Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time hands-on preview

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Sony revealed Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time at E3 2011 amidst a cacophony of whispers about a potential current-gen sequel to the PlayStation 2-era trilogy of action/platforming games. The reveal trailer teased fans with a time-twisting adventure for the thieving raccoon. Early impressions spoke of a seemingly capable return to form with the added benefit of PlayStation 3 technology. And now, here we are now, almost a year later. Thieves in Time continues to be on track for a late 2012 release, and we’ve got a new hands-on look at the game that proves it.

For those who aren’t so familiar with Sly’s current-gen situation, here’s a refresher. Sucker Punch Productions, the studio behind the original trilogy, is no longer taking point on the series it spawned. That honor goes instead to Sanzaru Games, the California-based studio that gave the original PS2 Sly games an HD makeover for the PS3 collection release in 2010. The upcoming game is set after the events of Sly 3, though you won’t need prior knowledge of the series to dive in with Thieves in Time. Time will be spent on bringing players up to speed on the story before your game actually starts.

How about that story? The central piece of the puzzle is a time machine that Bentley’s built, out of Murray’s van. Pages are disappearing from the Thievous Raccoonus, the book containing all of the thieving secrets of Sly’s ancestors. Something is amiss in the timestream, and it’s up to Sly and the gang to set things right. The game unfolds around this setup by sending players into different time periods. Each location is home to a different ancestor and each ancestor has a special ability that didn’t quite make it into the pages of the Thievus Raccoonus. You’ll get to play with those abilities as you step into the shoes of each ancestor while also unlocking separate abilities for Sly through the period-specific costumes he’s able to obtain.

The core of the Sly series — action/platforming with a stealth-based twist — is still very much the order of the day in this latest outing. Sanzaru capably replicates the controls you know, so anyone who is familiar with previous Sly titles will be in familiar territory as soon as they sit down and pick up the controller. You’re still jumping (or double-jumping) with X and still latching onto any sparkly locations with the circle button. There are a few new tricks of course, but the core experience remains.

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The first section I sample for the hands-on is a feudal Japan setting. Sly’s ancestor Rioichi, who also happens to be the inventor of sushi, is gathering special cutlery that he’ll need to open a certain door. Really, context isn’t important here. Rioichi is doing his thief thing, because that’s what thieving raccoons do. All ancestor powers and costume abilities in the game are mapped to the R2 button. In the case of Rioichi, it’s Leaping Dragon, an upgraded version of the Ninja Spire technique that Sly uses to balance himself atop precarious bits of the environment. Whenever Rioichi is perched on one thing or another — in the initial case, it’s a Bonsai tree — pressing and holding R2 brings up a targeting line to the next nearest jump point. If there’s more than one, you can use the analog stick to cycle between them. Once you’ve selected your desired destination, releasing the R2 button sends Rioichi flying there, typically a much longer jump than Sly himself is capable of.

I guide Rioichi through the feudal Japan portion of the demo using a mixture of high-flying acrobatics and stealthy sneaking to get behind guards, where I’m able to rob them of their gold and, in three cases, mystical cutlery. All the while laser, fences and wall-mounted spotlights threaten to disrupt Rioichi’s stealthy advance. It’s not clear why advanced technology like lasers and flashlights are appearing in feudal Japan, but it’s presumably all tied to whatever — or whoever — is messing up the timestream.

The next section of the demo puts me back in control of Sly. He’s faced with an elaborate set of platforms — some separated by swinging bars and rings of fire — and they’re much too far from one another for pure jumping to work. Fortunately, Sly’s got his Archer costume handy. At the press of a button, his familiar blue duds are replaced with forest greens and a feathered cap. It’s a very Robin Hood sort of look. In keeping with that, Sly also has a bow that he can use. In a fortunate twist, the lone platform that he can reach is home to a wicker basket filled with arrows.

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Using the Archer costume, Sly is able to fire these arrows at distant targets, creating a tightrope out of a line secured to the tail of each arrow.. You can steer your shorts in flight, either for fun or to stay on course with moving targets, using the left analog stick. The challenge level is low at first; you’ve got nothing between you and your distant target except open space, and you’re not so much steering the arrow as you are letting it fly in a straight line to its destination. Further along in the room, obstacles start to pop up. Rings that release occasional bursts of fire — don’t worry, the rope is fireproof even if Sly is not — and cannonballs get in the way to knock you off the rope. At one point, the arrow’s target is attached to a pole that spins around and around in circles. There’s a steady ramping up in difficulty here, but never to the point that it become demoralizing. Rather, this feels like a Sly game at its best.

Sanzaru clearly knows what it’s doing. The long-awaited Sly Cooper looks like it is firing on every cylinder that a fan could hope for. The increased processing power of the PS3 is being leverage well, with gorgeous cartoon-y visuals and some elaborately designed environments. The impression is that nothing fundamental is being changed, it’s all just being added to. There’s still plenty more to be seen of the game, various levels and the central hub world, collectibles, upgrades, and the like, but even now, Sly Cooper: Thieves of Time definitely looks like an action/platformer to look out for this fall.