Sneaking back to play some Sly Cooper

SlyCoverInFamous made developer Sucker Punch a household name. Its open-world superhero game mixed open world traversal, platforming and deep combat in a way that no other developer to that point had to great success.  Sucker Punch was the new hotness and their games were absolutely on fire.

For many of us though their talents weren’t totally new hat.  We had been enjoying the developer’s brand of slick platforming for years and for mine, the Sly Raccoon series was the best of the character action-platformer actions Sony sported in its stable during the age of the Playstation 2.  You’d be forgiven for not noticing however, with Sly vying for the attention of rabid PS2 owners along with Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank and Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter, both already with serious pedigree in the platforming arena.  Such competition made it hard for even the most seasoned of developers to break through and hit mass market, let alone a relative newcomer with only one slightly obscure Nintendo 64 title under its belt.

What Sucker Punch lacked in experience though it more than made up for in style and fine-tuned gameplay, and Sly Raccoon: Thievius Raccoonus was an absolute early PS2 gem.  At its heart Sly is a platformer, but the skeleton the developers built around it is what sets it apart from almost any other game available of its ilk available.  Unlike its Sony brethren, Sly Cooper is built on platforming, but doesn’t lean on encouraging precise player movement or heavy-handed combat for the most part to populate its challenge.  Rather, like inFamous, Sly has an almost magnetic quality to him, which largely mitigates the risk of death by falling, drowning or impaling, for even the least hand-eye coordination gifted player.  So while the platforming and traversal parts of the game are the game’s bread and butter, the developer doesn’t rely on them as the only source of challenge.  Combat is similarly handled and head-to-head fighting is largely an annoying obstacle on your way to climbing a pole or sliding down a rail.  One hit kills most enemies and to that end is a rather trivial affair as you run up to said enemy, avoid their attack, and bop them on the head with your cane.  Even when you gain new combat abilities they are seldom required, and its easier to just ignore them and carry on with your direct approach to combat.  That may seem like a problem but for me it was simple and unobtrusive, and not really the reason I come to a game like this.

Sly’s lax approach to traditional platforming  is outweighed by its absolutely stellar implementation of simple stealth mechanics within that framework.  Put simply, outside of your Sam Fishers and your Solid Snakes, Sly Raccoon has probably the best implemented sneaky-bits in video games.  It doesn’t rely on complex metres, line of sight or gadgets a-go-go, rather Sly’s back to basics approach to staying in the shadows is limited to avoiding visual cues such as spotlights, lasers and torch-toting enemies.  Timing is key if you want to survive, jumping over laser trip wires, dodging between swift moving spotlights and sneaking around behind enemies requires razor sharp timing and steady premeditated movement.  And it is these moments that makes Sly so enjoyable.  There is a certain type of reward that comes from staying out of sight and not triggering the alarms apart from potentially keeping you alive for longer.  Even though the punishment for getting caught is never more than a few minutes of progress, and in most cases can be reversed with the simple smashing of a checkpointed alarm, getting through a heavily secured area without triggering an alarm is one of gaming’s simple joys.  Sly isn’t all stealth all the time, but when it is, it is absolutely on song.

Sly’s cell-shaded look still looks absolutely gorgeous a decade on

It’s level design is another highlight, and on returning to Sly something about its levels made me feel like I was going home for the holidays.  The easily identifiable and greatly varied levels bring me a sense of familiarity that most games I’ve played, some as recently as yesterday, just don’t. The levels are small and contained and relatively easy to navigate, but despite this still have a sense of scope, whether it be climbing mountains or traversing rooftops, that many games simply don’t achieve with three or four times the real estate.  It is this clever deception that makes you feel well-travelled at the end of the rather short 6-8 hour campaign.  It also helps that throughout that time the developers stack on enough variety as you jet set from country to country, that no one area outstays its welcome.  It’s like a world trip without having to leave your couch.  Just with slightly more crime.

Sly Raccoon is an 11 year old game and often  these once-great games can be weather-worn by time, as technology, expectations and preferences change.  To my delight though this was not the case with the Sly Raccoon which remains as stylish and fun as it ever did.  For me experiencing the game in glorious cell-shaded HD more than a decade later was a sheer delight filled not only with nostalgia, but a friendly reminder that Sly as a franchise can go toe to toe with the best family-friendly platformers  Nintendo and SEGA can offer up.  If you haven’t played it; I implore you to do so.  You’d be stealing from yourself by not.


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