Sly 2: Band of Thieves
We sneak into Sony and emerge with a near-complete version of Sly Raccoon's much deserved sequel. And it's a Grand Theft.
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Maybe it was January's fault. Maybe everybody had had enough of platform games at that point. Maybe it looked a bit childish. Maybe Sony didn't do enough to promote it to the right people. Whatever the explanation, few would argue that Sly Raccoon vastly under-performed when it was originally released in Europe, despite widespread critical acclaim. Actually, let's be specific: despite the fact it was one of the most enjoyable PS2 platform games we'd ever played.
It was smoothly executed in every respect - the characters, though a bit on the Saturday Morning Cartoon side of things, were likeable enough for us big kids to get on with, the visuals were stylishly toon-shaded, the controls and level design were sharply tuned, and it taught you new tricks at a sensible rate. We enjoyed it far more than a lot of the games that outstripped it at the tills. Still, Sly's a thief - and he isn't planning to let anybody steal his thunder for the second time running.
Sly 2: Band of Thieves, due out this October, does broadly the same things as Sly Raccoon, but this time developer Sucker Punch has made a concerted effort to break free of the rigidly formulaic structure that some people disliked about the original. The 'chamber of doors' hub level approach is gone, replaced by a handful of larger city-style hubs, full of missions that have Sly and his crew finding ways into buildings, pickpocketing guards that roam the streets for keys, and racing over the rooftops - as the Band of Thieves attempt to concoct a plan to take down the local kingpin.
The reasoning behind the takedown is simple - each of them has something that Sly needs. At the end of the last game, Sly's robotic nemesis Clockwerk was left to stew in his own volcanic lair, but apparently his utter destruction wasn't the final word. Now it seems a worldwide network of criminals has gathered up the tattered remnants of his body and plan to use them for no good. Sly wants them back - not for himself, but just to get them out of the way. Given that Clockwerk was a mostly robotic master thief whose one goal in life was to wipe out Sly's bloodline, you can see his point.
His methods are largely unchanged. As fans of the first game will remember, Sly's adventures involve literally springing from pillar to post as he works his way through various carefully coordinated levels on the way to a final showdown, and along the way he's dogged by a blinkered French detective who thinks he's responsible for all the world's ills. And who seems to be incapable of catching him. She's not right, anyway, but fortunately this time she's accompanied by her protégé, who seems to be capable of looking beyond the end of her own reputation as a master detective - and, it quickly becomes apparent, understands the threat that Sly's trying to overcome just as much as he does.
Vice City, I'll take it
It's all handled in a fairly childish fashion, which is why Sony aims the series at younger players. The characters are bright, colourful and fairly typical of the sort of cartoon you'll find as you desperately struggle to find Hollyoaks on Sunday morning, but the dialogue isn't hammy or condescending for the most part. It's more Spider-Man than Pokémon really (although we do wish it was more Samurai Pizza Cats). And the beautifully drawn pre-level illustrations, over which Sly fleshes out the plot, remain a real draw. In other words, we're not going to pretend we don't enjoy it just because it's 'aimed at kids' - and Sly 2's new, more freeform approach ought to ensure that it manages to follow in its predecessor's footsteps and keep us interested - however basic everyone's motivations happen to be.
Sly 2 isn't the first platform game to tackle the city streets approach, of course - Jak II did it rather successfully last Christmas, for one - but it is the first to make active use of the streets for more than the odd race or shoot-'em-up section, and Sly's ability to clamber over narrow wires and sidle round ledges means the player can scamper over the top of heavily guarded patrol routes, darting across telephone wires and double-jumping over the sweeping flashlights of brutish enemies that he simply can't tackle hand to hand. If he's on the floor, he may find himself in trouble, but there's always some way to scramble back up to the rooftops, or failing that some sort of low table to duck under and get out of plain sight. Reaching an office window so that he can sneak in and do some reconnaissance is a task in itself.
Each mission in each city is geared towards the eventual heist, so recon is generally the order of the day. Sly will sneak in through upstairs windows and photograph parties in progress, snatch keys from desks, tail bad guys, switch paintings, locate and disable various alarms dotted around the city to cripple security systems, and eventually find a way to crack into the heart of the operation and take on the main man. There's also the occasional rooftop chase, which has Sly bounding over wires, bouncing off awnings and double jumping parked cars to keep up. Since he's creeping around a lot more now, pickpocketing guards is often the key to success, too, and this element of stealth can be quite engaging - having to locate and then creep up behind specific, monstrous adversaries as they patrol with flashlights, and use Sly's staff to nick the keys right out of their pockets, all without being seen.
Nerves of Steal
The city is also a lot livelier than Jak II's equivalent. Since it's generally nighttime when the Band of Thieves comes to call, it's populated more or less exclusively by roaming guards - and if he can make it up behind them unnoticed, Sly can use his new stealth takedown - triangle to juggle, then square to slam - to get rid of the evidence. There's no dragging enemies into the shadows here; it's stealthy, but it's stealth at an accelerated pace. The city is also alive with hidden treasures, which is something that Jak II sorely needed. Search around a bit and you'll find up to 30 hidden bottles, which fans of the first game will remember immediately, and you can also find the odd vase or painting that's worth pinching. Make it back to the team's safe house with the loot intact and you can use Bentley's 'Internet connections' to flog them - and then spend the money on upgrades like heightened strength and smoke bombs.
It's not all Sly, either. As the name of the game suggests, his co-crims Bentley and Murray are now involved, and they add a nice touch of variety. Murray, a big bouncy hippo, is good at crashing through things and is fairly combat focused since it's not as easy for him to escape to the rooftops as it is for Sly, who's not only nimbler but can also clamber up pretty much any pipe or lamp post simply by jumping towards it and pressing circle. Bentley marks another change - he uses a dart gun to bring enemies to the ground, then drops a small bomb to blow them up. Switching between all three is as simple as heading back to the safe house and picking one - and missions are split between the three of them, although Sly, who remains the most engaging character, is given the lion's share. Despite being a raccoon.
Sometimes the group joins forces on a particular mission, too. At one point, Bentley needs to get inside a water tower with an entrance suspended in the air. To do this, he has to jump into Murray's arms and then the player gets to aim and have Murray hurl him towards the target. Later on you'll see Sly having to defend the band's Scooby Doo style van against hordes of enemies as Murray and Bentley try to winch down a statue and knock a hole in a fountain. There's definitely a lot of variation - and Sly's unique ability to climb up pipes, over wires and leap from spire to spire takes advantage of the city design in ways that Jak and co. never did.
City of Thieves
The early signs, certainly, are that Sly 2 has a firm handle on what it's trying to do. Gallivanting around rooftops and evading guards on the way to a sleuthy endeavour is a nice idea, well executed for the most part, the missions themselves aren't watered down either, and it's not quite the cakewalk that some people found the first game to be. It's still just as aesthetically pleasing too - each character is thoroughly animated, from the involuntary shake of Sly's tail as he crouches in waiting, to the tip-toeing and tottering of the nervous Bentley, and the environments have been sculpted imaginatively and interactively without forcing a dip in frame rate. Voice acting is consistent, if a little kiddish, and the range of periphery lighting and sound effects give the game its artistic edge - it's as close to a cartoon as anything we've ever seen.
Admittedly there are some things we're not sure about yet. We miss the first game's finely tuned maze-like passages of platform precision that led us spiralling unpredictably around with one eye open for hidden bonuses, and we're hoping that we'll be introduced to some genuinely new tricks at some point - being re-taught the spire-jump move, a mainstay of the first game, at the beginning of the second city section was a little under whelming. What will make or break Sly 2 is the developer's ability to keep changing things, and, specifically, not falling into the trap of laying on too many obvious Grand Theft Also fetch and combat quests that involve heading to all four corners of each city to collect keys or items. If Sucker Punch can fill out the game without doing that, then it should be more than capable of stealing a march on Jak and Ratchet this Christmas.
Sly 2: Band of Thieves is due out exclusively on PS2 this October.