Friday, February 15, 2013

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (Video Game) - Review

Sly 2: Band of Thieves is my favorite video game of all-time. It's more or less a flawless game, which heavily plays into its place as my all-time favorite, but it also has a lot of nostalgic significance to me. The story of the Sly Cooper series was one of the first, if not the first, video game story to really click with me. Young Matt would just skip the cut-scenes in the games he played, but Sly 2 didn't give the player that option. Young Matt was forced to watch the cut-scenes, and Young Matt became engrossed in the tale of a mischievous trio of anthropomorphised animals. So engrossed that he hunted down the first game in the series, and so engrossed that he excitedly got in on the third game when it released back in 2005.

And then, the series was gone for awhile. Developer Sucker Punch moved onto the more popular Infamous series on the Playstation 3. Imagine my excitement when the Sly Cooper HD Collection revealed that a Sly 4 is in the works. It was first slated for a 2012 release on Playstation 3, but that was changed to a Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita release on February 5th, 2013. I loyally went down to the game shop on its day of release and bought myself a copy.

The first game in the series, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, was, for the most part, a standard, linear-style 3D platformer that uniquely mixed in elements of stealth, had a quirky story, and used an interesting visual style. The second game became less linear in its progression, beefed up the story, vastly improved the graphics, and allowed the player to take control of more than just Sly Cooper. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves used the same framework as Sly 2, but threw even more gameplay concepts and characters into the mix. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time continues the story of the series by using the same structure of the second and third games, but scales its gameplay variety and character roster to something comparable to the second game. The game is out on both PS3 and Vita, the PS3 version includes a free download of the Vita version, and players with both can take advantage of a cloud-save function used to continue progress across platforms [which works brilliantly]. It's successful in capturing the magic of the older games in the series and is a great game in its own right, despite hitches such as consistent technical problems and an unsatisfying conclusion to its narrative.

The plot of Thieves in Time takes place directly after the events of  Sly 3. The Sly Cooper gang, a ragtag trio of master thieves, is split up after the climatic events of the third game. Sly is hanging out with police officer and love interest Carmelita Fox, whom only allowed this because she believes he has amnesia [he doesn't... hopefully things didn't get weird behind the scenes]. Meanwhile, Bentley, the brains of the Sly Cooper gang, successfully created a time machine with his love interest Penelope. The premise of Thieves in Time forms when the gang learns that Penelope is missing and there is a baddie with his own time machine thwarting Cooper ancestors throughout history. Each chapter takes place in a different time in history, and features a different, playable Cooper from the past.

The story's lots of fun and mostly maintains the tone of past games. It is a lot more comedic (Murray, the third member of the Sly Cooper gang, is more or less completely comedic relief in this entry) and often laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it still has a reasonable amount of smart, inventive drama that I more than appreciate as a fan of the series. It’s ridiculous, just like past games – the wheelchair-bound turtle Bentley doesn’t just have the rocket packs and hydraulics from the last game, but he also has Doctor Octopus-style mechanical arms this time around. There's a big plot twist around 80% through the game, and it hits hard and surprises. Overall it’s great, but the conclusion is weak and wholly unsurprising, despite the satisfying and engaging final boss fight.

And the game is quite striking. On PS3, I can confidently say that these graphics are some of the very best of its kind. This is very impressive cartoonish celshading, with intricate and expressive character animations and colorful and interesting vistas. On Vita, it looks pretty good, but the resolution and draw distance take noticeable hits. In both versions, the 2D animated cut-scenes are massively cut off by black bars on the television, but what’s there looks great. Voice acting is similarly impressive, with goofy and fun performances that fit the over-the-top characters. The original cast from past games more or less reprises its roles, as well.

The biggest problem with the game is something on a similar note, and that’s technical issues. The framerate on the Vita version is not awesome, as it frequently drops throughout the whole game. On PS3 it’s mostly pretty smooth, until the final chapter in which the framerate is just as unimpressive as the Vita version always is. Load times on both platforms are exceedingly bad, which may be the worst of the technical issues. I had the audio cut out while playing on PS3 at one point, and I got stuck in objects once on each platform, as well. These technical issues bring the overall experience down, but never made me think twice about booting the game up to play.

And that’s because the game is lots of fun. The gameplay is comprised mostly of sequences combing stealth and platforming. The game introduces new concepts enough to keep things fresh, and the organic nature of the level design makes the platforming engrossing in a way that games like Super Mario 64 just aren’t. During gameplay, it doesn’t feel like jumping from platform A to platform B, it actually feels like jumping from the chimney of a roof to a cable line. Every now and then the game will throw sections of brawling, or of dual-stick shooting, or of third-person shooting at you, and they’re fun while they last.

The game is rife with collectibles, creating an incentive to continue playing after the credits roll – or at least to make you play more carefully the first time through. The game is split into five chapters, each taking place in a secluded, [small-scale] open-world. Each has their own set of three types of collectibles. The bottles and treasures of past games return, the latter of which providing in-game money as well as the pride of collectorship that the former solely provides. The game also has masks, which are sometimes hidden within missions; all of which are replayable. I love the idea of exploring these little worlds to find treasures and bottles, but the prospect of replaying missions for masks seems exhausting. It’s just extra, so it’s hard to complain too much, but this is preventing me from doing the 100% completion I was more than happy to do with the second and third entries in the series.

As a big fan of the series, I’m happy with Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. It’s unfortunate that the game didn’t get the extra time needed to stamp out the technical quarrels, and it’s unfortunate that the end to the story is as lame as it is, but the game succeeds as a whole. Sanzaru Games was able to make me smile in the same way that Sucker Punch did with the original trilogy on PS2. The story is taken in a fun direction, the goofy comedy squeezed out some Petras laughter, the leap in generation does wonders for the visuals, and the organic, engaging platforming is as good as it’s always been in the series. Bring on Sly 5, Sanzaru.