Ratchet & Clank’s greatest strength, honed and buffed over a decade of games, is its ability to capture the very best of Saturday-morning cartoons while suffering none of their failings. Insomniac’s games about an intergalactic cat-man and his droid saving the universe are pure, endearing escapism. There’s great spectacle, decent humor, and an undercurrent of heroic import that’s never bogged down by an attempt to sell you something. There is no toy to buy; the adventure is the toy.
The series’ last multiplayer attempt, 2005’s Ratchet: Deadlocked, lost too much of the winsome fun present in the best entries, sacrificing its sense of adventure to the grim militarism that usually marks games that have you carrying many guns. People who played together could only shoot each other, not play through an episode of the titular character’s story. This latest entry, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One, does a much better job. Four players can control Ratchet (cat-man), Clank (robot), Captain Qwark (Zap Brannigan’s long-lost cousin), or Doctor Nefarious (evil/hilarious robot) in a quest to get back home and save a planet of nature-attuned sentients from an evil gatherer of intergalactic creatures.
All 4 One is simpler than its predecessors in most ways. The bulk of the game is localized to a single planet rather than many, and the game proceeds in a linear series of challenges with no opportunity for diversions along the way. Even though there’s still a wide variety of over-the-top firearms to collect, the complex system of beefing them up has been replaced with three simple upgrades purchased with the same bolts used to make the guns in the first place. These concessions are made so people online or sitting in your living room can hop in at any point and everyone will be on the same page, but the simplicity is a bonus. No one wants to join a game and then sit there while you try to max out a gun’s levels and find some hidden object you missed in a previous area. They want to join the story.
Still, there’s something lost in the balancing of All 4 One so it can be played alone or with others. Solo play loses, the constant presence of the other characters’ personalities, which truly sets this episode of Ratchet apart. With multiple players on board, the game is at its most colorful, but the puzzles and fights that require co-operation never feel as triumphant as they could have if they were designed so players couldn’t complete them alone.