Confession time: I never played any of the Sly Cooper games when they originally released on the PlayStation 2. I had heard of them, thought they looked pretty neat, and I even remember playing a demo of Sly 2 in a Blockbuster Video (just let that sink in), but I just never got around to doing anything about it. So when Sony released The Sly Collection in the later half of 2010, I scooped it up immediately. Three platinum trophies later, I can say with utmost confidence that I enjoyed the ride.
Then the unthinkable happened. Sanzaru Games, the fine folks who handled the HD update while Sucker Punch busied themselves with Cole MacGrath and his Electric Boogaloo, decided they were going to take up the reigns completely. Thus was born Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. (Before I go any further, I had a mini debate with myself regarding how to shorten Thieves in Time. For the sake of professionalism, I will not be referring to this latest adventure as SC:TiT. I'll be using Sly 4 instead.)
Picking up where Sly 3 left off, we find Sly Cooper living the good life as boyfriend to Interpol's Carmelita Fox, though his heart is secretly pining, and planning, another heist. Little does he know that Bentley, para-paraplegic turtle and master planner, has simultaneously invented time-travel and discovered that the Thievieus Raccoonus, literary home of the Cooper clan's exploits over the years, has started erasing itself. Realizing this is a problem, and worried about his girlfriend Penelope, who has also disappeared, Bentley reunites the gang to perform the very heist that Sly himself was planning.
Convenient? Sure, but then, most things are in tales such as these. With Murray, or rather The Murray, in tow, and his van rigged with Bentley's time-travel device, the scene is set for some kooky Cooper capers, each keeping relatively close to the formula set by the preceding games: Arrive in a new area/time, send Sly out for recon, find baddie, disrupt operations through a variety of sneaking/fighting/hacking/mini-games, boss fight, next area.
Breaking it down in that fashion makes the structure sound trite, and while the various areas and missions are obviously more exciting while playing, they all stick to relatively the same formula. Seeing Sanzaru take the reigns, and having just recently completed the first three games, I was hoping to see something a little different, a little bit of a shake up in what's become the same old heist routine. What I ended up with was something comforting in it's familiarity, but also a bit disappointing in it's lack of innovation.
Having laid my disappointment bare, I want to quickly add that Sly 4 brings a renewed focus back to the core group of Sly, Bentley and Murray, and that was something that I desperately wanted to see. Sly and the gang have always been a family, and it was great to get to visit and adventure with them again. Too much of that was lost in Sly 3, when every mission turned into a “how many people can we fit in this party” party. With Penelope vanishing like the Statue of Liberty under the dutiful care of David Copperfield, the only returning character of the third games' multi-member soiree is disco loving lizard Dimitri, and his role is reduced to nothing more then a cut scene contact left back in the present time HQ.
Instead of adding new permanent members like Sly 3, Sly 4 brings in alternate Slys in the form of his ancestors. With the exception of one, each is as nimble and quick footed as the modern day master thief, and while they are missing the various skills purchased from ThiefNet (the ability store) that makes Sly and his gang more effective, each has a specific special ability that's used throughout their time period, both in jobs and in collectable hunting.
Unfortunately, most of the ancestors are pretty unexciting, each serving as a one note, time centric Sly, with none being as useful as the original. The exception is Tennessee Cooper, Sly's wild west relative who comes equipped with his very own... gun cane? Designed with a classic six-shooter in mind, Tennessee's signature cane is a revolver and with his Crackshot ability, which shoot multiple targets in the blink of an eye, his sections become a weird third-person shooter. They are handled well, but they feel a little out of place considering that the only other time guns are brought in are during Murray turret sequences.
In stark contrast to the overall blandness of the ancestors is the time periods from which they hail. From modern day Paris, to the cave raccoon days, each of the six areas are distinct in both look and theme. The Sly Collection served to bring the PS2 classics into the HD age, but Sly 4 is truly high definition. All this fancy lookin' though has taken a bit of a toll on the frame rate. Starting with Heist 3, multiple movements combined with sharp camera turns amounted to nothing but trouble, with the world slowing enough to make the normally smooth gameplay a bit choppy. It was never enough to interfere with what I was attempting to accomplish, but it was more then enough to pull me out of the moment and take note.
Also of note are some pretty excessive load times, longer any seen in past Sly games. Entering a job, the hideout/HQ, or jumping between times all triggers the load screen. It becomes very noticeable when trying for some of the mission specific trophies, as one especially must be started completely over, meaning a load screen out of, and then back into the job.
All the characters received some nice graphical upgrades, with the biggest and best changes falling to Bentley. His wheelchair was redesigned, adding a pair of Doc Ock style arms that serve pickpocketing and bomb dropping far better then his previous magnet on a fishing pole design. His movements and hovering had some of the kinks worked out of them as well, and I actually looked forward to tooling around the open environments with him.
Both Bentley and Murray have also been given numerous options when it comes to their weaponry, with Murray gaining some impressive elemental choices to assist in “breaking stuff” and Bentley tailoring his dart ammo and bombs to shrink, knock out and confuse enemies on top of simply exploding for damage. ThiefNet returns as the primary source of unlocks, with new additions being added after the completion of almost every job.
Sly gets ThiefNet upgardes as well, with standard like Silent Obliteration and his Paraglider making a return. Gone are the multi-level charge attacks, instead they are replaced with a single level charge attack that's not quite as useful as past iterations. In place of varying forms of damage or ammo, Sly gets different costumes, which outside of some required job set pieces, or collectable hunting, are pretty useless. Their designs are great, and they each fit the time period well, on top of some of them looking quite silly, but their movement benefits are outdone by Sly's upgraded abilities.
What didn't get an upgrade in terms of either reworking or rethinking are the mini-games. Some are truly inspired, like the Sarsaparilla Bar Slide, or the Rocky-esque workout montage run by The Murray, whose does the best Apollo Creed impression a pink hippo can. Others are returning “favorites” that must have slipped through the door while the bouncer was in the bathroom, like rhythm games where the entire music line bounces to the beat, or (thankfully it shows up only once) another RC Chopper sequence. Bentley's hacking games are back as well, with the standard dual joystick tank shooter (which now looks like it belongs in TRON) being joined by a 2D dual joystick rocket-propelled-flying-turtle shooter and a RAGE INDUCING SIXAXIS circuit connection game.
Why developers still include Sixaxis controls on anything is mind numbing. Sly 4 includes at least two mini-games that are pure sixaxis, including an ever so joyful, though exceedingly easy, balancing game. Hopefully, when the new consoles are announced, these ridiculous gimmicky controls can be put to pasture (I'm sure they'll only be replaced by new gimmicky controls, but I can rage against those later).
Sixaxis aside, there is still a lot to love in Sly 4. While I found the ancestors to be a collection of wet sandwiches as a whole, and the costumes lacking, I was nothing but smiles when it came to running around as Sly and his cohorts. It also gets exceptionally high marks for bringing back clue bottles and introducing Sly Masks into the stable of collectables. Some of my favorite moments were buzzing around the world, checking every nook and cranny for hidden bottles, treasures and masks while pickpocketing the hell out of anyone within view. Sanzaru even went as far as to make an unlockable “Sly as Batman” skin just for me (ok, so it's not just for me, but that's what it feels like), and as a super secret surprise, they added a special ending for those that are patient/OCD enough to get the platinum trophy.
Given it's spot on my most anticipated games of 2013 list, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time was more or less what I was looking for. While it wasn't as innovative as the Sly of my dreams, it was nonetheless a solid, worthy, and all together fun romp with the old gang. While Sony may have decided to sit this on the bottom shelf marketing wise, I hope it sells enough that we might see another on next-gen consoles. It would be an absolute shame for this to be the last Sly romp, but if it is, nothing could have been a more fitting tribute to one of Sony's most creative franchises.