Publisher: Square Enix
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 7 = Good
Dual Core CPU or Quad Core CPU, 4 GB RAM, Nvidia GTS 250 / AMD Radeon 4800 series, 20 GB Hard Drive space
Unlike film, franchise reboots are rarely necessary in the gaming industry. Gamers often expect that major changes can or will come with new iterations in their favorite series, meaning that series are razed to the ground mainly when the developer’s vision is so drastically different from the original (i.e., the many faces of the Prince of Persia series). Alternatively, resetting the franchise can seem appealing when the weight of the series is too old and too heavy to lure in new fans, which appears to be the rationale for the reboot of the venerated stealth-focused Thief series. Taking a stab at reinterpreting such a well-loved classic is a risky move, particularly in the wake of the highly successful and imitative Dishonored, and though it somewhat succeeds, it also comes away with more than a few scars of its own.
If you were one of the many fans of the original, the new Thief will seem almost immediately familiar: you once again take up the mantle of master thief Garrett, who makes a living in the medieval/Industrial Revolution squalor of The City by parting people from their valuables on behalf of any number of clients. After an early job goes catastrophically wrong, he loses his memory, his partner in crime, and a year of his life. As he tries to slip back into his old life of thievery, he also attempts to piece together what happened while dodging dictators, civil war, plague, and more.
It’s an appropriately dark setting that in many ways matches up with the original Thief, though it’s telling that it most vividly recalls the oppressively grimy and industrial setting of Dishonored, which also shares a plague as a central aspect of its story. Indeed, one could easily argue—as I have—that Dishonored was in its own way a reinterpretation of the Thief series, borrowing as it did the setting, stealth, and multi-path gameplay of its predecessors. As such, it’s difficult to slink through the shadows of The City and not be reminded, often unfavourably, of similar moments spent in Dishonored’s Dunwall. This feeling is present throughout, and for many players, it will be impossible to reconcile as you spend equal amounts of time lurking around corners, stealing from guards, finding alternate entrances, or snooping around for safe combinations.
The one aspect that Dishonored failed to lift from the Thief series was the use of shadow and light, which is the new game’s ace in the hole. As the arguable progenitor of the stealth genre, it was the original Thief that first allowed players to take refuge in darkness, springing out to incapacitate, kill, or rob those who were often much more powerful. Edge too closely into the light and you’d be spotted, and the guards would rapidly pummel you into submission. This approach has most notably been co-opted by the Splinter Cell series, though that franchise’s increasingly intense focus on action has left the gaming market with few champions for this brand of pure stealth. Thief 2014 happily returns to this system, even bringing back a version of the so-called “light gem” that displays how visible you are at any given time. This means your moment-to-moment survival depends on making intelligent use of the shadows, forcing you to slink around the edges of open courtyards and darkened hallways as you make your way to the next objective to complete or valuable to steal. It also means you have to douse torches, candles, or any light sources that might keep you from easily making your way from Point A to goody-filled Point B. You have to plan your route, observe guard patrols, and decide who to club and who to avoid. Whether you enjoy Thief will ultimately fall on whether you enjoy this core aspect of its gameplay, which is as well implemented and thrilling as it’s ever been; however, how much you enjoy it will entirely depend on your willingness to oversee its litany of flaws.
And make no mistake: this Thief is most generously labeled as a sloppy mess of missteps and bizarre design decisions, such as the approach to the game’s writing. This in particular is a problem because games like this succeed only when they are able to make you feel like an actual rogue, meaning that immersion is absolutely key. It’s something at which the series has traditionally excelled; though dated now, the interplay between light and shadow was layered over a world that very much was of its own rules, with unique creatures and factions and phrases. Although this new version has some nice callbacks to the originals, such as the Crippled Burrick and Basso, it all too often is eager to smash through into anachronistic territory—sometimes for humor, sometimes for flavor, and almost always ill-suited.
For example, the guards repeatedly use “frigging” as part of the vocabulary, to the point of ridiculousness. Wait behind a crate or around a corner for a patrol to pass and you’ll be subjected to a near-endless amount of it: “Ring the frigging bell,” “Get your frigging nose out of his arse,” or simply just a frustrated “Frig.” It’s as painful as it is distracting. It’s emblematic of the incredibly weird and decidedly poor choices made by the writers, as the game is replete with conversations about coffee cravings and cock rings. You could argue that it’s a conscious effort by the developer to place the game closer to our world than its previous iterations had been, but every one of these instances nevertheless smashes through the screen and slaps you in the face about how out of place it really is. The writing is almost universally tone deaf, and this is without even discussing nonsensical and supposedly insightful phrases spouted by major characters, such as “To be alone, there must be something for you to be alone from.”
The use of sound is also badly bungled, which is another major knock against a game that tries to differentiate itself as a more pure expression of the stealth experience—it’s called Thief, after all. Rather than muffling voices based on their distance or intervening obstacles from the player, the game instead chooses to make almost all sounds made within a particularly large radius to come across clear as a bell. This is another black mark in the “immersion” column, as it allows you to hear guards spouting their inane chatter even when they’re several streets over. Worse, certain dialogue will repeat endlessly, meaning that you’ll be forced to listen to the same conversations over and over again as you attempt to find your way to the next objective, or as you’re hiding from another nearby guard. The intense discomfort that can eventually emerge as you’re waiting for a guard to pass is astonishingly unpleasant, and their endlessly repeated words become akin to the audio equivalent of Chinese water torture.
These moments happen with incredible frequency due in no small part to the incredibly confusing layout of The City, which serves as the hub world through which you can freely pursue side missions or press ahead with the story. This approach started with Thief: Deadly Shadows, whose console origins led to The City being broken up by endless doorways to help spread out the load times. Although the load times are decidedly less frequent and egregious here, the general aggravation remains, thanks to the mind-bogglingly labyrinthine design. Making your way to an elevated window to kick off a side mission is rarely as simple as climbing up a wall and popping in: more often than not, you’re required to reverse engineer a complex path through ducts, over roofs, between buildings, and over into the target area. In essence, half the challenge of the game’s ample side missions is puzzling out how to get to those areas in the first place, which appears to be intentional and, frankly, not an entirely bad idea. At times, this can even be somewhat enjoyable, but the problems really kick in when you’re faced with pathways that simply make no logical sense and require a great deal of trial-and-error wanderings. This is worsened considerably by the fact that this confusion is expanded to The City proper, making it a chore to try and find your way from one district to another, or just about anywhere at all. Over time, you come to know most of the important paths through memory and despite the lack of any clear indications. The map is of course no help whatsoever in this regard, as it is clearly unsure how to handle the multi-level verticality that comes with rooftop passages and basically just gives up entirely. The map is reduced to a series of spaghetti-string jumbles indicating outlines that actively serve to confuse rather than help, making it useful only as a reference in precisely two situations: 1) when you’re in a mission area, which tends to be smaller and easier to navigate, and 2) when you simply want to know the general direction of your objectives. It’s profoundly confusing stuff, for the most part.
These are just some of the many things that are wrong with Thief, and the list could very easily keep going. The controls are not great, thanks to the lack of a jump button which has been replaced with context-sensitive parkour in order to presumably guide players through the game’s vertical layout. The lack of explanation throughout makes many of the game’s systems unclear, often forcing you to look online to understand even basic game mechanics such as upgrading Garrett’s abilities or the curious mission-ranking system. The loot tables are odd as Garrett spends much of his time pilfering utensils from random drawers, and Garrett himself is less appealing thanks to the replacement of long-time voice actor Stephen Russell with Quebec actor Romano Orzari—understandable, given the game’s development at Eidos Montreal, but still a definite downgrade. Even the animations are hokey, with characters’ mouths refusing to match up with their dialogue, even stubbornly and inexplicably remaining open when they’re done talking. Indeed, there are few areas of the game that are not marred in some way by questionable decisions or flawed design.
And yet, despite its countless problems, there reaches a point where things just begin to click. The core stealth action is so good that these issues often fade away, and you’re eventually able to settle into the flow that’s always marked the best moments of the series. You’re peering through keyholes, where beams of light pouring through filthy windows give you a hint of what awaits you on the other side. You’re waiting for just the right moment to slip around the corner and pick the earrings off an unsuspecting noblewoman. You’re notching an arrow so you’ll be able to distract some nearby guards and sneak undetected into a building through its ventilation system. Although the million and one peripheral elements are largely off kilter or botched, the experience of actually being a thief is as good as it was once upon a time. Once you’re actually engaged in a mission, the thrill of bouncing between shadows in the dead of night and navigating secret passageways is undeniable. Dousing torches, breaking into hidden areas, finding safe combinations, and stealing optional but valuable loot—it’s all brilliant in its own way, and in some ways improved over the original games with its effective use of a new ability that lets you swoop from shadow to shadow. As with every other aspect of the game, there are issues here as well, including a series of ill-conceived third-person ledge-navigation segments that appear randomly and feel transplanted from some entirely different game. That said, the sheer excitement of sneaking down hallways and pickpocketing oblivious guards is strong enough to cut through a lot of game’s abundant issues. Of course, it’s these very issues that you need to overcome in order to even get to the real meat of Thief, and that will likely prove too onerous for most.
It’s a testament to the brilliance of Thief‘s core gameplay that it’s able to be extremely entertaining despite the unbelievable litany of flaws, bugs, and flubs that otherwise plague its design. Its glorious return to light-and-shadow-focused stealth is done surpassingly well, and offers a distinctly different take on the experience than Dishonored. Sadly, few people will likely have the patience to work through the game’s seemingly endless problems to get to the good stuff, which is understandable. Wonky controls, poor writing, and confusing layouts are just the tip of the iceberg here as Thief very clearly could have benefited from some serious re-working, leading to something that will turn off anyone who isn’t emotionally invested in the original titles. That runs directly counter to the reason for the reboot in the first place, and that’s a shame, as it’s truly great when you finally navigate the clutter and make your way into a proper mission. The foundation is there for a high-quality sequel, if Eidos Montreal is willing to have some hard conversations about what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, we’re left with this game, which is not unlike Garrett himself: thoroughly flawed, mostly unapproachable, but filled with some fascinating, dark brilliance.