Conference Call - Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
"The only sound I'll be hearing is the triumphant horn section of my own triumph!" - Murray
Katerin: Pyroman, The Fly, and I decided to resurrect the old format of the Conference Call in order to discuss our impressions of Sucker Punch's new game, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. Picking up shortly after the second game's end, Sly 3 finds master thief Sly Cooper and his pals, Bentley and Murray, disbanded and disheartened. Recently, Sly has learned of his family's hidden vault, where the treasures and secrets of countless generations of the Cooper family have been concealed. Unfortunately, the mysterious Dr. M has found it first. To get at his family's legacy, Sly must re-assemble the old gang, plus some new friends, to sneak onto the island where it is located and take out Dr. M.
For the most part, the game mechanics and level format are identical to Sly 2, save a few notable additions: a new set of multiplayer minigames, and the rather risky incorporation of 3D graphics into the main gameplay. We'll discuss whether these new options work and to what extent, as well other topics such as aerial dog-fighting, unintelligible koalas, the nature of friendship, and one very greasy sweet suit.
Fly: First of all, let me note that I'm a newcomer to the series, having missed out on the first two installments. And I do mean missed out - After completing Sly 3, I'm kicking myself for not being hip to 2002's Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, let alone last year's Sly 2: Band of Thieves.
I didn't necessarily feel out of the loop upon starting the game, though. Despite the Cooper Gang's past shenanigans, the brisk, efficient opening exposition had me up to speed in no time. And although it took me some time to warm up to the characters, by the time I'd finished the game's first level, their endearing personalities had completely won me over.
Pyro: I'm right there with you on the intro, Fly. In all honesty it's one of the best intro levels I've played since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The opening level introduces the basics of gameplay, sets up the story and does it all with some great action. It's really characteristic of the entire game. There wasn't a second in the game that I felt out of place, like I was crawling forward just to further the story. The gameplay is tight, brilliantly integrated with the story, and never boring or frustrating. The savepoints are automatic and frequent so that you rarely lose more than a minute of play time, whether through failure or death. The pacing and feel of the game as you progress is one of the game's shining traits.
The gameplay exists in levels, which are basically big outdoor areas where you take missions to support your latest heist. Bentley, the paraplegic turtle who is the brains of the operation, plans out a series of missions to complete in order to pull off the heist. You then proceed to mission markers, where you can play missions that can be anything from shark possession to aerial dogfighting to RC car racing. In fact, trying to enumerate the various mini-games would not only take up way too much space, it would spoil one of the main joys I get from the game. Which is finding out what crazy mission I'll be playing next.
Katerin: And there are definitely some crazy, crazy missions. I think it all comes back to the stellar writing of the Sly Cooper series. I've been impressed by its cleverness since the first game; Sly 3 merely continues the tradition. At first, I planned to provide some quotes as examples - but on second thought, I think the player should discover for herself just how amusing the game really is.
It's clear that the characters are lovingly written: Sly, Murray, and Bentley are stereotypes, yes, but they are self-aware stereotypes. They genuinely relish the parts they play. Sure, Sly's always sneaky, and Bentley's always brainy, and Murray's always destructive, but there's a certain joy these characters feel in being who they are. It fuels their humor, optimism, and determination. When Murray, Bentley, and Sly combine their efforts, they collectively feel invincible; playing as them, I do too. To me, this effect can only come from writers who sincerely adore their characters. The writers at Sucker Punch know that a game as ridiculous as this hinges on the likeability of its protagonists, and accordingly, they have crafted such engaging characters that the player feels an instant connection.
Except for Carmelita Fox. They keep screwing her up, mainly because they keep changing her voice actress. This time around, she sounds Latina one minute, Canadian the next. It's....distracting.
Fly: Well said, Katerin. And though I'll agree Carmelita's voice acting is sketchy, in the end it did little to diminish my enthusiasm for the cast or storyline. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the quality of the character development, I was amazed at the degree to which the characters and their abilities are worked into the gameplay and mission structure. Like Pyro mentioned, you're never sure what will happen next. One minute you'll be playing as Sly, and the next, you'll be paired up with Murray or Bentley, or you'll unexpectedly find yourself controlling one of several quirky and engaging side characters.
It's a real testament to the level and gameplay design that Sly 3 can pull of these transitions so fluidly. Though each playable character has their own unique abilities, switching from one to the next is a breeze due to the universally intuitive, fine-tuned controls. There's a of logic and precision to the game that makes each new character, ability, or minigame it throws at you a joy to discover. I can't say enough about how well this game plays.
Katerin: I do have a minor complaint about the level design: the levels seem a bit too similar to Sly 2. Venice, I thought, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Paris, and Holland was a just little bit too much like one of the stages in Canada. I wonder to what extent the developers just reused the old maps and made changes to the buildings. This isn't to say that Sly 3 is a carbon copy of Sly 2 in set design, because it certainly isn't. I just think more distinctive maps might have been in order.
Also, they got rid of the clue collection, which was the only thing I considered a Big Huge Mistake. My favorite thing about the previous games were collecting those pesky little bottles, because it gave me an excuse to explore every inch of the game's beautiful layouts and expansive level design. In this game, I didn't have to collect any clues, so I didn't explore as thoroughly as I would have in the previous installments. One might figure they got rid of the feature to hide their weak level design, but the levels are so beautiful that I'm hard pressed to believe that.
Pyro: Now that's one area where I'm going to have to disagree with Katerine the Greetest. In this one it really felt like they streamlined the gameplay significantly in this area. You play through the level, exploring the most of it during the regular missions, and when you beat it a series of "Jobs and Challenges" are unlocked for that level on the main menu screen. It replaces the series of overlapping and occasionally confusing features such as clue bottles, Master Thief missions and stealing random loot. There would be more stuff to do on an equivalent level in Sly 2, however much of it was of the "collect X things" variety. I enjoyed the "Jobs and Challenges" much more than the extras in Sly or Sly 2. This is the first Sly Cooper game I've beaten at 100% and not felt like it was a chore to get that last 2%.
The "Jobs and Challenges" makes it easy to replay any mission in the game, which is nice because there are a lot of missions to keep track of. There are 5 full levels and the intro level, with each full level having close to 10-15 missions which frequently have an extra "challenge" version of the mission to complete later on. That's a lot of missions, and most of them have great replay value. Very few of them are repetitive as well and it's rare to find a mission that leaves you with a sense of deja vu.
The only missions that get repetitive are the missions with the side-characters, which is because most of the side characters are introduced with a specific type of mission in mind. So you'll have an introductory mission, and possibly one or two more with this character down the line that are similar. Even with these missions they still manage to throw in a curveball or two. Especially during the "main heist" of the level, which frequently include some of the best parts of the game.
Fly: I didn't notice or mind the repetition as far as the side characters were concerned. In fact, I was really impressed with the way they played and how well they were integrated into the storyline. It's true that the supporting cast isn't as full-featured in terms of their abilities, though, partly because they can't be upgraded like Sly, Bentley, and Murray can.
On that note, I thought the Cooper gang's spy gadgets and ability upgrades - which you can purchase between jobs with coins and loot you've collected - were a great way to maintain variety in the gameplay, and keep things feeling fresh. You get coinage from bashing up breakable objects, defeating enemies, or (my favorite) pickpocketing. Some of the upgrades are required to complete certain jobs, but I found that over the course of the story, I usually had enough on hand to buy what I needed. If I wanted to really trick out the trio, I had to head out on occasional pickpocketing runs. Late in the game, though, there are some missions that allow you to haul in some serious cash, so you can get your paws on some of those premium items you couldn't afford earlier.
Pyro: Graphically Sly 3 stacks up, the cartoony style is rendered much more capably than I would've thought the PS2 could handle. While the engine runs well most of the time, occasionally the framerate struggles in complex scenes. Most notably the level set in snow, which seems to be a repeat of the problems Sly 1 had with it's snow level. For the most part Sly 3 runs as well as Sly 2, and by most accounts they seem to be using a slightly upgraded Sly 2 engine.
One technical matter worth noting is that I did notice more gameplay bugs with Sly 3 than I did Sly 2. They were few and far between but I did notice a couple during the course of the game, which is a couple more than I noticed in Sly 2. Any other series and I wouldn't have batted an eye, but the usually polished nature of the Sly Cooper series left me a little surprised. Nothing even remotely showstopping though.
Another technical upgrade is the "3D" mode. Sly Cooper is following the fine tradition of such classics as Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3 by going the "red and blue 3D glasses" route with the 3rd entry in the series. It's not turned on constantly, however certain missions allow you to enter the "3D" mode and don the extremely dorky 3D glasses. The main question on my mind when getting the game was "Does the 3D work?" Well yes, and no. The effect really does leave objects in the game space popping out at you when using the goggles. With the interactivity of a game, it really does add to the experience of slinking around the level, with large machinery and various moving objects whizzing around the camera. Unfortunately this effect not only gives me a headache, it washes out the usually bright colors found in Sly 3. Since half of the appeal is it's wonderfully cartoony graphics, which look almost like they're drawn in black and white in 3D mode, I gave this mode a pass for the most part. Oddly enough, the 3D glasses they were passing out at E3 give me much less trouble with headaches, not sure why they changed the design.
Katerin: I too give the 3D graphics a pass. Yes, the glasses gave me a headache after extended use (they even sort of hurt the bridge of my nose after awhile). They were definitely gimmicky. But you know how something can be so incredibly dorky that its Goofiness Factor distorts space-time so much that it suddenly becomes cool again? It's like that. I gave into the absurdity of the experience and was surprised to emerge from it entertained.
Important note, though: they definitely work better when you've been drinking. Something about being able to unfocus your eyes. Also, if you decide not to use the glasses on a level that suggests you should use them, you may experience some problems with depth perception: since the level has been optimized for 3D, not using the option can distort how far it appears you need to jump and such. This is only a problem in the later levels, I thought.
Still, the 3D get a thumbs-up from me. If you use the glasses at no other point, be sure to use them for your boss fight with Tsao. You'll be glad you did.
Speaking of boss fights, I actually didn't like them as much in this game as I did the ones in Sly 1 and Sly 2, Tsao aside of course. They didn't feel as continuous, as epic. Whereas in the previous two games you fought against the participant members of a gang, the bosses in Sly 3 are individuals. There's no connection between Boss A and Boss B, story-wise, which gives the game a somewhat disjointed feel. I think, however, this feeling might only arise in those who have played the previous installments. What did you think of the bosses, Fly?
Fly: It's hard to pull off a boss battle that doesn't feel stale, but Sly 3 is as solid in this area as it is in every other. While the familiar multi-stage "avoid boss attack/wait for opening/attack" pattern is evident in some of the encounters, they're all imaginatively done and characterized by the same degree of variety, polish, and overall visual style that make the rest of the game so appealing. In several cases, the bosses are genuinely jaw-dropping in concept and presentation - more than once, I caught myself smiling with surprise, thinking "I can't believe they're doing this." While I can't compare them to the previous titles' bosses, from my perspective, they were some of the game's most memorable moments.
Pyro: I don't want to sound like a parrot here but I'm with you both 100% on the boss battles. Truly some of the best parts of the game. It's really enhanced by the great cartoony art direction and wonderful score. In the boss battles, the music takes on the grander tone that matches the scope of many of the boss battles. Generally the music fits as well, when sneaking behind an enemy you'll hear "tiptoe" music found in so many early cartoons, the missions have their own music that often fits perfectly. The music is right up there with the art direction, which is to say top notch.
Katerin: There is also a multiplayer function to Sly 3, allowing for up to four games to be unlocked as the game progresses. You start with the cat-and-mouse chase game between Sly and Carmelita, and it's actually quite fun, what with all blasting and jumping and abusing the random powerups you can find. The animation is beautiful, and although there is a little slow-down in some parts, it's not that distracting. I do wish they had placed the power-ups all through Venice, rather than just in one concentrated area, but since the player tends to stay where the power-ups are, I guess its not that big of a deal.
You can unlock three other mini-games which, conceptually, are exceedingly clever. I hesitate to say anything more about them because I think they're such good ideas, and I'd like the readers to discover for themselves how awesome they are.
Fly: I agree, the multiplayer is decent, but there's certainly not much to it, and I wouldn't hold it out as a main selling point. The single player game is definitely where it's at.
Overall, I'd rate Sly 3 among the better games I've played. I'm typically drawn to titles with a little edgier content, but Sly 3's quirky, lighthearted tone was so appealing that I found it a welcome change of pace. There were a handful of scenarios that didn't carry the same appeal of the rest of the game, but in a title with such hugely varied gameplay, I think it's unavoidable that some players will prefer some objectives to others. There honestly weren't any serious low points. Ultimately, I think I could recommend this game to just about anyone.
Pyro: Much like Sly 2, I couldn't get enough of this game. I went back and played all the extra missions simply because I couldn't stop playing. It's just that smooth of an experience. Really what this game has going for it, above all the other points brought up in this review, is that it just plays right. You jump in and play your missions, and it never once becomes tedious or boring. It's a fun ride from the opening sequence to the final boss and when it's through, all I want to do is play the next one. It's rare that a game grabs me and doesn't let go, and Sly 3 had me by the cojones the entire time. I can't say enough great things about this game, which puts me at a loss because I usually try to wrap things up with some positives and negatives. I just can't think of many negatives, except for the aforementioned slowdown in the snow level and the occasional bug. Still, Sly 3 is a good ride, I say enjoy it.
Katerin: You nailed it, Pyro. The thing about the Sly Cooper games is that, plain and simple, they're just fun to play. Sly 3 is no different from its predecessors in that. While I didn't find its storyline as engaging as Sly 2, Sly 3 continues to push the bar in innovative and diverse platforming. In what other game can you bash pirate ships, blow up biplanes, possess sharks, feed an alligator kangaroo-men, hack a database, mug an elephant, harpoon a hammerhead, and win a opera singing contest? It's like all the Saturday morning cartoons you ever watched rolled into one, except you get to play it. I'm already looking forward to a potential Sly 4.