Sly 2: Band of Thieves

I remember being tremendously amused and delighted at the opening of the previous adventure of Sly Cooper, in which the titular hero thief and talking raccoon consulted his nasally impaired turtle accomplice, Bentley, on how to properly break and enter police headquarters in Paris. The homage to and satire of Metal Gear Solid‘s codex as a vehicle to brief the player via the talking heads of Snake and his commanding officer The Colonel on the upcoming mission (and plot of the game) and the steps Snake would have to take to accomplish it (the controls of the game), neatly wedded plot and game mechanics in a beautifully Baudrillardan bit of hyper-real match making.

Developer Sucker Punch knows their predecessors and knows when to borrow and poke a little fun at them as well. Sly’s sarcastic tone and Bentley’s straight man responses, replaced the ultra-serious tones of the king of the stealth games, borrowing the useful components of the talking heads and dialogue intruding in the game to advance their plot and teach the player how to play, while stamping the genre with its own more whimsical and romanticized approach to the genre.

And, honestly, in many ways Sly and his band of thieves are better suited to the traditions of Western espionage and sneak “thiefery” than Snake himself may be. From Cary Grant’s role as the debonair thief in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief to Sean Connery’s James Bond to the Pink Panther and his nemesis, Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau, and even up to the latest revision of Ocean’s Eleven, thieves, spies, and others interested in Rube Golbergian plots to steal diamonds, money, or intelligence have never often been treated as altogether serious characters.

However, what these roguish antiheroes do share in common is a serious commitment to a more romanticized notion of the thief as hero, which makes some sense given the commitment our culture has to setting gold, jewels, and other forms of material wealth as the dominant measure of the successful Western democratic citizen.

Yet, at the same time, the really great rogues of this sort have more than money on their mind. Recall that moment in Star Wars when the Death Star is about to wipe out the rebel base on Yavin. Luke, the real “heroic hero” has offered his services in defense of the rebellion, but the smuggler Han Solo is ready to find safer climes. Princess Leia screws up her face and hisses at him, “If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive!” By Han’s pained expression, we understand that he is a more complicated capitalist than that. He has become more invested in the rebel’s goals and more specifically the friends he has made along the way than in the “business enterprise” of saving a princess. Hence, we are unsurprised by his dues ex machine arrival to save Luke near the film’s conclusion and this ultimate proof of loyalty to his partner.

If the first Sly was able to recreate the cartoonish “rogue with a heart of gold” of classic cinema (literally in a cartoon), Sly 2 is able to further flesh out that character by emphasizing the quaint and romantic notions of such a hero — his fierce loyalty and devotion to his gang.

Band of Thieves is both aptly and ironically titled then, emphasizing the honor among thieves hardly believable in realistic fiction but steeped in our sense that those who find money as what they love might be (or maybe must be) more redemptive figures than we would otherwise imagine.

This theme works its way into both the mechanics of the game as this time out you play as Sly (the thief), Bentley (the brains), and Murray (the muscle) alternatively but ultimately cooperatively to achieve various goals throughout the game. The theme of cooperation and loyalty also makes its way into the game’s plot which consists of the interactions of good thieves and bad thieves, good cops and bad cops, and good thieves and bad cops through a story of betrayal of friends and the salvation of others.

The plot is often predictable (you will see the big betrayal coming towards the close of the third chapter), nevertheless, surprising you is not what this game is after. If it borrows its characters, overly complex heist schemes (and you will witness and enjoy some real doozies like one of my favorites “Operation: Hippo Drop”), and the charming repartee of the noble thief, it intends to both pay full homage and satirize those conventions at every twist and turn. For this kind of satire to be taken seriously, it must be recognizable and hence, predictable — it is the underlying theme that needs to be advanced, not the Hitchcockian “MacGuffin” that is the whole of the plot itself.

The game play is also a touch predictable, borrowing much of its mechanics from the first game with some newer moves that are little more than window dressing. It is the more clear mechanic of the central heist in each new chapter that needs to be cooperatively plotted and carried out through the specialties of the three main characters that is the subtle difference between the two, and, in doing so, marvelously exemplifies what the game is all about: getting the gold through stealth, brains, and brawn tied neatly together through friendship.

If all this is sounding a little childish and melodramatic, that’s because — well, it is. There is a reason that noble rogues are hardly ever seen beyond the confines of sarcasm, satire, and pastiche because they’re a little hard to fully believe in. Sly and his pals and their themes of loyalty and honor can only be taken seriously in what is ostensibly a cartoon format and a cartoon world of raccoon thieves, brainy turtles, and foxy foxes. However, if you’re a bit sick of the gritty realism and grim determination of a one man army eating reptiles in the wilderness in order to fulfill his mission or the grittier and grimmer realities that thieves are more than willing to sleep with a hooker and afterwards cap her to get their money back that some less cartoony games provide, give Sly a chance. He’s a thief you’ll at least believe that you can trust.