Long before the days when playing a game by Insomniac Studios would mean soaring through New York City as a friendly neighborhood webslinger, you could count on their quirky science-fiction platformer series of Ratchet & Clank games to keep your 2002 tube blaring all night, resulting in a less-than-friendly neighborhood the following morning.
After two successful games starring the titular Lombax and robot, Insomniac decided to culminate the original PlayStation 2 trilogy with 2004’s Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal. After you’re done giggling over the title’s innuendo, you will find a game that remains feeling remarkably fresh 15 years later. Thanks to its writing and gameplay, it is the strongest Ratchet & Clank game on the PS2 — and possibly in the entire series.
Three adventures in, and Insomniac has an effortless control over the tone of this game. Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal goes from hilarious to heartfelt to straight-up endearing. Most of that is due to the laser-focused writing that portrays the characters in a tonally congruent manner. Everyone’s dialogue fills them with personalities that feed organically off each other, even if its clearly taking on a cartoony vibe.
Whether the characters are returning favorites or new faces, they are inherently likable from the start, even if their actions in the story are not the most heroic. I will always get a get a chuckle out of Captain Qwark’s cowardly egotism, but the snarky butler Lawrence had me in stitches just as many times.
In fact, I was impressed by how the humor played without coming off as forced. There is never any doubt about when the developers are incorporating a joke, such as the pitch-perfect Britney Spears music video parody. But the love and effort is so clear in the execution that they earn every laugh.
Even when the jokes are more subtle, like nervous banter between soldiers over missing a dentist appointment, it hits just the right level of goofy. It creates a mood that never takes itself too seriously without devolving into childish dribble.
The tight writing is pulled together to form another planet-hopping adventure. The robotic scientist Dr. Nefarious is planning to transform all organic life, or “squishies” as he callously calls them, into robots. Ratchet, Clank and an ensemble of franchise favorites band together to stop the plan from materializing.
The story doesn’t offer much in terms of twists or surprises. But it is rooted in just enough emotional depth and building intensity to keep you invested. I was also a fan of how Insomniac frames the story within a team context. This serves to build the connections between characters even further. It helped make my actions feel as though they were part of a bigger purpose.
The act of fighting against Dr. Nefarious and his minions takes on the form of classic Ratchet & Clank gameplay. That means making use of zany, larger-than-life weaponry to blast, zap, and whip your way through lush alien worlds and dangerous alien foes.
The most notable change is how the third-person shooter mechanics have been adapted to be more in line with what we are used to today. Firing is now mapped to a shoulder button. You have more control over aiming your guns. And the default sideways movement is now strafing. It feels great as it structures the gameplay to favor the insane action that the series has always excelled at. And it makes the prior Ratchet & Clank games play quite awkwardly by comparison.
Add to this some of the most bombastic and over-the-top weapons yet and the end result is a frenetic, adrenaline-pumping experience that delighted me with how slick it still feels after all these years.
To keep the eight-to-ten hour adventure feeling fresh, the developers strove to add variety through different gameplay modes and optional side quests. Unfortunately, I found these additional gameplay variants to be much more of a mixed bag.
On the one hand, I adored the 2D platforming Qwark levels, which change the pace of the gameplay and give some hilarious backstory to Qwark and Dr. Nefarious’s history.
On the other hand, the exhausting sewer level features lazy design and a frustrating objective. This is only somewhat salvaged by the fact that it is a non-compulsory side quest.
Sitting in the middle are the sometimes-optional, sometimes-not battle missions. The vehicular-based missions are exhilarating and often breathtaking. But fighting through wave after wave of enemies on foot had me fatigued, despite the creative arsenal I had at my disposal.
Finally, this entrance marks the first appearance of multiplayer in a Ratchet & Clank game. The multiplayer lacks the modes and communication options of more modern iterations. But there is still fun to be had unloading all of that zany Ratchet & Clank weaponry onto your friends. The variety of maps and skins keeps the experience fresh even after several rounds.
Luckily, I never grew tired of Up Your Arsenal’s consistently eye-catching world design. The different planets exhibit their own identity through striking color palettes, inventive architecture, and creative hooks.
The Obani moons feel as though they could be prototype levels for Super Mario Galaxy. They are some of the most mind-bending locations in the entire Ratchet & Clank series. All of this is wrapped up in an art style that has aged as well as the writing and gameplay.
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal is a gift to fans of the series. And, it’s a very attractive invitation to those who are looking to give it a go. It has some of the tightest writing of any game on the PS2. And it still feels like a blast to play thanks to its reliable mix of crazy weapons, satisfying platforming and mostly enjoyable side content.
The series continue after Up Your Arsenal. Yet, this third entry still feels like a high point. It will almost certainly be just as fun to revisit 15 years from now.