A Sucker For Sly

We talk to Sly 2: Band of Thieves producer and Sucker Punch co-founder Brian Fleming about his forthcoming PS2 platformer, and what else the developer is up to at the moment.

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When you think of PlayStation 2 platformers - or "character-driven action games" even - you probably immediately think of one of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. Which means that there's probably little or no space on your mantle for Sly Raccoon - a sad fact that saw the game fail spectacularly to excite anybody at retail in the UK when it first launched just after Christmas in early 2003. And this is a shame, because while it takes a more traditional line than its contemporaries from Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games in a lot of ways, it's no less fun for it - and veterans of the first campaign will happily regale you with tales of how there's barely a pixel wasted.

On that basis, the sequel - Sly 2: Band of Thieves - deserves to do a lot better, assuming it can keep up the high standard. We recently went hands-on with the game, and felt there was certainly a lot of promise in developer Sucker Punch's efforts. With the game now just over a month away though, we decided to track down producer and co-founder of Sucker Punch Brian Fleming and steal a look at what sets Band of Thieves apart from its predecessor, and what else Sucker Punch is up to at the moment.

Eurogamer: Why did you opt for the city-based approach this time around? Were you responding to criticism, inspired by the freedom that GTA presented, or was it just a straightforward design decision?

Brian Fleming: While the first environment, Paris, does feel like a nightclub district in a city, the environments really vary from place to place in the game. For example, Episode 2 is an Indian palace, Episode 3 takes place in a remote temple surrounded by jungle. The design decisions were guided by two overriding goals: 1) to make the player feel like a thief, which is helped a bit by somewhat realistic settings, so being on a rooftop overlooking a street just feels thiefy, which is good! 2) To create environments which were great jungle gyms for Sly and the gang to climb all over and around. After a number of prototypes, we ended up with the basic size and design approach you see in the game.

Eurogamer: How many locations are there in the game, and where's Sly heading specifically?

Brian Fleming: There are eight episodes in the game, each taking Sly and the game to a new location... As mentioned above, we start in Paris, then head to Rajan's palace in India, then off to a remote temple in the jungle, then we're off to a prison in Prague, etc.

Eurogamer: What sort of new abilities can we expect from Sly this time around?

Brian Fleming: He starts off with the majority of the moveset he had at the end of Sly 1 -- but we've added some important new stuff for him right off the bat. Pickpocketing guards is important to complete jobs (stealing keys to a truck, so your buddies can drive it, for example) as well as to just get valuables. The valuables in turn help you buy more moves for Sly, Murray and Bentley. There's a wide variety of combat, stealth, and movement power-ups... Things like a paraglider, new attacks, and a ninja "smoke bomb" escape are all in there!

Eurogamer: Sly can sell loot to buy upgrades now. What sort of things will he be able to buy?

Brian Fleming: As above, it's a really diverse set of things (over 30!). Some of the most entertaining ones are "insanity" related where you can cause enemies to start attacking each other. If you ever run into a grizzly bear, this can be particularly entertaining (yes, this really happens in the game!)

Eurogamer: We've seen Sly, Bentley and Murray in action - are there any other playable characters in the game? Carmelita Fox's new colleague, perhaps?

Brian Fleming: This game is all about sly and his gang... There are, however, a ton of mini-games (tango dancing, Bentley's retro hacking terminals, flying turret missions, etc) so players can expect a really wide variety of experiences. Then of course there's the heists, where each character has to do his part to complete the job.. So there should be plenty of variety for you!

Eurogamer: We've seen some evidence too of the guys teaming up - Murray throwing Bentley up to a water tower entrance, for example. How else will they be able to join forces this time?

Brian Fleming: Lots of ways, actually -- in one heist Bentley and Sly create distractions (by detonating bombs, and tango dancing with great skill, respectively) to allow Murray to rip off something important. Later, Bentley may fly his RC chopper to provide air cover for Murray as he tries to escape with the loot. A big part of the fun of the game is helping each other (okay really yourself!) out...

Eurogamer: The first game was renowned for its ingenious boss encounters. Without giving too much away, can we expect anything to top the legendary rhythm-action showdown in the swamp?

Brian Fleming: I've mentioned the tango dancing here, that was clearly our 'tip of the cap' to the Mz. Ruby boss battle from Sly 1. As for topping that, well, that's really for you to judge - but there is a Boss confrontation in one of the later episodes where you have to compete (and actually cheat) in a series of mini-games with one of the bosses... That one in particular I'm excited about.

Eurogamer: On that note, what other types of gameplay can we expect? Any driving or anything this time around?

Brian Fleming: Loads of mini-games... There's paragliding challenges, there's RC chopper missions, a flying turret mission, an ice-climbing challenge, Bentley's hacking games, an RC vehicle combat arena, etc... There's even an old-school "2D shooter" level in the game at one point. We really enjoy mini-games, and while players will spend a good portion of the game playing as Sly, Murray and Bentley -we've definitely stuffed a ton of types of gameplay in!

Eurogamer: What sort of collectibles will there be to look out for this time, and will there be any rewards for doing so?

Brian Fleming: You'll find the clue-bottles from Sly 1 have returned, and as before if you find them all you can earn a new move by cracking the code to a vault. In addition, there's a full health and "thief power" system at work, so health pick-ups are important as well. But I think the most fun collectibles are things you pickpocket from guards and sell on thiefnet for money.

Eurogamer: What sort of things have you done to improve the technology this time? It seems to run a bit better than the first game when there's a lot going on...

Brian Fleming: The programmers rewrote the core of the engine entirely for Sly 2. We learned a lot by doing Sly 1, and we really wanted more characters, bigger worlds, and better performance in Sly 2. Our art and animation teams did a great job stretching the budgets, too, and the end result is much larger worlds, with greater enemy and object density, than anything we've done previously.

Eurogamer: Sly seems to have been characterised as a platformer for younger gamers. What would you say to people who think that?

Brian Fleming: It's easy to understand why people say it, though I have to say that Sly 2 is really a much deeper and richer game than Sly 1. We've always tried hard to make the dialogue smart and humorous, which really helps the game appeal to an older crowd, too. We've done lots of focus testing to help balance the game, and Sly 2 has been scoring much higher with the older gamers, too, which we think is really exciting. In the end, I feel like this time around we really have built a game that everyone from the kids to the more hardcore crowd will find appealing. Especially with the thief economy of pickpocketing items and buying power-ups, there's a lot there for more sophisticated gamers.

Eurogamer: Do you see yourselves as being in competition with Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games?

Brian Fleming: I've always believed that the games all three of us make help each other much more than they compete with each other. We are incredibly big fans of their games, too. In the end, we're still a much smaller team than either (Insomniac is over 3x our size!) so we're sort of the scrappy underdog of the bunch, I guess.

Eurogamer: Where do you think the platform game genre can go from here?

Brian Fleming: You know, I think in a lot of ways the term "platform" is going to evaporate. We're making character action games, and we think of it that way. It happens that our characters are stylish cartoon visuals, but if we had the exact same gameplay as in Sly 2 but with gritty realistic visuals, nobody would call it a "platform" game. I think character action games are going to be huge for a long time - and cover a really wide range of styles, mechanics, and moods. From stealth action, to super-hero combat, to thieving raccoons, there's a lot of ground to cover!

Eurogamer: Will you return to the Sly series on PlayStation 2?

Brian Fleming: Ask me that at E3! By then surely we'll be able to talk about whatever is coming up next!

Eurogamer: Will there be any Sly games for other platforms? PSP perhaps or PlayStation 3?

Brian Fleming: We'd like to see Sly on the PSP, but being a smaller team, we really don't have the people to do the work. Who knows, maybe the right combination will come together sometime though. I do think Sly would make a fantastic PSP title, if we can get to it!

Eurogamer: What do you make of the Nintendo DS?

Brian Fleming: I didn't wait in the line at E3 to see it. I think as a developer the most exciting thing to see is that there's a new input device/method. In this case, it seems like a possibly useful one, too. It'll be interesting to see what people do with the stylus -and to me it's the most exciting part by far of what the DS offers.

Eurogamer: Are you working on any other projects at the moment? Current or next-gen? Are you totally exclusive to Sony platforms?

Brian Fleming: At the moment, we're working on the 11-language build for PAL territories... There's nothing more entertaining than hearing Murray talk in Norwegian. Then it's Korea, Japan and maybe China ahead! We are starting to think about next-gen stuff, but it's a ways off for now.

Eurogamer: Finally, we're wondering: will Carmelita Fox ever manage to catch Sly?

Brian Fleming: Of course she will, eventually!! The interesting question becomes: Will Sly manage to slip away after she does? The answer is, well, at the end of Sly 2: Band of Theives!

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