Between being a console kid and never having anything approaching good laptops or PCs, Thief is one of those old-school PC franchises I’ve never had the fortune to play. I’ve certainly come across it on my jaunts across the web however; it seems to be a pretty well-loved game. The reviews for this 2014 reboot however come across as a little less kind.
Thief (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Released Feb 2014 | Developed: Eidos | Publisher: Square-Enix
As always in the Thief franchise, we play as Garrett. He’s a master thief who plies his trade in The City, and we follow him as he skulks in the shadows and nicks everything of value not nailed down (and even then he’s probably ok with prising up a few nails if it meant stealing something particularly fancy). Aas the game begins he is eyeing up the estate of the ruler of the City, Baron Northcrest. He’s joined by fellow purloiner of stuff Erin, and the pair make their way through the manor grounds. Unfortunately Erin proves to be a reckless and murderous sort as she coldly offs a poor lad who turned his back for a moment while on guard duty; this irks Garrett (he works alone obviously because that’s a trope, and apparently prefers only to kill when necessary) but they press on until they stand craning over a great glass ceiling, peering into a hall. Below them they see the Baron taking part in a cult ceremony and as the room fills with magical energy the glass breaks. Erin falls into the magical energy being summoned and Garrett is knocked unconscious.
Our hero awakes a full year later to find the City in the grip of a deadly plague and a viciously maintained lockdown is forced on the inhabitants (sounds familiar). From there the plot takes a move into something that feels decidedly more complex than it needs to be. Garrett attempts to get back on the thieving grind but the Baron’s top thug, the Thief-Taker General bolsters the iron grip of his ruler. Garrett’s rampant robbery just so happens to take him along an investigation into the Baron’s regime and the mysterious magical ceremony he was involved in.
Garrett seems to have a desperate need to be a hero underneath all the gruff mumbling about working alone that he indulges in. The attempts to define a character for him fall flat as he ends up reduced to easily digestible stereotypes, and more than anything else he ends up coming across as a cardboard cutout of Batman. I obviously have no idea of how Garrett was written in past games but here he’s not very engaging, and the thin excuses for tropes which he is composed of do little to inspire any interest in him or his affairs. His enemies are little better; the Thief-Taker General for example is set up as a major villain but he’s pretty comical. For a start I’m sure his position should involve taking multiple thieves, not just one specific one, but his single-minded fascination with Garrett borders on silliness. He’s also a completely generic baddie, frothing spittle and screaming with the added bonus of being a right psychopath.
A well-built world can also contribute to the character of a game but the City also suffers from typical dark fantasy cliches. It’s narrow, twisting streets were probably intended to instill a sense of claustrophobia but you can’t just slap together some thin squiggly lines patrolled by the occasional foul-mouthed guard and expect your setting to suddenly explode to life. Dark fantasy is a tricky genre to get right; skew it too far towards realism and misery and you risk creating something it’s all too easy to be apathetic about and unfortunately this is the fate of Thief’s City.
Something else that doesn’t help is the abysmal voice acting, while the character models are also a sore point. Garrett in particular has the killer combination of a utterly lacklustre, gruff-antihero trope voice and a hideous model, with a bizarre mash of elements slammed together to create a disjointed mess. The game’s audio engineering is also full of problems. Subtitles are practically mandatory because everyone speaks in monotone growls. The sound is also buggy, as more than one cutscene featured Garrett clearly replying to someone since his mouth was silently moving before the other character cheerfully carried on the conversation as if Garrett had been speaking. It ended up a deeply surreal moment and felt almost as if Garrett was suddenly just an imaginary character created by our fence, which might go explain a lot now that I think about it. Guards also constantly repeated the same scripted dialogues with each other, usually within seconds and sometimes before the voice clips had finished playing.
Tell you what: I’ll say one nice thing. It’s a small detail but playing on PS4 has a lovely feature where the controller’s inbuilt light changes intensity depending on whether you’re in shadow or not, which is both a really handy function that works well with the game’s stealth systems. The stealth seemed fine enough, which one would bloody hope for given without it there’s not much to the gameplay. Garrett has a predictable array of options at his disposal; crouching obviously makes less noise than running, and what areas are in shadow is pretty clear so sticking to them isn’t too difficult. A gem in your HUD gives a visual indicator of how visible you are, as it lights up the more illuminated Garrett is at that moment. To be honest though, I’d expect a game about thievery to have more in-depth mechanics. The lockpicking is insultingly simple – Oblivion and Skyrim had more intense versions of it – while being able to use Garrett’s special thief vision (a watered down Detective Mode from Batman: Arkham) reduced many of the hazards to big colourful blocks to be easily walked around.
The City isn’t just the setting for Thief; it’s also a big open hub world laid out for us to explore. The notion is sound but forcing us back to the hub between missions became a massive bore, especially because the City itself is really dull. Nothing happens between missions besides the guards talking vaguely about whatever new thing happened in the last mission, and the occasional cosmetic change implies events are going on, but without any meaningful changes it really does just boil down to putting us back in the same spot between levels. Mostly the hub serves to slow the pace down, but my begs the question is why do this? Why, for example, was it so important that we be put back here, rather than having a simple shop menu between missions and then depositing us straight back into the next chapter? Instead we have to tool about the City, making the slow journey between merchants before working our way through the same tedious streets to the next mission marker.
I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad if the missions were good but they’re a little lacklustre, to be honest. As I mentioned, I don’t have any point of reference within the Thief franchise, but I have played other contemporaneous stealth games and Thief really doesn’t stack up well against them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored, 2 of my favourite stealth games of the recent generations, both make a point of presenting us with sprawling levels with multiple vertical floors to them, a huge array of both hazards to avoid and secrets to find, and they give the player fun and engaging tools with which they can engage with everything. Thief on the other hand doesn’t really succeed at any of that. The levels are pretty small and relatively linear with very few ways of meaningfully interacting with them, the loop of rummaging through stuff to find loot isn’t satisfying, and the enemy AI is thick as pig shit; most guards just patrol back and forth between a couple of points, making it a simple matter to sneak up behind and knock them out. There’s not even any penalty for getting seen! It was totally possible to teararse it through a level and carry on; in fact the game tracks how you approach encounters, rather than chastising you for not being stealthy. This sounds like a freedom in principle but you’ve got no good means of dealing with fights so actually a non-stealth way of tackling Thief comes down to legging it past guards until you hit a marker which makes them forget about you. What’s more, if your stealth game about being a thief doesn’t actually make it worthwhile to be stealthy, what’s the point of the game at all? It leaves Thief with no identity of its own, just another modern reboot trading off a recognised brand name and some old stored-up goodwill.
I don’t know if I was super excited to go into Thief, but even so I expected a little more than this It was a bland game, with nothing exciting about it, and only disappointment waiting in the shadows for you.
2/7 – POOR.
A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.