There lies a certain pressure for any creator in the midst of putting together a sequel. There is a delicate balance between shaking up the formula and iterating on what came before. Narratively, you want to display growth in a character as in how have they changed between each entry. While gameplay-wise, you want to expound on the mechanics present last time out to avoid stagnation. During the golden era of the PlayStation 2, Naughty Dog’s Jak Trilogy and Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series, both handled this conundrum differently.
Naughty Dog opted to drastically shake up the established formula from Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Some would say too much. As, the leap from open-world, platforming collectathon to gritty, criminal underworld, GTA style adventure in Jak II, felt jarring for some. Whereas, the changes from Ratchet & Clank to Going Commando to Up Your Arsenal felt akin to the iterative nature of Assassin’s Creed II to Brotherhood to Revelations.
Sucker Punch, on the other hand, managed to strike that balance. Finding a middle ground between meaningful changes to both narrative and gameplay, without compromising what came before. While also avoiding the iterative nature games can fall into. They accomplished this, with one of my favorite games ever, Sly 2 Band of Thieves. A game, where Sucker Punch’s initial vision of the first game, was fully realized in their near-perfect sequel.
A Rough Introduction
Although many still regard the first Sly fondly, the game was marred by a fair share of issues. Issues Sucker Punch themselves were not shy to point out and thus were keen to correct. Most pressing, the game had an over-reliability on outdated mechanics that modern games of the time already ditched.
For instance, the game followed a strict linear path throughout its main campaign. Each level tasked the player to platform and sneak from point A to point B, usually in search of keys to open a barricade preventing you from progressing to the boss. Not to mention, these levels contained the occasional mini-game, which always felt out of place and only in the game to break up the monotony. Also, the sheer number of these really distracted the player from the main thieving gameplay. So, then you couple this with a life system, akin to Super Mario games before 64 and you can see how these held the game back.
Additionally, the game overemphasized Sly as a character. Sure, the thief was charismatic and exactly the underdog we root for, but what of the rest of the gang? See, this was always pegged as, The Cooper Gang, yet Bentley and Murray never went into the field. Unfortunately, the first game delegated them to comedic relief punching bags, while Sly did all the work. We were promised a group, yet only got Sly.
I mention these because they all coalesce into several ways the first game felt restrictive or just shy of greatness. Especially in comparison to other games released in the same year or the year before. Games like Vice City, Ratchet & Clank, Super Mario Sunshine, and Wind Waker all freed themselves from those constraints. Although the first Sly leaned on these trappings, Band of Thieves addressed those issues, head-on.
The Improved Structure of Sly 2 Band of Thieves
The team understood the obstacle course like linear levels, tailor-made for Sly, wouldn’t work this time around. There were clearly greater ambitions in mind, so something had to give. Something had to compensate for the freedom so inherent for a thief. Sucker Punch’s solution was to create more open hub worlds that truly allowed some agency and for the player to stretch their legs.
Suffice to say, the results worked wonders.
Just like the first game, each location has a distinct aesthetic to separate itself from one another. From Paris to Canada to Prague, each hub world is essentially its own unique playground. Playgrounds brim with opportunities to climb, leap across rooftops, pickpocket guards and sneak about, to your heart’s content. Each level feels ripe for experimentation to ultimately test just how far you can push Sly’s acrobatics. Yet, the options never feel overwhelming. So if you’re ever on the run there’s plenty of options to get you back into cover. This only promotes the player’s ability to put together a plan B and think on the fly when things truly do go awry.
Another direct change from Sly 1 to Sly 2 is the addition of the health bar. At first glance may not seem like a big deal. But, allow me to explain why it is a welcome addition. See, in the first game, Sly could die from a single hit. While this does sound dangerous on paper, the guards were complete pushovers and also died in a single hit. In Sly 2, Sucker Punch has introduced enemy classes like guards who call for backup, brutes who hit HARD, and guards who can chase you down even on rooftops. Naturally, they all take multiple hits to defeat, just like you do. So, technically you can go guns blazing and throw caution to the wind, but the cards are heavily stacked against you. Especially in large groups.
Thus, this makes the art of maneuvering through an area undetected that much more rewarding. Made all the more possible with the wider play spaces and opportunities within them. Sly can utilize environmental objects to create noises or use tools to create the same effect. There are stealth takedowns as well but you need to be wary of how close you are in regards to other enemies. Making use of the playground around you to escape unscathed, is Sly at his best. But, we’ve yet to talk about the single greatest change, Sly 2 introduces.
The Brains & The Brawn’s
One of the biggest course corrections for Band of Thieves was integrating Bentley and Murray more so than the first game. Both gameplay and narrative-wise. See, unlike the first outing, Sly’s no longer alone out in the field and both of his bandmates are playable. Each chapter in the game will contain missions within the world, only a specific character can complete. Something that needs a silent and stealthy approach, will involve Sly. Vice versa, something requiring more of a bang, guns blazing approach, will call for Murray. Yet, Sucker Punch’s true genius here lies within the balance of all three.
They all play off of each other seamlessly, both in gameplay and dialogue. As far as balance is concerned, Sucker Punch shines a light on the gang’s dependence on each other. There are both benefits and disadvantages to each character, meaning they all have something worthy to bring to the table. Sure, Sly is the faster, more acrobatic, and stealthy of the bunch, but he’ll struggle in combat. Whereas, Murray, can take down enemies left and right with ease but as a result, isn’t well suited to platforming. The tradeoffs make sense and only help to clearly convey each character’s strengths and weaknesses.
This sentiment is supported by the game’s greater emphasis on mini-games. They also received more attention this time around. Feeling both varied, while having a tangible connection to the overall heist. Ensuring, everything mattered to the scheme no matter what you were doing. Whether firing turrets to break a dam or piloting an RC Chopper, these were mainly handled by Bentley and Murray. Together, the barrage of different gameplay styles and tasks, performed by each member, all feel like meaningful contributions to the end goal. Once everything finally escalates to the final heist, you can’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction. Especially getting to see how each heist starts with a clean slate. Then gradually morphs into something resembling something only master thieves can execute.
Seeing this motley band, working in perfect harmony and bouncing from one character to the next to pull off what the whole chapter has been working towards, is always worthwhile. And although the Cooper Gang revelled in their early victories, Band of Thieves would take their invulnerability and flip it on its head.
Consequences of the Lifestyle
Gameplay advances aside, the narrative and interplay between the characters is what I remember most from Sly 2 Band of Thieves. Unsurprisingly, the gang lies within the core of the story. Yet, Nate Fox and Sucker Punch, didn’t want a repeat of Sly 1. See, Sly 1 featured a young, naive and feisty group, just getting their bearings. Although they were tested, the group punched well above their weight class and succeeded. Funnily enough, the first two chapters in Sly 2, remain in-line with the status quo.
However, that changes quickly. Sly 2 confronts that status quo. Meaning, the belief in their invulnerability to the consequences associated with their lifestyle would protect them yet again. But, Sly 2 shows just how fast your luck can run its course. All the more furthered by Sly’s pursuit of greatness. The inflation of ego, which plagues his character. He spearheads this sense of invincibility, that the team can get away with biting off more than they can chew. While this worked the first time around, Sly 2 houses a band of villains capable of out-smarting and thinking one step ahead of our heroes. The stakes have never been higher.
Because of this lack of foresight, the gang constantly finds the rug pulled out from under them. No more prevalent than in the trilogy’s stand-out chapter, Jailbreak. Where, Sly, Murray, and Carmelita, find themselves captured and imprisoned by the Contessa. Leaving the most unlikely character, Bentley, the sole playable character for half of the chapter as he attempts to rescue his friends. Again, asking the most unlikely hero, who has been regulated to the sidelines to confront his fears and step up to the plate.
Up to that point, you feel just as invincible as the gang does. Why this chapter resonates so well is because it shows that feeling never lasts forever. Yet, by the end of this encounter with their worst fear, the group comes out closer. We the players share this new sense of respect for Bentley, since we get to see him overcome that fear firsthand.
This journey to reclaim the clockwork parts has undoubtedly had ups and downs aplenty. It’s a journey marred by the highest highs and lowest lows. The group loses everything and makes it out by the skin of their teeth, but at what cost? And this leads us to the ending. The gang’s defeated Clock-La and you feel an emotional high, a sigh of relief that clockwork has finally been put to bed. Until Bentley suffers an injury that robs him the use of his legs and leaves him paralyzed. And at the end of it all, through all of your hard work and toil, only an image remains of Bentley and Murray leaving Sly, discarding their equipment in the trash. This is what you have to show for your work.
Sly’s pursuit of greatness, the chase for the same legacy attained by his ancestors, left tangible scars on those closest to him. Sly 2 Band of Thieves, pushes the characters past their limits and places them into uncomfortable situations they must work together to overcome. But, there exists a toll to it all. And it only required one final straw for the camel’s back to snap. Leading to the team’s disbandment.
The sheer leap from Sly 1 to Sly 2, cannot be understated. The first game laid the foundation, while the second game cashed in on that original vision. Band of Thieves represents Sucker Punch firing on all cylinders with advancements in both gameplay and character, while also ensuring the two could weave and play into one another, seamlessly.
Nowadays, people fondly look back on Jak and Ratchet & Clank. But, don’t forget Sly 2 Band of Thieves, Sucker Punch’s first masterpiece.