- Review Price: £17.98
Why, oh why, couldn’t this just have been a great PSP platform game?
It worked for Ready at Dawn with Daxter and it worked for High Impact Games with Ratchet and Clank’s first PSP outing, Size Matters. These are two of the most enjoyable games on Sony’s handheld, not to mention two of the most technically accomplished. Yet with Secret Agent Clank, High Impact seems to have grown tired of the good old fashioned run-and-jump action of the platformer and a little weary of the ridiculous, overpowered blasting that has always been the signature of the Ratchet and Clank series. Instead, the name of this game is variety. We get stealth, we get rhythm action, we get snowboarding, we get arena combat and puzzle action. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, but the overall result is a bit of a mess.
As you can guess from the title, the star this time isn’t the furry alien engineer, Ratchet, but his robotic sidekick, Clank. This is a good thing; Clank has always been the smarter, funnier partner in the team, and his dry wit has been a highlight of the series. Fitting him up as a Bond-style super spy is a nice idea, and Secret Agent Clank runs with it by outfitting our hero in a tux, equipping him with a number of ingenious gadgets and putting some sixties spy movie tunes on the soundtrack. There are even plentiful one-liners and some subtle nods to various Bond movies – not to mention James Cameron’s Bond-inspired True Lies – thrown in for good measure. It’s obvious that the team had a lot of fun making the game.
The problem is that you won’t always have quite so much fun playing it. The main thread takes Clank on the trail of a valuable stolen jewel. Ratchet, in case you were wondering, has been imprisoned for his apparent involvement in its disappearance. Out on his own, Clank has developed his own style of Kung-Fu, and he’s also being supported by his agency, that can drop off useful items to help him evade security or dispatch hostile forces. The first level, set in a museum, involves a little platforming, but mostly revolves around stealth, with Clank sneaking past torch beams, posing as a statue and using gadgets to deactivate laser beams. While Clank can easily tackle robot guard dogs, he can quickly be overpowered by the roving security bots, so it’s vital that he avoids attention.
Sadly, that’s not quite as easy as it sounds for the simple reason that the game just isn’t that well set up for tactical espionage action, however ‘lite’ it might be. There’s no MGS-style radar to help you keep track of enemies and the camera stays quite close to Clank’s back, meaning you have to constantly rotate the view with the shoulder buttons if you want to check where your enemies are headed. There are places you can hide, but they require precise positioning before you can press the relevant button, and once you’ve been spotted the only way to evade your foes seems to be to destroy them. When several security bots gang up on you, you’re chances of survival aren’t that high – particularly given an appallingly unresponsive camera – and with long stretches between checkpoints this can make the very start of the game a surprisingly frustrating affair.
And that frustration is a recurring theme throughout. Some of Clank’s levels are excellent, particularly when, as in one set over the skyscrapers of an oriental sci-fi city, our agent is making daring leaps, fending off robot ninjas, solving simple puzzles and basically reminding you of what made the Ratchet and Clank games so bloody good in the first place. Other levels will go up and down depending on your tastes. A rhythm action sequence of deadly ballroom dancing, where you try to match the right button presses to the right rhythm, is great to watch but a bit of a struggle to get through, while the subsequent snowboarding sequence goes on a little bit too long for its own good.
The one definite is that whenever stealth enters the equation, enjoyment goes out of the window. Take the level where you have to follow a dodgy underworld Kingpin through a tourist trap town. Get spotted – and it’s hard to predict when you will be – and it’s restart time. Ditto if you get too far away. With a huge gap before the checkpoint this section is already a nightmare, but for some reason, this and other levels also feature stealth takedown opportunities, where you have to creep up behind your target, press square, then repeat a button sequence within a time limit. Irritant one: you have to be in a particular position to start the takedown or you’ll simply whack the guy with your kung-fu. Irritant two: get this or the button sequence wrong, and you’re back to the restart point again. Grrr. The longer you play, the more inconsistent the difficulty level seems to get. You can’t help wondering who play tested this game and thought it all worked.
Again, things improve when the game gets back to the series established strengths. Clank fans might be disappointed that the puzzle-solving antics which have always been associated with Ratchet’s robot chum have disappeared, but don’t despair. Special levels involving Clank’s miniature sidekicks, the Gadgebots, put that element back at the forefront, with the little chaps teaming up to press switches, move electric currents, take down enemies and power bridges. Commanding and controlling the Gadgebots is pretty simple, and the combination of platforming and puzzling is actually more engaging than an awful lot of the main game.
Interspersed between Clank’s levels are additional sections where Ratchet has to survive several rounds of arena combat in his prison, or where the series’ stalwart buffoon, Captain Quark, recreates (or reimagines) epic battles for the sake of his biographer. Again, these are a mixed bag. The Ratchet levels do, at least, give you a chance to pull out a small sample of the legendary Ratchet and Clank arsenal, but they also get repetitive with time. Little extra tasks like having to close down portals with your spanner while under constant enemy harassment make these sections more wearing than they might have been, and again that stupid camera doesn’t help.
The Quark levels, meanwhile, are entertaining, but more because of the writing than the gameplay, which is actually a little bit dull. Having completed one Ratchet or Quark section, you can then play through bonus levels in order to gather extra bolts (the game’s currency) which power up Ratchet or Clank and allow Clank to buy additional weapons or power ups from vending machines. Unfortunately, it’s hard to muster enough enthusiasm to bother.
That’s something I never though I’d say about a Ratchet and Clank game, and it’s especially depressing when you consider how polished and slick the game is in every other respect except for (doh!) the gameplay. Like Size Matters or Daxter, Secret Agent Clank plays to the PSP’s strengths, using all the lighting and surface effects at the handheld’s disposal to get over its limited polygon and texture pushing power. As I mentioned before, the music is excellent, and the sound and dialogue is up there with any game the duo starred in on the PS2.
All the same, it’s never a good sign when I’m pushing myself to get further in the game because of a sense of professional obligation, rather than because I’m having a good time. The more I played Secret Agent Clank, the more that happened. It’s a game where isolated chunks are hugely enjoyable, and one where there are times when it looks like it still might blossom into something brilliant, but all in all it’s just too incoherent and inconsistent to keep you hooked throughout. As a character, I’d be happy to see Secret Agent Clank return, but it would be great if he just got back to basics, and left all the extraneous stuff behind.
The more Clank moves out of his platform-action comfort zone, the less enjoyable Secret Agent Clank gets. While it’s technically one of the stronger PSP titles out there, variety comes at the expense of rock-solid gameplay.
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