Get sly'with a little help from his friends.
The most successful video games, from Zelda to Final Fantasy, rely on interesting, recognizable characters to maintain their popularity and relevance. When gamers spend twenty hours exploring the saga of a digital hero's life, they feel bound to the protagonist because they've gone through so much together. What else can explain all those ridiculous costumes?
As a result, when a new game with everyone's favorite hero's face emblazoned on the box pops up on store shelves, it sells like hot cakes. It's like a reunion; fans want to see what so-and-so's been up to in the time since they last partied together.
This is just one reason why Sony's Sly 2: Band of Thieves is such a great game. Sucker Punch, Sly's developer, spent quite a bit of energy imbuing Sly's world and characters with personality and character, so that when you play, you're also just hanging out with the Cooper gang. The fact that the game is mechanically sound, gorgeous and flat out fun doesn't hurt, either.
This time around, members of the evil Klaww gang have salvaged the pieces of Sly's immortal nemesis, the metal nightmare Clockwerk, and put them to use in nefarious schemes. Sly, fearful that Clockwerk might one day be reassembled if left in wicked hands, goes after the gangsters with the help of his friends, Bentley and Murray. Of course, Carmelita and her new partner Neyla chase you endlessly and offer occasional help. Toss in a few shocking twists and tragedies and you wind up with another strong Sly story.
Each level begins with a cut-scene describing the evildoer du jour's past as well as what Clockwerk parts they possess and how the parts figure into their plans. From there, the game moves to the interior of the Cooper gang's safe house, which functions as the game's hub.
At the safe house, you can choose to play as Sly, Bentley, or Murray as well as access ThiefNet, an online thieving network where you can sell stolen loot or buy gadgets and moves for Cooper and company (each character gets access to a new move or gadget every episode). While most simply make the game easier by increasing attack damage or jump range, a few are actually essential to completing certain objectives.
In an excellent design decision, the developers decided to save Sly's slow-motion ability for the end; you'll have to play through most of the game without it. I was a fan of Sly's slow-motion, but in honesty, it made the first Sly Cooper too easy. Removing it from the core gameplay was a good idea.
Sly can unlock eight additional moves by collecting messages in bottles and accessing vaults containing lost pages of the Thievius Raccoonus, Sly's family book of thievery. However, the number of bottles required to unlock a vault is 30, and the vaults themselves are really hard to find as they no longer occupy central locations in the levels. In Sly 2, extras are meant to be extras, so you'll probably have to play through the game a second time if you want to see most of the gang's new moves.
Fortunately, the gameplay in Sly 2 is dynamite. Murray, Bentley, and Sly are all playable and each has a distinct method of getting the job done. Sly, naturally, is the agile one. As a result, most of his tasks involve reaching remote locations and scouting. Murray (or "The Murray," as he calls himself) is a giant pink hippo and thus relies on brute strength. He might be too large and pink to be stealthy, but he packs a serious melee wallop. Bentley the turtle is the gang's brain and, in effect, its operational leader. He hatches the plans, sets the mission objectives, and does all the hacking. He's also the demolitions expert and can wreak havoc with his menagerie of munitions.
Every character is capable of running, sprinting, jumping and shimmying, though Sly is definitely the most dynamic of the three. He's very nimble and his incredible mobility gives the player a sense of freedom not found during the more specific Murray or Bentley sequences.
All three are good fun, though. For instance, Bentley isn't terribly agile or powerful, but he can put enemies to sleep from a distance and then run up and drop a bomb on them before going on his way. The visual effect of watching a nerdy, nervous turtle scamper up to a sleeping hulk of a villain and carefully drop a bomb next to its head with a "tink tink' is classic. Bentley has all the mannerisms of an electric engineer on American Gladiators, from the way he anxiously bounces back and forth from one foot to the other to the way he feebly swings his crossbow at advancing foes.
Sly 2's playability extends far beyond the standard moves list of its protagonists, as many of the game's objectives involve completing some sort of mini-game. Bentley, for instance, is required to hack several computers throughout the game, which plays out via a fun, old-school shooter. There are tons of these and they effectively mix up the experience. Sly 2 is videogaming's answer to the televised variety show.
The level design is terrific and gives the game a more open feel than the original. Large, beautiful environments bustle with enemies and burst with loot. You can locate objectives at the click of a button, which sends a color-coded skylight shooting up from every available task in the level. You won't get lost easily.
But while the levels are ornately designed, they're also a bit limiting in that they're always hostile. There are no civilians or neutral areas and the areas are not connected. One improvement might be to actually allow Sly and the gang to travel between locales on a world map as opposed to leaving the travel sequences to cut-scenes.
The level progression is also very linear. You have to tackle every opponent in a predetermined order; it would be nice to see the next Sly game pull a Mega Man and open it up a little.
From the look and sound of things, Sly 2 is a masterpiece. The cel-shading, the lighting, and the fantastic animations lend oodles of personality to every inch of the world, while the music does a wonderful job heightening the action without ever becoming annoying. The sound effects are remarkably crisp, and the voice acting is fun and effective.
Not only are the animations fluid, they also capture each characters' personality. Murray runs like a big doofus, and when he's not moving he sort of quivers with dumb enthusiasm. Such details extend the identities and create a more immersive experience. By the end of the game, you'll be so familiar with their personalities and idiosyncrasies that Sly and his gang will seem like old friends.
However, you won't want to invite the camera over for coffee or anything, as it can be quite unruly, occasionally getting stuck on terrain. The game also experiences some occasional slow-down and the very last battle seems a little unfinished.
But make no mistake: Sly 2 is a great game. The plot is dramatic and intriguing, the characters are vibrant and real, and the diverse gameplay elements will keep you wanting more than the 15 or so hours it takes to complete. Even though it suffers from a couple snags, it's a steal.