Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time Preview

Generation game.

There's a wall inside the offices of Sanzaru Games covered in cute fan art and hand-written notes for Sly Cooper. Each was mailed directly to this building in Foster City, Calfornia, but - as the team readily acknowledges - were prompted by the creations of another studio based 1340km to the north.

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There's a definite knack to the precision 'ninja jumping' required to get through stealth sections.

Well, that's not completely fair. Yes, the klepto-critter's original trilogy released on PlayStation 2 in the last decade courtesy of Washington State's Sucker Punch; but many of the kids who painstakingly scrawled these letters and sketches weren't even born when Sly 3 crept out in 2005.

This new generation of fans was in fact inspired by Sanzaru's well-crafted HD remake of the series for the next generation of PlayStation. And the 2010 release also impressed Sony sufficiently for it to entrust development of a new instalment to the studio, with Sucker Punch - like Naughty Dog - having left its PS2 cartoon capers behind as it focused its attentions on PS3.

It's a happy ending for another huge Sly Cooper fan, Sanzaru itself, which got the remake gig in the first place by knocking together a PS3 prototype off its own back and presenting it to Sony.

Sly's fourth outing is familiar fare, a stylish, stealthy action-platformer with multiple playable characters and a narrative that features plenty of nods to the backstory, but doesn't require intimate knowledge of them to be enjoyed in its own right.

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Without straining like so many other games to look 'Hollywood', Sly is effortlessly pretty on PS3.

Pages of the Thievius Raccoonus, the family's crime bible, are turning blank - someone is rewriting history, so Sly must return to the past to find out why. In an Assassin's Creed-like twist, this leads to the character assuming the roles of various ancestors, each possessing a unique ability. On top of that, Sly gains a new costume from each period, which can be slung on to take advantage of these new skills and open up new areas of the game.

Structurally, the game is made up of a series of 'hubs' and 'spokes'. The latter are strictly linear, action-heavy sections, the former, as you will guess, more open to exploration. Indeed, Sanzaru insists there's "gigantic replay value to the hubs", with lots of "aha" moments where a new ability suddenly opens up a previously inaccessible section. All levels are freely playable with any unlocked outfit once completed.

The team is only showing two new playable sections at this stage, one set in feudal Japan, the other in a circus, where The Amazing Cooperoni's Robin Hood garb comes with a bow and arrow, required to create tightropes to walk along.

For a game targeted at kids, Thieves In Time's gameplay requires a decent degree of dexterity and careful timing to weave carefully through stealth and action sections. It also looks absolutely gorgeous in motion, with fluid animations and a silky-smooth frame-rate that does the series proud on its new platform.

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Each new costume grants a new ability - in this case a bow, which can be used to create rope bridges to new areas.

Weirdly, despite flying journalists several thousand miles at great expense to visit the studio, Sony decided not to say anything about the Vita version until we'd all come back.

But we know now it's the same game on PS3 and portable, with cloud-sharing between the two - an aspect of Vita desperately underplayed so far, but a key point of difference that offers hope to the currently struggling system. Really, what needs to happen with any game here is a MotorStorm RC-style pay once, get both deal - but Sony has yet say what's what either way.

Anyway, Sly's return may be a slight one in the excitement stakes, but it looks lovingly made on the evidence so far with bulging, soon-to-be-picked pockets of character and charm. This time, Sanzaru may at last be able to pin up fan mail truly of its own.

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