Saturday, March 23, 2013

REVIEW - Sly Cooper : Thieves in Time.

Sly Cooper : kid-friendly, cartoony 3D platforming with a stealth bent.
And minigames.  Lots and lots of minigames of varying quality.

Salmon salad sandwiches and Campbell's tomato soup.  That's what my parents would make for me when I was feeling down, as a kid - and to this day, there's a wholesome rightness to that strange meal.  I still hate fish in all its other forms - but if you put a bowl of tomato soup in front of me, I'll be disappointed not to have a cold, mushy paste of canned salmon, Miracle Whip, onions and pickles smeared on bread (with some crunchy lettuce) beside it.

Even if there's something a bit off about it.  So it is, with Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.

There's joy, here, to be sure.  There's color and beautiful music and cheesy comedy dripping from the scaly lips of anthropomorphized, bespectacled turtles. Sanzaru Games (who made Secret Agent Clank for the PSP and ported the PS2 Sly trilogy to PS3) have constructed Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time as a straight sequel to the Sly 3.  It retains all the mechanics of the old games, offering minor tweaks (Sly can dash on power lines with an upgrade), but nothing major.

It's Sly, again.  That old comfort food.

X to jump, X again to flip and circle to pirouette mid-air and touch down on a lonely spire is hard-wired into my gamer DNA.  Sly is exactly as fast and fluid as he was on the PS2 - no more, no less - and simply by way of its mechanics, Thieves in Time scratches an itch not touched since Sucker Punch took the franchise a bit off the rails with the crushed-under-the-weight-of-all-those-minigames Sly 3.

But there's something a bit off about it.  Something not... quite... right.

There are two (comparatively minor) ways in which Thieves in Time fails.  The game doesn't go sprawling flat on its face by any stretch of the imagination, but - while Sanzaru have no difficulty putting together levels that work fine with Sly's platforming abilities - it's never as wise, fun or interesting as the original trilogy, in terms of platforming design.

Ninety per cent of your activities feel perfunctory, and not much of a shift from what you were doing twenty minutes ago.  It's often rather boring.

Elsewhere, as much as Thieves in Time blatantly emulates the (gorgeous) art direction of past Sly titles, it ends up looking like a pretty-decent forgery.  The colors are there, sure - big, bold, beautiful colors - and there are set peices - big, crazy structures in the middle of its hub worlds - but it often feels like madness without a method.

A far-too-busy, headache-inducing sprawl of landmarks and spires that never quite feel elegant to navigate, or easy to understand.

This all but disappears for the game's final chapter, in a lovely Arabian Nights-inspired hub world that is easily the best in the game - a joy to navigate and lovely to the eye - and so much of an improvement over the rest, one can be forgiven for wondering if Sucker Punch designed it.

Best level in the game.

I'm willing to forgive all of that, though.  Heck, I'm even willing to forgive the way the game would freeze up at loading screens on my PS3, because there's one aspect of Thieves in Time I absolutely adore - though it's more due to Sony's acumen than Sanzaru's work.

Cross-save is brilliant.  Chilling out at home, zipping around hub worlds, collecting clue bottles - at any time I can press the start button and upload my current save state to the cloud.  This actually takes less time than making a normal save.

I can, then, walk away, tap on my PlayStation Vita and yank the save back down from the cloud - and off I go, bouncing and flipping and pirouetting across cartoon worlds on the Vita, not missing a beat.  This is fantastic.  Heck, just having Sly on the go is fantastic, even if the Vita version rather pales in comparison to its PS3 counterpart.

Special effects and polygon detail take a big hit on the Vita - but thankfully the game's capable art direction and pleasant, muted color palettes leave it quite lovely, and entirely playable.  The biggest difference you'll notice is simply one of frame rate - I'd be surprised if Sly broke 30 FPS on the Vita.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a comfortable seven-out-of-ten game.  There's nothing deeply wrong with it, but neither is there anything that really thrills, or inspires.  It is classic Sly, through and through, but that's half the problem.

Fans of Sly Cooper have been waiting eight years to discover what a "next-gen" Sly would be like.

It's 2013, and I'm still waiting.  Thieves in Time isn't a bold new discovery of platforming-and-stealth-for-kids - it's a rehash.  It's as much of a PS2 game as the Sly Trilogy was when Sanzaru up-ported it.  It's Sly 2, again - and while Sly 2 was the best game in the series and I'd probably place Thieves in Time in second - being just-about-as-good as a game from 2004 doesn't quite cut it.

Sanzaru.  Sony.  I want a next-gen Sly - and having the game run on the PlayStation 3 and your hot new handheld doesn't make it so.

Metroid evolved.  Mario evolved, and let's be clear - that's who Sly is in competition with.  Game design, audience expectations, and the state of the art all evolve.  After eleven years, don't you think it's time Sly did too?

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