Given how huge the Sonic and Mario brands still are (and probably always will be), it's strange how Sony, via Naughty Dog (Jak & Daxter, Crash Bandicoot), Insomniac (Ratchet & Clank, Spyro) and now Sucker Punch has totally captured the platform market once sewn up by Sega and Nintendo. On the day that it became widely known that Sega is porting the three year old Sonic Adventure to the GameCube, never more has it been so apparent that the balance of power has shifted from Japan to the US for kleptomaniac thrills.
Wisely, Sony elected to hold Sly Raccoon back, given that its going for the same audience as Ratchet & Clank - and in this barren desert also known as January, it more or less has the whole month to itself. But is it really worth investing another Ł40, when you're probably still a few weeks away from paying off your festive debts?
Featuring a lead character somewhat cooler than anyone in '80s cartoon The Raccoons, Sly Cooper is the latest in the long line of master thieves going back several family generations. Unfortunately for the 18 year old, a gang of five thieves has nicked the family's guide to sneakery, the legendary Thievius Raccoonus, and annoyingly decided to hide bits of it all over the world - meaning you've got to go and find them, in true utterly predictable platform game style.
Drawing inspiration from all the best platformers, and chucking in a welcome element of stealth, Sly Raccoon does a good job of attempting something a little different from the tired, generic fare that is normally attached to this genre.
Firstly on a visual level, it's nothing short of a revelation - using a colourful cel shading technique that Sucker Punch has described as "Toon Shaded", it comes closest to delivering a cartoon gameworld of any title we've ever seen. Not only is every level varied and well illustrated in an exaggerated 'Day Of The Tentacle' sense, the way the scenery yields to Sly's movement gives a very convincing impression of weight and often makes you react in a similar fashion as platforms lurch forward under after a heavy impact.
Similarly, the character designs are top drawer, featuring a level of cute, yet grumpy cartoon menace rarely seen in a videogame. Even the silly nonsensical noises they utter as they prowl around adds to the experience, making it far less of a chore to clear up each level. The understated humour runs throughout, and saves the whole affair from degenerating into wacky irritation that recent fodder like Ty did with crushing regularity.
Sly Raccoon's chief innovation is its use of stealth within what is otherwise a fairly straightforward collect 'em up. Tiny blue trails give visual clues to areas that you can sneak around in, and holding the circle button while in these areas gives Sly the ability to tip toe upon narrow ledges, aiding him in his quest to find coins, bottles, and eventually keys.
But you're not punished too severely for slackness; often the game will give you a second chance when hit, or picking up a horseshoe will give you another chance to clobber an enemy or avoid the numerous traps that proliferate each level. To begin with you'll find dozens of ways to die - and it can be quite irritating to find that a something as trivial as a bush can kill you outright, but in other senses it forces you to pay attention to the attack patterns of each enemy or trap. Mid level check points offer some respite once you're past key sections - but if you lose all your lives, it's back to the start.
Don't expect Splinter Cell style stealth
Walking up to the enemy unprepared is a fairly fraught and dangerous thing to do, but don't expect some crude attempt at Splinter Cell. Most baddies patrol small areas, and avoidance is normally a case of evading their torch beams or line of sight. Some of the time you can sneak past them undetected, but at other times attracting their attention is unavoidable, and unless you go for the kill immediately, you'll most likely be dead yourself as some of their projectiles are lethal. Unfortunately, Sly's stick doesn't have much of a reach, so it's a fairly straightforward case of waiting for them to unleash their attack, hop out of the way and then bop them with your cane.
Fortunately, it's not all about defeating drones. Peppered throughout the levels are other deadly tricks and traps, normally consisting of fire, or beams which set off alarms if you happen to walk into them. Creeping past these beams is definitely recommended, as otherwise they turn into flesh frying lasers of death, causing Sly much pain and suffering if he touches them again.
To begin with, Sly's a bit crap, but as an ingenious reward for persistence, you can potentially unlock a new move in every level. Around each level are between 20 and 40 bottles - often hidden inside scenery items or obscure locations. Each bottle hides a clue, and once you have all of them, you have to high tail it back to the level's safe to crack its combination. It's not always essential to pick up every one in each level, but you'll be grateful for having the ability to slow down time, or initiate a fast roll attack. In plenty of situations, Sly's versatile ability to grab hooks, perform Ninja jumps on tightropes and even grind rails Tony Hawk style makes for a fun, fast paced experience.
A formula worth stealing
As Sucker Punch will have no doubt learned from Jak & Daxter, breaking up the platform kleptomania with sub games and boss monsters is a formula worth replicating. Occasionally you'll get to take part in mini-games, either as Sly or occasionally the gormless, but loveable Murray the pink Hippo - meaning you get to take a break from run and jump action and instead experience some simple but welcome diversions (shooting, and racing, for example) in order to progress. Likewise, each boss encounter throws up some interesting ideas, and while never especially hard or groundbreaking, they never outstay their welcome - unlike so many ill judged games before them, even mixing in a pinch of rhythm action in one memorable encounter!
Fortunately, Sucker Punch has also learned that a decent camera system is essential, and at virtually no stage have we come across a situation where we couldn't see what was going on. The control system mirrors that of Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank, with the left stick handling movement, while right directs the camera left and right - although you'll find yourself using it far less than usual thanks to the game's superb way of almost always giving the gamer the best view. And some clever level design often shows off the visual splendour to maximum effect, with odd, but pleasing camera angles.
Taking into account the superbly judged playability, classy visuals, variety, welcome element of stealth and replayability, Sucker Punch has managed to ensure that Sly Raccoon is elevated from being Just Another Platform Game�. There's not really much you can knock Sly Raccoon for, apart from being maybe too easy for some gamers (for the early part at least) and not especially original. If you're not a platform game fan, then this probably won't change your mind, but for everyone else, all you need to know is it's the first game worth buying of the year.