In theory, it sounds like a great idea: Sit down with three other people and play Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One together. But in practice, four-player co-op can be chaotic and downright nasty: "Just hit the switch, dumbass! Gawd you suck at this game."

Cordial coordination is challenging enough when all four of you are on the couch together. But how often does that happen? A lot of players will be teaming up online -- with strangers, no less -- and that can often mean complete radio silence.

Insomniac is trying to design All 4 One to work in both cases, on the couch and online. "Certainly we think that both are extremely important," says gameplay programmer Mike McManus. "We don't want either to not work."
Insomniac's biggest weapon against infighting is information. While playing through two new sections of the game, it was clear that All 4 One is designed to alert players, in all sorts of ways, to exactly what their roles are in each engagement.

The four players are color-coded, and those colors are reproduced all over the screen, providing lots of information about who's doing what. Color-coded movement trails appear when characters jump around and the players' targeting icons correspond to their colors, indicating who's aiming at what with just a glance. Color-coded button prompts and positioning guides abound, too, as do warning indicators. When a player is knocked out (and can be revived by another), for instance, a screen-wide red circle zooms in on the downed player, alerting everyone clearly that action needs to be taken.

On the couch, you can easily tell other players what they're doing wrong (doing so kindly is the challenge), but online, playing with strangers, it's not so easy. So, says McManus, "We're trying to handle that in the gamespace. When someone's waiting for you to do something, we want the game to communicate that for you." Players are rewarded for playing together, as well. When two players fire at the same target it triggers a damage boost, and the targeting reticule on the HUD reflects this, growing bigger as the damage boost grows.

Each of the four characters has unique weapons and special, rare-use abilities that McManus says calls "combat-changing." Ratchet can deploy a decoy that attracts enemy fire; Clank tosses a grenade that slows down time; Captain Quark has a shield to keep himself alive; and Dr. Nefarious can activate a cloaking device that hides him from enemy fire for a bit.

Those are "useful in different ways and different segments," says McManus, but overall these unique abilities are meant to be able to save the whole party in a real emergency. "Everyone has that one 'oh crap' moment where it's like, 'We're not going to get out of this fight alive, let me deploy this thing that I know is going to help us in time.'"

The new gameplay segments I played didn't require the use of these new abilities, but they were compelling in their own right. One was based on a prototype scenario that Insomniac had developed awhile ago, in which the foursome is placed on a raft propelled by four fans. Firing the vacuum gun (which each character is equipped with) into one of the fans, pulls the raft toward the player firing; so all four have to coordinate their vacuuming to keep the raft on track.

My party had some trouble guiding the raft with precision, but there's a lot of wiggle room as you learn to perfect the mechanic. "There's nothing inherently complicated about the raft," says McManus. "It's pretty playful. And I think that's typically what a lot of our puzzles are -- a lot more playful."

The other segment had the players riding on the back of a gigantic (and powerful) robot called a "guardian," each sitting on a turret used to blast obstacles and other enemies out of the way. This segment was designed to emphasize what Insomniac calls "cinematic co-op" -- it's essentially an on-rails shooter, but by coordinating fire and timing their targets correctly, the party members can do well or do badly.

The "cinematic" element is demonstrated through scaling. When the guardian first appears on-screen, it's gigantic, reminiscent of a God of War–size boss. And as the level goes on, another guardian enters the fray -- this one against you -- and then another and another, until the little party of players is dwarfed by the enormous scale of the on-screen action.

All 4 One is shaping up to be a compelling cooperative experience. While there are elements that make it competitive, too, Insomniac is working hard to keep it from becoming combative. The only problem with that -- you can't blame the game for breaking up the group.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.