With Christmas just around the corner Santa has filled his sack full of Christmas gaming goodies for the festive season. With their eye on your hard earned cash, producers have released a plethora of platform games with the younger market in mind. First out of Santas sack is Ratchet and Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal! which will be closely followed I'm sure by Jak and Daxter 3 and the latest instalment of Prince of Persia all great games I would want filling my stocking this Christmas, however a little gem that hasn't been greatly publicised is Sly 2: Band of Thieves.

The first instalment in the Sly series was Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus a great game that that had everything a platformer should have, colourful and inventive locations, amusing characters and a great storyline. Anyone that that had played the game was left wanting more. Sly 2 has been some time in the making but it has definitely been worth the wait as Sucker Punch has outdone themselves with this second instalment of the game.

In the original title exploration of locations was somewhat restricted, limiting you to the confines of each mission location. However in Sly 2 you can explore and roam around locations to your hearts content without having to undertake any of the missions of the level (Although obviously you will need to complete all of the missions eventually to progress through the game). This freedom means that you can gain coins by pick pocketing guards and smashing up objects. Some of the guards not only have coins in their possession but also have gems which can sold on the "Thiefnet" found in safe house of each location. Also dotted around a are a number of valuable objects (these items are generally found in obscure places and are surrounded by a golden glow), if you can get these items back to the safe house within a certain time limit they too, can be sold on the Theifnet. So what do you do with all of this money you have accumulated through your life of crime? Well gadgets and new combat moves can be bought to help you defeat your opponents as you progress through the game. (However I have to say that very few of these additional moves are that useful and collecting enough coins to purchase some of the more expensive items can be quite time consuming and not essential to the plot). Also dotted around each location are thirty green bottles (you can hear when you are near one as there is a feint tinkling sound), collect all of these and Bentley will give you the code to a safe located somewhere in the area that will also contain a special move.

Another improvement in this second instalment is that you can now not only play as Sly but you also get to play as Murray and Bentley, the other two member of the Cooper gang. Each member of the gang has their own special abilities and throughout the game all three character need to bring their expertise into play to complete their part of the bigger mission.

Sly Cooper is a rather dapper raccoon who serves as the game's central protagonist. His main attribute is stealth, hiding in the shadows or under tables and using his cane to pick the pockets of guards to gain essential keys to unlock previously inaccessible areas. He is also very nimble on his toes and can walk across ropes and telephone wires he can use his cane to climb poles and can balance on tiny spires. He can also defeat enemies by creeping silently behind them and performing a "stealth kill" by pressing the triangle button then almost immediately the square button. However unless this move is carried out silently other enemies that are close will be alerted and will attack.

Bentley is a spectacled whiz kid turtle and the brains of the gang responsible for coming up with a plan of attach for each mission. Although he is not physically the strongest member of the gang he more than makes up for this with his amazing technical knowledge. He not only comes equipped with a very useful tranquiliser dart gun that will put the biggest and baddest enemies to sleep in the blink of an eye but he also carries an unlimited amount of explosive mines. Therefore you can send an enemy to sleep with a dart then drop a mine next to them and it's Goodnight Vienna. Bently can also hack into computers by way of a rather enjoyable sub game which is along the lines of the old arcade retro game Galaxia.

The last of the gang is Murray (or "The Murray" as he likes to call himself) a hippopotamus with more brawn than brain. Due to his clumsiness and rather large physique Murray isn't too hot at sneaking around. However, if you need some extra muscle to fight foes or smash down doors then Murray is your man. You can also use Murray to throw Bentley up to high areas that he previously couldn't gain access to.

Another two unplayable characters making an appearance from the original Sly title are Inspector Carmalita Fox, a cop for Interpol who has a terrible vendetta against the Cooper gang and would like to see them holed up for a few years behind bars and Constable Neyla who seems to have her own reasons for tracking down the Cooper gang.

The story behind the game is simple. In the first game Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus Sly, a descendant from a long line of thieves, was hunting down the members of the Klaww Gang who had stolen the pages from his family's ancient book of thieving. In Sly 2: Band of Thieves Sly and the gang break into the Klaww gangs headquarters to steal the robotic Clockwerk parts (which is the remains of the Boss of the first title) only to find that they have already been stolen. So Sly and the gang head off to track down the missing Klockwerk parts....

If the game has a flaw it's that towards the end of the game some of the missions are a little repetitive. However, they do increase in difficulty and I believe that there is enough diversity in the game with its numerous sub games to keep you interested and stops it from being tedious. Sly 2 can be completed by an expert gamer in around twelve hours which means it isn't that big a game and I found that I could complete all the missions and sub missions the first time round easily without having to go back and re do any of the levels. One thing that is missing from the first title is replay ability. In the initial title after completing the game, you could replay all of the missions but this time they had to be completed against the clock. This was incredibly difficult and gave the game its longevity. This is not an option that is available in Sly 2 which is a shame as once you have completed the game that is it, and you get nothing for getting 100% completion either.

If you like platformers then you will love this. Sly 2: Band of Thieves has everything that you would expect from the genre and a little bit more. It's colourful, amusing and very well put together. If you find this stuffed in your stocking this Christmas then you must have been very good indeed.