The original Sly Cooper game (released in the US as Sly Cooper and The Thievius Raccoonus, and here in Australia as the rather more tepidly titled Sly Raccoon) was something of a diamond in the rough - a great little platform/stealth title with some very neat animation touches that virtually every PS2 gamer ignored, seemingly en masse. Sadly, it's not too hard to predict that exactly the same thing is likely to happen with Sly 2: Band Of Thieves - once again, it's a great game, hampered by a release date very close to a number of very prominent titles that are likely to overshadow it in the holiday season.
Sly 2 follows on from the plot of the first game pretty closely, but if you haven't played the original (and that's probably a lot of you), you won't be too lost in the plot. The first game saw Sly defeat the evil mechanical Clockwerk, and at the start of Sly 2, he's busy trying to steal all the mechanical parts that make up Clockwerk himself. Thing is, he's too late, as the mysterious Klaww gang's already beaten him to it. Unlike Sly, though, they're not interested in stopping Clockwerk -- they just want to use his parts for various nefarious schemes. So once again Sly, the ultimate thief, must don the robes of justice and attempt to steal back the Clockwerk parts. Not that the police forces -- headed up as always by Inspector Carmelina Fox -- appreciates this. Sometimes a raccoon just can't get a break.
The original Sly used very small hubs that set you out on key-collecting missions as you sought to progress through each of the game's varied levels. Sly 2 takes that to a new level by placing you in small city-like hubs with a central heist (of the dangerous Clockwerk parts) in mind. While you're always aware of the heist that needs to be undertaken, it's not just as simple as wading in, hook in hand. Each of the capers relies on some extensive planning and sub-missions, which set up the eventual larger and longer caper. While the original title saw you supported by your team of Murray the Hippo and Bentley the Turtle in name only, Sly 2 offers you the ability to play as them in selected portions of the game. Murray's the muscle on offer, and as such his missions revolve around him smashing, bashing and crashing his way through the baddies while Bentley the turtle is your 'Q' equivalent, decked out with time bombs and sleep inducing darts to achieve his objectives.
Sly himself retains all the skills that he gained in the first title - so he can sneak around, hang from any nearby glowing surface, and use his hook to snatch items and attack foes. The balancing of level design is exceptionally well handled, with plenty for Sly, Bentley and Murray to do, even across some relatively small areas. The design has also taken style into consideration, as you're always put in the proper sneaking around, doing good deeds kind of mood. While the original title only used stealth in the lightest sense, it's been significantly tightened up and improved here. Our only complaint on the stealth score is that sometimes guard's flashlights would shine through surfaces, exposing our raccoon hero when he should have remained hidden. It doesn't happen often enough to be a major problem, but it's still solidly an issue.
Like its predecessor, Sly 2 is a great looking game. Your heroes have plenty of animated style, and the same care has been taken with all of the game's enemy characters and level layouts. Sly himself is undoubtedly the star of the show, and just watching him sneak around a level, pick pocketing guards is entertaining enough. Add in Murray in some truly ludicrous wrestling tights, and the ever-nervous Bentley, and you've got a great looking game indeed. It's worth noting how much effort has been put into each of the animation styles for each character -- so while Sly is the consummate thief and slinks along in a suitable style, Murray's the exact opposite, bumping and crashing his way through the same areas. Bentley's particularly well served with animation, as while he can sneak around, his inexperience and nerves shine through his animation, which portrays his stumbling style to perfection.
As is the norm with most 3D games, there will be times when you'll be left cursing the camera, but these are few and far between, thankfully. There were also a few moments where we hit some odd clipping issues - most notably the flashlights that some guards use seem to glow through walls - but nothing of a critical nature.
Sly 2: Band Of Thieves is a great game, albeit one that's likely to be overlooked by a lot of gamers in favour of titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If you're a fan of charismatic platform game heroes with a sprinkling of stealth, though, you really should give Sly 2 a look.