Sly 2: Band of Thieves

Sucker Punch draws inspiration from Grand Theft Auto in more ways than one for one of our Most Wanted of 2004.

Although you still remain in the dark about Sly 2: Band of Thieves, now that we're aware of a sequel to Sucker Punch's depressingly under-appreciated platform thieve-'em-up - which proved that linear gameplay, heavily scripted abilities, basic sneak-'em-up antics and complex platform environments can deliver a rich and absorbing blend - we're actually poised, lurking in a perpetual state of alertness, ever capable of pouncing on the first scrap of info. Well, actually, with Kristan out of the country again this Tuesday, your portlier correspondent is in more of a state of constant glazed over-ness, ever capable of flopping in the general direction of any blatant outbursts from SCEA or Sucker Punch, flailing arms and hoping to suffocate spokespeople in flaps of... Ooh look, there's one right now! [Flop.]

Cheating death

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Nobody wants to talk to the online press as ever, but having tracked down a copy of the US Official PlayStation Magazine, which plays host to a lengthy preview of the sneaky sequel, we're busy grinning broadly and gawping at shots of Sly tearing around the streets of an unrestricted Parisian environment, swapping places with fellow gang-members Murray the hippo and Bentley the turtle in order to iron out the rough edges in various heists. Or, in Murray's case, roughen up the iron edges of various coppers by picking things up and hurling them at the nightstalking Parisian policefolk.

Yes, Sly's back in Paris, hot on the heels of French detective and arch-nemesis Carmelite, who has rather unfortunately collected the tattered remnants of the last game's boss (we'll keep his identity secret for the sake of those of you still struggling through the Platinum release) and boarded them up in a Parisian warehouse. Sly, worrying that his shady adversary - the architect of the death of every member of his illustrious criminal dynasty - could be resurrected, hatches a plan to steal the remains back from Carmelite and Interpol, and in another gloriously jazzy intro before the opening credits he attempts to do just that, only to discover that somebody beat him to the prize. The ever dotty and faintly biased Carmelite subsequently turns up and - you guessed it - concludes that Sly is responsible for the whole shebang. Thunk.

According to the developer, the new story focuses on the whereabouts of the broken bad guy, who has in fact been lifted wholesale by a new and nefarious criminal gang keen on redeploying the dying embers of pure evil to fuel its own ends. In order to undo the impending menace of you-know-who's second coming, Sly has to engage each of the gang's crime lords in turn and recover the remains. Sounds familiar, eh? Those who finished the first game will of course remember only too well how it worked - a group of hubs feeding into a series of levels, and then a final climactic and surprisingly imaginative boss encounter in each case, ranging from simple point-and-whack antics to a rhythm-action sub-game. However Sucker Punch seems only too keen to try and crush the sense of sequelitis before it spreads, and, mercifully, this time they've even given Carmelite a new sidekick called Constable Nesta, who having no historical beef with the Cooper clan is more than happy to question Carmelite's assumption of Sly's guilt.

Honourable intentions

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Apart from delivering a game that is allegedly twice the length of its predecessor (about 15 hours then), we're now looking at a game heavily influenced by the likes of Grand Theft Auto. And while some of you may sigh, we're not simply referring to a big, open-ended Parisian environment, although Sly 2 certainly has that. According to Sucker Punch, it's the sense of being able to achieve something from an hour of play or less, via smaller goals that still fuel a sense of progress.

That said, Sucker Punch has also dispensed with the rigid hub dynamic, the map screen, etc, in favour of attaining a more Jak II-like open ended-ness. In this case though it's less of a vibrant but largely superficial load screen (with annoyingly hard hover car driving bits), and more of a tightly coiled cluster of dense gameplay, riddled with even more mischievous traps like spiked rollers and other obstacles. While the Paris environment is big, it's not meant to be huge - instead it's open and dense, and geared towards fun.

As are the changes to Sly's abilities, the combat and enemy AI. As it is, guards no longer operate on set paths, easily evaded by sneaking through the shadows and dodging their probing flashlights. Here they can roam as freely as you, and relatively miniscule obstacles no longer bring their pursuit to a halt either. When they spot you, these enemies will chase and chase you, and you can't just kill them with a single hit either - you'll have to be clever enough to take advantage of the environment in facilitating their downfall. In fact, improvisation and nimble thief-like antics are far more significant this time than before, when arguably all you did was dodge between searching beams and avoid tension wherever possible. Sly 2 will force you to get up close and personal with enemies more than capable of bringing your furry, striped bonce under the cosh, even pick-pocketing them for keys and other items.

That said, even in delivering tougher enemies and a more open-ended, thief-on-the-run feel, fun has always been very high on the agenda, and in the words of one of the game's production team, they've tried not only to make enemies that can kill you, but enemies that can make you look good.

Right hook

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Sucker Punch has also brought Sly's fellow thieves Murray and Bentley into play more than before, even giving you full third-person control of them in some sections. As we've said, by switching to Murray at Sly's hideout, you'll be able to roam the streets clobbering people with loose objects, crates and whatnot, and use the hippo's girth to your advantage. Bentley's brain will also come into play - in one example, the talented turtle has to work out which valves to turn in order to divert water from a fountain and overflow a drain somewhere. We wouldn't be too surprised, given mention of the gang's Scooby-like van, if the pair are involved in the odd driving section either, whether on rails as with the first game or otherwise.

It's also clear from a spot of video footage, which can be found on MTV's "Advance Warning" website, that the Sly has retained a number of his old abilities, leaving him free to literally leap from pillar to post, swing from hooks and dazzle with his death-defying antics. We also spied a familiar vault in one section, so we presume the excellent system of unveiling new abilities via torn out pages of the Thievius Raccoonus - the thief's bible - survives in some way, and if you ask us, the possibility of gradually earning the right to explore the sloped roofs and out-of-reach areas in a persistent Paris is more than enough to be excited about alone.

Graphically of course the game has also evolved, although it's more in scale than sheer number of polygons. Dangling from a helicopter over the city, Sly can see for miles, and you can regularly see the whole way over the river to the banks on the other side and indeed for quite a distance in every direction, the whole thing once again delivered in the game's trademark mix of cel-shading and more detailed design.

Lights out

Given that the MTV copy-writers on Advance Warning inform us that Sly 2: Band of Thieves is due out by the ends of the year, this latest platform sequel should go up against both Jak III and Ratchet & Clank 3, of which we've also found some new screenshots this morning. But if Sucker Punch can deliver on the exciting promise herein, Insomniac and Naughty Dog can succumb to sequelitis themselves for all we care, because this could well be the surprise star of the Christmas season.

For more information and screenshots of Sly 2: Band of Thieves, pick up the latest issue of the American Official PlayStation Magazine.

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