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.
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.
The primitive stealth systems in Thieves in Time might be a bother, except for two things: 1) those of us who played the older Sly games have grown up some and this game isn't really for us, so, hey, no sweat that it's all a bit simple; 2) who cares about this stuff when you're playing one of the best-looking, best-sounding games of this console generation.
One pity of the Wii was that we were kept another six years from seeing what some of video games' most colorful series would look like if they were built, from the ground up, for HD graphics. On PS3, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time shows what could have been. Here we have a colorful, cel-shaded game in HD. It is stunning.
This might be a little mean, but the comparison will help.
Here is Thieves in Time running on the PlayStation Vita, Sony's powerful handheld:
Here is the same game running on the mighty PS3. Same level geometry. Much more detail.
Thieves in Time is a stop-and-stare game. It's a showpiece, a game whose rooftops you'll climb in order to take a moment and pan the camera. This is thanks to Sanzaru's skills, the PS3's power and to the driving aesthetic of the game: great cartoons. Every character, building and vehicle in Thieves in Time is looks like a piece of bright, lovely, angular linework, all painted by people hoping to make you happy. The music, by Grim Fandango and Psychonauts composer Peter McConnell, is mostly jazzy, perpetually peppy and varied. To nail the tone, Sanzaru brings back one of the series' best audio gimmicks: when you sneak Sly close up behind his enemy he appears to switch to tiptoe and each footfall resounds with the rapid, playful pluck of a cello string. If you don't feel like you're playing an Assassin's Creed when you're playing Thieves in Time you might feel like you're playing a Looney Tune.
By the time Sucker Punch got to Sly 3, the series was overflowing with things to do. Sly adventures were always about thievery... about climbing to the tops of museums, opening their skylights, circumventing their security systems and making off with some treasure. Literally and proverbially, depending on the mission in question. That basic concept was constantly expanded. Players could control Sly sidekicks Murray and Bentley. While Sly-based gameplay was about agility, climbing and stealth, Murray missions were about being the kind of bruiser you'd expect a pink cartoon hippo to be. The wheelchair-bound turtle genius Bentley, who remains, sadly, one of the only playable disabled characters in all of video games, could fight a little but was mostly good for hacking. Sucker Punch used these characters to introduce a stunning variety of gameplay that would make a WarioWare designer envious. By Sly 3 we'd not just run, punched and hacked in the style of old arcade games, we'd also flown biplanes, had dialogue-driven arguments with ourselves, and, most amazingly of all in the third game, suddenly switched to playing a massive open-world adventure in which we could sail a wooden frigate, hunting treasure and getting into naval cannon duels with other large-masted ships (insert yet another Assassin's Creed remark here?).
That wild variety has been tamed a little in Thieves in Time, which is a bit of a shame. You can still go on missions as Murray and Bentley and a handful of other characters. There are arcade-style hacking mini-games. There are turret missions. None of them are all that hard, except for one weirdly-tuned late-game archery contest. But there's more of a return to focusing on the core thievery than there was in Sly 3. More platforming, more sneaking, less of a grab-bag of other activities.
Experienced gamers might find many of the missions in Thieves in Time a shade tedious. Most of the game's tasks are so simple that they need the garnish of the game's great graphics and stellar soundtrack to keep players interested. That window-dressing is helped with smart writing and plotting. Sly and his gang of thieves banter well. They sound like cartoon characters, but they also sound like real friends. And they're put in situations that, well, other games should try. For example, one series of absurdly-simple mini-games would be condemnatory if they weren't presented as an interactive Rocky-style training montage that was ultimately about getting a character in shape for a major mission.
One of Thieves in Time's laughably easy spy missions would be mere busywork if the guy you were tailing wasn't having a hilarious time trying to maneuver his way into a better area of cell phone coverage for his trans-time telephone call. The poor villain keeps getting his call dropped. Why did it take a Sly Cooper game for a bit like that to pop up in a game I've played?
More games should sparkle with this much wit and charm.
You could play Thieves in Time all on a Vita, but you shouldn't. The audio carries over but, as shown above, the visuals don't. On the Vita, the game merely looks decent. If you have a PS3, play it there. After all, why stare at the postcard when you can admire the real thing? The answer is because the real thing doesn't travel well, and, so, yes, the Vita version is good for continuing the game on the go. It's bundled free with the PS3 version, and I took advantage of the ability to transfer my save file, through the cloud, from one machine to the other. It's a matter of convenience and feels as futuristic as it feels ostentatious to bring this game from expensive device to expensive device. Hey, if it works for some iPhone and iPad games…
Thives in Time's other Vita implementations are sad. The Sony handheld can do a wretched Wii U imitation by operating as a second-screen scanner. In theory you can hold the Vita up, pointing it at the TV and possibly, maybe, having the Vita screen act as a viewfinder, displaying markers where hidden items lie in the graphics on your TV. I couldn't get this to work and will stick with ZombiU's much more effective version, thank you very much.
You can also hit a button on the Vita and make it just match the visuals of the PS3 version but with a green night-vision filter, again to highlight hidden items. This would be nice if I had a third hand to hold the Vita while wielding the PS3 controller that I'm ostensibly using to get Sly to pick up the hidden stuff marked on the Vita screen. Unfortunately, I don't have a third hand. I had to rest the Vita on my lap, hold my hands to the side and repeatedly glance from Vita to TV to get this to work. If Nintendo wants to advertise the wisdom of baking the second screen into a controller so that the screen is between your hands and not falling off your lap, they might want to see if they can feature Thieves in Time in one of their commercials as an example of what not to do.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time has the potential to be a lot of things to a lot of people: a PlayStation nostalgia piece, a gentle introduction to stealth game newcomers, a beautiful interactive cartoon. It succeeds at most of that. It's biggest problems are that it's too easy and not a very successful lab rat for the Vita. Those aren't all that damning. It's a pleasure to have this series back.