I am going to be straightforward, because I know a lot of people have a vested interest in Thief, and want it to be good, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. After going into this game with an open mind, and giving it a lot of consideration, this is ultimately going to be a negative review. To be clear, I did not hate this game – certain aspects display great evidence of high production values, and the core gameplay is solid, providing a handful of satisfying moments. However, for various reasons that cannot be overlooked (and will be explained), I could not in good conscience recommend purchasing Thief at this time, particularly for anyone who is not already a devoted fan of the series. Thief is fundamentally flawed both creatively and technically, and is neither up to the standards of its competition, nor, it seems, of its own legacy. In fairness, I would call Thief one for the wishlist until it goes on sale. However, for the time being, I think there are other games that do the same things better for cheaper in terms of both gameplay and narrative.
For those who are not familiar with this series, here is some background on why Thief has been a highly anticipated title since its announcement back in 2009:
After 10 years since the most recent offering, original Thief publisher Eidos has finally released a new entry in the series, along with a newly rebooted story, a new voice actor for the protagonist, and new mechanics, all done by a new in-house production team that is, notably, not the same group within Eidos responsible for recently launching a successful reboot of the erstwhile publisher’s other PC-based fan-favorite stealth role playing game series, Deus Ex. As someone who did not play the original Thief games (at the time, Deus Ex was my cup of tea), I cannot speak fully to that perspective on the reboot, however I have lately spent some time familiarizing myself with the early games and can see how old fans would be as excited for a new Thief game as I was for Human Revolution. Unfortunately, it seems that the stars did not align for Thief fans the way they did for lovers of Deus Ex, because the new Thief is at best a mixed bag of both good and bad gamecraft.
So, let’s get down to brass tax, and talk specifics about some of the things that did and did not work about Thief.
The City, from the Cobblestones Up
Graphically, this game incorporates some well-wrought technology, including rich lighting, shading, and textures, which jive perfectly with a stealth game based on controlling the sources of light and moving between the shadows, and bring huge visual impact to a world with intricately detailed static mesh modeling. From the ground up, whether it is the cobblestones of the street, or the looming, irregular architecture of “The City”, just about every surface is intensely organic and takes the meaning of “texture” beyond just the skins of objects and into the realm of genuine ambience. The setting has the hand built feeling of an old-world city that has been growing in on itself for centuries, and each board looks nailed into place by human hands. However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear that the immensely detailed realization of an artistic design is not necessarily a merit in and of itself, when that design is oppressively drab, cramped, and lifeless. Outside of a few nuggets of cool environmental design, The City’s indistinctive, gray-brown hub locations are not only disorientingly confined and repetitive, but broken up into entirely too small and oddly sutured-together chunks. These seams in the environment are characterized by windows that need to be jimmied open, or crates that need to be slid between. For those who aren’t aware, the trick of temporarily filling the screen with one of these relatively simple, pre-determined animations is a way to avoid loading screens for every little location you enter. It’s clever on the surface, but lazy when overused, which it is here. This silly shortcut does The City a disservice by braking it up even more than it already needs to be, and calling your attention to it by making you mash “E” to complete each transition was a genuinely terrible idea.
The result of this Dr. Frankenstein approach to environmental design is that it’s hard to maintain a good sense of spacial relationships in Thief, which has the gameplay effect of forcing too much reliance on the less than stellar map interface. Even after you become familiar with the environment, getting around the hub areas quickly becomes a chore as you swoop through the same cluttered, nondescript corridors, and have to re-jimmie the same few creaking, filth-caked windows again and again. Especially in a time when it seems like half of the games (and movies) out there are a needlessly moody, “grimdark” reboots, Thief’s universally grimy look definitely contributes to the game feeling out of touch and humorless.
How Thief’s Cinematic, Contextual Movement Interface Ruined “Pick Your Path” Stealth Gameplay.
One of the more noteworthy peculiarities of Thief is that it eschews the standard FPS movement scheme for some unique, contextual movement actions that do away with things like the ability to jump freely. The cool thing about this movement scheme (other than that it makes the fun and thematically appropriate “swoop” move a key part of the main character’s physicality without totally locking down the functionality of the space bar) is that it generally maintains fully functional movement, while really streamlining the process of interacting with the environment in a cinematic way. You can jump pretty much anywhere that jumping would have been possible anyway, and vault, mantle or climb objects fluidly. The result is that when you are fleeing the Thief-Taker General’s murderous goons for the safety of the shadows, it is easy to string together sets of movements that look and feel great as you fluidly traverse The City with first-person parkour.
The major drawback, however, is that the contextual movement system essentially ruins the “pick your path” aspect of Thief’s stealth gameplay. No matter how much cosmetic appeal is added to any given environment, in the end, every possible stealth path has to be constructed of the building blocks that provide triggers for the contextual interface. Once you are familiar with the appearance of these elements, all you really have to do in any given area is stop by the entrance, look for the glaringly obvious interactive surfaces, and then it becomes all to literally a matter of “picking a path”, rather than genuinely creating or discovering one.
I have some more subjective gripes about the interface and stealth play, as well, such as the fact that for all of its contextual pairing-down, the PC key bindings have an inordinately large number of keys, and some things that should be built in macros, like jumping down from ledges and ropes, require their own key to be mapped. This resulted in situation early on wherein my “Master Thief” found himself dangling from a rope a few feet off the ground, right in front of the City Watch, yet embarrassingly unable to let go of the damned rope and run away. There are other oddities about the key binding options, but this one really stuck with me. Furthermore, switching between arrows and items is a chore, and makes it difficult to enact clever decisions on the fly. Lastly, I thought that several of the types of stealth path were rather bogus. Sneaking through a grated pipe usually amounts to, “Skip this puzzle, but collect no loot,” which is hardly a respectable option, while the few third-person climbing sequences that appear are just embarrassing. There is nothing fun about climbing/platforming sequences where the player is merely pushing the only button that will give their consent for the game to move forward, because in good climbing/platforming it must be possibe to fail. In general, reducing gameplay to holding down a single button is just about the worst thing you can do… and it turns out the only way to make it worse is to drag the player out of the otherwise exclusive first person perspective to do so. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the climbing in Thief would actually have benefited from quick-time-events.
The Story of Thief (or Lack Thereof)
While my feelings about many aspects of Thief are pretty solidly mixed, the one department in which this game fails across the board is that of interactive storytelling. The problem is that, when you get right down to it, Thief has no story. Don’t get me wrong – economic and social collapse, plague, hubristic technological progress, mysterious magic, strange creatures, bloody revolution, and all kinds of other great stuff are all present in The City. However, for all of those ambient events, the main character is mostly just running about, doing the same, not terribly relevant sneaky/thieving things throughout the experience, while all of this other narrative stuff just happens around him, with very little interaction. Especially because too much important information is withheld for too long in the name of “mystery”, the connection between the main character and the global narrative feels tenuous and contrived. Since there is not much sense of character agency in the real plot, it is hard to be invested in the outcome.
Granted, this is a problem in a lot of linear, first-person videogame storytelling, so I’m not inclined to judge Thief too harshly… but it still sucks. Neither is this to say that “ambient” storytelling can’t be done well, but Thief really needed more in the way of lore (in the broad sense of the word) in order to pull this off. This might have come in the form of a more vibrant, descriptive world, with more in the way of interesting media/cultural artifacts for the player to experience, or a better population of NPCs. Unfortunately, though, for all of its beautifully rendered static components, The City was noticeably lifeless. The only real human touch was a number of conversations that can be overheard through walls and windows, which seemed weird in execution. This may have been partially due to the fact that there is something buggy about Thief’s 3D audio mapping, causing voice events to trigger in a way that is incorrectly matched with the player’s location, resulting in suddenly loud dialogue coming out of walls where it shouldn’t be. It is my speculation that these various conversations were originally meant for NPCs, which Eidos never had time to complete and put in the game. It’s too bad, really, because I think that a livelier human element would have really improved the ambience and plausibility of The City, and generally helped me get a little more invested in the world.
Characters With a Lack of Character
Furthermore, the cast of Thief is flat and unlikable, yet the game tries to trade on unearned empathy for them in order to move the story along. From the beginning, Garrett’s former apprentice Erin is a standoffish, murderous, self-destructive emo street urchin who does not engender empathy, which left me vaguely annoyed when, after all of about five rather unpleasant minutes of her company, the game expected me to care greatly about her mysterious “death”. Garrett’s friend Basso doesn’t have much personality either, and then the game expects you to be deeply compelled to break him out of prison. Then there’s Garrett, whose flat “Too cool for school” reaction to just about everything that happens in Thief has started causing me to roll my eyes. About half way through the game when Garret more or less abandons the expressed purpose of the current mission in order to opportunistically rob the Baron’s “Grand Vault”, he suddenly delivers the first line in the game where he seems to give a shit about anything, saying, “I have to, it’s who I am!” This just kills me, because he might as well have said, “Because… reasons!” or, “Because, Thief is the name of this video game!”
I have been told by original Thief fans that Stephen Russell, the original voice actor who played Garrett, could probably have pulled off a line like the aforementioned in a wry or ironic way that would have made it work. Though I haven’t played the originals, I have been watching some videos of the original games recently. Compared to the new, un-ironically “cool” voice of Garrett by Romano Orzari, I must agree with Thief’s long-term fans that the original may have been a better choice. For my own part, some of my favorite classic PC games, like Deus Ex, really stand out in my memory because they were fully and/or well voice acted in a way that helps them stand the test of time despite their aging technology. Because I am also forever listening to audiobooks, which are all about the voice, I know that once a character’s voice is in your imagination a certain way (especially if it’s a long-running series, which Thief certainly is), having it changed can be really grating on the nerves… especially if the first performance was genuinely better. The change has been explained by Eidos, saying that they needed a younger man for the purposes of full body motion capture while recording the game’s cutscenes. However, given that Thief’s in-engine cutscenes suffer from terrible performance optimization, and its out-of-engine cutscenes are a hideously artifacted, stuttering mess that looks like unedited alpha footage that Eidos never got around to optimizing in-engine at all, the reasoning behind this change seems dubious.
All in all, Thief was decent, but far from great. I would not necessarily recommend that someone who isn’t already a Thief fan buy this game right now, rather saving it in their wishlist until it goes on sale. Anyone with an immediate desire to play a story-driven stealth role playing game should pick up the (by now) cheaper Dishonored, which told a better story in more ways than one. Or, if you are inclined to take your punk “cyber-” rather than “steam-”, Eidos’ own other classic PC reboot, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a better stealth role playing game, as well.
Here are some things to ask yourself as you consider whether or not to swoop out of the shadows and snag a copy of Thief:
Do you like fancy graphics? Thief definitely has these. The world is richly modeled and textured, and the lights and shadows of The City make for a deep, if claustrophobic visual experience.
Are you sick of “grimdark” reboots and grey-brown game worlds? If so, stay away from Thief until you’re prepared for its grimy, lifeless, violent world, and un-ironically moody, flat characters.
Do you love stealth games? Thief is a mixed bag where its stealth gameplay is concerned. On one hand, the “pick your path” element is deeply flawed due to the relationship between level design and the game’s oddly restrictive movement system, which results in obvious paths that are very linear. On the other hand, the AI is better than in most stealth games, and if you find that the game lacks challenge, there are extensive built-in difficulty mods which will also earn you higher standing on a global leaderboard (if you’re into that kind of thing).
Are you looking for a great story? You will absolutely not find that here. The pacing is off, the cutscenes are of poor quality, the characters are unlikable, and all in all it doesn’t really feel like the protagonist has that much to do with what’s going on in the world.
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Buy It For PC On: Steam