Last year, I gave a friend of mine Enslaved because I'd loved the asymmetrical partnership in Ninja Theory's post-apocalyptic action game. After he'd finished, he said to me that he'd had a hard time going back to other games because it suddenly dawned on him how lonely those experiences were. Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One's made me feel the same way.
In its long-running Ratchet & Clank series, Insomniac Games generally delivered shiny, zany sci-fi entertainments dotted through with surprisingly emotional moments. They've been games that have been favourably compared to Pixar's animated output and that fans have wished would become TV shows or films.
That's because — along with goofy, buddy-movie humour and well-executed action — the R&C games happen to show off a bold streak of invention that few other series can match. Insomniac's main claim to fame has been the singularly unique weapons they've rolled out in the franchise. There've been weapons that force enemies to dance uncontrollably, that mutate them into farm animals and that inhale them into their barrels and force them back out again.
But for all the acclaim of their previous games, All 4 One might be their boldest, riskiest invention yet. The new release reconfigures the design of previous games so that the entire experience can happen co-operatively. Even the most basic, taken-for-granted actions of the well-worn platformer genre get re-thought. Running and jumping across gaps or hazards can't be done alone, for example. You'll often need to latch onto a partner using an energy tether for big leaps and, if either you or he get left behind, that same tether brings you instantly by his side. The game's weapons get similar re-thinks, with all of them delivering big multiplied damage — called an Overload attack — when fired jointly at the same target.
As many as four people can team up to play though the game together, which pairs up the titular duo with bumbling blowhard hero Qwark and archvillain Dr. Nefarious. The story centres on the quartet's abduction to a giant robotic ship, where they meet a little girl whose entire society has been captured. That mass kidnapping leads to the discovery of a larger plot. The backstory concerns the split of two scientists who were once partners doing research on how critters make their owners feel better, leaving room for a giant evil to spring up in the void of their former friendship.
All 4 One comes across as a hybrid between party game and platformer. I like the fact that even basic traversal's been given a partnership twist. The counterpart to the energy tether is the Vac-U, a suction weapon that your buddy can jump into and that you'll scoop up critters into. Certain gaps will be too far to jump and they won't have the tether anchor that lets you swing across, so you'll need to launch your partner across with the Vac-U and then zip to their location via tether. The puzzle elements get tweaked the same way, too. Once you get the rhythm down, the back-and-forth of the co-op feels like a good give-and-go sequence in a pick-up basketball game.
Each level is its own competition and players get judged in a few different categories: bolts collected, critters collected, enemies killed and co-op points. When you're done, end-of-level rankings get doled out with titles such as Noob (most deaths) or Bolt Master (most bolts) given out. Certain characters can access special weapons, like The Cloaker for Dr. Nefarious that makes him invisible, Zoni Canon for Clank that lets him unleash his own special attacks. A nice tug-of-war between rivalry and collaboration emerges as you play: you'll get to a new area with crates to smash and each player will race to get the most bolts. But, then, you'll need to work together because certain breakables give out co-op points, which multiply when playing with another person. One section of the game sets up two-way puzzle challenges for you to solve, which earn your points towards this game's version of the series' RYNO super-weapon. During the heat of battle, anyone who dies gets zapped backed in at a cost of 100 bolts. If all members of your party die, then you'll respawn at a checkpoint.
The big caveat about All 4 One is that sacrifices were made to make it an ideal co-op experience. The gameworld doesn't feel as big or glossy as in previous Ratchet titles. It's just one planet and with little exploration. Also, the in-game cameras are locked, with the right stick used for weapons switching. You're still able to upgrade weapons, but not as robustly as in other games. AI partners auto-populate when human co-op leaves or gets dropped, but they don't feel as good as playing with another human. The battles can get tedious and you'll find yourself needing to experiment to find different weapon combos that are best for certain enemy types. For example, I found the Bouncer Minions to be particularly vulnerable to being stunned with the Arc Lasher and then blasted with a Warmonger missile launcher. While this experimentation is fun, the game doesn't guide you to or reward you for it.
Lots of different types of play get thrown at you, like a freefall sequence where you have to join hands with a partner to effectively waft upwards on a stream of air or jetpack sections where the flow goes from horizontal to vertical and back again. It's this mélange that reminds me a bit of the world design of Travelers' Tales Lego games and the huge amount of variety in the Super Mario Galaxy games. The co-op focus makes much of the experience more strategic than an average Ratchet game. So, you'll have scenarios where one person provides covering fire while another solves a puzzle, for example. All 4 One also harbors a clever twist on the revive mechanic seen in other co-op games. You have 10 seconds to reach a downed buddy and scoop them into your Vac-U, only to have to carry them around for another few seconds while they heal up. Of course, you'll be getting shot at all the while, too. It's a frantic but fun moment every time it happens.
I've worked through about 75 per cent of All 4 One and the online experience has been a mostly stable one. There's an annoying moment of pausing for joining notifications and you'll occasionally get pulled back to a checkpoint so you and the newly joined partner can progress together. If you don't feel like doing stuff you've already finished, you have the option to refuse the request to join. A handful of sessions suffered game-crashing bugs like falling through the world that stalled the game forcing me to drop. When that happens, another player becomes the host and play continues. One pet peeve is that the system doesn't let you know when other players are idle, so you're left to wonder why a Clank isn't helping you out of a jam.
Despite those minor quibbles thing that makes me really enjoy Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, though, are the little micro-touches littered through the world. One environment features co-op fishing in two varieties. Sometimes, the recovered crate opens up to give both players bolts but, other times, it's the person who smashes first gets the prize.
People complain about tacked-on multiplayer. This latest Ratchet & Clank adventure is what it looks and feels like when multiplayer's the guiding principle from a game's inception. It's a game whose subtext is about companionship, a descendant of the kind of thinking that led to Left 4 Dead. All 4 One pushes the idea of symbiotic gameplay a little further by building in ways for some antagonism to creep in. There's fun to be had in playing either against or with people and All 4 One succeeds by letting you do both almost simultaneously.