Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart – PlayStation 5’s summer blockbuster

It’s been six months since the PlayStation 5 launched, and they still fly out of stock minutes after appearing in stores. But anyone still waiting to pick one up can be comforted by the knowledge that as yet, there haven’t been many games to show off what it can do. The only one that has felt strikingly next-generation is the superb horror-sci-fi-shooter Returnal, which is like Groundhog Day on an alien planet where everything is trying to kill you.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, out 11 June, is also science-fiction, but unlike Returnal, it is more cuddly and approachable. Part of a long-running series about a furry big-eared alien and his unflappable robot companion having adventures in space with a wacky arsenal of weapons, it’s made by Insomniac Games in California, the developer behind PS5 launch game Spider-Man: Miles Morales. And like Miles Morales, it is a bit of a technical showcase.

It looks spectacular, with teeming futuristic cities and impressive space-scapes as the backdrop to the action. It’s a cartoonish caper, featuring cute aliens, an evil robot super-villain and a gun that temporarily turns space-pirate enemies into topiary. It relies on snappy shooting, running and jumping, and extravagant action-movie moments involving exploding spaceships, gigantic monsters and grinding along city-spanning rails and cables at intense speeds.

Ratchet & Clank has been going since 2002, beginning on the PlayStation 3, but Rift Apart’s director Mike Daly had never played it before he joined Insomniac in 2012. “But that meant I got to go back and play them all and I fell in love with them, it was great,” he says. “For me Ratchet & Clank is all about delight – the bright colours, the strong feedback from shooting and traversal, the new discoveries. Everything is just very positive and friendly, very charming. And that’s really what I expect players to get out of it.”

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Rift Apart opens as a celebration of Ratchet & Clank’s heroic deeds is invaded by minions, and a fight breaks out on floating blimps above a city full of cheering aliens. When Ratchet starts zipping through dimensional rifts, it becomes clear that we are about to enter a very promising era for speedy, sumptuous action games. This is the kind of thing that wasn’t possible on a PlayStation 4, whose loading times were often enough for you to make a cup of tea between levels: it’s bright and colourful, but also hyper-realistic in its lighting and visual effects.

It was the PlayStation 5’s controller and its haptic feedback (fancy vibration, basically) that the development team had the most fun with, says Daly. “Early on in development a lot of people on the team thought they didn’t like controller vibration, but now everyone’s totally sold on it … We started to experiment with how you can construct different waveforms for haptic feedback to give certain sensations, and honed in on how that can complement the audio that you’re hearing to make it really convincing. The more we explored and the better we got at creating haptic responses, the more I was excited by how expanded the game feels. At one point I played with it turned off and felt like, this is boring now. It’s like playing with the game on mute.”

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart screenshot on PlayStation 5.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart screenshot on PlayStation 5. Photograph: Sony/Insomniac

Like the more recent iterations of Tomb Raider and God of War, Rift Apart is taking an older series of games that relied mostly on action and attempting to elevate the storytelling around it. Ratchet – the last remaining example of his species, the Lombax, in his own world – runs into another of his kind, Rivet, from another dimension, and the plot follows both of these expressively animated characters, whose contrasts and similarities fuel the story as they skip between planets and dimensions. “Duality is a driving force,” says Daly. “Helping Rivet figure out how she can learn to trust and work in a team is an essential theme of the game.”

Thanks to the delayed impact of the pandemic on development, 2021 has been a slow year for video games. Ratchet & Clank is a much-needed summer family blockbuster, one that screams fun (and money – cutting-edge video-game development has become inordinately costly, and Rift Apart has evidently been spared no expense). This series has been on hiatus for some time, but it’s lost none of its heart or sense of humour.


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