Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart – you can’t fault the graphics (pic: Sony)
The most graphically impressive PS5 game so far is a stunning technical achievement but does the gameplay reach the same high standards?
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has some of the most incredible visuals ever seen in a console game. Sony wanted to show off the power of the PlayStation 5 and they have done exactly that, not just in terms of the graphics but the speed and versatility of the superfast SSD (solid-state drive). It’s an incredible technical feat, especially as it seems it was originally planned to be a launch title, but it’s telling just how quickly you become accustomed to the incredible visuals and realise that the game underneath isn’t quite so impressive.
The Ratchet & Clank franchise will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, with this being the ninth mainline entry. It’s a curious franchise in that it shows all the hallmarks of success, including its own animated movie, and yet the games rarely appear on any best of lists and its characters never evolved into the format mascots it seems they could have become. However, representing the power of the PlayStation 5 is arguably the highest profile they’ve ever been and certain to earn them a curious new audience.
Spider-Man developer Insomniac has been responsible for almost all the games, bar some of the spin-offs, and while they do have some light platforming and puzzling elements they’re primarily third person shooters. Ratchet is a pointy-eared Lombax, who does most of the shooting, while Clank is his robot pal who handles the puzzles and exposition. It’s a very simple set-up but made more interesting by the huge range of increasingly preposterous weapons.
Although the whole game looks amazing the opening half hour is going to sell so many PlayStation 5s it’s not even funny. We never did see the animated movie, but we very much doubt it looks as good as this, as a victory parade is interrupted by alien mercenaries and leads to you jumping around on giant Ratchet and Clank shaped balloons, rail-grinding along the disintegrating interior of a float, and general open-mouthed astonishment at the sort of graphics that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible even when pre-rendered.
And yet here they are, running in real-time and, depending on which graphics mode you choose, at dynamic 4K and 60 frames per second.
There’s a Mad Max style town sat atop a canyon, that you visit later on in the game, which looks so astoundingly good it’s literally unbelievable. You can tell the level was designed with no enemies around at that point simply because Insomniac knew everyone would be staring in disbelief, and they’re not wrong. This happens more times that you can count, from giant Blade Runner style cities to a number of open world areas that require animal mounts or jet-powered roller-skates to traverse conveniently.
You can travel to different planets whenever you want, by returning to your ship, but wherever you are the gameplay is the same. The platforming, including a spot of wall running and judicious use of a grapple hook, is very straightforward and so is the action, with the dodge and dash moves rarely proving that necessary on the default difficult. (The game is very easy so we would advise starting off on at least the second highest of the available settings.)
Where things get interesting is in the weapons themselves, which range from a simple pistol and shotgun analogue to increasingly bizarre devices, such as a sprinkler system that temporarily turns enemies into topiary to one that transforms them into a block of ice or shoots out a floating mushroom ally. Most of these are great fun, and there are almost two dozen of them, but none of them are any more or less effective against certain enemies – or at least not in any way that is easily noticeable.
Apart from it being boring, or you running out of ammunition, there’s no particular reason not to use the pistol for the entire game, as long as you keep upgrading it to be strong enough. Likewise, none of the enemies, not even the bosses, require any special techniques to defeat. They do have weakpoints, but again they’re not very obvious and most work as simple Destiny style bullet sponges, where the only requirement is to aim roughly in the right direction and wait till their health bar runs down.
Rift Apart is an intrinsically shallow game and we’re not really sure why, other than that’s what Insomniac and Sony seem to think constitutes a family friendly game. There are a number of other gameplay elements used to break up the action, including a Lemmings style puzzler for Clank (the only real puzzle element in the whole game, which notably can be skipped if you want), a fun little detour as a microscopic virus killer called Glitch, and some platform-based challenges inside pocket dimensions, but they’re all equally superficial.
Rather than the mute charm of a Nintendo game, Ratchet & Clank has a very talky script that is clearly meant to be funny for adults as well as children. It really isn’t though and while Rift Apart may look like a Pixar movie it’s certainly not written like one. There’s some simple moral lessons mixed in with the plot, about a reality-destroying device stolen by semi-regular antagonist Doctor Nefarious, but it’s very elementary and will struggle to interest anyone with an age in double digits.
Potentially the most interesting wrinkle to the story is that the dimension-shifting brings Ratchet into contact with a female Lomax called Rivet. There’s been a lot of speculation as to who or what Rivet is but while we won’t spoil that here we will answer the question of what difference she makes to the gameplay: absolutely none. She’s got a hammer instant of a wrench but other than that her abilities and weapons are identical to Clank’s, including all the upgrades.
You actually spend slightly more of the game playing as Rivet, but while she’s an enjoyably sassy protagonist her presence barely makes any difference to the story, let alone anything else. The overriding impression of Rift Apart is that everything is there solely for surface appeal, with the impact on gameplay very much a secondary concern.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart – amazing to look at, okay to play (pic: Sony)
Even the portals, which the marketing implies are one of the central tenets of the game, don’t really make much impact, at least not on normal difficulty. The idea is that little orange portals can be grappled which instantly transports you across a few metres of space, allowing you to flank enemies that are otherwise hard to get at. The problem is that many set pieces don’t have any easily accessible portals and even if they do the mediocre artificial intelligence rarely needs much outfoxing.
The portals are an impressive technical trick, as is instantly switching to entirely different worlds during the middle of a scene, but again it’s never more than a visual gimmick. There’s one section where you’re switching between different versions of the same planet, before and after a natural disaster, but while this gives the impression it’s building up to some clever light/dark world puzzling it’s an almost entirely linear sequence that might as well be working on automatic for all the difference you make to it.
As far as we’re concerned Spider-Man: Miles Morales is by far Insomniac’s best work, as its shorter length not only improves the storytelling but also helps to hide the intrinsic shallowness of their games. Rift Apart certainly isn’t very long but it feels like it’s run out of ideas long before the end.
There is some replayability, with a whole new tier of weapon upgrades to unlock on a subsequent playthrough, but Rift Apart struggles to justify the £70 price tag. Although perhaps the most damning indictment is that regardless of the incredible graphics the basic design and gameplay still feels stuck in the PlayStation 2 era. The portals and open world areas don’t make nearly enough difference and the third person gunplay, while competent, is still not as good as, say, Returnal.
That’s not to suggest that Rift Apart isn’t entertaining, because it is, and not just in terms of wanting to see what the graphics are like on the next planet. But despite all the amazing visuals this is a surprisingly forgettable video game experience, with disappointingly low ambitions.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review summary
In Short: The graphics are absolutely stunning but the gameplay is predictable and surprisingly uneventful, as the game fails to leverage its technical achievements for anything more than straightforward spectacle.
Pros: Fun, breezy action with a fantastic range of highly imaginative weapons. Astonishing graphics, that show off the power of the PlayStation 5 very effectively.
Cons: Shallow and surprisingly old-fashioned gameplay that doesn’t make the most of the bizarre weapons and portal gimmicks. Disappointingly short and the script lacks bite.
Formats: PlayStation 5
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Insomniac Games
Release Date: 11th June 2021
Age Rating: 7
For more stories like this, check our Gaming page.