Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One does a great job of transforming Insomniac's slapstick shooter series into an enjoyable co-operative ride. Stunning presentation and accessible multiplayer implementation provide the game with an engaging campaign, though it is somewhat let down by disappointing combat and an uninspired final-third.

As far as we're concerned, 2009's A Crack In Time pretty much perfected the Ratchet & Clank experience. Packed with puzzles, exploration and top-draw combat, it was not only one of the best games developer Insomniac Games has ever produced, but the pinnacle of a series that now spans more than two generations.

With such a stellar title preceding it, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One was always going to have its work cut out. Developed by Insomniac Games' new studio, the package promises a brand new experience in the Ratchet & Clank universe. No longer a solitary affair, All 4 One sees Ratchet & Clank joined by franchise stalwarts Captain Qwark and Dr Nefarious.

The plot sees one of Dr Nefarious' dastardly deeds to off Ratchet, Clank and Qwark go awry, with the four thrust together into a mystery machine known as the Creature Collector. Faced by a greater threat than any of them have ever known, the group must work together to thwart evil and return to their home planet.

The setup does a decent job of making the scenario believable, and it also provides the perfect excuse for the co-operative gameplay that ensues. Playing with up to three other players either locally or online allows each participant to select from one of the four heroes (or antagonists?), with co-operation and teamwork a focus if you plan on progressing through the game's eight-to-ten hour campaign.

While long-time fans will probably feel frustrated by Insomniac's decision to tread in a co-operative direction, the new flavour really does add something new to Ratchet & Clank's ageing recipe. This is fundamentally different from the Ratchet experiences of old, but it still maintains that chaotic, slapstick humour that's made the series such a success for so long.

If you absolutely must play Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One alone then you can, and to an extent you'll get a decent experience, joined by an unbelievably intelligent computer-controlled Clank who's capable of coping with just about anything the game throws at him. While you'll never find yourself screaming at the screen about incompetent AI, you'll also be missing out on the magic of All 4 One. This is a game best enjoyed with friends either online or offline and should be experienced accordingly if you intend to get the most out of it.

It's surprising how faithful Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One stays to the franchise's roots despite the co-operative focus. You'll spend much of your time experimenting with playful weapons, leaping across platforms and — of course — smashing crates into delightfully satisfying plumes of nuts and bolts. While the game feels fundamentally similar, the co-operative twist gives everything a brand new breath of life, beginning with a multi-purpose accessory you adopt early on in the campaign, the Vac-U.

The Vac-U gadget allows each of the game's four protagonists to suck up bolts and pick up enemies. It also allows the troublesome foursome to pick each other up, opening up previously inaccessible areas and demanding you play as a team. In its simplest moments, the game requires you to pick up your partners and toss them across to unreachable ledges, but at its most challenging you'll need to pull on switches, pick up items and toss them into new locations. Everything's made nice and simple thanks to a hearty use of aim assist, but the game still forces you to think co-operatively and introduces a variety of interesting puzzles throughout its running time.

Some of the best puzzles come in little side-missions, which see you trying to carefully direct a small creature through a series of tubes in order to win a RYNO component — a kind of super weapon in the Ratchet & Clank universe. These missions demand you work cohesively as a unit, with each player required to complete a different task in order to successfully complete the challenge. That's not to say the campaign itself is lacking in smarts. One level sees you using the Vac-U to connect electric cables, while another has you working together to control a raft.

One of All 4 One's strongest assets is its ability to constantly surprise. Admittedly it relies a little too heavily on combat in its final third, but early on the game is literally brimming with ideas. One moment you'll be controlling a spacecraft, another shooting from the back of an enormous robot. The game really takes advantage of its co-operative set-up, throwing you into experiences you're unlikely to have had before.

It doesn't hurt that it looks absolutely wonderful too, maintaining a silky smooth 30 frames-per-second regardless of the amount of action occurring. One level transports you to an icy planet, with the snowy weather effects adding a wonderful vibrancy to the visuals. Elsewhere Insomniac goes wild with its artistic capabilities, creating colourful cities and tropical resorts. The game doesn't look quite as refined as A Crack In Time, but given the multiplayer focus it's nothing short of staggering what Insomniac's able to pump out.

The netcode is fantastic too. Lag could pretty much kill some of the game's more challenging co-operative sequences, but we never really experienced any issues when playing online with three other players, the performance retained effortlessly.

If there's one area that All 4 One does struggle with alongside its co-operative focus, it's combat. Not only do the weapons feel less ambitious than in previous iterations — with the standard Combuster machine gun and Warmonger rocket launcher among the most useful death-dealers — but there's something a bit fluffy about the way it's handled. You'll auto-lock onto enemies that are roughly in the direction you're facing, with the L1 button allowing you to strafe. If more than one player aims at the same enemy, you can dish out additional damage depending on the weapon you've got equipped.

While it's all functional, it never feels as satisfying as it should. The Critter Strike is perhaps the best weapon in the game, allowing you to transform foes into friendly animals if you maintain a lock-on for long enough. What's funny at first quickly becomes repetitive towards the end of the game though, where Insomniac squanders some of the variety from the start of the campaign and turns it into much more of a shooting gallery.

Changing weapons is clumsily assigned to the right analogue stick, making it frustrating to select the weapon you want in the heat of conflict. Furthermore, a selection of tools such as a drill and shield are made infuriatingly difficult to access, hidden under far too many layers of inventory.

The dialogue is brilliant throughout, with all four of the characters spitting out some hilarious contextual one-liners. The cutscenes are great too, maintaining that slapstick sense of humour that has defined the series since its inception. It's a bit unfortunate that the rest of the audio design is not up to the calibre of the voice actors, with the weapon sound effects and orchestral score getting mightily distracting after a few hours play. The whole game can seem a bit noisy.

Even the harshest sceptics of All 4 One's co-operative focus will be won over by some of the game's spectacular four-player set pieces however, with the foursome participating in wakeboarding and skating down collapsing rails. If you ever thought All 4 One looked like a budget release, you'll be quickly corrected.

Conclusion

It never does quite live up to the brilliance of A Crack In Time, but then it never really tries to. All 4 One is an experience all of its own, and while it maintains the feel of Ratchet & Clank experiences before it, the game also does a successful job of steering the series in a new direction. Great multiplayer integration, a laugh-out-loud narrative and some varied level design make Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One a recommended light-hearted experience. It's just a shame the combat doesn't quite feel as competent as it should.