What’s yours… you can keep it
If you are reading this review right now, you are probably like me, one that could care less for the Thief franchise. The only Thief game I played is Deadly Shadows and the only thing I can recall is not caring at all for the traditional hardcore stealth experience it offered and the blue pointy arrows. What I am trying to say it that I am not really a fan of the Thief series, so keep that in mind while reading this review.
Before moving on I want to post a quote found on the official review guide which I’ll come back and forth as I progress through this review: ” Thief is a story-driven first-person adventure with intelligent design that allows you to choose your methods and approach to the challenges it offers.” Reboot, remake, reimagine, revival, these where the words used to describe this version Thief. And creating this game while keeping in mind its legacy, it is a hard thing to do. So the devs behind it went for the easiest and safest way possible, keep most of the things that made the past games cool intact while adding a few new gimmicks to supposedly reel new fans in.
The last time we saw Garrett, the Master Thief, was 10 years ago and since then the stealth genre has evolved, for better or worse depending on your views. Back then you had to wait, observe, stalk the enemies then go for the knockout; now you can go straight for the knockout bypassing all of the boring stuff. The old Thief games had a lot of the first elements, patience was rewarded and the new game keeps that intact and that is appealing to the hardcore fans, those ten people out there. Joking aside, the stealth genre has indeed evolved since then and I think for the better. Now you have a choice, you can play like a ghost without anyone seeing you or you can go bananas, mowing down everyone and everything in your path. And there is a ton of stealth games in the past few years like Dishonored, Hitman, Splinter Cell etc. that gave you that sense of freedom, choice on how you want to play and they were a blast to play regarding your approach. Thief, in the other hand stays true to the stealth genre, again, to appeal to the old fans and that, in my opinion, doesn’t work for a 2014 release.
Contrary to what you can read on the back of the box, you don’t really have a choice on how you play the game. The way you have to play the game is chosen for you by the game. If you want to go for a full ghost or stealth playthrough, the game provides all the necessary tools to help you, but, in a personal opinion, I found that to be extremely boring. When I play stealth games, I first go for a total stealth approach until I’m spotted then I bring out the big guns to silence everyone on the level. That’s not the case in Thief. If you are spotted, that’s it, you better restart to the last checkpoint. You simply don’t have the tools to fight back. All you are given are a silly small baton or the Blackjack as its called which is useless in direct combat against multiple enemies and a bow with multiple types of arrow heads that doesn’t really work in close quarters. The combat is just silly and really uninspiring so you don’t really have a choice but to totally avoid it.
The core mechanic which stealth is built upon is Light and Shadow. In the shadows you are nearly invisible as enemies won’t see you even if you are a foot away from them. But once you step into the light, oh boy, they will see you from miles away and then you are doomed. If I can sum up the gameplay in one sentence that’s “Stay in the shadows, move behind cover, if you want swoop in for the takedown and hope nobody sees you with their super vision.” You’ll do a lot of that, time after time after time and that gets boring really quickly. But lucky enough the missions or better say mainly the side missions mix things up and offer a quite enjoyable experience. The main missions aren’t really that great with exception to the “run for your life cause sh*t is going down” one which was pretty epic if I must say. That’s mainly because of the story Thief tries to tell. Garrett is tasked to steal something, but in a very cliche way, it goes horribly wrong and someone close to him dies or so it seems. A year later Garrett wakes up returning to The City with a new found ability and tries to solve or uncover what really happened a year ago culminating with him saving the world or something like that.
While playing through it I got the sense that the game tries to tell a good story, it really does, but it fails in the delivery. It starts with a good conspiracy story about oppression and the use of fear to control the people living in The City, continues with a dark and intriguing twist, but then it introduces some supernatural stuff which feel totally out of place and logic, at least to me, and it falls apart from there on. Also it doesn’t really explain who you are and why you are you, who are the people you interact with, who’s the one close to you that “dies” or even why should you care and many other questions are left unanswered. Sure they might be explained in details in the 200+ notes and documents you find spread out in the world, but who has the time to find/collect them and read through boring walls of text?
Remember that quote in the beginning explaining what Thief is? It had the following “…intelligent design that allows you to choose your methods and approach to the challenges it offers” and that’s not entirely true. The main missions are pretty much scripted missions with an objective to complete usually steal something and that “intelligent design…” is nowhere to be found. There is only one way or path towards completing the objective, not a sandbox style type of design with multiple paths leading to different locations or ways to complete the objective. Don’t expect multiple choices like let’s say Dishonored or you’ll be disappointed as I was. Another thing that felt missing was the sense of exploration during these sequences.
Luckily enough these design constraints are not present during side missions or when free-roaming around The City. Thief features a hub world mechanic similar what Deus Ex: Human Revolution, another Eidos game, had. Exploring every nook and cranny of The City is quite fun even though it is plagued by some disgusting annoyances. Annoyances like a gazillion of load buffering sequences like a opening a window or passing through a tight place that drag for more than 20 seconds at times. Another big annoyance is the stupid level design of The City itself. You don’t really know where to go or how to get to a place and the map doesn’t help at all. Making things even worse is, which is one of my biggest complaint with the game, the one button free running. I still cannot understand how you can make a game in 2014 and not allow the players to jump freely when they want. What you get here is a nearly broken one button free running mechanic. See a ledge that you can clearly and easily get to or a rope that’s dangling only two feet away? Nope, you can’t jump or reach it, not unless the game wants you to. So the whole sense of freedom promised and the free running are somewhat undermined by this one little big mistake. But still, and I have no idea why, roaming around The City and stealing every piece of silverware possible is quite fun.
Lock-picking doors, unscrewing bolted vents or shooting a rope arrow to get access to a new room or area is fun. Stealing everything in these rooms is fun. Creeping around corners and swooping in to pickpocket someone without them even noticing is fun. Encountering a trap guarding a safe or treasure chest and figuring out how to disable it is fun. Completing cool side-missions which offer real multiple paths to getting the objective done is fun. Sure all of these instances can be easier if you use the Focus ability which highlights everything stealable or that you can interact with and which can be quite helpful during combat, but it’s more of a gimmick than a necessary mechanic to get through the game. Thief offers a lot of fun that even though it’s plagued by many stupid design choices, is still fun.
Everything you steal being that a fork, hand mirror or a piece of jewelry, earns you cash which you can spend on buying resources such as arrows, health packs etc. new gear and upgrades. But you can also spend this hard earned cash as a way to “buy” focus points which are used to upgrade the Focus abilities. It’s totally up to you. Once you finish a mission or side mission, you’ll see a screen displaying a list of statistics including how many items you’ve stolen, how many you’ve missed and other things like that. Your play style will also be displayed that showed how you approached the level, as a Ghost, Opportunist or a Predator. At the end of the game all of your scores are submitted to the leaderboard which is the only online functionality of the game. You can improve your overall score by replaying the missions and here’s where things get interesting and a little crazy. Thief has probably the most customizable difficulty settings I’ve ever seen in a game. Apart from the three main difficulty modes ranging from easy to hard, there’s a fourth one which is totally customizable. For example you can disable game saves or get rid of the Focus abilities or remove the ability to heal etc. But you can go to borderline crazy levels as in if you die once or if you are spotted the game is over. Crazy, right? Activating all of these options build up a score which, if you manage to finish the game ( and I highly doubt it), is proudly displayed on the leaderboard. This system can be slightly addicting, giving incentive for the player to go back and try to complete the mission with a higher score than their friends.
As for presentation, Thief is a pretty pleasant experience if you play it on the next-gen or PC. I had the opportunity to play it on both old and next gen, PS3 and Xbox One to be specific. On the PS3 to put is simply, it’s a total mess. The game is build upon Unreal 3 which although being a nice and powerful engine, has a lot of problems like texture pop-in and other graphical glitches. And these problems on PS3 are at insanely high levels as you can see in the video above. The textures take a lot of time to load and some time they just don’t. At the beginning of some of the missions, many of the elements of the level aren’t there and they spawn 3-5 seconds later. The frame-rate also takes a beating almost during every action sequence, packed or not, so there’s also that. Luckily these problems are way way smaller on the Xbox One. There’s still some texture pop-in here in there and the frame rate still drops, but as I said these are not that big of a problem. The City itself is extremely realized, inside and out. The dark streets and alleyways are filled with filth, rats, broken things, dead plagued victims and propaganda posters depicting the oppression and to spread fear to those who oppose. And in contrast there are beautiful high rising buildings and towers with rooms filled with expensive furniture, paintings and other sights of grandeur. This contrast between dark vs light, warmth vs cold, medieval vs industrial is done masterfully and truly immerses you into this universe. In terms of sound and audio design, Thief delivers an amazing score along with great sound effects that emphasize the game’s setting and help greatly with the immersion.
Rebooting a franchise is always a tough job. Rebooting a critically acclaimed one is way harder. As I said in the beginning, I am not a fan of the Thief series and after completing this one, I still don’t know how to feel about it. Part of me hated many of the stupid design choices that are present here, but a part of me loved that challenging and fun old school feel of the gameplay. Creeping around The City, stealing everything, swooping in and out to pickpocket someone and discovering “secret” paths was quite enjoyable. But is that enough for me to recommend the game? I don’t really know. If you are a fan of the series then this will definitely satisfy your need for steal, but if you are a casual gamer, then this might not be for you, however if you choose to buy the game, definitely get it for the new consoles or PC.