Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a pleasant PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita game that feels like it has been plucked out of a time warp.
It arrives on the eve of the expected February 20 announcement of the make-or-break PlayStation 4 and yet it calls back to an era of easy dominance by the PlayStation 2.
A decade ago, the colorful, cartoony Sly Cooper games were PS2 partners with its fellow PlayStation mascot exclusives, Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter. These games were a PlayStation flavor of Super Mario, Banjo Kazooie and Sonic the Hedgehog. The Sly ones were, arguably the most sophisticated of that PlayStation bunch. They were globe-trotting heist capers (starring anthropomorphic animals, yes) that asked players to sometimes do something that colorful kid-friendly action games rarely asked players to do: be subtle. Hide. Climb across a city's roofs. Pickpocket. Get the drop on the bad guys. Use stealth.
The world seemed to move on from Sly Cooper, and from Ratchet, Jak, Clank and Daxter. Their creators did, bailing on all but the Ratchet series and putting some hair on their chest by making gritty first-person shooters and spirited, realistically-acted adventures. The Sly studio, Sucker Punch, switched to making two (and counting) Infamous games about an electrically charged super-hero who fights evil amid the squalor of damaged cities.
Now, Sly Cooper is back, from a different studio called Sanzaru. The new game is remarkably similar to the old ones, as if time didn't pass and things suddenly just became much prettier. But time has passed. Old-time Sly Cooper players are older and might feel that a return to the series is like a return to their childhood pajamas.
There's an odder thing about Thieves in Time. We last had a new Sly Cooper game in 2005. Two years after that, entirely unrelated, Ubisoft made a new globe-trotting action game series. The games in this series asked players to sometimes do something that action games rarely asked players to do: be subtle. Hide. Climb across a city's roofs. Pickpocket. Get the drop on the bad guys. Use stealth. Those games are called Assassin's Creed, and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time feels oddly, magically and pleasingly like a colorful kid version of one of them—My First Assassin's Creed, as it were. Sly has a new peer now.
The structure of Thieves in Time will be familiar to longtime Sly Cooper players and to players of, say, the multi-city Assassin's Creed II and III. The game is set in six different cities, each an open-world hub full of streets filled with guards, roofs to run across, collectible items to find and nodes that lead to missions. The Thieves in Time twist is that each city is in a different era. In each era lives an ancestor to Sly Cooper, raccoon thief. He must find them. You will get to play as them. One of them is an old ninja Cooper named Rioichi who can jump unusually far. Another is a wild west outlaw who turns this series, ever so briefly, into a third-person shooter. He's the most fun of the bunch.
WHY: A game that looks this good and that tries so hard to make you smile deserves some of your attention.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
Platforms: PlayStation 3 and Vita (reviewed across both)
Released: February 5th
Type of game: Single-player heist caper starring anthropomorphic animals; an interactive Looney Tune.
What I played: The whole thing, mostly on PS3, but sometimes on Vita. No internal game clock, but maybe it took 10 hours?
Two Things I Loved
- The graphics.
- The soundtrack. (For example.)
My Two Things I Hated
- Too easy. Worse, really: it's too simple.
- Bad Vita gimmicks a byproduct of trying to me-too the Wii U.
- "Start your kid's Assassin's Creed experience right here!" —Stephen Totilo, Kotaku.com
- "It's too easy, except for that darn archery mini-game." —Stephen Totilo, Kotaku.com
Assassin's Creed games have always shown their seams and, mixing metaphors, sputtered to contain the ambitions of their creators. Like Sly games, they were and are rich with accents, packed with dialogue and jammed with different kinds of gameplay. The games are made to let us seemingly go anywhere, meet anyone and do anything. They're at their worst/best when the gameplay part of that seems to surpass what the technology and controls tied to the games can handle. To put it another way, if you've played an Assassin's Creed game you've experienced at least once (probably more like 28 times) a moment when you try to make your assassin run one way and then jump ahead, but the dope jumps 90 degrees in the wrong direction and you fail whatever you were trying to do.
Sly Cooper games never did that. As Thieves in Time does, they err on the side of helping the player too much, of overcompensating for badly-entered controls. Try to nail a running jump in Thieves and the game expects you to tap the circle button to initiate an automated course-correction. You'll see Sly or one of his ancestors shift, mid-leap, toward the intended target. It's Assassin's Creed with training wheels.
This feeling of playing a junior stealth game permeates Thieves in Time. If you've spent the post-Sly years, as I have, honing your video game stealth skills in the less forgiving grounds of Assassin's Creed, Dishonored, Mark of the Ninja and Far Cry 3 (wow, what a year we just had for stealth games!), then you've been conditioned to a less forgiving world than Thieves in time. It's jarring to jump to a rooftop in one of this game's gorgeous cities, bump into a guard (who is an armed owl or stork, because this is a Sly game!), have that guard give chase and see that all the other guards within view—the ones in the streets and the ones on other roofs—don't care at all about what's going on. Big ape guards in this game prowl cobblestone streets, their lamps emanating a disc of light in front of their feet. You can stand in front of one of these guards and, as long as you're not in that disc of light, the guard can't see you. Pickpocketing is so easy-and fun!-in this game that the challenge isn't to pickpocket an enemy once but to snatch the coins from his wallet three times in rapid succession. The third pluck will often yield a treasure.