By Matt Bradford
The City is in shambles, its leaders corrupt, and its people are dropping like flies. One thief possesses the skills and guile to set things right, but he (and by extension, you) will have to wade through a hot mess of an adventure before the day is won.
And yes, Thief is a hot mess. It's the kind that offers just enough to keep you interested, but ultimately leaves you wondering if you're enjoying the ride or holding out for the game you think/hope it can become. To be fair, Square Enix's Thief revival has its bright spots. These, however, are few and far between, and only hardcore fans (or those who haven't played a stealth game in ten years) will stick around long enough to see them shine.
This game again...?
The setup is enticing (if not entirely familiar). After a botched job puts Garrett and his partner Erin out of commission, our hero awakes from a year-long coma to find Erin missing and The City in ruins. A disease called the Gloom is eating away at its (very few) residents and the powers-that-be seem more concerned with plotting nefarious deeds than doing their jobs. Can you guess which grumbly-voiced criminal reluctantly decides to save the day?
Swap Gloom with Rat Plague, The City with Dunwall, and Garrett's “focus” powers with Corvo's supernatural abilities, and the comparisons to Dishonored are hard to ignore. Both share a breezy, first person style; embrace similar themes; and accommodate the same “choose your own playstyle” approach to mission objectives (hell, both even have a brothel, mansion, and derelict factory mission to boot). But where Dishonored injects its dystopian fantasy land with a sense of energy, color, and style, Thief remains relentlessly bleak and lifeless at nearly every turn.
Take, for instance, The City; Thief's central hub wherein Garrett will spend his downtime running odd jobs and filling his pockets with shiny objects (don't bother asking who he's selling them too or why everyone is poor and yet The City is overflowing with expensive silverware). While nicely detailed and peppered with secrets, it is aggressively bland and void of life. It is a bleak patchwork of locked doors, empty rooms, dead ends, and random loading screens; and its districts offer little variety beyond “dilapidated row of buildings” to “dilapidated row of buildings with a gate”. What few NPCs you will encounter are barely animated puppets who offer little aside from repeated lines of dialogue and the occasional pickpocketing opportunity.
On the upside, The City contains a great number of hidden rooms and secret areas. On the downside, you'll find it hard to give a crap. Truly, the first time you crack open a window and slip in to rob some poor schmuck's bedroom, you'll get a sense that Garrett has hours of thief-like instances just waiting to be found. And then, once it becomes obvious none of these areas are inhabited or pose any real threat beyond the occasional lock or trap, robbing these areas of their valuables becomes more of a chore than anything else. Once you see one empty living room with a nightstand and valuable watch, you'll have basically seen them all. Eventually, you won't even bother.
This sense of lifelessness extends to Garrett's missions. Like The City, Thief's mission locales are barely memorable, offering little to do beyond scour for scraps of paper (plot!) and whatever McGuffin you've been instructed to nab. Even The City's brothel, which should have been one of the more lively and enticing hotspots, is a boring maze of boring rooms, boring hallways, and “hostesses” who aren't so much skilled in the art of seduction as they are with rubbing awkwardly over their clients (and in some cases not moving at all). Here again, you'll spend a bulk of your time eluding the same guards, rummaging through the same drawers, opening the same treasure chests and eventually stumbling across a “hidden ancient secret” which--surprise surprise--is filled with ancient bookshelves, ancient drawers, and dustier versions of things you've seen before.
By the time Garrett's journey is through, you'll struggle to remember what it was all about. Mostly, because it gives you little reason to care, but also because Garrett himself is about as unlikable and compelling as his world. On brief occasions, you'll engage in an interesting puzzle or exhilarating (albeit heavily scripted) escape sequence. And sometimes you'll resist the temptation to skip a somewhat interesting cutscene (assuming you can put up with the noticeable frame rate drop). In the end, however, all these positive moments will do is make you realize Square Enix had the ability to make something impactful out of Thief, but fumbled along the way.
The lights are on, but no one's home
This being Thief, one would expect any shortcomings to be overshadowed by an expert stealth experience. After all, this is Thief; the series that inspired numerous stealth series when it debuted in 1998. By extension, this reboot should remind everyone how it's done. I mean, that's kind of the only reason a new Thief game should exist, right?
Stripped to its basics, Thief is barely more than a inflexible game of shadow and light. Move between the shadows and the world is yours for the taking (or clubbing). It doesn't matter if guards are looking directly at you, if said shadow is cast by one barrel in the middle of a bonfire, or if you're kneeling behind a waist-high statue. Thief's dark areas are magical zones that are invisible to enemies despite the fact that there is a full-grown human who is clearly squatting one foot away from you rifling through a noisy drawer.
On the occasion you do step into the light, expect everyone within a square mile radius to notice. Thankfully, Thief's enemies are mostly idiots, so these situations will rarely end in failure. It's entirely possible to skip stealth altogether and run directly towards the objective, as enemies are easily duped and will always give up the chase for very little reason. Guards on your tail? Duck into the nearest room. Rebels on your back? Climb a ladder and watch as they forget what they were searching for. Better yet, just hightail it for that glowing ball or important door standing between you and the next area. Guards are a-OK with letting you slip through to the next sequence without raising alarm or continuing their attack. Maybe they're union guards? Who knows. Except one of the lines you'll hear time and time again is, “He 'aint my problem anymore”. But actually, yes, he's your only problem.
In some ways, Thief is unintentionally funny to watch. On one occasion, a jeweller caught me red-handed in his dimly lit workshop. As I crouched in place to plot my escape, he back away in fear and soon returned to pacing the workshop in search of the dastardly thief who barely escaped his grasp. This happened four more times as I proceeded to rob him blind, and even when he finally called a guard to come investigate, I was able to scale a nearby walkway and shake my head as both he and the guard gave up the hunt after zero investigation. And then, on another occasion, I stormed the side entry of a mansion with my crossbow a-blazing, only to lose every last one of my pissed-off pursuers by ducking behind a crate. In a dead end.
In short: Garrett's enemies are morons. Or lazy. Or both. Even the game's paranormal foes who can sense Garrett's focus moves are easily avoided with slow movements and shadow hopping. It's sad, too, because judging by the abilities and weaponry Garrett has at his disposal, you're constantly aware that you can (and should) be trying harder. In actuality, the game has a way of making you over-confident in your ability to outwit enemies and find paths which may as well read “Stealth Route Here.” Don't want to deal a room full of guard? Look an inch to your left for a shiny blue grapple point or one of the many conveniently placed vents. Better yet, just run for it; it'll all be over quicker.
Thief's AI was so lacking that I started wondering if the real game was hidden elsewhere in either its Master Thief or custom difficult mode (the latter of which lets you define your own rules). And while guards do adopt heightened senses, they are still easily tricked and outrun. So you'll still be compelled to run around, but you'll likely suffer more bolts to the face than usual.
Death from a thousand annoyances
It's not just problematic AI and uninspired design that bury Thief's rare moments of inspiration. It's the little things. Things like choppy cut-scenes (on a digital download for PS4), characters that repeat the same animations ad nauseam during conversations, or the countless times you'll hear voices that sound like they're in the same room only to discover you're hearing rogue snippets of dialogue from someone outside and a street away. It's the abnormally long load screens which you'll never see coming, waist high objects you can't scale, arrow abilities that look cool but are never needed, and a slippery PS4 touchscreen inventory system that'll discourage you from using items altogether. It's side quests that offer more of the same, bonus thief challenges that break all the rules in all the wrong places, unituitive mission objectives (curse you, vault!), and brief moments of “hey, this is kind of neat” which last just long enough to keep you on the job.
To steal a line from one of thief's own guards, “I have better things to do”. Surely, Thief is a functional game—and it'll do in a pinch--but there are better games to play. Games like Dishonored, which has oodles more style and finely-tuned gameplay; Assassin's Creed, which has richer worlds to explore; Uncharted, which has a better story and characters to latch on to; and Splinter Cell or Metal Gear, which outpace Thief's stealth mechanics in every way.
Truly, Thief should have been the game that redefined its genre, as its ancestors did years ago. It should have been the technically superior next-gen title early adopters could wave in the face of their last-gen friends (who also have their own version). It should have been...better? Instead, Square Enix's reboot barely comes off as a half-baked Thief clone, which is really the biggest crime of all.