Clank, many would argue, is the class of the Ratchet & Clank games. Ratchet, after all, is just some pointy-eared goof who solves most of his problems by bashing them with a wrench. His robot sidekick Clank is the brains of the outfit, and the wit, and most of the style as well.
Daxter (as in Jak &) was the first of Sony's sidekick characters to star in his own PSP game, but Clank has finally gotten his due, and High Impact Software hasn't done too badly by the little guy. Secret Agent Clank doesn't stray too far from the formula Insomniac conceived for the main R&C series, but it has enough original ideas to carve out a separate niche. Some may find that Secret Agent doesn't quite have the same biting sense of humor as the original games. It definitely holds up in the gameplay department, though, which is more than enough to make this a successful solo outing.
In case the title didn't give the whole thing away, this game stars Clank as a tuxedoed robot operative for a mysterious "Agency," hunting down the perpetrators of a high-line jewel theft. Ratchet is out of the picture because he's been framed up for the crime. He gets to spend most of the game behind bars in a kind of intergalactic Guantanamo Bay.
While Clank doesn't star in every one of the game's challenges, his levels are by far the most fully fleshed-out, and that's where the game's story progresses. The basic control setup should be familiar to anyone who's played a Ratchet & Clank game - Clank can swing at the bad guys with short-range physical attacks, or spend ammunition to use a collection of handy destructive gadgets. He also has moves that support a more stealthy, finesse approach, though, including instant takedowns on unsuspecting targets and gadgets that disable automatic security systems.
A lot of stealth games use a clumsy combat system as punishment for failure to be sneaky (and that's when they don't just go straight to Game Over, the way Splinter Cell often does). You'd be less inclined to stay out of sight in Tenchu or Metal Gear Solid if you weren't afraid of having to deal with a confusing automatic camera or finicky aiming controls.
Secret Agent Clank takes a more laid-back attitude. It rewards careful sneaking, but the combat controls still work for players who'd rather just rush in. If you successfully sneak through an area undetected, that's great, and you get some bonus nanotech points for it. If you get caught, well, it's not the end of the world. Beating up the bad guys with robot kung-fu and exploding cufflinks is lots of fun too.
In between Clank's levels, several other characters star in challenges of their own. Ratchet has to slug it out with his fellow inmates in the slammer, the Gadge-Bots get a few curtain calls backing up Clank, and you can even play through some amusing tall tales told by galactic hero Captain Quark.
These side-stories focus on particular kinds of gameplay. Ratchet's levels are mainly straightforward arena gunfights, while the Gadge-Bot levels tend to revolve around cooperative puzzles. They're not completely separate from the main flow of the game, though, which keeps them from feeling like they were thrown in as afterthoughts. In the main levels, for instance, you can find hidden weapons that make Ratchet's fights easier, and there's a very funny joke about how Clank manages to pass them to his partner. The Gadge-Bot adventures, meanwhile, usually find a way to feed back into Clank's central story.
To fill out the gameplay grab-bag, Secret Agent even includes a few rhythm action segments, structured like a cross between Parappa the Rapper and Dance Dance Revolution. These aren't incredibly complicated or challenging, but they almost always have some cool sight gags going on in the background.
Visually, the game is exciting and funny - the character designs and animation style Insomniac established for the series are as durable as ever. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like this spin-off features as much witty dialogue as the console games have given us. Whether or not they'd admit it themselves, perhaps Ratchet and Clank are at their most entertaining when each has the other to bounce one-liners off of.
That doesn't mean this side-story isn't worth the time, though. It looks great - though the backgrounds don't have quite so much vivid, active detail, the graphics are nearly on par with the PlayStation 2 Ratchets - and it serves up a fun collection of challenges that are paced just right for a handheld game. Clank may spend most of his career as a sidekick, but this proves he can carry most of a game on his own.