The process of perfection has to be a tedious one for game developers. There has obviously never been one "perfect" game, in any genre. There are titles that I would consider "strong" or "solid" games, but never "perfect."

I can feel a debate coming on.

When I heard the name "Sucker Punch," I had no idea where these developers came from. I wasn't familiar with their previous title either (the player praised Rocket: Robot On Wheels for the Nintendo 64), so I sat skeptical. Not having played many platformers didn't help either. Still, I invested a little faith and money into their inaugural PlayStation 2 title and found something surprisingly enjoyable.

Sly Cooper And The Thievius Raccoonus won't get marks for being the most revolutionary game ever. Nor will it get high marks for its depth or length. But developer Sucker Punch knew how to make their inaugural PlayStation 2 title a noteworthy one. Why? A good mixture of substance and style.

The Thievius Raccoonus is a family heirloom, a book of master thieving techniques that have been passed down from one Cooper to the next. Sly's childhood and inheritance of the Thievius Raccoonus was interrupted when he not only lost the book but his father as well, to a gang known as the Fiendish Five. After splitting the books pages, the five fled to various parts of the world. Sly needs to take back what was his and become a master thief just like his ancestors: steal from criminals, not from the innocent.

Sly Cooper is not a one-man army. His supporting cast consists of Bentley, computer geek and tech wizard, and Murray, the trios dopey driver. Some may immediately like the exaggerated voices of Sly's sidekicks or cringe at their melodrama as the game begins. I got some good laughs within the first hour of play seeing the dynamics between Bentley and Sly with each new area I discovered.

The first thing that everyone will notice about Sly Cooper is its gorgeous graphics. It carries its own nice form of cel-shading, a hybrid of soft shading, hard outlines and excellent lighting. Everything looks gorgeous and, unlike other platformers on the PS2, the game is nicely anti-aliased. Definitely sweet on the eyes.

Not only does it look good, but it reacts and complements the games tight controls as well. Many objects at first glance seemed like stand-in props, only to be surprisingly breakable. Eventually other things such as finding pipes to climb or hooks to swing from became rapidly intuitive. Never before have I gone through one platformer to like the look and feel of every level; in Sly Cooper, each of the games five locations work remarkably well. I was able to fluidly run through levels without any frustration, even when it came down to replaying them to find things I missed the first time.

Going through the mountains of Mesa City to find an abandoned casino or sliding down vines and swinging from branch to branch in the Haitian jungles brought a unique challenge to each level. There are subtle touches everywhere, such as clever level designs to the mannerisms of the Fiendish Fives grunts, that really push Sucker Punch's sense of design. They definitely know how to make a game with style and charm.

This game falls into a genre I'd like to call "tactical espionage platforming." There are some elements that are just too obvious to miss, such as a homage (or parody) to Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid series (conversations between Sly and Bentley are nice parallels to conversations between Snake and Otacon and their petty debates about the practical versus technical). Shifts in music (which is excellent throughout) occur when Sly is spotted by one of the Fiendish Fives minions. Spotlights and guards that Sly must avoid rather than attack initially push this even closer to the "stealth action" metaphor. The experience of sneaking around and attacking enemies as cleverly as possible adds to the general run and jump formula, even if it does involve basic sneaking.

Just when gameplay might get stale, there is some challenge that kept me playing. Mini games within Sly Cooper took me out of the run and jump scheme. In the jungles of Haiti, for instance, I manned an attack hovering craft of sorts to fend off enemies. Other mini-games involved Sly's supporting cast.

It was refreshing to see the characters work beyond their cut-scenes. On several occasions I controlled Murray in a race, fired at enemies to cover Murray's quest for the essential treasure keys and even had a chance to work with Bentley to save Sly's life. It definitely added to the dimensionality of the characters.

Unfortunately, Sly Cooper is not without shortcomings, the most obvious being a considerable amount of slowdown in two of the game's later levels. It is painfully obvious that the game engine performs some sort of graphical compensation, where the screen starts to lose half of its sharpness to keep up a decent but slow speed. Its a pity: these levels are among the most beautiful. While the developers could have addressed this, perhaps they just didn't want to compromise anything about the level design and, instead, have me deal with a partially slowed gameplaying experience. I put up with it and still came out satisfied.

The voice work for Sly Cooper shifts from a nice take to an unconvincing performance. There are times when Ill get a blast from the exchanges between Sly and the boss he is about to face, and at others when his persisting conflict with police fox Carmelita just doesn't seem to come off as anything near convincing. It's inconsistent at best.

Another hurdle going for Sly Cooper is its considerably short length (I found it hardly challenging); those with lightning quick reflexes will finish this game quickly. I was able to complete the game in less than eight hours, surprised to reach its end so fast. Then again, if the game were any longer, would everything still retain its charm and originality or simply wear off with one repeated creative device after another? One might question Sly's price tag for such a short adventure. In that case, I would suggest renting first. Replayability will apply only to the hardcore: going back to previously completed stages allows you to run "master thief sprints" that will help you unlock an extra feature or two of the game: designer commentary for the levels and a "behind the scenes" flick. Accessing previous levels, moreover, is a snap. Every stage I completed was quickly accessed via the games map menu, which shaves off any time necessary to backtrack. Though a basic feature, I can't emphasize enough on how much time this saved me.

Sly Cooper was enjoyable, albeit short. It's seldom I've had such a good time with any platformer. Enthusiasts of the genre shouldn't let this one pass them by. It's easily one of the most enjoyable games I've played in recent months. Sly Cooper is charming and full of subtleties that constitute a well produced whole. It's a platformer worth playing even if for just a weekend. I look forward to Sucker Punch's next offering. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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