The next Ratchet & Clank game may be the first important Ratchet & Clank game in many years. The new Ratchet, Full-Frontal Assault, is a modified MOBA or DOTA, and if you don't know what that means then you may be unaware of one of the hottest genres of video games in the world.
Two of the most legendary game studios around, Valve and Blizzard, are making MOBAs. One of the most successful games on the planet, League of Legends, is a MOBA. Yet on game consoles the genre is nearly non-existent. Microsoft's box at least had the shooter-MOBA Monday Night Combat. The PS3? It's getting Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault.
MOBA games are contests of symmetrical combat waged across a hotly-contested battlefield. Each player or team of players tries to destroy the other side's base by using hero characters to generate and marshall waves of computer-controlled drones. The drones march forth and do most of the fighting. Players are shepherds to the assault. A complex MOBA offers the player a wide array of characters, powers and minions from which to choose. The essence of the play is the contest of strategies, the use of teamwork to simultaneously attack and defend in battles. Matches are so hotly contested that they are becoming the attraction in pro-gaming tournaments that have seven-figure payouts.
The new Ratchet, which will be downloadable to PS3 and PS Vita this fall, is similar to all of this, but different. The game is in public beta now, so fans and some reporters (including me) have been able to check it out. It supports 1v1 or 2v2 and is, at start, as confusing as a first session with League of Legends. Players choose a hero from the Ratchet pantheon and commit to a side. They play against others, at least in the beta, which does not support solo play.
Matches consist of rounds that contain three phases. The first, Recon, encourages players to explore the battlefield. Here, the Ratchet series' tradition of acrobatic platforming provides a twist. The weapons a player's hero can wield are scattered across the map, as are boxes full of money (bolts), but the best weapons and biggest money stashes are tucked into the crannies of the map that are the trickiest to reach. During this Recon phase, players can hunt this stuff down and also attack and capture several nodes on the map. Captured nodes will dole out money, over time and will turn aliens that wander near those nodes into friendly fighters.
In a round's second phase, Squad, players can and should build some defenses around any nodes they've captured and then teleport back to their home base. At the base they can spend money on defensive turrets and barriers that may repel an invading force. They may also buy an array of colourful minions who will march toward the enemy base in tr next round.
In the third phase, Assault, players are allowed to begin their mutual sieges. The first side whose base is destroyed loses, but this phase can expire before then, cycling the match to a new round of Recon.
All of this plays out in the context of some traditional Ratchet & Clank action. Unlike traditional MOBAs, this game is played at ground level, not overhead. It still feels like a third-person shooter because the player's hero can still run around, shoot enemies and, as is series tradition, level up their guns, through use, into more ridiculously destructive super-guns. Upgrades aren't persistent, and each match starts from scratch. That said, as matches progress, the level of firepower on display becomes extraordinary. Eventually players are sending massive tanks and robots into each other's bases.
When Ratchet's creators at Insomniac first showed the new game, they identified it as a shooter with a mix of tower defense. That undersells the potential here. The new Ratchet has the chance to be as deeply engaging and as complex in strategy as its MOBA predecessors. If it is not balanced right, it will be a bust. But if Insomniac can get the flow and the maths of this game's combat refined — and presumably that's what a beta can do — then this could well be the PlayStation's League of Legends...except for the fact that you'll have to pay for it.
This fall, a lot of people will be paying attention to heavyweight games such as Assassin's Creed III, Black Ops II and Super Mario Bros. U, but could this little downloadable Ratchet game be just as big a deal? If the swell of popularity for MOBAs is any indication, it at least qualifies as being an important game to watch. It will be available for download to PS3 and Vita later this fall.