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Thieves can't really steal from other thieves--they can only liberate that which has already been stolen. Such is the practice of the eponymous raccoon thief in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, the fourth installment in the sneaky platforming series. Sucker Punch Productions moved on to other projects seven years ago and haven't touched the Sly franchise since, but rest assured that it's in good hands with the team at Sanzaru Games, who’ve maintained the whimsical spirit of this animal team’s collaborative heists.
We got the chance to play through the game’s prologue (essentially a tutorial) set in Paris, before getting out burgling mitts on the entire first episode of the game. The premise is as lighthearted as ever, and told through the same charming animated cutscenes as the previous games. Picking up where Sly 3 left off, the old gang of Sly, Bentley, and Murray reunites when it’s discovered that the pages of the hallowed Thievius Raccoonus, a manual for master thieves, are are mysteriously turning blank.
Bentley concludes that a time-traveling villain is behind it all, warping to the past and imprisoning the proficient thieves in the Cooper bloodline. With that, the trio rigs Murray’s hot rod-van hybrid to go back in time to restore history and the honor of the Cooper Clan. You better believe that the game includes Back to the Future nods, complete with a smoking, spinning license plate left in the wake of the first time jump.
Playing through the first episode, set in 1603 feudal Japan (and appropriately named “Turning Japanese”), all the fun of the PS2 classics came rushing back to us. As with the previous sequels, all three members of the villain-robbing crew is playable: Sly’s an agile jumper who sticks to the shadows, Bentley uses his high-tech, handicapable wheelchair to hack consoles and knock out enemies, and Murray uses brute strength to plow through tough baddies. But, thanks to time-travel, a fourth character is playable in each era--whichever Cooper ancestor you’ve come to rescue, once you’ve freed him from captivity.
Sly’s great-great-Japanese grandfather, Rioichi Cooper, was the temporary addition to the crew, playing similarly to Sly but using dual canes instead of a single hooked staff. A renowned sushi chef and undercover ninja, Rioichi invented the Ninja Spire jump that’s so frequently used throughout the franchise’s platforming segments. But he also had access to a move all his own: the “Leaping Dragon,” which propels him great distances between perch points. This allowed for some great level designs that had us zipping between skylines, avoiding lasers and collapsing platforms as we went.
The modern-day Cooper wasn’t without some new tricks of his own, mainly through the introduction of a disguise system. Judging from what we saw in the gang’s hideout, each time period will have a unique suit of armor which can be worn in any era. To blend in with the Japanese surroundings, Sly stole the pieces to assemble a suit of comically oversized samurai armor. This let him do such nifty things as resist fire traps and reflect fireballs back at the cannons that shot them, as well as blend in with enemies that would otherwise beat him to a pulp.
Bentley and Murray also play significant roles. The brainy turtle Bentley still packs his sleep bombs and tranquilizing darts, and facilitated three amusing hacking minigames. The first was the typical strafe-and-shoot affair, the second was a comical side-scrolling shoot-'em-up starring a Rambo-looking Bentley, and the last was a nerve-wracking-but-enjoyable Marble Madness-style game using the controller’s motion-sensing Sixaxis functionality.
Murray provided equal parts bad-guy-walloping and comic relief, including a mission involving him dressed up in Geisha drag. This led into an uncomfortably long rhythm minigame in which the lady-like Murray danced onstage to the delight of some lovestruck enemies. While tip-toeing around enemies, each character (all voiced by the original actors) has little inner monologues riffing on what’s happening around them, adding to the cast’s lovability factor.
The level design is classic Sly: your hideout leads to a large hub world, where all of your missions take place. Overall stage designs are still top-notch, looking like the vibrant backdrops out of a Saturday morning cartoon, and they’re packed with hidden collectibles in the form of bottled clues, time-trial treasures, and floating Sly emblems. One of the levels had the most original obstacles we’ve ever seen in a video game: a hallway lined with sumo-sized cat dolls that smashed into each other with their electrified stomachs. Only in a Sly game could you find such a laugh-inducing deathtrap.
It all culminated in a classic boss fight with the episode’s big baddie: El Jefe the tyrant tiger (voiced by Nolan North, naturally). The battle perfectly captured what made the old Sly fights so fun, with exactly the right balance of difficulty, variety, and pattern recognition. It’s both the big and little ways in which Thieves in Time captures the same addictive, reliably enjoyable platforming of the PS2 classics that has us so excited for its release. Get ready to obsessively search for every last clue bottle when the game’s released on February 5, 2013, in the US and March 2013, in the UK.