Game Review: Sly Cooper 2, A Band of Thieves (PS2)

Authored September 2005, Originally appeared at GameSpot

The level of polish in this game is unbelievable.  Those that think that the PS2’s glory days are gone are sadly mistaken: this game is one of the best (looking, sounding and playing) on any platform.

Not Everything has to be so Serious

The story is a mixture (like the first game) of classic “caper” films and cartoony goodness.  Although I loved the first game I disliked the ending (a stealth platforming game that ends with jet-pack battle against a giant mechanical owl kind of dilutes the experience for me).  However this game takes up right where that one takes off: the various body parts of the mechanical owl super villain have been stolen and put to use by various criminal gangs.  Sly and the gang vow to get them back and dispose of them for good.

Each level is expansive and multi-layered.  There is the standard rolling street level and a light-footed rooftop zone, but there are also docks, under passes, towers and walls connected by traversable wires, pipes swing-hooks, branches, vines and slides.  All of this means that while Sly can’t fly he gets around in an amazingly realized fully 3-dimensional way.  To escape from a guard you can duck under a table, just run away or leap to the rooftops.

Sly is completely fluid in his motion.  There’s no guesswork like in some games as to what you may interact with as anything which allows you use your thief skills sparkles gently as you approach.  You simply get near the object as press circle and you’ll automatically perform the appropriate action whether it’s a side-step along a ledge, a spire landing on a point, a tight rope walk or ducking under a table.

The freedom that this provides is hard to overstate.  You simply don’t have to worry about things: moving quickly and gracefully through the environment almost too easy.  You can run along the street, leap to a drainpipe to attain the rooftop, leap to a telephone wire running along it to the next building and them leap to the top of an antenna for a better view using just the stick and two buttons.

With Friends like These you Get Variety

In addition to Sly you also get to play as the rest of the gang as well: the brainy plan-meister turtle, Bently, and the brawny and loyal but none-too-bright hippo, Murray.  Each area has several missions for each character (although Sly sees the lion’s share of the action) and you often have a choice of the order in which the missions can be completed.

The level of variety in the game is astounding as you put all of your skills to use in various missions.  Some missions are brawls while others require utmost stealth.  Bentley has several “machine” missions like RC Helicopter bombing runs and first-person military turret attacks.  Bentley is also forced to “hack into computers” on occasion which is represented as a very slick looking old-style, top down space-ship game which seems to me a mixture of “Berserk” and  “Asteroids”.  Murray and Sly also have custom mini-games for many levels.

However the game is essentially linear.  Each area culminates in a wildly unlikely plan that requires the skills, all of the characters.  In one example Murray has to sneak to a secret location and throw Bently through an opening.  Bentley then has to solve a puzzle to redirect water from a fountain.  Sly then has to sneak up on the fountain repairman to steal his truck keys and bring them to Murray who then has to drive the truck to front of a building.  Sly then hs to climb the building and catch the grappling hook Bentley shoots to him.

It may sound confusing, but all of the missions are well explained, marked on the area and flow incredibly smoothly from one section to the next.  You are really never confused for more than a few seconds about what needs to be done.  Like the first game you can also choose to collect the 30 “hidden” bottles around a level which, together, allow Bentley to determine the combination of a safe.  Inside that safe is a special move for your characters.

Speaking of moves this game also introduces some simplistic role playing in that you can now spend money earned from thievery to buy power-ups for your characters.  This was little disappointing to me as each level offers you exactly one option for each character and there’s ample opportunity to just buy everything as soon as you see it.  There’s no decisions or forking to the character development.  This isn’t a bad thing, but the whole idea could have been much deeper.

It’s Crime Time!

To gain this money you can collect coins from guards you whack or, if you like subtlety, you can also pick their pockets.  The latter is often more effective because some guards have special items that can only be obtained this way.  Also strewn throughout the level are special items that must be taken back to your hideout intact (any damage taken will destroy them) so that they can be fenced.  These items are often booby-trapped such that you have a time-limit to get them back or else have them explode.

Pleasantly the game uses a trick that should be standard: when you destroy an enemy, even if you shoved him off the end of a roof, all of the pick ups resulted come flying to land near you.  Unlike way too many other games you’re never standing forlorn looking at power ups out-of-reach of your character or at the base of the obstacle you just spent frustrating time climbing.  There is a slight negative in that the pick-ups tend to disappear very quickly, but it’s not very noticeable since they always fall near you.

The game is very cartoonish: there is no blood, no graphic violence and only the barest hint of sexual content (flirtatious comments and such).  It’s a blast to watch and my five year old (whose currently nursing a broken arm) simply LOVES to watch me play it and help out with spotting bottles, enemies and such.  It’s an all-around great family game (although if you want to get technical it definitely glorifies thievery).

The enemies are well-designed if a little too easy in places to take out (especially after you learn certain moves).  They will gang up on you and call for help, but most often can be easily fought or evaded.  Each character has own fighting style as well: Sly is a finesse player with his cane, Bentley favors sniping and bombing while Murray is a straight-up brawler.

All this and Good Looks too?

The game looks incredible.  Most games, I think, don’t pull off cell-shading very well, but this is a glowing exception.  Perhaps it’s the general darkness of many of the levels, but you’ll not see a single seam or tear in this game.  At times there are several enemies, a fully interactive environment and multiple effects going on and you’ll not see any slow-down either.

I’ve never seen a game with a perfect camera but this one is in the top of the pack.  There have been a couple of times where the camera’s gotten stuck, but they are very rare.

The audio is top-notch.  The subtle but perfectly balanced “clink clink” of the hidden bottles (often your best clue to finding them) is exceptional as is all of the other sounds.  Like many games of late there is very little background music to be had so the game relies heavily on the wonderfully produced ambient sounds.  A nice touch is that if you have a headset attached you’ll only hear your teammates through that.  It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s a nice touch.

The voice acting ranges from good to excellent.  Individual performances don’t stand out like they do in other games, but nothing was skimped on (unlike other games that spend their entire budget on one or two “name” actors and them leave the rest of the script to their interns).  The script is well-done, if a bit hokey at times, but, refreshingly, completely embraces the platform (the script often mentions controller functions and buttons directly without evasion).

Final Thoughts

There’s little depth to the story. Although it throws you a few twists and surprises for the most part it’s predictable.  What it does provide is very clever problems, zany solutions to those problems, interesting bad guys and some genuinely funny moments.  This game is more than twice the size of the first.  You can breeze through the game quickly just focusing on the missions, but collecting the bottles, special items and enough money to buy all of the upgrades adds significantly to the time required.  Collecting everything you may be looking at 30 hours of gameplay.

The game is purely fun with very little frustration.  Some of the missions are difficult, but none are frustratingly so and I would expect some people to complain that the game is “too easy”.  However I don’t think a game has to be insanely difficult to be insanely fun.  I think that sometimes game designers insert difficulty instead of gameplay (Jak II did this in places for example).

I’m enthralled with this game.  It improves upon every aspect of the first without losing a single thing that made it great.  It also adds several new and welcomed tricks of its own.  I’m having much more fun with this game than I did with Jak II.  For me, at least, it doesn’t quite dethrone Ratchet and Clank as top platformer but it comes oh so very close.

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