Reflection: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

I finally sat down and finished Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (2002) yesterday. It was fun, but I would have enjoyed it more when I was younger and had more time for simple diversions like this.

Quick summary: You play a raccoon cat-burglar in a cartoon animal world, recovering your family heirlooms from evil crime lords while outrunning the law yourself. The game is split into five parts like an old serial; “Sly Cooper in Tide of Terror,” or “Sly Cooper in Vicious Voodoo.” The core of the game is a kind of acrobatic stealth platforming: Avoid the guards, spotlights and trip lasers while jumping, climbing and swinging your way to the end of the level.

My thoughts and mild spoilers follow:

Here was my experience: Starting out, I was captivated by the style, attitude, and smooth control of this game. I played through the first three chapters in one long evening, and because I like to be thorough I made sure to finish every level and get every extra ability along the way. Then, somewhere toward the end of the third chapter, it just started to get old.

It took me two sittings to get through the fourth chapter, and even then I did the minimum necessary to get through. It wasn’t helping that the boring minigames were becoming more frequent and unnecessarily difficult. The core sneaking around game was still a lot of fun, but as I got further into the game it got to be less about sneaking and more about just racing through to the end. The exciting ‘smooth criminal’ I met at the beginning of the game, the one who left nothing but an art-deco business card behind at every perfect heist in Paris, was now blowing up mountains with fireworks, bludgeoning kung-fu monkeys and driving a hovercraft with a machine gun into enemy territory. “This isn’t professional,” I thought. “This is just like every other Conan/Rambo I’ve every played.”

Fortunately, the last chapter only took me an hour, and it was a swift series of action setpieces designed to break up the monotony that was setting in near the end of the game. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t break its new action paradigm at all, with a jetpack-rocket denouement straight out of Star Fox.

Somewhere along the line, the game lost its sense of style. As a kid, I would probably have loved it anyway; as an adult, it was the style and finesse that I found attractive, and when Sly lost that, it lost me too. It’s the kind of style that freebie game N from Metanet Software has got in spades; a true master thief will clean out a building without throwing a punch or firing a shot, and will look good doing it. That’s exactly the Sly Cooper we meet at the beginning of the game, and it’s exactly the opposite of who he’s become at the end.

So in the end it’s a playable game, it’s an attractive game, it’s a very polished game, but it’s a game that took its main character (and therefore, me) exactly where I didn’t want to go. I’m not complaining about a lack of narrative strength here (how much plot can I expect from a game built on a B-movie paradigm?) but that the gameplay itself developed away from the core theme of the game. It made for a disappointing experience. When I started, I hoped to learn how to be like the Leverage team: Achieving my goals by superior stealth, planning and cunning, and occasionally knocking someone out to get out of a tight spot (no offense, Elliot). Instead, I learned how to fight my way in and out, so that no opponent was ever in doubt about my intentions. Even my skilled accomplices were entirely unsubtle in their methods. So in the end, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished my goal as a player.

Maybe it’s my fault for setting my own goal instead of trying to follow what the game had in mind, but I think media has some responsibility to set us up to expect the right kind of experience. I think of Burn After Reading, which my wife and I rented expecting some kind of comedy, and the film starts out giving you that impression. Then it suddenly becomes morbid and tragic, which was not the experience we were hoping for; consequently, we really disliked the movie. I might learn to like it if I approached it again with better expectations, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Likewise, when Sly informed me that I hadn’t recovered all of the extra stuff along the way and I needed to go back and find them, I said “heck no” and turned off the system.

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