Thief | Review
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Ratings: M (ESRB), 18 (PEGI), OFLC MA15+
PC version provided on behalf of Square Enix
Thief. The Dark Project. The cult hit. The weight of expectation is on Eidos Montreal to deliver a powerful stealth experience that respects the core philosophy of the original trilogy, to a modern audience with all the streamlining said audience expects. So we have Thief, the fourth, the soft sequel. Thi4f. Does it master the genre? Or is its charm stolen by modernity? Sneak away with me and I’ll tell you.
Garrett is the thief in the night, master of all he surveys. The world, and anything not nailed down, is his for the taking. But when a job with his bloodthirsty apprentice Erin goes more than a little awry, Garrett is left broken and alone. One handwaved year later, Garrett returns, with a mystery chasing him down. Magical artefacts, an oppressive Watch, and a barely outlined plague called the Gloom are in full force. The plot is appropriately background guff, telling a story of betrayal and avarice well enough to pull you through, but not well enough to ever grab you and draw you along. The story is most effectively thought of as a justification for each mission, and it does that job adequately.
The characters themselves are much better than the plot, thankfully. Garrett is expectedly gruff and mercenary when it comes to possessions. He’s not interested in politics – he’s no saviour of the people, he’s just a guy who likes to steal stuff. But he clearly cares for the unlucky and downtrodden, reluctantly getting involved in the brewing revolution out of necessity rather than obligation. He’s a wry sort of man, used to being alone. But he is clearly a master of thievery.
Garrett’s personality comes across more through his attitude, his presence, his physical motions, than his words. Garrett is elegant and practical. He’s a pragmatist. He understands the deliberate nature of motion. He wastes no more energy than necessary. He’s constantly touching things, almost unconsciously, using his sensitive and delicate hands to quickly but carefully feel his way through the dark. They are beautiful hands. I love the way Garrett moves.
The supporting cast is predictable – the arrogant apprentice, the canny fence, the prophetic Queen of Beggars, the idealistic revolutionary, the aristocratic Baron, the menacing Thief Taker General. Out of all of them the General is possibly the best realised, with flaws and vices front and centre. But they all pale behind Garrett and his darkness.
I love the City as a place. It has a clear aesthetic and a distinct atmosphere. It tells a story of dirt and oppression and fear and struggle. The claustrophobic alleyways and dishevelled rooftops reflect the grime – physical and moral – of the place. It’s a world I very much should enjoy being in. But I can’t. I hate navigating the City.
The City lacks clear navigational clues – specifically signs and maps. I frequently found myself getting totally lost in the samey sprawl of streets, not realising that I was in a totally different alleyway, since much of the pathing appears so similar. A path you traverse on ground level will take you to a completely different place if you approach via the rooftops. Cutting through all this is an even more intricate maze of openable windows and ventilation ducts. I don’t mind the concept of complexity of navigation – I quite like it, actually. The problem is it has to have adequate mapping and distinct landmarks that are clearly visible and recognisable. Thief doesn’t have that. I eventually, after several hours, got a little familiar with the City’s pathing, but I never felt like the all-seeing master thief I was supposed to be.
Compounding the indistinct landmarking is the lack of a viable manual waypoint system and the obfuscation of the minimap. Getting to grips with the way the map renders different vertical panes for navigation can be a little tedious, especially when the map is showing no viable routes yet you know you can go a certain way.
To further exacerbate your frustration with the confusing locations, you’ll frequently hear snippets of conversation talking about a certain person owning a certain piece of jewellery. These are supposed to give you clues on where to go to score some extra dosh, but I couldn’t find a way to actually tell which house belonged to whom. What resulted was a bunch of interesting but completely useless background chatter that I never felt invested in exploring.
Gameplay itself has its highs and lows. Thief makes theft the central element of most of the game. While it’s rarely the objective, it is an ever-present temptation. You’ll be hooked on opening ever single desk draw and wardrobe you see, looking for scissors or letter openers or goblets or rings or anything that shines and sparkles. It makes you feel like a thief at these times, and it’s when rifling through other peoples’ things that the game is at its absolute best.
Occasionally there will be locks to pick, or hidden switches to find, or traps to disarm, or safes to crack. Lockpicking is a matter of moving the mouse around until a circle goes white, then repeating until all the circles (between three and five) are activated. Sadly, using the keyboard and mouse controls loses a huge part of the experience – force feedback. If you have a controller, picking locks is a joy as the tumblers judder into place one by one. Hidden switches are similarly located by running Garrett’s hand across painting frames or book shelves until the bump or white dot appear. Traps can mostly be avoided by using alternate routes, but finding the control panel and snipping it with wirecutters will disable them indefinitely. And safe cracking generally relies on finding combinations hidden away esoterically then applying said code to the tumblers. These mechanics are solid and entertaining, and work extremely well.
Combat is deliberately awkward. If you’re unlucky enough to be spotted, fighting revolves around dodging their attacks and striking back with your blackjack until they’re unconscious. Of course, striking first is much more constructive. If Garrett sneaks up behind a mark undetected he is able to take the guard down in one blow. If you’re that way inclined, you can even shoot guards from a distance with your bow. Patrolling guards will spot the bodies of their friends unless you hide them out of the way.
Stealth is always the best approach to any situation, and again this is one of Thief’s stronger points. Garrett belongs in the shadows. Darkness fluctuates between an elegantly donned cloak, gently parting before Garrett as he flows through the City, to an oppressive, tangible, thick soup that hides threats in the gloom. Your handy light gem (or not, if you choose to turn it off) alerts you to how visible you are. So does a screen flash. And an audio cue. You’ll always know when you’re in the darkness. You make noise appropriately if you move fast, and you can use the environment to distract your enemies. If you’re under threat of being spotted, you’ll hear a tense audio cue, which helps tremendously. The AI is a little bit of a mixed bag, but it’s generally pretty decent, chasing you down and avoiding you in the dark in equal measures.
The game does a fantastic job of keeping you, for the most part, strictly in Garrett’s well-padded shoes. For starters, you have a body. An actual body viewable in first person. It even casts a shadow. Garrett’s deft hands are wonderful at feeling their way around the things you interact with. It feels very solid. Unfortunately there are instances where you are taken into third person – namely, when you’re in climbing sections. You’ll fly out to third person as Garrett navigates the pipes and grates. I can’t imagine the climbing sections working at all in first person, but the decision to have them in third person is awkward. It takes you out of the action, and the climbing gameplay feels entirely unnecessary.
Garrett, largely, moves wonderfully. Walking is slow and deliberate, and feels right. Crouching feels stealthy and occasionally predatory. Climbing is swift but bodily. And I love, love swooping. At the tap of the spacebar, Garrett will duck and move a short distance quickly and quietly. It’s useful for a quick evade, ducking between shadows, and catching up to a guard to bonk him on the head. It’s comparable in many ways to Dishonored’s Blink, but a more believable and realistic skill for Garrett to implement.
But it’s not all gravy. Peeking around corners requires a tap of the E key, which will stick you in place. E also controls a contextual interact input, like, say, opening draws in a desk. This leads to some annoying situations where you are standing at the edge of a desk, try to open a draw by tapping E, and instead ducking down to lean. It’s frustrating, and completely ruins the fluidity and deliberate consideration of Garrett’s motion. Another issue is with jumping. Namely, there is no jump. Instead, you vault and climb with a contextual press of the space button. When in motion it feels good. But when you want to be precise, it can be quite tedious. For example, get too close to a ledge you want to climb and you won’t. You have to step back and move towards the ledge while holding the button. Additionally, swoop is bound to the same button as contextual vault, meaning if you are underneath a climbable object and you want to swoop somewhere, good luck – you may just climb instead. The contextual actions are such a mixed bag sometimes that I found myself getting caught because the game just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do.
Another downpoint is the frequent loading gates, and the way they are handled. There are two types of soft gates – windows, and narrow passageways. The windows are easy to see, emitting blue light. To activate them, you have to HOLD E, then tap it rapidly until it opens. Narrow passages are even worse – you can barely see them at all, and require the same terrible quick time event. I get that they have to have loading gates, and I get that involving the player is one way to disguise it, but did it have to be such a dull and repetitive action?
By far the most controversial feature of Thief’s new incarnation is the highlighting focus mode. Don’t worry, Thief faithful – it’s actually a really great feature. Focus allows you to highlight guards, interactable objects, openable draws, switches, and loot. It’s a valuable, almost indispensable tool that quickly acquaints you with the game’s interactivity visual shorthand and, more importantly, makes you feel like a master thief. Focus doesn’t regenerate, so it’s not a crutch, but the most useful spotting ability can always be used, even with an empty focus bar, as a quick press will keep interactive items highlighted for a second or two. And, if you’re really REALLY worried about focus breaking your game, you can always turn the ability off in the options.
In fact, one thing Thief does amazingly well is offering the player choice in how they want to play the game. There are extensive UI display options, gameplay options, and difficulty tweaks that are among the most extensive that I have ever seen in a game. You can get rid of everything from goal waypoints (off by default) to contextual interactivity icons, to your health bar. It’s all in the menus, and you can change it any time you want. Or, you can extensively customise the difficulty settings at the beginning of a game, setting challenges and constraints – such as permadeath and instafail on detection – for yourself as you please. It’s a tweaker’s dream, with a great deal of options for all to enjoy.
Naturally, there is a whole bunch of other gear available for Garrett. The basics are back – blunt and broadhead arrows for distraction and death. Rope arrows for climbing – contextual places only, of course. Fire arrows and water arrows for lighting and extinguishing fire sources, giving you a useful way to manipulate light. And there are flash bombs and jars and bottles around the place to throw as distractions, or potential weapons against unaware guards.
All of these can be upgraded in the store, increasing your abilities and giving you more skills. That your cash is used is fantastic, making you feel like your theft has a point to it, and allowing you freedom to do even more stealing. You can also spend your cash to get upgrade points so that you can add a bunch of new tricks for focus mode, such as letting you pickpocket all the loot a person is carrying in one go, or zooming in with your bow, or tracking the location of collectable loot by seeing handprints on walls.
A lot has been made of Thief’s open world approach, and, mostly, it works well. The hub world is interesting and full of hidden nooks and crannies. Despite the navigational problems, there is always something interesting to find or do between your story missions, or after the story is completed and freeplay opens up. There are optional sidequests, which you can complete for fun and profit. The ones I played were well thought out, giving you additional constraints such as completing an area undetected. They are worthwhile to complete, too, giving you much needed money for upgrades.
Thief is quite a decent looking game, but there is no denying its visual limitations. It is, inescapably, an Unreal Engine 3 game – and the dated core tech shows. While there are new features such as tessellation and ambient occlusion mapping to give it a nice modern sheen, Thief has that undeniable UE3 look to it. Simply, it lacks the visual punch of a lot of its contemporaries. One graphical element Thief gets absolutely spot-on, though, is shadows. And thankfully, in a game all about shadows, the quality and effort put into shadows is exceptional. Long, soft, deep, voluminous shadows lap against every surface. Light is negative space, fighting against the darkness. Soft edges, fades, blurs – in combination it creates some of the best shadowplay I’ve seen in games yet. Turn the shadow quality up to 11 and you quickly ignore the rougher edges (some quite literal, given the inadequate FXAA) when the shadows and lighting are as good as this.
In conjunction with light, sound plays an equally important part in Thief. Thankfully, it’s consistently solid. Voice acting in general is functional, but not exceptional. Music was largely unobtrusive, with even the lightly-dubstep-y action tracks fitting into the game bizarrely well. Ambient tracks are best, filling in the clamour of the sick City realistically, while staying out of the way of more important sounds. Directionality of sound effects like footsteps gives an accurate tool in your stealthing arsenal. I did encounter a few sound bugs, such as voices being way too soft compared to other sounds, even after tweaking the audio settings. Also, overheard conversations and guard barks got very repetitive, sometimes to the point where two “conversing” guards would start the exact same dialogue lines in tandem, overlapping each other. Whether these are just remnants of prerelease review code, or whether it will affect the final product I can’t say.
On the topic of bugs, I did also encounter a few menu UI bugs, but I am assured that these will all be fixed in the window between now and launch.
On top of the main eleven-or-so-hour single player story campaign, and the extra open world exploration and side missions, there are some additional challenge maps to try your hand at. I didn’t try them out personally, but from what I saw they are a decent but small extension to the existing gameplay. Some people will find value here. Some will ignore it completely.
There is a tension with Thief, a strange disconnect somewhere. I think it’s between the philosophy of approach and the mechanics in application. I can see the respect and consideration the team have for the heart of Thief. I can see the game about stealing things for money and hiding in dark places and dominating the environment. But the mechanical wrapping keeps me from enjoying it. Tedious quicktime events to get through loading gates, ambiguous contextual inputs, and navigational constraints based on limited movement options hamstring the realisation of the philosophy of freedom. At one point I was running across an exploding set piece, dodging flaming debris, slow motion cinematic jumps, and I thought – what does this have to do with larceny?
Garrett is a thief in the night, but he is not master of all he surveys. The world is not his for the taking. And what’s left is a collection of petty trinkets glittering disconnectedly in the gloom.