It never fails that the months of November and December are inundated by titles that it would have been nice to have six months earlier or six months later. Things have always been this way, mostly because the retail industry not so secretly loathes people, which means many games get left behind or buried under larger, bigger budget titles on a regular basis. While it would be very wrong to describe Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time a small title, it suffers from the same bit of poor timing. If the game had come out a year ago, or even six months ago, it might have recaptured the wow factor of Tools of Destruction. Instead it is sharing screen time with titles that dance visual circles around it. The PS3 has been more or less figured out in the intervening years and Insomniac has fallen just slightly behind the curve. They have not produced a bad game here; far from it. A Crack in Time is almost as much fun to play in the short term as all the other Ratchet and Clanks have been. The difference is all in the lasting impact of the game. Instead of an experience that I will be thinking about and holding things up to in comparison for years to come it is a fun little platformer that I knocked out in a week and will forget about in two more. I was expecting more from the finale of the Future series, looking forward to another weapon heavy tour-de-force that gives ample reason to wake my PS3 from its slumber, and cannot help but be a little disappointed.
To be clear, A Crack in Time is not at all an ugly game. In detail and polish and all the other little things that matter it looks better than most multi-platform releases out there. Taken as a whole, however, it is missing the jaw dropping, stop me in my tracks and look around moments that I have come to expect from the series. Individual levels feel confined and small, completely lacking the scope and depth that made even the opening level of the first game so memorable. Flying around the empty space between planets while confined to a 2D plain is even worse. Perhaps this was an intentional choice: keep things a bit smaller in order to make them look a bit better. If it was, I don’t think it was the right one. Ratchet is at his best when he is a tiny, anthropomorphic fuzzy thing up against giant, silly looking robots with personality disorders and megalomaniacal tendencies. This does happen, but Ratchet never feels small enough and the bad guys never seem big enough. It feels a bit odd to complain about a game that looks better than its previous versions not looking good enough. To mangle grammar just a bit, it doesn’t look ‘better enough.’ For any other developer, for any other series, this would be a non-issue. A Crack in Time from a no-name company would have had no expectations and would be a complete and total triumph. Insomniac is held to a higher standard, because they have shown they can craft an interactive experience that rivals anything Pixar has put out. When compared to its peers and its progeny, it just doesn’t quite measure up.
With the notable exception of Deadlocked, all the Ratchet and Clank games have played pretty much the same way. This is not a negative; Insomniac got running, jumping, and shooting right the first time and has just been tweaking it since. Mini games and other diversions have varied by title, with the time based puzzles Clank is submitted to this go around being among the best and more than making up for the boring space combat between them. Clank is tasked with opening a door using several buttons spread throughout the room; the trick is that many of them need to be pressed at the same time. Queue recording yourself performing one action, resetting time, doing something else while the first you is doing the first thing, and so on. Eventually there will be four Clanks running around all simultaneously, hopefully ending up in the right place at the right time. Add to that grenades that slow down time around objects and it can be wonderfully complicated, forcing, as Doc Brown would say, fourth dimensional thinking. I wish there were more such puzzles, as they provide an excellent respite from the gun-porn that the series is known for.
A Crack in Time is filled with the same ridiculous weapons that have become the norm for the series. This creates a problem: how do you top launching tornados at robots who have be hypnotized by a disco ball shortly before being eaten by extra dimensional cthulu spawn? In short, you don’t. Most weapons feel like re-skins of previous ones, many are completely the same, and there is the same assortment of usable and un-unable guns. Why toss a grenade that freezes opponents when I can fire multiple homing missiles at them or launch them skyward with a belching frog mounted on a shotgun stock? The gap becomes wider as the game move along and the beginning weapons reach their max level, making newer ones usable only as a last resort. A few of the weapons can be modified, but generally the most recent mod found is the best one, so the effect of the customization is negligible. There’s nothing wrong here, but much like the look of the title nothing is as engaging as it was the first time around.
Collecting all the upgrades, zoni, weapons blue prints and golden bolts across several planets and even more moons cribbed directly from Super Mario Galaxy could have been an exercise in frustration. There is a lot of ground to cover, so much so that retreading levels more than once or twice would be an incredible chore. Thankfully A Crack in Time is nice enough to tell the player when an area has nothing left to offer, and late in the game an item is available that will reveal everything left to get in any level. This removes the grind of tedious re-exploration that can prevent people from coming back after the final boss has been felled. It is a rarity that I stick around after the credits roll; there is always something (or this time of year, several things) new waiting to be played. After defeating the rather obvious plot twist of a final boss the player is given two options. Either start the game over on a higher difficulty level with all the accumulated weapons and levels intact or jump back in time to right before the second to last fight and rummage around for all the stuff that is still waiting to be found. Jumping back in time is the only way to find all of the hidden zoni, which unlocks an extra boss who is much more difficult than any previous battle. Defeating him unlocks the Insomniac museum: a collection of art assets, music and discarded ideas in the form of a level that looks a lot like an office. This little extra is worth more than any PlayStation Network trophy, and it gives love-it-and-leave-it gamers a reason to dig back in. Plus, this is the only place that there is any mention of Quest for Booty, so it appears that Insomniac has the same feeling about the lackluster digital release as I do.
Perhaps my expectations coming in were too high. It is possible that my fond memories of Tools of Destruction have become rose colored by the passage of time. A Crack in Time plays so similarly to its predecessors that it might as well be the same thing, and without the visual impact of the first game this feeling of déjà vu quickly becomes troublesome. Insomniac has done absolutely nothing wrong here, they just didn’t do anything new, and what was almost perfect two years ago is only okay now, especially when compared to the other titles it is fighting with for precious holiday gaming time. Ratchet, as a character, is much more expressive and interesting than can usually be found in an action game. His plight as the last lombax is made even more poignant here, when he finally finds another of his kind only for him to be a raging douche-bag who sounds a little to close Marlin from Finding Nemo to be taken seriously (fun fact: Alister is voiced by the last actor to play Bozo the clown. Seriously, look it up). In a not uncommon twist, the game does not live up to the potential the story has laid out for it. What A Crack in Time has to offer is fun for a while, but despite its quality it is not a game I will remember for very long. In what may be the PS3’s coming out holiday (finally) it is simply going to get lost in the crowd.