Title: Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
Developer: Insomniac Games | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 11th June 2021
First appearing on PS2 almost 20 years ago, Ratchet & Clank are easily one of the most recognisable duos on PlayStation and have recently made their fully featured return in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart for PS5. At a time when most titles are still supporting both new and old console generations, this is a release that is only available on Sony's latest machine and that lack of compromise really does show. In fact, as much as Astro's Playroom was a great demonstration of the potential within the DualSense controller, Rift Apart is the perfect showcase for the next-generation system as a whole.
While making similar use of the DualSense through haptic feedback and alternate weapon firing modes accessed via the adaptive triggers, Rift Apart is also a visual treat with some stunning particle effects and impressive ray-traced lighting presented with near flawless rendering that will inevitably evoke clichéd comparisons with Pixar movies. It sounds great too, thanks to sumptuous 3D audio that is particularly immersive through supported headphones, but it is the SSD and high speed I/O throughput that quite literally change the game, allowing Rift Apart to jump almost instantaneously from one whole planet to another and create a gameplay mechanic that forms the backbone of the story.
Enhanced with rift-flaunting new moves...
This interdimensional adventure actually doesn't follow on from the previous Ratchet & Clank on PS4, itself a reimagining of the 2002 original, and is more closely related to the earlier "Future" trilogy in which the all-important Dimensionator device was first introduced. A powerful tool that is ultimately responsible for introducing us to the alter-ego counterparts of several well-known characters, including the charismatic and fully playable Rivet, the Dimensionator soon falls into the the hands of long-time series antagonist Dr. Nefarious and becomes a key component in his quest to finally conquer a world, whichever dimension it may be in.
This doesn't mean that players need to be overly familiar with the series to enjoy this instalment though, as the team at Insomniac have been sure to make Rift Apart a standalone entry that introduces newcomers to the Ratchet universe right from the start. Loyal fans won't be disappointed either, with plenty of references to the past, some reimagined locations and of course, the trademark humour that the games are perhaps best known for.
- BAA-HAHA // R&C: RIFT APART -
In similar fashion, the gameplay keeps the strengths of the series too, incorporating various elements throughout a myriad of beautiful locations including dragon riding, rail grinding and new dimensional puzzles for Clank, but it is in the snappy third-person shooting and crate-smashing action that you'll spend most of your time. Enhanced with rift-flaunting new moves, dominating the battlefield as Ratchet or Rivet is a lot of fun and the typically outrageous arsenal of weapons includes old favourites like the Glove of Doom and brand new future-classics like the Topiary Sprinkler.
Enemy soldiers turned into a flowering hedgerow, huge dinosaurs frozen in a block of ice; it's all here...
The whole thing actually inspires imagination and, given the impressive visual fidelity on show, that means there could hardly be a better time for the series to be furnished with its first photo mode. The prospect of pointing a virtual camera at those pristine reflections on Clank's metallic body and Ratchet's glossy eyes is an enticing one, but it is made all the more so because this is a photo mode that comes with all of the experience of Insomniac Games, creators of the much revered virtual photography gems that are Marvel's Spider-Man and Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales. So, is this a new hero amongst photo modes, let's find out.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Three-point studio lighting
Character posing & positioning options
Controls & Implementation:
Given the popularity of those Spider-Man games within the virtual photography space, it is a surprise even to me that they are titles that I have yet to cover in any detail on this blog. That at least does mean that the Burbank-based studio's latest effort can get my full attention, and much less surprising is that almost all of their best photo mode tools make a return here, along with a few welcome new additions.
Further proof that photo modes need not be restricted to orbit only...
Accessed through the Options menu, or by assigning a custom D-pad button binding in the Controls & Shortcuts settings, the photo mode is presented with a familiar tabbed UI that separates its features into 4 individual modes — Camera, Character, Lighting & Stickers — to make it easy to work with just the features you want. Opting for non-numerical sliders rather than technical terminologies, the tools may not leverage real-world photography parameters in a literal sense, but do focus on producing convincing results that both new and experienced users will enjoy and be able to make good use of.
Much like in Spider-Man, the camera is handled with more than one movement option. A default free-cam mode allows lateral truck & dolly on the LS, vertical craning with L2 / R2, and centre-axis pan & tilt control with the RS for complete freedom of look-direction within a reasonably generous bounding sphere, while an alternate orbit mode rotates around the playable character for more convenient portrait angles. Selfie-mode is omitted this time around but, given the apparent absence of smartphones in Ratchet's various dimensions, that is probably the right thing to do.
- PHOTO MODE UI // R&C: RIFT APART -
It is pleasing to see consideration being given to the usefulness of different types of camera movement though, and further proof that photo modes need not be restricted to orbit only, but the camera implementation is not without its faults. Mostly, this is found in a lack of precision in certain adjustments; for example, vertical craning comes on far too quickly and makes the fine adjustment of close-up shots particularly frustrating, while the camera also has a reluctance to drop down to ground level at times and requires an amount of wriggling to get into position for low-angled shots.
Similar issues are found in the UI-based settings where roll is applied in degrees that are just a little bit too large, and manual focus adjustment is handled in individual steps that are approximately 1 in-game metre in length. A setup that may be suited well enough to the presentation of cut scenes and gameplay, but becomes a noticeable shortcoming at narrower fields of view or when trying to create a shallow depth of field around nearby subject within a photo mode. These are things that can be worked around though, and sliding the camera back and forth on the more precise truck & dolly axes is a good way to add some much-needed accuracy.
- BOKEH // R&C: RIFT APART -
On the matter of depth of field, Insomniac have chosen to stick with a manual setup rather than a fully simulated aperture with f-stop values and resulting native field depth. Instead, the "Aperture" slider controls how much defocus is applied to everything beyond the set Focus Distance, and a second pair of settings repeat the trick for the foreground. It is open to user error and does mean that constant tweaking can be needed to create an authentic DoF effect as you refine a composition, but it is certainly hard to argue with the results as a beautifully rendered defocus adds subtle bokeh to light sources and really helps subjects to stand out, just be aware of a slightly unnatural hard edge that can be visible at the near-focus boundary.
Elsewhere in the Camera mode, options like sharpening, vignette and film grain are subtle enough to let you enhance your images or to add a little authenticity with imperfections, yet still allow things to be slightly exaggerated at the top end of the range. With separate control over their respective size and intensity, is it the vignette and film grain options that offer the most customisation, but there are certain locations like Zurkie's Gastropub for example, where they don't appear to function at all. Whether this is an unintended issue that will be fixed in due course or something more deeply linked to the differing environments is unclear, but for now, don't be confused if you can't always see a particular effect being applied.
Chromatic aberration can be disabled in the game settings...
One definite omission in this area though, is chromatic aberration; given that it is something that is used in the game's presentation where a retro-style lens effect is applied around the edges of the frame, it is unfortunate not to see any option to dial it back from within the photo mode. If like me, you are not overly fond of the softness and colour fringing or would rather have greater clarity across the image, aberration can at least be disabled in the game settings to remove it from photo mode captures as well.
Before getting onto what is probably the most important aspect of this photo mode and something that probably warrants a whole review of its own — the lighting — it is worth taking a look at some of the other new features that have appeared, the most prominent of which is a Character Mode dedicated to posing for the virtual camera. Applicable to Ratchet and Rivet, but sadly not Clank or Kit during their short sections, up to 10 poses and 15 facial expressions offer a little bit of their personality available on-demand and it has to be said that they are well suited to the overall style of the game. It is also possible to equip any of the currently available weapons for a smaller selection of action-based poses, and rotate the subject on-the-spot through 360° to fine tune their position a little bit.
- QUITE A RIDE // R&C: RIFT APART -
Something that is missed here is undoubtedly control over look direction, a feature that would be great to really engage those huge ray-traced eyes with the scene, and consequently, the poses will inevitably start to show their prefabricated nature as time goes on. That is not to say that character positions are limited though, far from it, look beyond the preset postures and some finely detailed game animations will open up many more interesting and expressive body positions as you play, there is even a particularly handy option to trigger slow-motion gameplay that can be perfect for stopping the action at exactly the right moment for a shot.
Speaking of motion, a subtle yet significant addition has also been made to enable the capture of moving images. Sitting rather unassumingly on the very first UI menu tab, the "Visual Effects" option enables ongoing animation of the environmental effects, like pulsating dimension rifts, falling rain and flickering signs, while keeping the rest of the characters frozen in time. It is not quite on the level of Sucker Punch's implementation in Ghost of Tsushima, and it is worth remembering that some elements of the action, particularly weapon effects, will play out and vanish once the animation is activated, but this is a very neat addition that is suited to more scenic captures.
- VISUAL EFFECTS // R&C: RIFT APART -
The Rift Apart photo mode has a fair amount of technical prowess then, but it also doesn't neglect the post-capture creativity side of things. An interesting selection of filters includes a range of colours and stylised effects, two of which are even animated to go with the Visual Effects option, while the 37 frames are mostly made up of templated image overlays, and almost 400 stickers across 5 different categories can be placed on 10 separate layers either above or below any selected frame. With character stickers, comic book objects, facial features and apparel all able to be scaled, rotated and placed anywhere on-screen, the available options have broad scope for some amusing and creative takes on combining these digital assets with the underlying capture.
On to the lighting then... A crucial element in any form of photography, and already a showpiece feature of the latest generation of video games, the use of light is becoming ever more important in photo modes and Insomniac have ensured that their exemplar lighting options are all present and correct in Rift Apart.
A simple exposure slider, actually still found in the Camera Mode, can be used in addition to the game's overall brightness setting to capably over or underexpose any scene and take advantage of the extraordinary in-game lighting effects, but it is the dedicated Lighting Mode tab that ensures that it is essentially always possible to find the light you need.
- CUSTOM LIGHTING // R&C: RIFT APART -
Brought over directly from Miles Morales, three separate studio lights can be tuned in colour, brightness and distance of shine, and configured as either omnidirectional sphere or focused spot lamps with the latter also gaining control over the angle and harshness of its cone of emission. Fully ray-traced, with or without shadow casting, each light can be positioned anywhere within the camera bounding sphere, including directly below or elevated above the character, and is visualised with a rig that would not look out of place in 3D rendering software.
Simply, it is a complete mobile studio setup capable of professionally lighting a subject or greatly enhancing the drama of a scene, and the extent of its potential is difficult to fully convey in this short section. Suffice to say that it is transformative but, just in case 3-point studio lighting wasn't quite enough, natural light options also give control over the brightness and position of the "sun", while ambient light from the surroundings can be dimmed or exaggerated to create excess bloom.
Pull back for a clearer view of studio lights without affecting the shot...
The efficacy of the natural light settings does admittedly vary with the differing light sources across the mix of outdoor, underground and interplanetary locations, but this is a leading example of how photo modes can put powerful lighting control in the hands of the user without overly complicated tools.
There is even a small usability upgrade in the form of an additional lighting mode camera view that can be moved separately to the main compositional camera. Allowing you to pull back for a clearer view of where the studio lights are placed without affecting the shot, this is a feature clearly born from a team that uses the tools they create in a practical sense and understands the creative workflow. My only complaint is that the lighting camera carries over photo mode settings like focus distance and roll when it would be better to disregard these, and that it should probably be simplified as the default view when placing lights.
It may seem that the greatest strength of the Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart photo mode is in its technical ability then, and the unrestricting tools are undoubtedly capable of producing all kinds of different work, but even the very best camera tools need some interesting subject matter and fortunately, this game has that by the bucket-load.