Long-running game franchises often end up walking a thin line. At a certain point developers face a dilemma: deliver too many similar sequels and they run the risk of players losing interest; stray too far from the series’ roots and fans are quick to jump on the flame-wagon, plastering message boards with grammatically-unsound tirades on how their favourite series has been defiled.
For lovable platforming duo Ratchet and Clank’s 10th anniversary, developer Insomniac has dared tempt the world’s trolls, contaminating/invigorating (depending on your point of view) the series’ classic shooty platform action with a fresh injection of tower defence.
Despite its risky premise, as a budget-priced title, Q-Force (released under the name Full Frontal Assault in the US) is actually a bit of a free pass for Insomniac. Essentially a “half-game”, if it flops, it can be conveniently swept under the rug in time for the next “proper” title in the series. However, if it sells well, the lure of a potentially lucrative spinoff series awaits. The proof, of course, is in the playing, and although there are glints of goodness in this unusual mash-up of styles, Q-Force is probably more rough than diamond.
The singleplayer experience hews quite close to Ratchet and Clank’s platforming roots. As either Ratchet, Clank, or the buffoonish Captain Qwark, players will work their way through five levels that task them with taking out the enemy base of operations while defending their own. The game’s dialogue is humorous as usual, and the series’ typically outlandish arsenal – including favourites like the dance-inducing Groovitron – is available for both personal use and HQ defence. Players gain access to weapons by securing nodes around the map, and earn currency to upgrade their base by smashing crates and enemies and collecting the bolts that burst out of them.
The hybrid nature of the game, however, means both the platforming and the tower defence aspects are somewhat compromised. Players’ dexterity will not be tested too rigorously, and there are only a few types of enemies to face. Levels are small, and their method of completion is repetitive: take out the generators that are powering the shield that protects the enemy HQ, blow up said HQ, then defend your own base from a final, extended enemy assault. Likewise the tower defence part of the game is fairly light. A halfway-decently set-up HQ is easy to defend as long as the player pays attention and ensures he or she is present when large waves of enemies come knocking.
Head-to-head multiplayer appears to be what the game was really designed for, and has the potential to be quite addictive. Games are divided into three repeating phases. First, the recon phase sees players charging out into the map to secure nodes, which provide weapons and an ongoing source of bolts. Second is the squad phase, which allows time to buy troops and defences that will help out on attack or defence, respectively. The third phase is the assault phase, and at this point players can choose to play conservatively and hang back in their own HQ, or go all-out and try to storm their opponent’s. The first player to take out all six generators within their opponent’s base wins.
These three distinct phases seem to have been created to provide matches with a natural ebb and flow. In theory, players that fall behind in one phase may look to regroup and make up ground in another. In practice, however, most matches tend to be won or lost in the first recon phase, with more skilled players trampling over lesser adversaries with ease. The equation is simple: holding nodes provides bolts, and the player that accumulates the most bolts over time will inevitably come out on top. It’s very difficult to make a comeback when an opponent is outspending you on attack and defence, so the game comes to hinge on a series of rote one-on-one deathmatch-style fights over precious currency sources.
What grates the most is that in those rare match-ups where the server actually manages to link up a pair of equally skilled opponents, games can evolve into gripping tooth-and-nail struggles where choosing the right troops for your assault, the right turrets to build, and being in the right place at the right time becomes crucial, enjoyable, even exhilarating. When it works, the back and forth nature of the game as it was presumably intended shines, and we see the great little multiplayer game that Q-Force could have been. That the game so often produces one-sided blowouts speaks volumes about how this attempt to merge two divergent styles of game has just failed to find a good balance.