Ok, you may want a cup of tea before you start reading this one; it’s going to be long, but I think this title deserves an in-depth analysis.
Thief is… well I don’t know exactly. I know what it thinks it is; a stealth game about thievery and intrigue, but I’m not entirely convinced. It’s most certainly not a bad game, but it is one that struggles with its own (self inflicted) problems that do their damnedest to spoil the experience.
On the face of it Thief delivers a lot on what it promises. The stealth mechanics are solid, if not a little too forgiving, and the sense of place (provided you don’t look too closely) is great. There’s a really pleasing aesthetic throughout that is a nice contrast to the more cartoony Dishonored (I take offence at labelling Dishonored cartoony! – Ed) world that Thief clearly owes so much to. It’s also a frankly gorgeous game. I’m struggling to remember a recent title that not only looks as good as this, but one that scales so beautifully in the options menu. Even the low settings in Thief are a step above many titles currently on the market.
The technical side of the productions deserves special mention, the menu design and degree of customisation available is staggering. While many have bemoaned the ‘Focus’ modes and the object highlighting as lamentable, I was perfectly happy to just turn them off. In fact because it gives you the power to turn off the mini-map and objective markers, it gets some extra points from me. That is how you want to play this game; on a high difficulty with all the aids turned off. It’s not worth your time otherwise given how poor the combat is. If you treat being discovered, or at least being forced into combat as a fail-state and you’ll get along just fine.
This is the crux of the game for me; play it as you’re supposed too and everything will, largely, be ok. However if you try anything that’s off-piste or play as more of an assassin than thief, then things can quickly unravel.
Case-in-point; the A.I. is extremely poor compared to past titles. If you skulk around and use avoidance as your primary way of ‘dealing’ with any threat you encounter, then it makes all the right noises and generally does a reasonable job of making you feel like this is a ‘real’ world with people who react in believable ways. Guards patrol and respond to unusual events (including knocked-over bottles, incredibly) and then try to hunt you down if they suspect you to be near. Past that though, they’re beyond useless.
One example would be a plaza I encountered. There’s a small tower in the centre with a crossbow-wielding guard atop and four guards patrolling the ground floor. After assessing the scene I reason that the crossbow-guards vantage point will make my life incredibly difficult, so I think ‘sod-it’ let’s kill him. I line up a shot and get him square in the face; a beautiful shot, followed by a beautiful pirouette, then a graceful fall, punctuated with a less than graceful landing, in front of a very ungraceful (though thoroughly surprised) guard. All hell then breaks loose… for all of one solitary minute. After that the guards go back to their pre-determined routine, ignoring (and in one case, stepping over) the corpse of their recently expired colleague. On first thought, probably a bug, just a one-off. I take the plunge and kill another guard. Alarms and accusatory threats are raised before, once again, it’s all over in a minute. Hmm. One by one, guard by idiotic guard, I clear the compound. To add insult to injury, a passing lady then spots the corpse-pile and screams, before deciding that she’d probably just imagined it and that she feels safe after all. While stood next to, and still staring at, a pile of corpses.
There’s a reason you’re only allowed five lethal arrows to begin with (upgraded to a paltry seven later, though other variants are available) and that’s because you’d break the entire game if you had more. Now you can argue, quite reasonably I think, that that isn’t the point or spirit of a Thief game, but as the option is there the game must be able to deal with it; unfortunately it demonstrably can’t.
Once you’ve noticed one big issue though, others just start jumping out at you. For one the world is incredibly sparse, the only things you can interact with are either things to steal, kill/hit, or turn on/off. I’ve seen others praise the amount of interaction within the game and I can only assume that they’ve played a different version to me. Sure you can open windows, draws (usually empty) and cases with fake bottoms, but after and handful of attempted looting’s , it becomes repetitive and dull. The lock-picking, safe-finding and traps add a welcome and highly effective degree of variety, but are then immediately undone by the majority of the loot being uninteresting and largely pointless. Sure, you can display unique items, but, erm, why?
It’s not long before you circle back to the A.I. Their dialogue is highly limited and seemingly, on an infinite loop. I’ve heard the same guards having the same conversations time and time again, sometimes re-starting a conversation right after they’ve finished. It’s like they’re rehearsing a play rather than living in the world you are exploring. When you realise that it’s the exception for an NPC to not do this rather than the norm, then a huge part of the games façade just crumbles away in front of you.
Square Enix deserve real credit for the way they cement Garrett’s presence in the world. You look down and you see his legs, a little thing, but hugely important. He touches everything. From the way he manipulates locks, picture frames (I love the way you can look for hidden switches), bookshelves and even simple loot, you are left in no doubt that Garrett is a real entity in the world. No floating head-cams here. Frustratingly, this is all undone, when you can’t do what you want. I get that this level of interaction will come with a price, but to miss jumps and crash to my doom simply because I wasn’t quite at the designated launch point is so rage inducing as to almost ruin the game.
Gap jumping aside, you can also only mantel what the designers have pre-determined that you can mantel. See those two crates, well you can only mantle that one. NO, not this one, only that one. Don’t ask me why. BECAUSE is why. Sometimes there’ll be some token detritus on the top to show you that you can’t climb on that specific one, but most of the time there’s nothing. It’s about then that you stop looking at a living, breathing environment and ways to navigate it in an organic and user-defined fashion, and begin looking for the tell-tale signs of an ‘approved’ route. There’ll be something to tell you which is the right way, be it some white paint that has absolutely no reason for being there, or two crates, one slightly smaller than the other, right next to each other. When you do start to climb, you’ll notice that you’re not even free then as all the roof-top passages are pretty tightly constrained. Don’t even get me started on the ‘narrow passages’ that hide the mid-level loads.
This lack of freedom is a double shame given just how damn good running feels. Thief has the best running in a game I have ever played. The slight peripheral blurring of the vision, the way Garrett leans into a corner as he turns, the sense of momentum are all, for me, pitch perfect. If you could have matched that up with free reign of movement and unrestricted exploration, then I think this could have been something special. Instead, we have a title that pertains to be free and open, when it is nothing of the sort. That is genuinely sad.
I’ve spent so long on the mechanic’s side of things as they’re so important for a game like this. Especially for a game in this series. There are other facets though that are worthy of note. The story for example, is one of them.
Now, I’m not dumb. I’d even go as far as to say that I am reasonably bright, all things considered, but could I describe the plot of Thief to you? Nope, not a chance. I know it’s got something to do with Erin, my almost-protege, and there’s magic (I think) and a disease called The Gloom. Oh! and there’s a Duke, maybe and a thief-taker general-sir person, with an Allo-Allo esque limp and a monks bald-spot. He’s the main bad-guy just in case the limp didn’t give you that clue. At least I think he is….
Now, I’m (of course) being deliberately obtuse here, but not by as much as you may think. The plot is highly confused and poorly written. I hope, I mean I really hope, that this is simply a case of poor editing. Or, more hopefully, that large swathes of the game were cut at the last minute and that no attempt whatsoever was made to straighten out the plot, otherwise the main writers should look for different careers. I literally got to act four (of seven) with no clue to what was going on. It really is that bad. Sure I had the broad strokes of who was ‘good’, who was ‘evil’ and could see the laboured attempts to show the world getting worse, but who was behind it or how my role affected any of it I had not a clue. To be perfectly frank, I still don’t. This is inexcusable. I’d much prefer a trite and derivative plot to the mess that is Thief.
And yet, I still find myself liking the game. It’s not a great title, it just cannot be given all that is wrong with it, but it does have a certain charm. Garrett, once you get past the almost fetishistic outfit and emo-lite looks, is a highly likeable character and as I mentioned above, it’s an absolute delight watching him interact with the world. There are little touches, such as the picture frame safes and other hidden switches that point to a meticulous level of detail and the aesthetics are brilliant. It’s just everything else that gets in the way.
There was a heavy weight of expectation on this game and your position in this will largely dictate the level of enjoyment you’ll get out of the title. You need to be able to see how your role in the world should be filled, and then follow that role almost to the letter to get any real enjoyment out of it. Thief can be a stealth master-class, with a highly immersive environment if you’re willing to put the effort in. If you’re not, or, you’re after something else or just plain looking for a bit of freedom to experiment, then this is not the game for you. It’s a tremendously missed opportunity, but still, it is not a bad game; it’s just not a great one either.
Verdict – On Target.
Platforms Available – PC, Xbox 360 and One, PlayStation 3 and 4
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on retail purchased PC version. Please see this post for more on our scoring policy.