Alright gang, I've done my reconnaissance. Let's review my findings before we go on this mission.
The target is the new PS3 game called Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Now, we haven't seen much from this franchise in quite a while... 2005, to be exact. Unless you want to count the 2010 Sly HD Collection, which is only worth mentioning because it was uprezed by Sanzaru Games. They are the same developers who made this "Sly 4" game. Seems they got the job when they impressed the big dogs at Sony with an unofficial HD Sly demo and were given the keys to the Cooper Castle, as it were.
Now, from what my sources tell me, this is no reboot. The plot picks up after the events of Sly 3 with all of the continuity intact. Luckily the story is told in such a way that newcomers to the franchise will not get lost, but longtime fans will get a kick out of homages and callbacks to the PS2 games of old. See, the story starts with Sly having spent a few years "in retirement" from his master thief role. He gets that old itch for the heist and gets the gang back together for "one more score". Before you know it, they are Marty McFlying themselves through history.
Great Scott! This is heavy!
Even given the time travel, the game's structure follows the same foundations laid out in the stellar Sly 2. You arrive in an exotic locale and must steal something from the crime lord of the region. You begin with a few reconnaissance missions which involve exploring the new region and taking pictures of certain key landmarks. After that you will go on various missions in the area (with different members of your gang) in an attempt to weaken the big bad's operations until you're finally able to bring him down.
Now, the twist here is that the thing you are often stealing from the villain is one of Sly's own ancestors. From the very first game, we know that Sly's Cooper family is a long line of master thieves. Where in Sly 1 we were tasked with collecting pages from the family book which taught us special moves, here we are rescuing (and get to play as) those very raccoons from the past.
Further intel tells us that in each of the five main levels you will team up with that era's Cooper, who while controlling much like Sly, will have their own special ability that makes level traversal and mission completion unique to them. Adding your old partners of Murray the pink hippo and Bentley the tech-savvy turtle (plus a few spoilery surprises) you'll have yourself quite the variety of characters and playstyles to test out.
A majority of the gameplay is still focused on Sly Cooper himself, who also gains variety in his abilities through various costumes you will unlock through each new area. Each one of Sly's costumes is truly only useful in specific situations and will likely never be used outside of the area in which it is found. This is not like how in Metroid getting a new ability opens up previous areas and gives you the feeling of character growth and exploration. No, the costumes are various shaped pegs and the game just places a few various shaped holes for you to put them in.
Worse, the costumes remove some of Sly's default abilities while he wears them so you will find yourself just getting to the point where you need them, put them on, use it, take it off, and continue. Imagine if other games did this. What if in Ocarina of Time the Zora Tunic that allows you to breathe underwater slowly killed you when you weren't in the water? So you would get in the water, put on the blue tunic, swim where you have to swim, get out of the water, put on the standard green tunic. That is a bit how the costumes feel in Sly 4. Which brings us to the biggest double-edged sword of the Sly 4 gameplay. Variety.
See gang, variety is a good thing, and Sly games were always good about mixing it up. In many ways there is almost so much variety that the game feels dangerously close to a WarioWare game that got shoved into a cartoony stealth platformer.
Yes. There is a dancing rhythm section in which a pink hippo crossdresses as a geisha.
You play a mission that has one of Sly's ancestors using their special ability to sneak in to collect a disguise for Murray who then distracts the guards with a rhythm game segment which then allows Sly to use his new costume to get through a hazard-filled area so he can put a receiver on a security lock which allows Bentley to play a hacking mini-game which opens a gate that allows Sly's ancestor to get into a place to solve a puzzle only their ability can solve which all leads to a miniboss battle that requires... dear sweet Jeebus! That's a heck of a run-on sentence.
Now imagine having to play this. Some missions will have you switching play styles about once every two minutes. Every now and again would be fine, but far too much of the gameplay time is spent leapfrogging quickly from one character to another to the point you really forget what genre you're supposed to be playing in the first place. In an ironic sort of way, there is too much variety in the variety for me to truly be able to appreciate it.
However, the game is still quite fun. The controls are tight and moving around the world is still smooth and effortless, which is one of the games great highlights. Each different time period is a new setting. Feudal Japan, the Old West, Medieval Times, and more are lovingly recreated in the Sly Universe. The buildings and enemies all reflect the locale as well as the time period. Though as Sly games have always done, it leans heavily on common stereotypes. For example, the Japanese Cooper ancestor is not only a ninja but is also the inventor of sushi. It might cause your eyes to roll but it never feels truly offensive or mean-spirited.
Speaking of eyes rolling, the dialogue is skewed a bit too young for my tastes. Not that I want Sly cussing, but the writers seem to have decided that most of the people playing this game will be very simple-minded. They do the comedy killer of having a character make a bad pun, and then explain that he made a bad pun, and then have another character drive in the point that the pun they just made was bad. An example is when the gang has to travel up a conveyor belt to try and stop the flow of giant pterodactyl eggs from being collected inside a volcano. It... it makes sense in context. Anyway, Bentley mentions they should be careful if they don't want to get scrambled. Then laughs and says it was a bit of egg humor. See, the joke already existed and then they pointed out that "Hey! Hey! I just made a joke! About eggs! Hahahahaha!" It is stupid, it is pointless, and it kills the comedic timing. Kids are smarter than that. Stop dumbing the dialogue down, developers. The plot itself is fantastic, just littered with average dialogue.
Beyond everything else the game is well worth playing. This seems exactly like what 3D action platformers would have looked like if they maintained their cartoony aesthetic and evolved with the times. The characters are colorful, detailed, and animated amazingly. The tech now allows for incredible draw distances and so many nice subtle lighting and shadow effects that you enjoy when the game takes a moment to slow down so you can soak it all in. The soundtrack never fails to capture the mood perfectly, making excellent use of jazzy spy riffs or the more grandiose full symphony tracks during action-filled segments.
That is some fine HD cartoony fire, I tell you what.
One thing that can't be overlooked is how great a value this package is. Beyond the main missions there are secret treasures to find and the franchise's trademark hidden clue bottles that you must collect to unlock safes housing invaluable power-ups. As an added bonus, the game has a Cross-Buy feature, allowing your saves to go back and forth from the PS3 to the Vita. You can even use the Vita as an X-ray of sorts that uncovers secrets in the console version. For a game that retails at $40 new, that's quite a steal.
So all together, Sanzaru Games have proven themselves to be a worthy successor to Sucker Punch. They did their homework and it shows by delivering us a game that is completely faithful to the source and a tribute to just how enjoyable classic PS2 era platformers were. Their only slip up is that, while it looks and plays like a 2013 game, it is written like a 2005 game (has long load times like one too). Though if the super secret ending you see after collecting all the trophies is any indication, we may be looking at the beginning of an all-new Sly trilogy.
And I'm just fine with that.
So there's your mission gang. Buy it, play it, and then wait patiently with the rest of us for Sly 5.
This review is based on a retail copy of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time for the PlayStation 3.