Version tested: PlayStation 2
The epic failure of the original Sly Raccoon over in Europe is a regular bone of contention with any platform gaming aficionado, and completely nonsensical in the context of Jak and Ratchet's respective successes. Anyone who played Sucker Punch's near classic will tell you it's easily up there with the original Jak as one of the best platformers of its generation, but yet upon its January 2003 release stiffed even more spectacularly than fellow first party title ICO did, despite impressive US sales. We can only point the finger at Sony Europe's often mystifying indifference to SCEA's output for its almost invisible launch. This wasn't to be the first occasion that a US-developed Sony first party game was to receive a 'stealth launch', but it didn't slip past us unnoticed. No sir. There's barely been a better game in the genre since and the prospect of a more challenging and fleshed out sequel had us more excited, in truth, than another quick-fire Jak or Ratchet launch.
The easiest, laziest way to sum up Sly Racoon was to describe it as a kids' game. It wasn't. The cutesy toon-shaded visuals struck instant comparisons with bright and bouncy weekend morning cartoons, but the smart humour, wonderfully-observed voiceovers and technical grace marked it out as something much more than your average run and jump. To really give the game its dues, it's still one of the most technically accomplished games we've seen, with intelligent controls and a camera system to die for in the choppy waters of awkward 3D. If you're looking for the polar opposite to Galleon's lurching insanity, you've come to the right game.
Tweak my fun dial
If there was anything ultimately disappointing about Sly Raccoon, it was too short. Over and done with well within 10 hours, you were left wanting more. Was it too easy? No. Had it have been, you'd have been bored well before the end, and moved on. It's difficulty was perfectly pitched, with a sensible control system that took all the associated frustration away from doing death defying leaps of faith, with a well-timed stab of the circle button allowing the nimble Raccoon to land on the most improbably placed spires and wires. It's fun over realism in the most spectacular way, and allows - for the most part - some of the most useful camera positioning ever seen in a platformer.
In essence all Sucker Punch had to do was make a longer sequel, possibly more challenging with a few more moves, and string it together with the same excellent narrative structure. It couldn't fail. It doesn't fail.
As with all platform games in the history of the universe, whatever you've destroyed in the last game comes back to haunt you, and the same holds true here, with the various parts of the Clockwerk fiend that you smashed up in the original now in the hands of a posse of evildoers, using each for their own nefarious ends. It's predictably up to Sly, Bentley and Murray to wrestle these parts back and make sure they never get reassembled, and hence each of the game's eight chapters are constructed around a hugely amusing series of elaborate heists as the brains of Bentley works out how to utilise the stealth of Sly and the brawn of Murray to snatch them back.
More twists than a rollercoaster
Last time out we were faced with a similar number of challenges in fairly small self-contained hubs, each with their own series of locked doors that granted access to specific levels. This time, the hub system largely remains, but has now been expanded to almost city-sized proportions, with some of the game's tasks taking place within each area, and some within the many buildings dotted around. Architecturally, they're multi-levelled, sprawling, intricate twisty-turny mazes that often take a good while to become familiar with. At first the size and construction of these super-hubs can be quite a source of confusion as you bounce around attempting to avoid the many powerful sentries, while simultaneously attempting to work out where to go next. To help out with such confusion, clicking down the left stick brings up helpful arrows that reach up to the sky in order to guide you to the various missions that might be available at any given time. Although it's still ostensibly linear in structure, sometimes there are three or more choices available to you in terms of missions, so it's very much a case of plumping for the one nearest or the one playable with the currently selected character, with the odd mission thrown in for Bentley the Turtle or Murray the Hippo.
For the first couple of episodes the new structure can take a long time to get used to, as the play area is such a twisting turning mass that even working out how to get to the start of a mission can be a challenge. Episode 2, in that respect, is the worst in the entire game for confusing the hell out of you, and probably should have been saved for later in the game when you're a bit more acclimatised to the whole process of exploration. The levels contained within, though, are another varied mass of excellence; almost always entertaining, challenging without resorting to realms of ridiculousness and, above all, fun. What's more, there are an absolute stack of them, with each episode consisting of around ten different tasks. Sly 2 isn't the sort of game you'll be finishing in a hurray, with our total game time for the first run through clocking in at three to four hours an episode, with well over twenty hours in total.
The key to any game's long term enjoyment is keeping things varied, only repeating the enjoyable bits and making sure the onerous tasks are kept to a minimum. In most senses Sly 2 achieves all of these, only occasionally blotting its copybook with what amounts to attempting to pad out the experience unnecessarily. Kicking off with the positives, there are almost too many standout moments to mention; one minute you're being bounced high into the air to land smack bang on a runaway train caboose, the next you're hang gliding across thermals dodging vicious Eagles, or driving a tank around blowing up everything in sight, or performing daring bombing raids in an RC chopper, or hacking a computer via the means of a 2D retro shooter complete with hilariously monotonous bloops and bleeps. The highlights would almost fill a feature on its own and every episode has at least two moments that will have every gamer grinning ear to ear.
Hit the bottle
In the main, though, you're performing the usual stealth platforming routine of trying to creep past sentries undetected (or performing your juggle/smash stealth kill), nicking keys, dodging laser trip wires and leaping acrobatically on the way to flicking the latest in a series of switches that will allow the next phase of your dastardly plan to get underway. Along the way, anything you bash into submission, inanimate or otherwise, will explode into a shower of coins which you can eventually put towards buying new abilities in the game's ThiefNet shop, such as Thief Reflexes, which let you slow down the game to a crawl. Although there are about eight or so you can buy for each character as you go along, the chances are you won't have the funds, and Sly's need is generally greater than the others thanks to the mandatory upgrades required towards the latter half of the game - where he gains a Paraglider and the ability to chuck distracting alarm clocks at the patrols.
As with all games of a kleptomaniacal bent, there are also a bunch of other items to hoover up, notably the odd health recharge, and most infuriating of all, the bottles - 30 of which populate each episode and remain elusive for all but the most determined of explorers. Add to that the secret loot stashed around the place that you can also cash in, and there's plenty to keep you occupied long after the tasks themselves have been conquered, and the game allows you to dip back in at a later date to grab the secrets should you wish to.
But, as much variety as there is in Sly 2, there's also the suspicion that Sucker Punch reacted to the criticism of the original being too short by trying to pad out certain parts of each episode more than was strictly necessary. The most obvious example of this is when Sly is forced to head off and perform some rather arbitrary photoreconnaissance in every episode. It seems to serve little purpose other than drawing out the mission briefing, and wastes a good ten minutes or more every time. In addition, some of the missions repeat themselves more times than is welcome, like the pick pocketing mechanic, which also crops up in virtually every level. Bentley's retro-hacking missions also start to grate after about the third repetition, and you get the feeling a lot of tasks were introduced purely to make the game feel longer. The point is, there's so much variety in there in the first place, the last thing the team needed to do was reprise sections when the game's evidently so big anyway.
The final major criticism is the design of some of the hubs themselves. Some are so complex, spiralling and multi-levelled that it makes the simplest navigation tasks a complete headache - and when the game starts setting levels inside them, making you activate four switches, steal five keys, take six photos or whatever at various different corners of the city, it ceases to be as much fun. You feel like you're just having your time wasted, and although it's never stupidly hard or anything, the time it takes to do some otherwise simple tasks grinds your resolve down a little. It's just as well, then, that once you move on from the less entertaining sections, it's almost always followed up with a hilarious cut-scene or one of the many stupendously entertaining sub-games that platform games love to insert to break things up.
When cartoon quality actually means something
In addition to the generally top drawer entertainment on show, it's once again piled high with cartoon-quality visuals that still stand alone as being some of the most well-conceived characters ever to grace a game, drawn and animated with such attention to detail that you can't help but warm to them instantly. Sly, in particular, with his gently padding grace, bobbing tail and stooped posture slinks through the levels with impossible style and athleticism; each manoeuvre made all the more stylish and impressive by virtue of the wonderful control system that feels like no other. The genius of being able to make incredible leaps of faith and survive almost every one by stabbing circle is a novelty that will probably never wear off. Not only does it limit the frustration associated with so many 3D games where you can never quite see where you're jumping, it means the camera can almost always give a breathtaking view of the proceedings. That's not to say it's perfect - but on the rare occasions it does trip up it's rarely at an inopportune moment, and you'll just wait for it to correct itself, move on and not worry about it.
The other superbly implemented design decision was to checkpoint your progress almost all of the time. If you happen to die five sixths of the way through a task, most of the time the game just lets you carry on from the level beginning with your progress intact, rather than - as so many other games do - having you start the whole thing again. It keeps you interested without ever being too easy, keeps frustration to a minimum, and means you'll probably finish the damn thing rather than putting it down halfway through like you probably do with many other games.
A special mention must also go to the excellent audio, both in terms of the varied, subtle and consistently enjoyable soundtrack and the absolutely brilliant voiceovers and wry script that should appeal to every big kid out there that still appreciates a good cartoon when they see one. It's so good you'll probably sit back and watch all the cut-scenes when you've finished just to remind yourself of all the great one liners in there. And trust us, there are plenty.
Cunning as a raccoon
Although it's fair to say there's nothing revolutionary about Sly 2, what it does do is so well honed that if you've not played a platformer for a while, jumping back in with a game like this will restore your faith in the genre. And if you're a long term fan of top notch platformers then you're in for an excellent 20-odd hours of slick entertainment. The odd bit of repetition aside, there's enough stand out moments to make it impossible not to recommend. Sly 2 will make you smile your face off, and you can't ask for much more than that from a sequel that's far bigger and just as entertaining as the original, and still leaves you wanting more.
8 / 10