Insomniac Games has never shied away from experimenting with its premium platforming franchise, but Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault represents the series’ biggest departure yet. Designed to celebrate the brand’s tenth anniversary, the downloadable mini-adventure blends the property’s traditional twitch-based gunplay with elements of tower defence and real-time strategy. Sadly, while it introduces some genuinely enjoyable mechanics, it also drops some Grungarian Tank-sized clangers along the way.
Following in the footsteps of previous PlayStation Network entry Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty, the innuendo-laden Full Frontal Assault relays a wafer-thin plot regarding the destruction of the Planetary Defence Centres. The demolition of these subsystems – designed by the heroic galactic group known as Q-Force – has left the galaxy in danger of antagonist Zurgo, a former fan-boy of the interplanetary defence squad who feels let down by Captain Qwark’s oafish scandals. It’s up to Ratchet, Clank, and the aforementioned numpty to repair the orbital shields, and protect the universe from the threat of the tyrannical Internet troll.
The plot is packed with the series’ faithful form of nod-and-wink humour, and, being an anniversary piece, it feels even more self-aware than ever. There are a number of throwback jokes that will see franchise regulars grinning from ear-to-ear, and, as such, it’s successful as a slice of fan-service.
The setup may be similar to previous releases, but the gameplay in Full Frontal Assault is impressively fresh. The title fuses strategy elements with third-person gunplay, resulting in a surprisingly unique experience. Upon landing on each planet, you’ll need to collect bolts in order to erect defence stations that protect your base. Throughout the course of each mission, drop ships will deploy enemy forces that will attempt to sabotage your stronghold. You’ll need to ensure that your fortifications are sturdy enough, while also fighting off the adversaries in the series’ traditional madcap manner.
You’ll also need to scout the remainder of the planet in order to collect firearms from artillery pods, and also complete objectives such as switching on computer systems and destroying weather beacons. The result is a fast-paced adventure, that’s designed to be played at breakneck speed.
In order to facilitate the pace of the action, all three playable protagonists are equipped with hoverboots which allow you to accelerate around the levels by pulling the R2 trigger. This is not necessarily new to the series, but it feels much more prominent here, with the game adopting the breathless format of Vanquish as opposed to the slower pace of tower-defence games.
However, while it’s fun speeding around the arenas, the woeful map system and confusing level design makes it hard to figure out where the game actually wants you to go. When you do eventually discover the objectives, you’ll frequently find that your base is under attack, so you’ll have to sprint back to the starting point, only to find yourself lost again.
Furthermore, the enemy forces are frustratingly powerful, soaking up ammunition like a sponge. You’ll constantly find your weapons running out of bullets, which leaves you helpless while you wait for new crates to respawn. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed in Full Frontal Assault, even if you feel like your defences are well prepared.
The only real way to subdue some of the more fierce enemy types is to deploy a Groovitron, which makes them dance like a pop-star high on Jolt Cola. As always, the entire arsenal is rich with compelling combat options, but even when you’ve levelled up each firearm, they still feel disappointingly underpowered. The title cuts off each weapon’s progression at Level 3, which means that you never attain the apocalyptic firepower that makes the console entries so incredibly fun.
As such, battles become a grind. You can share the experience with a partner in local or online co-op, but you’ll still get tired of the limited enemy types that pad out the campaign. By the time you reach the single-player’s credits after approximately five hours, you’ll be desperately tired of the throngs of overpowered tanks and helicopters that take up to five minutes to defeat. The final boss is similarly dreary, relying on arbitrary time limits to add some urgency to proceedings.
Because of this, you’ll feel less inclined to replay missions like Insomniac Games clearly intends. Each stage is packed with skill points, gold bolts, and medals to collect, each of which contribute to your rank and unlock cheats. Granted, the secret trinkets are fun to play about with – we’re particularly fond of the ridiculous Big Head mode, for example – but we’re not convinced that the lure of a psychedelic graphic filter will be enough to keep the average player engaged.
More likely to consume your attention, however, is the innovative multiplayer mode, which seems frighteningly complex at first, but is actually a lot of fun in short bursts. Playable in two or four-player modes, the component takes inspiration from PC titles League of Legends and Starcraft. In essence, it’s an evolution of Ratchet & Clank 3’s ill-fated competitive option, but it’s much more refined.
Matches take place across three phases, which loop if a winner hasn’t been crowned. During the recon stage, you must go out in pursuit of nodes deployed around each symmetrical map, which reward you with both weapon unlocks and bolts. Capturing zones increases the amount of currency you earn during the course of each match, so the more nodes you command, the greater the advantage you’ll hold during later rounds.
Bolts can be spent on character upgrades, defences, and enemy forces. The latter can only be purchased during the squad stage, before being deployed during the final assault phase. Your ultimate objective is to overwhelm your enemy’s base with swarms of AI controlled foes, while successfully protecting your own.
While it sounds complicated on paper, an excellent interactive tutorial mode helps to quickly get you up to speed. Once you’ve got the hang of it, experimenting with strategies as you play online is particularly enjoyable. You can, for example, rely on your selected squads to destroy your opponent’s base while you hold back and protect your own stronghold. Alternatively, you can risk fleeing your own nest, and take the fight directly to your adversary’s refuge.
The component’s a lot of fun, but with just three maps available, it’s unlikely to command a particularly large playerbase over a prolonged period of time. Furthermore, it’s far too easy to get absolutely obliterated by an experienced player, though Insomniac Games has constructed a league system that will hopefully ensure that the matchmaking is fair. Ultimately, time will be the real test of this mechanic’s strength.
Purchasing the game on PlayStation 3 is supposed to reward you with the PlayStation Vita version too, but the handheld port has been delayed until January of next year. It’s easy to see why, too – Full Frontal Assault pushes the home console to its limits with some insane visual effects, and, as such, it’s easy to imagine the portable version struggling with frame-rate issues. We’ll be particularly impressed if Insomniac Games and third-party developer Tin Giant can get the handheld release running at parity with the PS3.
The game looks good on the console, though, with quality animation and some impressive visual effects. There are moments where your screen will be decorated with different explosions and projectiles, but the engine maintains an unwavering performance.
Audio is arguably less successful, with a busy soundscape and lazy mix leading to a stressful experience. We spent several minutes fiddling with the in-game sliders, but still didn’t settle upon a scheme that felt natural to us. The hectic manner of the presentation means that Full Frontal Assault is a game that demands a particular mindset; you’re not going to want to play it to relax.
Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault has some interesting ideas, but repetition and poor level design let the single-player campaign down. The innovative multiplayer mode represents the mini-adventure’s strongest asset, but it’s unlikely to hold your attention for very long. PlayStation’s most enduring duo have seen better days, but this is still a likeable celebration of a fantastic franchise.