Having played Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper and now Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando, there’s a bit of a pattern starting to emerge for me in terms of how Sony’s stable of fifth- and sixth-generation mascots differ in pretty significant ways from Nintendo’s, despite sharing so much DNA. Yes, every one of these games is in some way indebted to Super Mario 64 (though that applies to most games in its wake), but there’s something intrinsically different from how Sucker Punch or Naughty Dog or in this case Insomniac has gone about translating the “mascot platformer” into something distinctly “Playstation-y.”
Part of it has to do with culture: these are very clearly Western games despite taking their influence from Shigeru Miyamoto’s creations. There’s a little bit less of the charming surreality of Mario or even Star Fox - everything is grounded in a world that operates on a general sense of internal consistency, with more spelled-out and forefronted plots and more clear connections between your actions and its relation to the plot. That’s to these games’ detriment, I think, since it takes away a lot of the feeling that anything could happen - that even the world itself is a labyrinthine mystery to unravel.
There’s no secret to unravel in Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando, the second game in the prolific franchise. The game looks and plays a bit like a mashup of Metroid Prime (minus the isolation/darkness/sense of world building - mostly it feels like the early portions of Corruption, oddly enough, which came out four years after this game) and Star Fox Adventures, with a heavy emphasis on shooting any number of ludicrous weapons, the hallmark that sets this franchise apart from most.
There’s a cartoon logic to Ratchet and Clank that makes it hard to dislike, but there’s still something about the game’s attitude that rubs me the wrong way. Despite the improvement on Ratchet’s first-game baditude, the story, wonderfully inane as it is, just pops up too often, with too much assurance from the writers that, “no, no, this is HILARIOUS.” I can see being reasonably entertained if I was a bit younger, but there’s very little that had me laughing or even guffawing throughout the game’s eight-hour playtime. Honestly, the story - a relatively loopy tale about Bogons and Fizzwidgets and all other manner of campy science-fiction - is kind of fun to see to play out, but it’s not enough of anything to have the game keep returning to it so often.
Going Commando is by no means a bad game, I’d like that made plainly clear. There’s nothing wrong with it whatsoever, and in terms of its relatively mindless run-and-gun gameplay, it’s even reasonably entertaining at times. The animations are fluid, the wacky weapons are always pretty fun to play around with - and maybe most importantly, everything just works, even if the game isn’t exactly breaking any boundaries.
But there are obvious, even at times debilitating problems, things that, to me, will always keep the game (and indeed, it’s the same feeling I’ve had with those other aforementioned PS2 mascot platformers) from aspiring to the heights of Nintendo’s most bonafide classics. As it often is with these games, the problems come down to mechanics and design.
Discussing a game’s mechanics is about the least interesting part of a review for me - there’s so many more important topics that we could be discussing with video games, and inordinate attention to detail in the mechanics department often leads to brilliant video games being overlooked, or worse, games are kept in the “multimedia ghetto” because all we discuss are how they work as mere gizmos, playtime contraptions. But when they get in the way of meaningful enjoyment, especially when they get in the way for no real purpose other than they’re not quite as fine-tuned as they could be, that’s a problem. Honestly, it’s a little bit miraculous that Mario controlled so well in Super Mario 64, given that this was Nintendo’s first crack at 3D platforming. The fact that the camera didn’t disintegrate or that Mario still had his familiar speed and weight is one gaming’s unsung masterpieces. Honestly, if you’ve ever held an N64 controller in your hand and moved Mario around his Mushroom Kingdom sandbox, you can probably imagine that indelible feeling of controlling gaming’s pre-eminent figure in 3D space.
It is not so serendipitous in Going Commando.
The camera is mapped to the second stick, a common convention even by that point. The running is tied to the left analog stick - still not blowing any minds, I hope? But as in Super Mario 64, and unlike a great many third-person shooters today, those two things are not tied to each other, meaning that Ratchet can run in any direction he wants while the camera looks away, leaving aiming an impossible mess. This is also exacerbated by the fact that Ratchet’s running feels floaty, his jumping feels clunky, and his shooting feels, at times, arbitrary. I think that third-person shooters in general kind of suck, but the mechanics have to at least be a bit more workable than this if that’s the direction the developers want to go - otherwise, why did we transition so quickly out of the often-perfect 2D templates that we created on the SNES and Genesis? It’s not broken and it’s often quite playable, but it does not encourage the same kind of undying love that Nintendo’s best mechanics seem to do effortlessly.
The more major issue, though, is design. Despite wisely opening up the game world to include many disparate planets and levels, and occasionally allowing for some Metroid-esque backtracking, Going Commando is pretty much just a straight-ahead corridor shooter with occasional platforming challenges. These are not the sorts of levels you go back to just to run through them again - they’re generally quite drab, straightforward, boring spaces. Yes, there are occasional minigames (including a pretty faithful Star Fox rip-off that is a lot of fun), but the central game rarely inspires, outside of those CRAAAAZY weapons that are always quite a bit of fun to try out.
Except! (and here’s the shitty part) - there are flashes of brilliance throughout Going Commando. Any sequence involving Clank, solo, is unlike anything else I’ve played, a kind of third-person Pikmin experience that combines shooting with real-time strategy in a really interesting way. A game based entirely around that would be brilliant, rather than the often pedestrian Ratchet segments - the blandness of the world seems to become a tertiary concern when what you’re doing isn’t so bland. And while I never got to try out the multiplayer, this sort of game seems ideal for multiplayer situations. Honestly, I bet there’s a good or even great game lurking in Ratchet and Clank’s shadows, and I never had an actively BAD time playing it. Like so many of those PS2 platformers, it just doesn’t have that creative spark to push it to the next level, but even middle of the road games can have their occasional charms.