Note: This blog contains spoilers for Sly 4, Sly 2 and Star Trek Into Darkness
People have this wonderful tendency to over-hype things, and nowhere does the hype train get rolling faster than when a sequel rolls around to one of your favorite franchises. While Sony's dreadful marketing department failed to promote Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time one iota, I still was incredibly excited for its release simply because it was more Sly Cooper. Having completed the game now, I can truthfully say this excitement was only partially deserved. To this day I still consider Sly 2 to be the best in the series (though I'll admit nostalgia may be partially responsible for this- it was one of the first 3D platformers I ever played). Playing as Sly was always my favorite part of the games, so when Sly 3 shifted focus away from Sly even more than usual by adding in a bunch of new characters to play as whose gameplay varied in quality from alright to borderline intolerable (I'm looking at you, Dimitri swimming missions) I inevitably was a bit disappointed. However, Sly 4 fixed this problem marvelously by not only adding in fairly interesting characters (with the exception of Bob), but also making their gameplay similar enough to Sly's to preserve the thrill of nimbly sneaking around guards while still adding in new elements that I actually quite enjoyed. Sure there was the mediocre prehistoric world (Dinosaurs running around with sabretooth tigers? Seriously game?), but at least that was still somewhat fun to traverse, not to mention I didn't expect a ton out of it given that Sly games have always been better in their city levels than in their wilderness levels.
This was pretty much my reaction to most of the game.
Everything was lined up beautifully for this to be my new favorite Sly game. The graphics and worlds are beautiful, Penelope (one of my least favorite characters from the last game) actually got some good plot development and was made into a fairly interesting villain, and the collectibles were abundant and fun to track down. Yeah, a couple of the boss fights were annoying in all the wrong ways and the characters' mouths didn't move when they talked in game, but I was willing to forgive that due to the quality of the overall package. Then came the ending. Oh God, the ending.
Why Sanzaru? Why in God's name did this need to happen?
First off is the Carmelita belly dancing mini-game and her overall treatment in the end of the game. Now I've never been a big fan of any of the mini-games in the Sly games, but this one takes the cake as the worst. Not because it's difficult (in fact it's probably one of the easiest in the history of the franchise) but because of how much it utterly disgusted me. Now I could go on some big rant about sexism and women's rights, but you can read all of that other places by people who are better writers than me. All I'll say on the matter is this- when you have a female character who's been portrayed as headstrong and capable throughout the entire series, having her shake her ass (using the borderline useless, gimmicky Sixaxis function of the PS3 controller no less) to distract guards (guards she could just as easily have stunned with her shock pistol or Bentley could have put to sleep with his sleep darts), become a damsel in distress for the final level and be relegated to the sidelines by Sly for the final boss "because it's too dangerous for her" is flat out insulting to the spirit of the character and to the fans.
Next is my biggest beef with the ending though, and where Sly 4 shares common ground with Star Trek Into Darkness, another sequel I (and pretty much the entire internet) had been pretty hyped for. In both cases, the ending felt incredibly rushed, leaving a bad taste in my mouth coming out of what otherwise would have been a pretty satisfying experience. In Star Trek's case, I have a feeling this was because they wanted to keep the movies relatively isolated from one another to allow newcomers to walk in without seeing the previous movie. The problem with this though is that the problems they introduced were larger than one movie. If Khan had gotten away after crashing into San Francisco and the shadow of his influence was still around as a variable for the next movie along with a potential war with the Klingons over the events that occurred on Kronos during this movie, I would have been satisfied with the movie and eagerly looked forward to whatever J. J. Abrams had cooked up for the next movie, even if the "magic blood" had been kept in. However, instead of this Spock basically became superman and the climax of the film became a fistfight on a bunch of nondescript ships floating around San Francisco, leading to Khan being refrozen. When you're dealing with a character as renowned as Khan, you can't just throw him away like he's nothing. If you're going to get rid of him, you have to do it with a bang, and Star Trek Into Darkness sent him out with a whimper rather than the gigantic explosion the character deserves. As a result the entire movie ended on a bit of an anticlimax, leading to my mostly content but rather unsatisfied reaction after leaving the theater.
Yeah Khan, that was about my reaction to this scene as well.
Going back to Sly 4's ending now, as soon as I saw that I was going back to Paris for the final world and boss fight, I instantly thought that the game would be able to push itself past Sly 2. The Paris level from Sly 2 is not only my favorite map out of all of the Sly games, it's also one of my favorite levels in any video game period (definitely nostalgia talking, but I digress). They had already used Paris in the opening, but it was only in a linear opening sequence that couldn't be revisited and didn't have anything to explore. Being able to sneak around a Paris as large and multi-layered as the other worlds in the game all while utilizing every power-up I had accumulated as of that point in the game all to prepare for one final heist and boss fight had me salivating at the possibilities.
This? Yeah, this never really happened in the game.
I clicked on Sly in the safe house and prepared to once again hear the familiar Paris Streets theme. However, what I got instead was a linear level leading up to a disappointing boss fight that ended up being just a bunch of quick time events. Let's start by picking apart the level. It's basically just one last chance to play as all of Sly's ancestors. Fine enough, and the actual level wasn't that bad, but it seemed a bit shoehorned in and the way the ancestors returned to their original times was super deus ex machina (the only explanation ever given is Bentley picking up "strange energy readings"). Regardless at least it gave an excuse to hear Steve Blum's wondrous voice acting again, even if it wasn't very logical and it's never explained how all of them broke into Le Paradox's fortress to begin with, my main problem with this entire level.
Part of what I've always enjoyed about the Sly games is not only pulling off the heists, but also seeing the buildup to them. Watching all the pieces come together as you pull off various missions in the current world was always really satisfying, as it added an element of realism to an otherwise incredibly odd and unrealistic premise. The final level of Sly 4 has none of this buildup though. Going back to Sly 2, the final world was all about setting up for the final boss fight. You went all through Arpeggio's blimp to make sure that when the time finally came to fight Clock-La you'd have all the tools you needed and she wouldn't be able to have enough power to defeat you. There's none of this in Sly 4 though, you just jump right into the heist to rescue Carmelita from Le Paradox with next to no plan whatsoever. And when the final boss fight finally does roll around, there's no semblance of challenge or grandeur to it. You have a good 1-1.5 seconds to actually hit the buttons and it's just a quick time event sword duel between Sly and Le Paradox, completely abandoning the core gameplay. Now, I won't even pretend that the other games aren't guilty of abandoning the core gameplay for the final boss as well. Roughly half of the final boss in Sly 2 and all of the final boss in Sly 1 involve shooting at Clockwerk/Clock-La with lasers while avoiding attacks. The thing is, those fights, while annoying on the surface due to this shift in gameplay, were actually done well and created a sense of satisfaction upon completion due to their difficulty. By the time I got to the super easy second part of the Clock-La fight I was relieved to have gotten that far and felt rewarded by being able to beat the crap out of Clock-La. The Le Paradox fight has no such difficulty though, leaving the player at the end of the game no feeling of satisfaction of breaking into his fortress to set up the fight, no relief at beating the final boss and ultimately no satisfaction at the end of game, leaving one with a strange empty feeling of having accomplished very little. Just like Star Trek Into Darkness, Sly 4 wraps up far too quickly, becomes far too sloppy with its plot and allows its heroes to succeed far too easily, leaving one with an unsatisfying final impression of an otherwise excellent product.
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