There's a metallic patch on one of the walls in the break area at Sanzaru Games on which alphabet fridge magnets hold in place fan drawings and letters. "Dear Sanzaru," reads one hand-written letter. "I heard you are working on Sly Cooper Thievies (sic) in Time. Thats (sic) great! I think you can do better than Sucker Punch, but here are some suggestions:..."
"All that does is make me look up and see all these fans who are super excited about it," begins Caley Roberts, producer for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. "There's times, man, when you're sitting in this cube and you've been here for 20 hours and you're just, like, 'I just wanna get this level done,' and you've stopped caring so much about what you're doing because you're tired and you're supposed to be already done. And you can look over, and the stuff you're working on translates directly into joy for kids, and it's like, 'Damn, that feels really good'."
But there was a time not so long ago when Sanzaru staffers were among those fans who had an idea or two about where they'd like to take the franchise. The Foster City-based developer (just outside of San Francisco) has taken the reins of the franchise from Sucker Punch Productions, which turned its attention to InFamous and InFamous 2. Sanzaru's first assignment was The Sly Collection; an HD re-release of the franchise's three PlayStation 2 games. A hidden, teaser-trailer Easter egg contained within hinted at a new, fully fledged Sly Cooper game. The resulting internet reaction proved definitively that fans are still hungry for more Sly Cooper, even some six years since the last entry in the series.
The first game in the series to be developed for the PlayStation 3, Thieves in Time continues the adventures of the raccoon descended from a long line of master thieves. Just as importantly, it retains the classic gameplay that has enthralled gamers of all inclinations with its unique blend of action-adventure, platforming and "light stealth" elements.
"What I mean by light stealth is you're very aware of where you can get caught and where you cannot," explains Roberts as he talks a handful of journalists through a demo level. In this section, players assume the role of Sly's feudal-Japanese ninja ancestor, Rioichi, and must evade the light beams from lanterns held by large, patrolling guards. "Lighted area, I'm in trouble. Unlighted area, I won't be seen. So we're not gonna punish you like they would in a Metal Gear where, 'Oh my God, my left finger was outside a tank I was underneath - now there's 42 guards coming after me'."
Rioichi can also make use of the precision, spire-jumping ability that Sly learned in the very first game. He can leap from vantage point to vantage point - sometimes up to two or three times as far as other characters - but must time his leaps in order to avoid moving security lasers.
Although Rioichi is playable, it's understood that most of the action will revolve around Sly himself. In recognition of player response to the introduction of multiple playable characters in the third Sly Cooper installment, the number has reportedly been scaled right back for Thieves in Time. Sanzaru learned that most players simply wanted to play as their beloved Sly. But in order to maintain variety, Sly can now make use of different suits that grant him special abilities. Another demo level sees Sly don a Robin Hood-esque archer's outfit, which enables him to fire arrows with a rope tied to one end. Upon firing, the player controls the arrow's trajectory from a first-person camera perspective in a bid to hit a bullseye target. This then creates a tightrope that allows Sly to reach previously inaccessible areas, although he'll need to avoid scorching flames as he attempts to do so.
As he uncovers these suits throughout his adventure, Sly can reach new areas in the wider, open-world "hub" areas. The new abilities don't constitute a free pass through obstacles, though; patience and timing are still mandatory for successful negotiation.
Thieves in Time marks the first new Sly Cooper game to appear on the PlayStation 3 and, thus, presents a new opportunity to leverage the extra horsepower on offer to the series. But Sanzaru is the first to admit that it hasn't tinkered dramatically with the core gameplay style established by Sucker Punch and adored by many.
"The gameplay is, essentially, very similar to what people are used to, but it's just the visual level, the lighting, the character models, the amount of detail and the artwork is all tenfold what you'd see on the PS2," says Sanzaru CEO Glen Egan.
But, who knows? The developer just might have taken on-board some special advice offered by our young, letter-writing friend.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is slated for release later this year on PlayStation 3.