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Ratchet & Clank bid PS3 farewell with Into the Nexus, a game with more gravity

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The next Ratchet & Clank game will be — most likely, Insomniac Games says — the final entry in the series on the PlayStation 3. After five games, two of them spin-offs from the Future series, Insomniac is capping off Ratchet's current story with Into the Nexus, an epilogue to the arc last visited in 2009's A Crack in Time.

Brian Allgeier, creative director at Insomniac Games, calls Into the Nexus a return to classic Ratchet & Clank gameplay mechanics, a mix of single-player third-person shooting, puzzle solving and platforming. It's also a more story-driven adventure, Allgeier says, that focuses on Ratchet's personal arc as he comes to terms with the decisions he's made in past games.

"Certainly, Ratchet and Clank have matured over the years, and our storytelling has [integrated] more sophisticated themes," Allgeier said. "We've focused more on their relationship, more sophisticated themes of loss, of feeling responsible for your actions."

While Into the Nexus tells a more mature story, the game retains the "zany and fun humor the franchise is known for," Allgeier says, balancing that with more serious moments.

"I think that's something that people really liked in A Crack in Time," he said, "how we really delved into Ratchet making tough decisions and his relationship with [fellow lombax Alister] Azimuth."

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Ratchet's chief nemesis in Into the Nexus is a character named Vendra Prog — a "space witch" who breaks free from a prison transport ship while en route to the Vartax Detention Facility — and her twin brother Neftin. She's one of the more powerful adversaries Ratchet and Clank have faced throughout the series, Allgeier said, and a dark mirror for Ratchet himself.

"She shares a similar quest to the one he once had, which was to reconnect with his race, the lombaxes," he explained. "Vendra wants to reconnect with her own kind, but she's willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants, whereas Ratchet had to make tough choices and sacrifices back in A Crack in Time."

After the Progs escape from their prison transport, upon which Ratchet and Clank serve as crew members, and personally attack the protagonists, the duo go on an adventure of redemption and revenge. Early on, that leads them to the Zarkov Sector, where they face Vendra, Neftin and an army of henchmen contracted through Thugs-4-Less, the mercenary company introduced in Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando.

Gameplay in Into the Nexus follows many of the traditions introduced early on in the franchise. Ratchet and Clank employ an array of powerful and strange weapons in their battle against Vendra and Neftin, exploring alien worlds as they gun down foes. This time, however, much of the gameplay mechanics revolve around gravity-based gadgets and gear. Ratchet can leap through zero-gravity space with the aid of magnetic boots and Clank-specific platforming sections let the player manipulate the pull of gravity in 2D puzzle-filled levels.

The selection of weapons that Ratchet can cycle through may be more bizarre than ever. These include the Nightmare Box, a turret-like weapon that Ratchet can toss onto the battlefield, spewing forth some random robotic terror. These frighteners include robotic clowns, skulls and grim reapers that pop out and draw the fire of enemies.

Far more festive is the Winterizer, a weapon that spreads deadly holiday cheer. The gun fires a swirling beam reminiscent of candy cane stripes which freezes enemies, transforming them into immobile snowmen. (Allgeier made sure to note that each enemy morphs into a snowman unique to its type. The snowman of a hulking mini-boss who's been Winterizer-ized looks nothing like the snowman of a grunt.) The gun also spawns special Christmas gifts that give Ratchet ammo and health. It also plays a jumbled tune that sounds remarkably close to "Jingle Bells."

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Ratchet has a selection of somewhat more traditional weapons, like the Temporal Repulser, which suspends bad guys in a floating stasis bubble, as well as blasters, grenades and his trusty wrench.

One of the more interesting gadgets at Ratchet's disposal is the Grav Tether, a tool that can connect two nodes with a directional force field that Ratchet and Clank can ride like a mid-air conveyor belt. These tethers play into puzzle-platforming elements of Into the Nexus, tasking players with chaining together tether streams to overcome obstacles and large gaps. They're similar to Portal 2's tractor beam-like "excursion funnels" in their puzzle-solving implementation.

In terms of gameplay "feel," Allgeier said the team at Insomniac Games are doing their best to recreate the experience of A Crack in Time, something the most recent two games deviated from. He said the team built a "little test gym" to ensure that the next Ratchet & Clank recaptured the unquantifiable feel of its narrative predecessor.

The Zarkov Sector planet Ratchet and Clank find themselves on in their early pursuit of Vendra explores a new theme for the series. Allgeier said the goal with Into the Nexus was to explore a "spooky" but comedic atmosphere, a la Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas. That manifests in ghostlike creatures that haunt the abandoned sector of space and eerie locations like a dilapidated orphanage (where Vendra Prog was raised).

Into the Nexus' ghosts are actually Nethers, the planet's indigenous creatures. Clank encounters them when using a device called the Rift Cracker, a trans-dimensional warp device that opens 2D levels in which he's playable. In those sections of the game, players will have to contend with gravity-based puzzles that require quick thinking, as Ratchet's sidekick will be pursued by deadly Nethers as he manipulates each level's gravitational pull.

In addition to new worlds, new enemies and new weapons, Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus will feature appearances from old friends: Cronk and Zephyr, Captain Qwark, Pollyx. Allgeier promises a game-ending "trip down memory lane" for longtime fans and a handful of callbacks to previous games for the serious Ratchet & Clank enthusiast.

Allgeier calls Into the Nexus a bigger game than titles like Quest for Booty and Full Frontal Assault, but not of the size of entries like A Crack in Time. Fans will be able to say their goodbyes (on the PS3, at least) to Ratchet & Clank next month when the game hits retail and the PlayStation Network for $29.99.