First Impressions - Kristan steals his way into Sony's latest adventure
Although we're still reeling from the endless eating and drinking binges forced upon us by concerned relatives, the sight of a decent new game is almost enough to snap us out of our sorry state.
Having already studied the new release schedules thoroughly, there are a few corkers out there, and Sony's Sly Raccoon is certainly one that caught our attention. After all, Sony's recent dabbling in the platform genre has brought us the double delights of Jak & Daxter and the almost as good Ratchet & Clank. Can Sony make it a hat trick?
Based around the story of charismatic young thief, the game puts you in charge of Sly Raccoon, the latest family member in a long line of expert jewel thieves. Having inherited the ancient Thievius Raccoonus book of the art of thievery on his eighth birthday, the young Racoon has the tome stolen from him by a gang of five villains, who split it between themselves.
And ten years on, somewhat predictably, it's your job to get the family heirloom back by negotiating a vibrant cartoon gameworld packed with tricks, traps and well animated, richly detailed baddies by any means at your disposal.
Early impressions of the "toon shaded" stealth platformer are extremely impressive. Utilising a subtle variation on the cel shading technique, Sucker Punch has managed to craft a game with a look all of its own, that is as impressive visually as anything we've seen on the PS2. Every backdrop is dripping with incidental detail, and features a delightfully exaggerated cartoon look not seen since the wonderful Day Of The Tentacle. Equally impressive is the way some of the scenery reacts to Sly's weight and movement, while every enemy character we've seen so far has a charm and style that make you want to see more of it and drive you through what is in most other respects is a fairly straightforward platfomer - albeit with the oh-so-fashionable element of stealth embedded into the gameplay.
Sly has to work hard to avoid setting off the numerous alarms that populate the levels - and if he does all the grunts go hell for leather to track down the unwelcome guest. Again, dispatching enemies is handled in the normal fashion of cracking them around the chops - so nothing new there. Slightly more imaginative is the way Sly is challenged to avoid moving laser beams - which if touched immediately turn into flesh melting defence devices, while sidling up to walls and zooming around on zip lines gives Sucker Punch the chance to show off some interesting camera angles - and display the gorgeous surroundings in all their day glo glory.
Hat trick hero?
The controls follow the industry standard two stick approach, with movement assigned to the left, and manual camera controls to the right. Mercifully the reliance on the right stick is kept to a minimum, with intelligent automatic cameras, but it's comforting to know that you can call upon manual controls when attempting a really tricky jump.
One slightly irritating facet of Sly Racoon so far is its tendency to kill you off far more than seems reasonable. The proliferation of check points helps keep backtracking to a minimum, but more often than not you're still forced to repeat tricky sections to an irritating degree. Half the problem seems to be in working out what does and doesn't kill you - to find yourself killed by an innocent looking piece of scenery early in the opening level is the first of many bewildering and ultimately annoying inclusions. But trial and error does reap rewards, and the level of gloss lavished upon the game does very quickly make up for such initial quirks.
As you'd expect from any addition to this ageing genre, Sly Raccoon involves collecting stuff, and lots of it. Coins litter the landscape, which - once you accumulate 100 - give Sly the ability to withstand a 'hit' when normally it would mean instant death. So far, the game seems to be obsessed with the collection of keys to give you access to new areas, so there's not much in the way of gameplay innovation from what we've witnessed thus far.
If you can withstand the derivative nature of Sly Raccoon, and love your platform games, there's plenty to admire here. The script, the voiceovers and the animation are top notch, and Sucker Punch has clearly worked hard to refine areas of the genre that most developers skimp on.
The game itself is already available in the US if that tempts you, but PAL gamers will have to wait until January 17th before they can get their sticky paws on Sly Raccoon. We're quietly impressed with what we've seen so far, and reckon it has a good chance of impressing you too. We'll furnish you with a more informed opinion closer to its release date.