating space rock, a streaking comet, and colorful clusters of friendly and hostile spaceships. Navigating all of that was simpler than it looked, because flight is possible only on a flat plane. The developers at Ratchet studio Insomniac Games had toyed with letting Ratchet fly in all directions, but user feedback indicated that it was too disorienting.
I sampled the richness of the one demo outer space zone. My version of Ratchet's ship had a pair of weapons, both infinite in ammo and capable of blowing up enemy craft. Of course, I tested them. I saw a beacon in the tail of a comet and flew to where it would have triggered a mission. I engaged hostile satellites and suddenly had to fight an attacking satellite that was so formidable it had its own health bar. I flew over some small moons upon which I had watched an Insomniac rep land Ratchet's ship. One of those landings seamlessly segued into an on-foot challenge on a spherical planetoid. I saw a much larger heavenly body, a planet protected by security satellites that repelled my approach. The planet represented a full level of the game but I would only be able to get past its defenses if I collected enough Zoni, the aliens in the game obtainable in both story levels and through some of these outer-space optional challenges.
I was told there would be boss battles in space, including some sort of ultimate fight that is accessible only on a second playthrough of the game. But even in the first playthrough, exploration of the star systems can lead the player to some fun diversions. The moon areas — the new game's take on the spherical world levels presented in earlier Ratchet games — serve as increasingly tricky platforming areas. They come in three variations, I was told, though I only witnessed the first of the following: Hover-boot challenges that involve fast movement over ramps and jumps; Platforming challenges that are more about the gymnastics of the genre; Battle challenges that present the series-staple goals of clearing out waves of enemies in confined arenas.
There are some less conventional elements to the space game. Ratchet's ship has several radio stations. The tow cable he can obtain is used to haul space rock and rescue troubled ships. You can be destroyed out in the not-quite-blackness of this colorfully-populated cosmos but in the demo I played, it didn't seem all that dangerous and likely to happen.
The space game in this new Ratchet was fun. As with everything else I've seen in the new game, it's visually spectacular and a joy to move through. The closest equivalent in terms of scale and in opportunity to encounter interesting things is the ocean in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I'm not sure Ratchet's stellar range is, proportionately that vast but the positive similarities are there.
The one open question is whether travel will be mandatory, something I'm checking with Insomniac about. travelling to a moon for a challenge once is fine. Having to fly back there later in the game would be less alluring.
There may be an efficiency in menu-based games that allow the player to hop from level to level with the click of a button. But this year I am enjoying the new grander takes on what a decade ago was presented as Princess Peach's castle or the caves of Spiral Mountain. I like these new hubs and the places they reach.