At this years E3, Sony gave out Sly Cooper demos that included exactly one half of the first world’s stages, and from that demo we were able to realize that this game was shaping up to be very good. What could not have been known from the demo however, is just how kickass the finished product would actually turn out to be. And boy does it ever kick ass. The demo was only a drop in the bucket compared to what you’ll see on the final build of the game. Every element in the game (and believe me when I say there are a lot) comes together with amazing results and bucket loads of appeal. One minute you’re sneaking around in a protective barrel, the next you’re hanging upside down on a creaky pipe directly below a watchful guard who will not hesitate to shoot if he spots you. The action is fast and precise; sneaking around, you feel like Solid Snake but with the agility of a ninja cat.
The plot in Sly Cooper manages not only to be entertaining on its own merits, but also figures into the actual gameplay objectives in the sense that every task you perform is backed up by believable circumstances that are reinforced in the foundational story. What Sly, his egghead partner Bentley, and part-time driver Murray the hippo are attempting to do is retrieve a family heirloom: a book known as the Thievius Raccoonus.
On the very day that Sly was to be given this book, five misguided diabolical criminals showed up to snatch it from him. In the process, Sly’s father was (assumably, it is never fully explained) killed and the prize possession of the Cooper family was torn into many pieces. The pages were then used by these criminals to their own evil ends, and with the amazing thieving knowledge contained on these pages they were all able to become powerful forces. The mastermind behind the Raccoonus heist is known as Clockwerk. He was able to get away with the majority of the pages and is appropriately the alpha villain in the game. As you chase down these five hoodlums your progress will be constantly impeded by Carmelita, a foxy detective who has been hot on your tail for years, though as it turns out is completely oblivious to the fact that the people who you are hunting down are the true criminals.
Bonus pages from the Thievius Raccoonus can be found throughout every level in the game by collecting enough clues and learning the combination of the stage’s vault. It is not required that you find all the clues but if you do, Sly will learn new techniques that can completely change up the strategy of maneuvering through the many perils which he will inevitably endure. There are five worlds in the game, each with around seven unique levels apiece. Every level that you complete will net you one key and once enough keys are attained, you’ll be able to use them to access the boss’s area. The last stage of every world concludes in a momentous boss fight. Once you defeat the boss, you’ll obtain a portion of the Thievius Raccoonus. The techniques you learn from those pages will play a vital role in the next area of the game. So while some abilities will be learned no matter what, you’ll almost assuredly miss a few unless you revisit every level to collect every page.
The levels themselves offer a wide assortment of minigame-type objectives that serve to break up the monotony of the standard sneaking-and-beating gameplay (not that you’ll ever actually get tired of controlling Sly), and include such things as controlling Murray as he drives the getaway van in a race for the key, playing as Bentley as he hacks a computer system via a digital asteroids-esque shooting stage, and getting behind the turret of powerful guns to provide cover for your partners. The sheer amount of diversity in gameplay is impressive enough as it is but it is the levels in which you play as Sly that really shine. These stages are reminiscent of other games like Maximo, except instead of being limited to a few different moves Sly can do tons of different things to get around. He can jump onto objects and climb them, attach his hook-cane to hanging rings and swing from them, tip-toe on tiny ledges, grind on long pieces of winding pipe, and perform a ton of other stealthy maneuvers.
Once you become familiar with a level, you will be able to bust out some mad stealth skills as you leap and dive from enormous heights and land on the top of an object the size of a baseball without making a single sound, and thus not alerting enemy forces. It only takes a few attempts to become impressively efficient at navigating a stage and while most stages are satisfyingly challenging, you’ll be thieving like nobody’s business once you get the hang of the play control. You can move around with the L-analog stick and change the camera perspective with the R-analog stick. With X you can jump, or if you press X while in the air Sly will perform a double jump. Square makes Sly swing his hook-cane to attack enemies. The trick to the gameplay is in the circle button. This is like the all purpose master-thieving modifier button that allows Sly to perform whatever maneuver is applicable for the current situation. For instance, pressing circle when close to a hanging ring will make him attach his hook to it, hitting circle when you are near a rope will allow him to grab onto it, and so forth.
One of the coolest aspects of Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus are the boss-fights at the end of every world. These sequences were given painstaking attention to detail and are both entertaining to watch and challenging enough so that you’ll end up watching them a couple times before progressing. The boss battle with Mz. Ruby, where she suddenly transforms the game into an impressively high-quality PaRappa the Rapper sequence, surprised the hell out of me; it was completely unexpected and immensely enjoyable, though the end-boss is a little disappointing.
Visually, Sly Cooper looks downright stunning, especially for a PS2 game. It employs the almost-out-of-style cel-shading technique similar to that of Jet Grind Radio or the upcoming Auto Modellista, but instead of relying on this rendering method as a pseudo-original gimmick to make the game appealing to youngsters, it utilizes the advantages of cel-shading to make the game look like a comic book with animations that rival that of Disney. The end result is phenomenal. The cut-scenes that are peppered throughout the game before and after every world are fantastic and really get you pumped up to start playing the game again. Atmospheres are huge and every object in the game is very detailed, even up close. There are occasional slowdown issues that crop up in the later levels, but a little slowdown is well worth the trade-off for environments that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Every piece of dialogue in the game is spoken and the voice-work is done very well. All the characters in the game sport voice-acting that is completely believable and entirely original. The music sets the perfect mood for the on-screen action and dynamically changes depending on the situation. Sound effects are also very enjoyable; nearly every on-screen action has an audible representation.
This is the kind of entertainment Sony will need to bring to the table in the future in order to secure the PS2’s position as king of the console hill. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is an absolute blast to play and raises the bar for what makes an excellent 3D platforming game. The one complaint I have with this game though, is that it is too damn short; expect to invest around ten hours before watching the credits roll. But despite the game’s short life span, it is still one of the most entertaining platform games for any system, past or present.