The PlayStation Portable game library has been criticized for many things, but one market it seems to have cornered is that of sequels to (or offshoots of) popular PlayStation 2 games or franchises. From Daxter to Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, the PSP has proven to be completely capable of translating a great console experience to a system much smaller and seemingly less powerful. As for completely original franchises, well; that’s another topic for another day.
Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters is just a week away from landing on retail shelves across North America, and if you own a PSP, you may be wondering if the game continues the trend of quality platforming action established by Daxter. In a word: Absolutely. Having spent the last few days playing through the final code, I would like to share some details about the single and multiplayer experiences as a precursor to our forthcoming final review.
After the events of Ratchet: Deadlocked, wily lombax Ratchet and his robotic companion Clank decide to hit up an island resort for some much needed rest and relaxation. Naturally, trouble follows them there; and by trouble, I mean a young girl. Pigtailed redhead Luna asks the duo to perform heroic acts in front of her camera (for a school project), but she is abducted in the process, designating Ratchet and Clank as the only beings who can help. Their only clue is an artifact from the rumored Technomite civilization. Upon further investigation, they discover a nefarious scheme that goes far beyond the mere abduction of the young stranger.
Size Matters wisely ignores the stylistic departure of Deadlocked and instead focuses on what made the series so popular and beloved in the first place: the killer combination of 3D platforming and weapons-based action. Though not developed by Insomniac Games, creators of the first four games in the series, Size Matters maintains and expands the familiar details that set the franchise apart from other mascot-based action games on the market. Roughly a dozen unique environments can be navigated on foot, including an expansive farming facility and a bizarre dream sequence, complete with floating platforms. Busting boxes and collecting bolts is as essential as ever, as you’ll need them to purchase the latest and greatest in futuristic firearms and gadgets (not to mention copious amounts of ammunition).
Over a dozen weapons can be utilized and upgraded over the course of the single-player adventure, from the Lacerator laser gun to the shotgun-like Concussion Cannon. Those are among the tamer weapons; the Bee Mine Glove and Laser Tracer offer more interesting ways of eliminating your enemies. As you use each weapon, it will gain experience points and eventually level up, enhancing the weapon in some way (be it capacity or firepower). Additional upgrades such as lock-on targeting can be purchased for some of the weapons via kiosks found in many of the environments. On the gadget front, you can expect a handful of fantastic tools to help you traverse the landscapes of Size Matters, including the Sprout-o-Matic, which brings plants to life and puts them to use (as platforms or explosive launchers).
Though the PSP has fewer buttons than the Dual Shock 2, the control scheme in Size Matters is both comfortable and effective, maintaining much of the feel of earlier PS2 entries. Movement is mapped to both the analog stick and the d-pad, allowing you to switch between them on the fly. On the d-pad, strafing replaces the left and right turns, so it is wise to use the d-pad when taking on a series of enemies. Quickly clicking the triangle button swaps to your next weapon, though holding it brings up the Quick Select menu, which provides fast access for up to eight weapons and/or gadgets.
Several attempts are made to shake up the action via mini-games, which are somewhat of a mixed bag. To open locked doors, Ratchet will have to shrink down and grind a series of rails in segments very similar to the pipe-sliding portions of Daxter. Even better is the on-rails space shooter triggered by a robotic transformation – it recalls the Gummi Ship segments of Kingdom Hearts II, and should certainly be expanded in future sequels. On the flipside, the vehicle combat segments seem uninspired and simplistic, while the hoverboard races are just awkward and unpleasant. Only two races are required over the course of the adventure, though additional events are available for the masochists out there.
Visually, Size Matters is a very sharp game, with colorful characters and environments filling every frame. As with many PSP games, jaggies can be an issue (as well as the occasional muddy texture), but the frame rate is very steady. The only time I noticed any potential slowdown was during the dream sequence, but it may have been an intentional effect. The sharp pre-rendered cut-scenes are accentuated by some excellent voice acting, with the series’ usual wit and humor in full effect.
Size Matters is one of the few high-profile PSP releases that features online Infrastructure play, in additional to the usual Ad-Hoc support. I had a chance to battle the developers and several other journalists recently, and found the online play to be smooth and lag-free, with a simple interface and some insanely detailed leaderboards. As indicated by the games subtitle, size does matter; and frankly, the size of the matches seems to be lacking a bit. Just four players can participate in a single match, which is okay for Deathmatch, but seriously lacking when it comes to Capture the Flag and similar team-based events. If Insomniac can cram 40 players online for Resistance: Fall of Man, surely High Impact Studios can get eight people together on the PSP.
But despite capacity issues, the online play actually has a lot to offer for a handheld title. Aside from the aforementioned Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes, the Iron Lombax gametype offers four styles of play, each linked to a different map. On the Danger Valley map, you must attach homing beacons to your opponents’ generator and then attract floating mines to it. However, in Moon Cow Disease, your goal is fill a restaurant delivery truck by picking up bovines with the Suck Cannon and shooting them into the Cow-Verter. Such wild discrepancies between the objectives means a wider variety of experiences, so that’s a plus – just make sure you know which map supports which version of Iron Lombax.
Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters may not be as expansive or as lengthy as Daxter, but the combination of an engrossing single-player campaign and a well-executed online multiplayer mode makes this an easy recommendation for all PSP owners. Anxious fans need not worry – High Impact has done a great job of bringing this odd couple to the small screen. Please check back next week for our full review.
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