Written : Monday, February 24, 2014
By: Dan Webb
Since Square Enix purchased Eidos Interactive and all of its properties way back in 2009, the Japanese company has been on a bit of a shake-up mission with the British publisher’s key properties, rebooting them left, right and centre. The results, it’s safe to say, have been mixed. The Hitman franchise’s return wasn’t as triumphant as we or they would quite have liked and the same can be said for Lara Croft’s antics in the almost ironically named Tomb Raider, but Eidos Montreal’s stab at Deus Ex left fans of the original delighted, ultimately meaning it wasn’t all swings and misses from Square. Responsibility for the latest reboot fell into the hands of Eidos Montreal once again, and as far as franchises go, they don’t come more high profile than Thief, a franchise that resonated with stealth fans at the turn of the century and is looking to do so almost ten years after the release of the third game.
While Thief might be a reboot of sorts, it’ll still be very familiar to fans in terms of the subject matter. Not only does franchise stalwart, Garrett, return to take centre stage, but it also takes place in the unimaginatively named The City, the setting for the previous title’s adventures.
Street dancing, Thief style.
Under the oppressive reign of a tyrant known as The Baron, players will take Garrett on a journey that will see him investigate the sinister goings on in The City, a city (obviously) that’s falling apart at the seams and it appears Garrett’s quick fingers are the only thing that can save it. Naturally. The problem, in some respects, is that what Thief tries to do throughout is justify that why this loner, Garrett, should want to save The City and its inhabitants in the first place. Not only that, apparently saving The City can be done with Garrett stealing various artifacts and what not, which all sounds a little ridiculous on its own. It’s a little bit wishy washy to tell you the truth and hardly memorable, but it’s enjoyable enough. Just don’t expect too much from it, especially the ending.
The story, for all intents and purposes, is just the glue that binds the gameplay together. An excuse, so to speak, for you to be infiltrating various strongholds with the goal of getting your mitts on something or someone. Seeing as the story is lacking, it’s a good job that the gameplay experience for the most part is strong enough to survive on its own merits, and there’s times when the first-person, stealth-driven, action title truly embraces the genre and brings stealth gaming into the next-generation.
Thief is something of a slow-starter and unfortunately a fairly lousy finisher, but there are moments in the game where it’ll grab you by the scruff of the neck and scream, “this is next-gen, get used to it you scum-sucking son of a bitch!” Specifically about two-thirds of the way through the game, on a mission where you have to infiltrate an insane asylum and another where you have to escape a manor, you’ll see next-gen shine for two very different reasons. And they’re two perfect examples that when Thief gets it right, it gets it really fucking right. The atmosphere created and the chase sequence cinematics, as highlighted in the aforementioned missions, are two things that Eidos Montreal manages to knock out of the park on those two occasions. I’m going to categorically state this now, the insane asylum mission is the freakiest thing I have experienced in years in a video game. It genuinely made me jump on multiple occasions, made me feel uneasy and just made me feel so goddamn uncomfortable, in a good way. It’s almost worth playing Thief for this sequence alone.
For the most part though, Thief is structured in a very similar fashion to Thief: Deadly Shadows, in that there are self-contained story-related missions, accessed from a more open-world The City environment, where players can tackle side-missions, stock up on supplies and conduct more general exploration. Like Deadly Shadows, The City is split into smaller district maps, rather than one huge open-world, meaning that load times, unfortunately, are a big part of Thief’s experience. Ultimately, the difference between The City environment and the actual story chapters is unfortunately one of the game’s downfalls. On the one hand, we have a rather expansive open-world with plenty of routes to venture down and lots of choice, yet the actual story missions themselves are largely linear affairs. A trait that you wouldn’t normally have associated with the Thief series.
To get by in Thief, players will have many tools at their disposal as they stick to the shadows and create a numerous array of distractions. Let’s get things clear right now, Thief is very much a stealth game. If you think you can discard the stealth aspect, chances are you won’t last long. Players can adopt a more aggressive style of stealth from the shadows, sure, but try and go toe-to-toe with your foes and you’ll come off second best. Now, that’s not just because your melee combat isn’t particular devastating in terms of power, but because the whole melee combat is particularly poor on its own merits. Thief is very much a stealth game and needs to be treated as such to get the best out of it.
At the core of Thief is its looting system, a system that drives the RPG-style growth mechanics and funds the tools you take into the wild. Rather neatly too, players can also view the unique collectibles they’ve pilfered in Garrett’s base of operations, the Clocktower, which he returns to after every main story mission. Not necessary, but a nice touch, nevertheless.
"Garrett goes in for a sneaky arse pinch."
Aside from your trusty Blackjack, which obviously returns from earlier Thief games, and your bow and arrows – of which there are eight different types of specialist tips to utilise – you’ll be relying on your Focus ability to really excel in the world of Thief. The Focus ability is a heightened state that will have you pickpocketing quicker, lockpicking faster, will allow you to take down foes in combat much more efficiently, and also enable you to become invisible for a short period of time. All of these abilities are upgradable, as are your various other skills via upgrades or through the purchase of trinkets. The truth is though, if you’re a Thief purist, you don’t even have to use the Force ability at all, it’s your call.
Instead of duking it out with anyone and everyone, players will have to distract guards, put out fires with water-tipped arrows, lure them into traps, set fire to oil spills, cause explosions, silently take them out and so on. With a whole array of different arrow tips at your disposal, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time manipulating light and sound to get your foes exactly where you want them. And with a pretty competent, albeit restrictive parkour engine at your disposal, you’ll be swooping from shadow to shadow in no time, silently taking down foes with your trusty Blackjack… or not, it’s your choice. The game actually rewards you on how you decide to play - whether that’s as a ghost, an opportunist or a predator - giving you challenges based on how you're playing.
Should players get their fill of the story-driven campaign or rinse through everything – which might take some time considering the amount of collectibles and what not – they can delve into the Challenge mode to set top scores for the world to take on. The preset maps and preset challenges, which involve stealing loot and chaining together loot sprees or finding specific pieces of hidden treasure, are an interesting addition, but it’s one that doesn’t really have the same pizzazz that other single-player competitive modes like Hitman Absolution’s ‘Contracts’ mode has.
Nice mask. Should be worth a couple of quid.
From an achievements perspective, Thief is only going to appeal to the sadistic and hardcore stealth fans out there. It’s a list that will require patience, a lot of time and a ridiculous amount of application. Not only will the hardest difficulty prove to be taxing, as will completing it without being seen or killing anyone, but it will also take a considerable amount of time to complete and collect everything. It’s a logical list, truth be told, but it’s one that doesn’t really boast enough creativity to make it all that enjoyable.
Ultimately, Thief is a game that can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in a heartbeat. On the one hand it delivers some absolutely incredible and awe-inspiring moments, then on the other hand, it delivers moments of complete mediocrity. Despite its slow start, it does pick up pace a little too quickly at times, with the ending leaving a lot to be desired. Had the story-driven chapters been a little less linear, the game would have been infinitely better. At the end of the day, Thief is a noble effort and is an enjoyable romp that has its highs and lows, but it’s an experience that misses the soul of what made the original series so great: freedom.
Aside from the odd stuttering audio issue, Thief is a well-rounded attack on the ears. The voice acting is strong for the most part, but the game excels on its musical score and atmospheric sound effects.
Thief is a beautiful looking game with an incredible light and particle engine, but it suffers from frame rate issues, especially during cutscenes, breaking the immersion somewhat. This is next-gen though, so the former should almost be a given.
The parkour system, though effectively on-rails, is strong and empowering but unfortunately rather restrictive – there’s always one set route – while the melee combat is just straight up poor. Everything else works, but it’s not as intuitive as a lot of other games.
If you fly through the main story you’re probably going to get a good 8-hours of stealth-driven gameplay, but if you’re looking to explore The City fully, that’s more likely to be 10-15 hours. It’s a meaty single-player experience with plenty of replayability.
Considering you can get creative with your kills and distractions, the emphasis on getting all the collectibles, doing every side mission and other activities seems misguided. It’s a logical, yet hardly inspiring list.
Despite its slow and dreary start, Thief builds to deliver an experience that most stealth fans will lap up. However, most Thief fans will mourn the loss of the reboot’s freedom and choice. That said, Thief is ultimately a game that delivers epic highs and mediocre lows, and for the highs alone, I have no issues recommending it to anyone.
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