Insomniac can't seem to figure out if less is more or more is less. Such is the hallmark of a developer with a lot of creative ideas on their hands and neither enough development time nor the ability to implement them all. The developers of Ratchet: Deadlocked fall into the old trap of trying to figure out the perfect balance for a game. The first three Ratchet and Clank games, in successive iterations, have gradually added more and more stuff: more guns, more upgrades, more challenges, more gadgets, more extras, and so on, almost to the point that the game was beginning to feel bloated. I appreciate the sentiment, as what's there is great; the problem lies in the fact that some of these concepts were never implemented to their full capacity. A quick tour around the hidden developer rooms in Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal show that there are many more cool ideas that never came to fruition.
So, where does that leave Deadlocked? Still searching, to some extent, but in other ways, it also shows measured restraint on the part of the Insomniac crew, and that eventually works in the game's advantage. Essentially, the design philosophy of Deadlocked seems to be focused around causing as much destruction as possible. That's always been a hallmark of the series, really, but it always seemed to find equal ground with the platforming elements, which are sorely missing here. That's not to say that they are completely absent, as there are a few decent platforming segments throughout the game, but the bulk of it centers around surviving enemy encounters in various ways.
It may seem like I'm being harsh, and while the paring down of platforming elements is a concern, it has also allowed Insomniac to streamline the interface and the gameplay. In other words, while the more traditional elements of the genre have been dulled, the remaining areas of the game have been honed to a razor-sharp edge. The various weapons found in past games have been distilled into ten core weapons from the basic Magma Cannon and Dual Vipers to the RYNO-incarnate supergun, The Harbinger (which is a very impressive-looking weapon, at that!). While a couple still aren't incredibly useful most of the time, it does trim enough of the fat to make a noticeable difference. If a favorite weapon of yours was scrapped this time around, there's no need to fear, because Deadlocked features Omega mods, which can be attached to the core weapons. Their properties fill in for part of Ratchet's absent arsenal by allowing you to turn any piece into a freeze ray or a morph gun, among other possibilities. Layered on top of this are Alpha mods which facilitate the more mechanical side of upgrades: more ammo, greater blast radius, faster firing rate, etc. While only one Omega mod can be applied to a weapon at a time (with some restrictions) and must be purchased, Alpha mods are received every time a weapon levels up. Once you have them, you can mix and match them in any combination for up to ten slots on each gun. For instance, if you feel a particular weapon needs a greater ammo capacity, you can de-equip Alpha mods from other guns and load the one in question with as many ammo mods it can carry. So, while the number of actual weapons has decreased, the number of possible customizations has increased. Likewise, the few gadgets that remain have been streamlined into the gameplay as context-sensitive events. If you see a SwingShot orb, for example, jumping towards it and pressing the fire button will automatically launch the SwingShot gadget. There is no longer any need to go through menus or take up any quick-select spots with a tool you'll rarely use. This sort of balance is indicative of the refinement Insomniac has put into Deadlocked and the series is better for it.
Another difference from previous titles is the absence of Clank as a playable character. He still plays a significant role in the story (along with technological genius and all-around dork Al), though. After successfully completing the campaign to take down Dr. Nefarious in Up Your Arsenal, Ratchet and crew are intercepted by Gleeman Vox, the owner of the popular DreadZone franchise, a popular gladiator-style game show in which the title character is forced to participate. Ratchet, Clank, and Al are all fitted with Deadlock collars which prevent them from leaving the compound. They soon learn that various heroes throughout the galaxy have been abducted and "persuaded" to kill each other in the DreadZone arena for money and fame. At the time of Ratchet's arrival, Ace Hardlight is the man to beat, another ex-hero who's become greedy and bitter as the leader of the Exterminators, the elite squad of contestants that Ratchet is destined to conquer in order to make his way to freedom. Ratchet is accompanied in the field by two AI combat drones that can also be upgraded and are generally good at handling things on their own. To make life easier for the player, they can also be commanded to do some of the more menial tasks such as creating slide rails or cranking bolts. This leaves Clank out of the action, instead placing him in the role of informational support. While DreadZone matches are in progress, Clank goes about trying to figure out a way to remove the Deadlock collars so that the heroes can escape to safety. Meanwhile, Gleeman Vox schemes and guffaws in the typically maniacal fashion of a Disney villain – attempting his hardest to turn Ace Hardlight into the premiere cash cow of the DreadZone empire, while kids would rather buy action figures cast in the mold of the up-and-coming Ratchet.
Sparing these changes to the formula, the rest of the game remains true to the series' roots. The graphics are still smooth and gorgeous and I'm almost positive that the explosions and particle/weather effects are even better than before. Most of the time, the game runs at a consistent speed, but at some points the fighting gets so nail-bitingly hectic that you can't blame the PS2 for chugging. One arena challenge in particular has waves and waves of small enemies (along with a few big ones) coming at Ratchet for a sold two-and-a-half minutes. This constant barrage, plus weapons effects, particle effects, precious bolts flying towards the screen from all directions, enemy attack animations, and the general rendering of characters and the environment add up to an impressively chaotic load on the poor system's CPU. It really only gets this bad in rare situations, though. The bulk of the game, as mentioned before, runs smooth as butter.
The audio is fairly well done, with the requisite explosions and gunshots receiving appropriately meaty sound clips to go with them. The music easily fades into the background by default, but by tweaking the audio settings some, the soundtrack becomes a good pulse-pounding compliment to the action on screen. The only poor spot is the repetitive voice-acting. Throughout each match, the commentators will occasionally antagonize Ratchet's efforts. The typically annoying sports announcer Dallas and his psychotic co-host Juanita will banter back and forth and sling barbs at the contestants, but the sound bites eventually start repeating and the intentional obnoxiousness of their comments becomes downright grating. Likewise, Ratchet's helper bots will throw in a few words here and there, but there aren't nearly enough things for them to say without quickly becoming repetitive.
Thankfully, you don't have to endure the sound bites in multiplayer mode, although you might have to deal with the juvenile jabs of other online players via the USB headset. Online multiplayer was a big addition to Up Your Arsenal and was no doubt one of the aspects of the series that Insomniac aimed to emphasize in Deadlocked. The lack of platforming elements in the single-player game is no doubt due in part to the structure of the levels, which are the same ones that you'll find in multiplayer. Each of the 10+ maps are taken directly from the main game and the fast-paced nature of online deathmatch gaming doesn't exactly support nimble platforming antics. Nonetheless, the maps are respectably structured for this sort of play and the lobby system is one of the best I've seen on the PlayStation 2 yet. While most games I've experienced either neglect a virtual keyboard in favor of voice chat, or forgo a true lobby altogether, it's pleasant to see that Insomniac has made the effort to include both in an easy and accessible fashion. The actual online play is relatively lag free and reliable, though there doesn't seem to be any easy way to access an on-the-fly stat screen. There really are few complaints here as both first-person view and lock-strafe mode control well enough that I never felt I was missing my mark. Not to mention, the vehicles are easy and fun to drive, taking a cue from HALO in the sense that the right analog stick both aims and controls the direction in which you're moving. Though single-player and multi-player elements both play out in a similar fashion, there are some differences. Every time a player spawns in the online mode, they are supplied with a three initial weapons at random. Others can be picked up in the field or from fallen opponents. Also, instead of applying Omega mods to weapons, they can be found in various spots throughout the map and are applied immediately.
Ultimately, multiplayer is very solid, despite the usual pitfalls of online gaming (annoying players, rude comments, and over-reliance on only one or two weapons), though these aren't things that can be attributed to bad game design, they're simply inherent to human behavior. While the online aspect of Deadlocked can be very engaging, Insomniac has included the requisite cabal of extra features and things to unlock. There are the five difficulties, challenge mode, character skins, weapon/robot upgrades, cheats, skill points, and media to discover throughout the game. Guns can even eventually be upgraded to a mind-boggling Level 99.
Despite claims of the main game being short (and it is, somewhat), there's still a lot of meat to Deadlock. Some things have been cut down or removed completely – Giant Clank battles, spherical worlds, gem collecting, etc., but these elements, while novel in their own right, were never able to reach their true potential. Unless Insomniac could've done them justice, it's probably a good thing that they are no longer a part of the series. In the process, though, perhaps they shaved off just a bit too much. However, Deadlocked is a very good game and should be satisfying for fans of the series as well as people looking to satiate their need for online deathmatch action. Insomniac still needs to find the perfect balance for Ratchet, but there are sure signs that they're getting there. As one of the premiere talented developers of the generation, I eagerly await to see what they can do with future Ratchet titles and their intriguing PS3 project, I-8.