Thief is a reboot of a beloved series that got its start back in the nineties. For a rundown of how it plays, check out the hands-on preview that I did of the game a little while back, as all of that is still relevant here.
While this new game tries very hard to recapture everything that made Thief I and II great, ultimately it fails because of its hodgepodge design, throwaway story and its gloomy, empty world. It still manages to be fun in parts, though, despite itself, but if you were looking for a new Thief game that rivals the greatness of the first two – the standard by which most stealth games are measured, even today – you won’t find it here.
Thief I and II are cult classics, and for good reason. If you haven’t played them yet, do yourself a favour and give them a go; despite their outdated visuals, their brilliant stealth gameplay, amazing sound design and dark atmospheres will draw you in and turn you into a sneaking, pilfering lover of shadows.
They’ll also show you that to make a really good stealth game, you need great level design that allows you to move around in creative ways, a good story and a realistic and convincing sound system that accurately models how things sound in real life. Especially things like bodies falling after being coshed on the head with a blackjack – you know, the kind of things that typically alert guards in the area that mischief is afoot.
Unfortunately for the new Thief, it doesn’t have any of those. Much of the world is dull, dark and lifeless, and even its better environments – of which there are a few – are let down by buggy sound and a railroaded, linear design that seriously limits Garrett’s freedom of movement. Basically, you feel less like a Master Thief in Thief and more like a rat running a particularly linear maze most of the time.
That linearity is partly thanks to the way the world has been set up. Thief takes place in a gloomy, depressing Victorian-era city that’s divided into sections, with a central hub that gives way to the city’s various districts.
While that’s not a bad thing in theory, those districts are entirely separate levels and finding where one level ends and the next begins is more difficult than it should be. That’s because the in-game map is about as helpful as a teaspoon at a hole-digging contest since it does nothing to point out level transitions.
But that’s not even the worst part. Tragically, despite the city’s appearance of being a world you can totally clamber all over, you just can’t go where you want. Instead, Garrett can only go where the developers want him to go, and that’s no way to treat a Master Thief.
This is primarily down to the uneven level design: of the many, many brown crates, boxes and walls you’ll come across in the game, only some can be climbed on, while others just leave Garrett running in place next to them when the “climb over things” button is pressed, even though they may look completely identical to that other obstacle he just climbed over a few seconds earlier.
Roofs and flat-looking shelves suffer from the same inconsistent accessibility. So what if going to location X doesn’t do anything for the story or gameplay? As far as I’m concerned as an acrobatic, experienced thief I should be able to go almost anywhere I damn well please, thank you very much.
Even having rope arrows at his disposal, Garrett can’t climb everywhere. No, he can only shoot his rope arrows into designated rope arrow overhangs, so he can only get to those parts of the level that the designers deem appropriate. Argh.
Instead of creating that freedom, Eidos Montreal took a leaf from Tomb Raider’s book by painting many climbable surfaces with a swatch of white to help guide the player along the right path. Or, as is often the case, the only path. Thanks for the options, guys. /sarcasm
And the sound. Oh God, the sound. The game’s positional audio cues are just terrible, as they struggled to convey exactly where sounds were coming from despite the fact that I was playing on a 5.1 speaker system fed by a Dolby-capable surround-sound amp. Too often I ran into unexpected enemies, or moved stealthily thinking someone was in the area only to discover much later they were actually a floor above me, and quite far away.
I spent a lot of time knocking guards out in Thief, which required me to drop their bodies to the floor. A lot of the time, though, those bodies made no sound as they landed, and even when they did, nearby guards didn’t seem to hear anything. Not that I minded much – it helped me remain undetected, after all – but it was still mildly annoying.
Even when it’s working properly, Thief’s sound isn’t wonderful. The same lines are repeated over and over again by everyone from guards to civilians, to the point of absurdity. I realise that cheesy lines are a Thief tradition, but these are delivered so seriously that they’re not even laughable.
As for the story, it’s as dull and empty as the world itself, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about its characters or the narrative path I was taken on. By the time it was over, I didn’t even care that the ending was a huge anti-climax that didn’t actually resolve anything.
Even Garrett himself didn’t have me rooting for him by the end, as he ultimately proves himself to be greedy, self-centred and arrogant. How can I cheer a man who runs around a city that’s literally dying around him, stealing anything that isn’t nailed down from people that have so little to start with?
And it’s not like you, the player, have any real choice – to succeed in Thief you need equipment, which costs money, so if you choose not to steal, you’ll struggle horribly until you stumble across the occasional supply drop in the world, which are few and far between.
Not even Garrett’s actions toward the end of the game redeemed him in my mind, as what he does is done for his own selfish reasons. What an ass. Although to be fair, this is a game about a thief so it’s to be expected, somewhat, but even so I just didn’t like the guy.
By now you’re probably wondering if there were any parts of the game I actually enjoyed. After all, my hands-on preview was particularly enthusiastic, so it can’t be all bad, right?
Happily, that is indeed the case. For starters, I loved some of the story chapters, like the brothel of chapter 3, as they treated me as an older, mature gamer who could properly contextualise the adult content on display. That particular level managed to surprise me in a really good way thanks to an entirely unexpected – and genuinely thrilling – twist to its design that titillated even more than the brothel itself did.
Then about half-way through the game, the designers threw in an homage to one of Thief II’s levels: a creepy, abandoned mental asylum whose unnerving atmosphere quite literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck. The emptiness of the first few floors had me on edge, and then just when I was getting used to being alone – WHAM – I wasn’t anymore. Or was I? Freaky stuff indeed, and a nice change of pace from the rest of the game.
I also enjoyed the fact that there were side-quests to do, doled out by Garrett’s old friend, Basso. There are 26 of these “jobs” in the world, scattered around the levels, most presenting no more than a few minutes’ worth of distraction from the main quest. In amongst these extra curricular activities are slightly more involved “client” jobs that are essentially mini-levels with their own storylines, which aren’t essential but good for gameplay-padding. More importantly, they bring in cash money that lets Garrett buy equipment, upgrades and Focus abilities.
The developers also included customisable difficulty settings that make the game harder, but more in line with the old Thief games. Players can opt to remove the aiming reticule, disable Focus, only save at chapter checkpoints and have combat takedowns removed. There’s also an option to only allow the use of water, blunt, fire and rope arrows. It significantly ramps up the difficulty, of course, but unfortunately does nothing for the level design, sound problems or bugs.
As for Thief’s PS4-specific enhancements, I liked two of the three: I liked aiming Garret’s bow by moving the controller around, and I thought the controller lighting up white to reflect if Garrett was standing in light and blue for darkness was a neat touch. Getting around Garrett’s inventory with the touch pad, on the other hand, proved awkward since it’s so small.
I will admit, when pickpocketing people of The City, when picking locks to get to places I shouldn’t be going, and when successfully swooping between hiding places and passing through areas packed with guards without alerting any of them, I really did feel like a Master Thief.
Problem is, the rest of the time I felt like an animal in a cage, always looking for a way out but finding only more restrictions.
If you’re still reading, you might be thinking that I really didn’t like Thief. Not so, I enjoyed much of it despite its flaws. The reason I’m so hard on it is because I really, really wanted this reboot to be amazing, an experience on par with the Thief games of yore, and to its credit, the potential to be exactly that shone through in places.
Which is what makes this new Thief’s slightly unpolished and disjointed overall feel all the more disappointing.
Thief by Eidos Montreal, published by Square Enix
Available on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
The good: Occasional awe-inspiring levels, good stealth mechanics, difficulty options
The bad: Bugs, poor sound and level design, limited movement, nonsensical story, unsatisfying ending, terrible map