The spy story has been and is one of the most popular genres for longer than most of us are able to remember. It has been been in the subject of suspense in films like Three Days of The Condor and The Man Who Knew Too Much, of deep introspection in films like The Manchurian Candidate, of intense action such in the James Bond films, and also the target of limitless parodies such as the Austin Powers films or the recently cinematic adventures of Maxwell Smart now showing on movie screens all across the country. Hollywood isn’t the only one who has a handle on the full martini shaker that is the spy genre, however, as there have been many videos games that take players into the dark and shadowy word of espionage that has now become occupied with such figures as Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid, Gabariel Logan from the Syphon Filter series, and mostly recently Jason Bourne of The Bourne Ultimatum. This week, however, a diminutive tuxedoed hero joins the ranks of the legendary covert operatives in High Impact Games’ Special Agent Clank for the PSP.
Ratchet has been arrested for a crime he was seen to commit but doesn’t recall, and since he can’t clear his name from maximum security, Clank decides to take matters into his own servo-powered grasping mechanisms. Donning, or perhaps painting, a tuxedo filled with plenty of pockets for spy gadgetry, Clank goes out to engage in the spy game all on his own…well, for the most part. You see, the game just isn’t about Clank, although he does play a larger role in Secret Agent Clank then in his other appearances (giant robot transformations not withstanding) because numerous other characters make cameos throughout the game. There is Ratchet, of course, locked away in his prison cell. There is Captain Qwark, clad in a green suit filled with an immense ego, moving around the galaxy taking credit for what you do. Many other minor characters from the other Ratchet and Clank games, such as Silm Cognito, make an appearance here but if you’re anything like me you probably won’t have a clue as to who they are.
Secret Agent Clank also represents what is an attempt at a new gameplay shift for the Ratchet and Clank series. I say attempt because it seems that High Impact Games, much like the traveler who can’t decide what to take along, couldn’t bear to leave the old style of Ratchet and Clank gameplay behind, albeit in a more reduced role than before. The missions that you play through in Secret Agent Clank are broken up into four types: Ratchet’s prison battle missions that are like the gladiatorial style combat from the earlier Ratchet and Clank games, where you have to go a certain number of rounds in order to win bolts and Titanium Screws used to unlock secret weapons and the like.
Clank’s missions represent much of the new content of this game and are really something fun and unique, at least for a time. Clank can be outfitted with a number of spy style gadgets to help him get out of tricky situations such as a pen that can be used to cover the lenses of laser beam emitters and camera equipped security drones. It isn’t always necessary to put these gadgets to use, as you can often run around without getting detected if you’re careful, but using these devices to use has a definite payback. For every camera you black out, for every stealthy knock out you perform, you receive a “Stealth Bonus” that will upgrade Clank’s health as the game goes along.
The missions Clank has to do often dovetail neatly into the Qwark missions which involve him making up lies to his biographer about how he took down the baddy that Clank eliminated himself. It’s funny in that it shows how big a phony Qwark is, but it can lose its humor fast because Qwark’s need to over dramatize his fights can lead to some really tough bosses. It wouldn’t be so bad if you had the option to avoid them, but sadly, you cannot. Appreciate them for the humor content they sometimes afford you. By and large, though, the missions are only a small part of the game as you’ll spend much of your Secret Agent Clank experience playing mini-games of various kinds. These run the gambit from rhythm games where you have a to hit a series of buttons in a certain order to safely move Clank from one side of a laser filled room to the other, snowboarding down a snowy mountain side while moving pursuers into rocks, trees, and high explosive munitions, or performing one the of the most dangerous tangos ever seen anywhere. Clank has singlehandedly shown up Al Pacino.
The graphics really have some impressive areas to them, such as the massive neon signs you have to cut through to turn into bridges, or the deadly areas Clank must navigate through using the triangle, circle, square, and X keys. By and large, though, the game is not a stunning graphical experience but it’s solid, dependable, and sometimes very flashly; such is the case in a boss battle with <IDENTITY CLASSIFIED> who has an attack that consists of throwing large amounts of playing cards at you. If you hid behind a pillar to protect yourself, the cards will embed themselves in random spots all over the pillar before disappearing. Quite neat.
The controls were a source for worry at the start, but Secret Agent’s Clank’s developer made it much easier then it could have been. The analog stick on the PSP is used for movement, the triangle, square, circle, and X buttons are used for interaction and for inventory management, and the shoulder buttons swivel the camera right and left. The manual camera is often the flaw in the ointment of the controls: it’s not easy to sneak up on someone when you have to worry about turning the game around while tracking a moving target. Still, with a bit of luck and a lot of care, you can get through the obstacles without too much difficulty.
The game shows a lot of creativity, but there seems to be a feeling that they could have gone farther with it. The spy elements are the best parts of the game for me, as I’m a big fan of Clank and I’m glad to see he got his own chance at the limelight, but he doesn’t seem to have been accorded the show time he could have and, more to the point, should have gotten. The multi-round melee battles you fight with Ratchet in jail and the missions with Qwark, while often pretty funny, leave the game feeling disjointed. It’s as if they wanted to give time to all the characters and the result is a game that seems to be going off in several different directions at once.
That’s not to say it’s a bad game, though, because there is a lot that Ratchet and Clank fans will find fun here. Most of the cast from the first game, David Kaye as Clank and Jim Ward as Captain Qwark, return to reprise their roles with Ratchet being played by James Arnold Taylor, who has been the voice of the wrench-wielding Lombax since after the first series of the game. These actors, and the rest of the NPC voice talent, do their roles well, but Clank is often given the best lines (fitting since his picture is on the box). The music is well done, but it rarely stands out except in certain scenes, such as Clank’s death-defying ballroom dance sequence.
Secret Agent Clank is a good purchase for those who are already fans of the series or those who can appreciate the game for what is. For those who are new to the series, though, this is probably not the best introduction because not only are they missing out on a lot of the backstory of the individual characters, but Secret Agent Clank simply doesn’t stack up as high as the other games in the series.