Why Sly Cooper 2 Remains Gaming's Greatest Heist

Why Sly Cooper 2 Remains Gaming's Greatest Heist

Funny animals and garish colors still add up to one of the best crime capers in video game history.

The Sly Cooper Collection for Vita, which saw a U.S. release yesterday, would instantly have become one of my top picks for the system if only it had included a simple brightness adjustment feature. Unfortunately, the screen reads so dark in any environment but a pitch-black room that it's practically unplayable.

It's a shame, because Sly 2 — a game that excels through its combination of rich colors and breezy action — deserves to be presented in a format that can be played anywhere, not just in the dark of night. The other two games compiled on the collection aren't too shabby, either, but it's Sly 2 that really hit the sweet spot for the franchise. Case in point, it's the chapter current Sly developer Sanzaru looked to for inspiration when developing last year's Thieves in Time.

Ten years on, Sly 2 may be a little rough around the edges, suffering from the slightly loose controls and camera common to so many 3D platformers, but it remains engaging from start to finish. It takes a different approach to cartoon action games, patterning itself after classic caper movies like The Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven. The caper doesn't really mix often with character platformers, though it's become a mainstay of the open-world crime-action genre, of course. In fact, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas launched about a month after Sly 2 and devoted the majority of its Las Venturas chapter to a casino heist — a fascinating example of total coincidence in action.

Sly 2 and San Andreas couldn't have been further apart in tone or in the execution of their respective heists. Where San Andreas riffed on the film oeuvre of directors Spike Lee and John Singleton, exploring America's decaying inner cities and the challenges faced by black youths stuggling to survive in such a hostile environment, Sly 2 was pure Saturday morning fluff. We're talking about funny animals engaged in lighthearted violence and naïve attempts at sexual tension — total Disney Afternoon material.

That innocence is a large part of what made Sly 2's caper elements so effective. Where the first Sly was your typical 3D funny animal platformer, Sly 2 stretched itself to become far more ambitious. Its action took place in open-world environments with a free-form structure, allowing players to alternate between the three lead characters — Sly, the master thief raccoon; Murray, the brawny hippo; and Bentley, the computer-savvy turtle — at their leisure, completing a number of character-specific scenarios building up to a series of larger, sequential heists. Each section of the game revolved around a different heist, the payoff for all the groundwork you had to do to reach that point.

The game's unwavering focus on the heists made them feel essential; they comprised the meat of the adventure. That, too, worked to the advantage of Sly 2's caper flick spirit. Where other heist games either feel too restrictive or else so wide-open that the caper missions feel like an aside or a nuisance, developer Sucker Punch managed to strike a perfect balance. You were always working toward the next heist, but you had considerable freedom in how to go about laying down the necessary groundwork.

The revolving cast of protagonists helped keep things interesting, too. Each of the three characters played very differently from one another, giving their individual missions a distinct and separate feel. Murray more or less ran around punching enemy guards into submission or performing heavy lifting of essential gear, while wheelchair-bound Bentley tended to avoid combat and focus on hacking computer systems with simple minigames. And, of course, Sly himself played much as he had in the original game, nimble and light on his feet — though thankfully he had built up some endurance since his previous outing and could no longer be felled by a single blow.

And while the game's story lacked the gritty focus of something like GTA: San Andreas, it did the trick. Sly and company followed up on the consequences of their first adventure, all while being pursued by Interpol agent Carmelita Fox — a sort of vulpine Salma Hayek who played the role of both Fujiko and Zenigata all at once to Sly's Lupin III. It was hardly original or world-changing, but it gave just enough justification to keep powering through those heists and soldier on through the rough spots.

While the series has never quite matched the excellence of its sophomore adventure, last year's Thieves in Time did a respectable job of recapturing the essence of Sly 2. And in any case, it's not as though any other franchise has managed to out-Ocean's Eleven Sly 2, either. The game remains a rare and unique gem a decade after its debut — and, happily, a HD remaster is available on both PS3 and Vita. Just be sure to find a nice, dark room if you're going to tackle it on the latter.

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