Friday, October 16, 2015

Game Review: Sly 2: Band of Thieves

Sly 2: One of the best video games out there. Period.
It didn't take us long to get to the next heist, huh? My next game review will be a special one because it will highlight a video game that, in my personal opinion, has got to rank as one of the best games that I have ever played. It sometimes takes a lot for me to say that about any video game, but Sly 2: Band of Thieves simply blew me away with how consistent it was in the storyline, the gameplay mechanics, the sound effects and voice acting, and the overall enjoyable gaming experience. Not many games will catch gamers in this way, but my review will describe just how things seemed to click in this cleverly made sequel to the Master Thief's adventures with his merry gang.

Backstory: Allow me to provide some backstory before I jump into the review. The day was August 19, 2009 and I took a trip on a bus with a group of local baseball fans. We went down to Jackson, Tennessee to see a good friend of mine play a few games of baseball as he was just signed by Jackson's team to fill in for another baseball player who got injured. During my 3-day stay in Tennessee, I went to a mall to look at some video games in a store, and what did I find? Yep! This game! Sly 2 just stuck out in the front row of a clearance bin, and like the featured raccoon himself, I just had to snatch it and buy it. It turns out that I made a great investment.

Now let's get started with the review itself, which is sure to go into detail as to what really clicked.

Great detail went into the level designs

Controls - 20 out of 20 Points

While Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (Sly 1) started the series, Sly 2: Band of Thieves was the first Sly game that I played, and I knew almost right away when I started playing this game that the controls were going to be smooth and accurately responsive. Everywhere I took the Cooper Gang they moved accordingly, and when I pressed buttons to perform actions, those actions were performed.

Unlike Sly 1, you have more than just Sly Cooper to control in Sly 2 as Bentley and Murray are available as playable characters. All 3 Cooper Gang members have their own skill sets and diverse sets of moves that will make them stand out in their own ways. This is a great way of showing how reliable Bentley and Murray are in the gang as opposed to giving Sly all the spotlight, and this was a very wise move made by Sucker Punch.

I will also point out that the binocucom feature in this game was given a great amount of significance. This further added to the stealthy environment of the Sly Cooper world. There were some missions in Sly 2 where you had to be accurate in taking binocucom photographs, and this allows the player to become more emotionally invested in what's going on, from the story to the gameplay. The controls of this game were top notch. No big flaws that I could see.

Graphics - 20 out of 20 Points

Sly 2 was catered to the Sony Playstation 2 engine, but there is absolutely nothing negative that I can take away from viewing the graphics here. For its time Sly 2 was simply remarkable to look at in the visual context. Players were given accurate depictions of their favorite characters, and the Saturday morning cartoonish flare that jumps out from this game only resulted in good things for me as I watched the Story Mode of Sly 2 progress.

The level designs of this game were well thought out and you could easily recognize the themes these levels took on. The architecture of the buildings that Sly and his friends encountered were visually impressive, containing just a touch of realism. I definitely believe that these graphics should be appreciated for what they are because it's not often that you get works of art like this from a video game.

Story - 16 out of 20 Points

Unfortunately, just like Sly 1, Sly 2 suffers from a particular theme in Episodes 4 and 5 that pulled down the experience for me a bit. This is once again my personal opinion, but I believe that the theme that was chosen for these 2 episodes just wasn't necessary and it threw me off.

Having said that, 6 out of the 8 episodes in Sly 2 were simply fantastic in the way that they told the story of the game. I must say that Sly 2's Story Mode has gotta be by far one of the best Story Modes any video game development team has ever created. It's nearly flawless in its execution. Sly 2's story keeps gamers on their toes, making them wonder what turns it will take. The story isn't complex, but it is thought-provoking, and it does make you think a little bit about why the villains did what they did to get to the top, and why the Clockwerk parts matter to them.

Game writing isn't easy to master, and I would know a little bit about this since I am constantly studying the art of game writing. Sucker Punch did their homework in the game writing for Sly 2 for the most part. I will say this about the twists that occur in Sly 2 without spoiling anything; You might not see them coming, but in one way you will connect the dots. This story had some very positive elements to take from and remember, which again makes me happy that I got this game.

Music - 20 out of 20 Points

If you loved the music of Sly 1, then you will surely love the music of Sly 2. In a sense the jazzy feel of the soundtracks in this game appears to be amplified and reinvented, refreshing the beats that you grew to love in the first game. I once again kept up with the flow of these soundtracks because they truly are that memorable. These tunes are catchy and pleasing for the ears to listen to. Top notch.

Concept Art of Sly 2
Replayability Factor - 20 out of 20 Points

Sly 2: Band of Thieves pretty much has infinite replay value in the sense that if you want to just pop this game in and go through the missions again, you can do that seamlessly without feeling burdened. You can play through Story Mode all over again without feeling that you will just get bored because of repetition. For example, if you were to go through Story Mode once and then went back to playing it again a week later, you would feel just as motivated to complete the jobs that are set before you, just as you felt previously.

I think what really sets Sly 2: Band of Thieves apart from Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves and Sly 4: Thieves In Time would have to be the sense of purpose that it establishes right off the bat. From the very beginning you are launched into action working a job and you are gradually led to different working parts of the story. In one sense you feel like more than just a Master Thief, but also a detective who's trying to solve a puzzle the deeper you get into the tangled web.

In comparison to Sly 2, I don't get as big of a purpose being established by the other Sly Cooper games. Sly 1 and Sly 4 both establish a general purpose while Sly 3 didn't quite hit the mark. You feel the big purpose of the whole story behind Sly 2 when you see it play out, and I believe that's just awesome.

You've done well, Sly Cooper!

Overall Score - 96 out of 100 Points (No Bonus Points)

This is the highest overall score that I have given a video game in a review here on this blog, and for good reason. Sly 2: Band of Thieves has served as one of many turning points in my time as a gamer, leaving a lasting impression on me that is right on par with another game I loved in Yoshi's Island. Compared to Sly 1, you have all the freedom in the world to move around and look for the Clue Bottles while deciding which job to tackle first. You are never really restricted in what you can do, and that's as big a plus as any for a game.

If you happen to be a completionist kind of gamer and you want to see something out the whole way, then this is absolutely your kind of game to play. Just when you think you can only play this game for a 1 hour sitting, you find yourself playing it for another 30 minutes or another full hour instead. Sly 2 carries that kind of influence.

Capping off this review, I once again have to note the stellar voice acting performances for all the characters. Some of the cutscenes in this game had me laughing for a good few minutes before I could regain my composure and resume playing. That's what it really is all about. Having a good time while you challenge yourself to complete tasks that you may think are too daunting for you to pull off, but at the same time you are comforted by the game's feel-good tone. That is Sly 2: Band of Thieves to me.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Game Review: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus

Good ol' fashioned Cops and Robbers
Only a particular few video game franchises carry a certain significance with me in the sense that when I'm just a few minutes into playing a game, I can almost tell right away that it's going to not only be good, but an unforgettable experience. Not every video game that I play can do that for me, and with a previous example in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, that game represented my official introduction into playing video games, the beginning of Steven Vitte as a gamer.

Now what does the Sly Cooper franchise represent to me as a gamer? To be honest, I have held off writing this game review for a while as I was waiting for the right time to submit this. Since I really don't have anything else on my plate to discuss at the moment, I figured this was the right time. The Sly Cooper series represents an important transition period for me as a gamer. In the past I was strictly a Nintendo gamer, and by all means I have enjoyed a fair share of Nintendo games, but in recent years I wanted to venture away from Nintendo and explore what other companies were doing. I have invested in Sony Playstation content for the PS2 and the PS4 (not yet on the PS3... that will take time), and some of the first games I had my eyes on were the original Sly trilogy on the PS2.

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, also known as simply Sly 1, was actually not the first Sly game I bought. That honor goes to Sly 2: Band of Thieves which I will also review at a later time, but for Sly 1, I could immediately tell that I had something unique to play and I could understand why it grabbed the attention of gamers back when it was released on September 23, 2002. Shall we sneak up on this review and pickpocket all the wonderful details? Let's do that with style!

Controls - 20 out of 20 Points

While this is the oldest game of the series, and though some gameplay aspects of this have since been discarded in favor of newer things, Sly 1 works exceptionally well in its controls. When you move Sly around in levels, you don't get any resistance whatsoever. There's a proper flow to all the controls. When pressing buttons to perform actions, everything just seems to make sense.

Perhaps one big reason why everything seems to make sense is the emphasis that is put on... the Circle button. Many times Bentley, an intelligent turtle who is one of Sly's best friends in the Cooper Gang, will tell Sly to press the Circle button to perform an action, and this alone is easy enough to follow that you will feel motivated to immerse yourself with the levels of the game. Press the Circle button? Okay! Here I go! I'll jump onto that hook and swing with the Cooper Cane! Easy to remember and execute, and that is a big plus in my book.

It also helps that from time to time Sly will be awarded abilities for finding all the Clue Bottles that are in a level. Once he unlocks a safe to collect a new ability, Sly will be able to try that new ability out, and for the gamer, it helps him or her to progress further into the game because of the new dimension the new ability brings to the table. Abilities range from attack moves to stealthy defensive moves, and even moves in between. I certainly found the abilities helpful when venturing through Sly 1's levels.

Don't get dizzy watching this...

Graphics - 20 out of 20 Points

To put it in a nutshell, what's not to like about Sly 1's graphics? Considering the standards of the PS2, these graphics were simply amazing for its time. The delicate details that were implemented in this game clearly showed what a game development team could do if they put their skills to the test and played their cards right. Sucker Punch pulled off the Saturday morning cartoon look in spades with this game as well as the other Sly games, and just by embracing the artwork that was done not only in the levels but also in the cutscenes has left a lasting impression on gamer's minds even to this day. All the colors, bright and dark, complement each other very well and the character designs are obviously on point.

Story - 15 out of 20 Points

For the most part I enjoyed the core concepts of Sly 1's story. I was definitely intrigued by the introduction to the Thievius Raccoonus, the timeless strategy guide for all Cooper family members to use, and it was awesome how this single book was tied in with the heart of the story. Sly Cooper is part of a long line of master thieves who spent their whole lives perfecting their craft of pulling off calculated heists, plundering about across the globe. Of course, when you have a thief on the loose, you will always need an opposing force...

...and what better way to add a twist to the Cops and Robbers game than to include a romantic dynamic? The interaction between Sly Cooper and Inspector Carmelita Montoya Fox of Interpol is basically the straw that stirs the drink of coffee that this series provides. Sly is always on the run here in Sly 1 from Carmelita while performing his tasks of taking down the Fiendish Five, the group of bad guys who were responsible for the death of his parents, which is explained in the opening scene of the story. I also find it to be slick how Sucker Punch suddenly allows the player to help both Sly and Carmelita in the last level of the game.

However, the reason why the Story Mode of Sly 1 doesn't get a perfect score of 20 from me is simply because of one level I had a genuine distaste for in its entirety. I shake my head at Episode 3... Everything else was spot on and solid story-wise, though.

Music - 20 out of 20 Points

Another main factor for bringing the Sly series to life and jumping out to gamers was the great music it had. How can we forget the catchy jazz beats of these soundtracks? The music helps define what Sly's world is and it's a staple that you simply can't replace. Yeah, don't even think about replacing Sly's signature jazz music with typical punk rock noise. Sly isn't Sonic the Hedgehog, you know! (#ShotsFired@Sega)

When playing a game that involves Sly Cooper, I can't help but go along with these kinds of beats. They are not only catchy but they are memorable and they help me to better visualize Sly's world in a variety of ways. I also like how the soundtracks blend in with the different locations of the levels to complement them. These soundtracks are appropriate for the feeling of these levels. Sucker Punch did a great job here in Sly 1.

Replayability Factor - 17 out of 20 Points

For the most part, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus carries the kind of Replayability Factor that you would want, with the only glaring exception (and this is only my opinion) being Episode 3. You have levels that are easy to access and navigate through and you have more than enough activities to do once you dig into a level. When you are given a task to complete, you know what to do after some practice. You never feel lost when exploring and at some point you are taken back to where you need to be when completing a task.

Overall Score - 93 out of 100 Points (1 Bonus Point)

It is very easy for me to recommend this game as a starting point if you want to get acquainted with the world of Sly Cooper. Considering that this is the game that started the Sly franchise, it's definitely worth taking the nostalgia trip. This game introduces you to everything you need to know about the beloved characters, such as Sly himself, the previously mentioned Bentley, Murray, a big hippo who specializes in driving the Cooper Van in Sly 1, Carmelita, the Fiendish Five and Clockwerk, the infamous villain who hates everything about the Cooper family.

I am simply impressed by how this story was originally built by the creative mind of Mat Kraemer. It takes a lot of planning to come up with a story as extensive as this one, and Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus left enough of a mark on gaming communities everywhere in its time. Why I didn't get around to playing this game in the 2000's is beyond me, but I'm glad I finally got around to it in recent years. It certainly helped me in my recovery process to "re-appreciating" how video games are made and how they function.

Another note that probably doesn't need to be mentioned is that the voice acting was splendid as well. A cast of no-names that were able to carry a story with enjoyable depth like Sly 1 is always a plus for any game development team. The voice actors and actresses played their roles accordingly and you can tell that they were invested in making the gaming experience fun through their dialogue deliveries.

In closing, if you somehow haven't played this game yet, you probably should set aside a time to do that as soon as you can. Off to the next heist!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Thoughts On e-Sports

eSports: Not what it's cracked up to be...

In the past on the Gaming Journalist Gazette I talked about gaming competitions such as tournaments and related events and why things like that would be helpful for gaming communities. While I do still stand by what I said in those past blog entries, I want to keep it in perspective with this follow-up blog entry. While I believe that it would be fun to have gaming tournaments between gamers who just like the idea of engaging in interesting competitions, I also believe that a bit of caution needs to be taken by gamers.

As you have probably become aware of by now, the eSports scene in the world is a huge industry. It's a billion dollar industry, and that alone is a scary thought, in my honest opinion. It's one thing for gamers to practice at games so they can improve their skills, but it's a completely different story when those gamers start obsessing over a single game and devote so much time to it that the game becomes some sort of religion to them. This is where I feel that you as a gamer need to take a step back and think about what you are doing.

Now concerning the link to a Yahoo! news piece on Colin Cowherd bashing eSports and explaining why he feels sports outlets like ESPN shouldn't be broadcasting eSports... To a certain degree, Cowherd is right about the issues on eSports. However, and this has always been my issue with the talking heads of mainstream media outlets, Colin Cowherd really shouldn't be the guy saying this. If anything, he is one of the many attention-seeking reporters out there, just wanting to hear himself talk. He comes across as a guy who thinks he is above certain things like video games, and that he has expert knowledge on something he clearly hasn't spent an abundance of time getting familiar with.

To express my most candid opinion on eSports, it would have to be this. Playing video games is NOT a sport.

There, I said it.

Playing video games is not a sport because they just don't compare to what professional athletes actually do out on the fields of play. Compared to actual sports like baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, tennis, golf, etc. video games don't require much physical skill aside from the fact that you are just pressing buttons on a controller, and even that can be debated as to how physical that is.

The eSports industry is a huge industry that has built itself on the false belief that the gamers who participate in these competitions are superstars for whatever reason, and once the hype train starts rolling on the tracks for one gamer, it's hard to slow that hype train down. Granted that a gamer can make boat loads of cash engaging in this industry, but when it comes to the principle of this, I have to say that I'm 100% not in favor of how the eSports scene is currently constructed.

Um... I don't have words for this
I'm not opposed to participating in gaming tournaments where a group of friends just get together and have fun, and I'm not opposed to gaming tournaments that are local, statewide or even national. I'm not even opposed to gamers receiving recognition for their accomplishments if they happen to win gaming tournaments, but the point of this post is to say that organizations and companies shouldn't blow things out of proportion. When you look at eSports today, that's exactly what's going on.