Review: Thief (2014)

Thief's newest iteration is a game that had to deal with lingering in the shadows of it's predecessor.  It's functional, technically-competent, and that's about all the nice things I can say about it.  The characters have been turned into overwrought, "gritty" stereotypes, the setting has been turned into a not-Dishonored-honest steampunk magical setting, but most damning of all, and perhaps the only thing that is important: the core game mechanics just don't work cohesively.  Get it on a sale maybe, but don't expect it to live up to the name it's using to market itself.
Review: Thief (2014)
Date published: Aug 27, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Thief is a reboot of the classic Thief series of games originally developed by Looking Glass, with the reboot developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square-Enix.  Let's just get this out of the way from the start: I put off doing this review, and met it with a lot of trepidation.  I am a big fan of the Thief series, probably one of the very few series I would call myself a fan of, and the idea of reviewing something where I knew I wouldn't be able to completely seperate myself from my bias was disconcerting to me.  Let's be honest about something, though: the only reason to pick up this game would have been the name.  That name they attached to it, is the reason this game this game got the attention it did.  It was marketed on the strength of that name, and so it's important to comment on whether or not it lives up to that name and the expectations fans had for it.  And it probably wasn't going to, at least not entirely - new games come with a lot more restrictions in terms of engines and what you can do, levels tend to be smaller, and in general they tend to be a tighter and more compact but finely-polished experience.  It's not my ability to comment on that I worried about, it was the ability to seperate the name from the game, and comment on the game.

Thief thankfully made that easy for me.  Unfortunately, it did that by being fairly tepid and uninspired at best, with or without the license.

This is not the Thief game you were looking for

There are a lot of problems with the game, but lets start with the first one, the one right there in the name - Thief.  This game does not live up to that name.  It does not even try.  Rather than, for example, try to play at something with the Mechanists of previous Thief game infamy, instead presents a gothic, dark, gloomy setting that seemed a little dissonant.  Explaining how it is, however, necessitates digging a little into the series' history.

Thief, and in particular Thief 2, was a game with a very particular theme.  The underlying narrative of those game was something of a commentary on classism, presenting a game world where the lower classes and higher classes were in strife, with an antagonist somewhere between those lines, pulling threads, and a cynical and reluctant anti-hero just trying to get by named Garrett.  One of Garrett's chief features, explained more through the environment than his dialogue in one of my favourite touches of subtle, environmental storytelling, was his humanity.  By way of a recent example that comes to my mind by way of Yahtzee Crowshaw's recent let's play thing of Thief 2, one of the missions of the game was helping a mate of Garrett's elope with a servant girl, and one of the bonus objectives you can do is knick a pair of engagement rings to give to Basso and his lady friend.  Little subtle touches like that.  Garrett was a deadpan snarker, certainly, but he was a very deep and human-seeming one.

The character of Garrett and those around him,
are changed and more importantly, unlikable

And that is where this new Thief kind of missed the point spectacularly.  Garrett is portrayed as a bog-standard bog-standard grim and gritty anti-hero, gravelly grumbling about how no one understands him.  By the time we get half an hour into the game, I have expected a cutscene where he was standing atop one of those roofs he likes to climb about on now, and rasp: "I'm Batman" or "I am the night".  This isn't the workaday thief Garrett mumbling about guards in an almost purile fashion, this is a brooding and homogeneous anti-hero, deviod of any real personality depth, but deeply hoping that we will ascribe the same depth the old Garrett had in the previous games.  I almost would have believed this character if this game was presented as a prequel: it feels like the angsty teen Garrett, to the previous games' adult and cynical Garrett.  Where before he felt like a fairly deep human being, whereas here he feels more like a cardboard cutout.

There’s two ways to get ahead with a game: a good story or good mechanics - Ideally both, of course, but it’s entirely possible for a game to have a forgettable story and still be a strong title by having compelling gameplay mechanics that make working through the story worthwhile, in the same stroke that a good story can redeem tepid or bad gameplay.  I will say one thing about Thief, it shows some promise here, but is marred in the execution.  Thief is a bloody brilliant looking game, start to finish.  Almost all of the “cutscenes” are rendered in engine and the engine looks fantastic, with high visual fidelity, good texture quality, and a strong audiovisual direction.  It’s obviously a title where there has been a lot of attention and care taken in how it looks and sounds, which since it seems to have been done at the cost of the actual gameplay mechanics, makes it a very, very shallow game indeed.  Sacrificing steak for sizzle is not a very equitable trade at all.

Let's talk about that engine for a moment though, because it is noteworthy how much effort has gone into that.  Despite it being a multi-platform release, the game has a great variety of video options which allow you to find a comfortable balance of FPS versus visual fidelity, and a lot of a mind has been paid to giving the game not just a good PC port, but an excellent one.  Keys are rebindable, there's a proper save system, and a variety of play options; play options which extend even to the difficulty, allowing you to customise your level of difficulty to your personal preference.  This is incidentally why I didn't comment on the absolutely hokey and canon-insensitive magic system, because I didn't want it in my game, so it wasn't there.

Eidos Montreal have made a game engine to be proud of here.  I don't want that to be lost amidst this.  So here I am dedicating a whole separate line to that!   This engine is absolutely brilliant.

It's just a shame the game they built atop it is so wanting.

The first and most egregious example of a broken game mechanic
is the flawed and bugged sound system, which is central to the mechanics

Just as in the previous Thief games, stealth is the order of the day, and you have your familiar visibility gem to remind you if you're in shadows or not.  This is implemented functionally enough, though the game was rife with examples of NPCs looking right at me from feet away and not noticing me because I was in the arbitrary "shadow zone" and even on case in the first chapter where a guard literally ran into me and didn't notice, because again, shadow zone.  What doesn't work so well is the sound system, with a bunch of problems, the most glaring of them being that you can hear guards right through walls - and they can hear you as well.  Yep, that works about as well as it would suggest.

So, a stealth game where the guards can detect you through walls, roofs, floors (the last two at least make some sense) - this presents a fundamental flaw, and the AI will always seem to be able to home in on you the moment that they become "alerted".  Okay, so the guy that heard you is alerted, that's not so bad right?  Well, no, usually it isn't in a Thief game, as usually you could fight your way around albeit slowly and probably to the music with your sword.  Sure, Garrett was pretty bad at swordfighting, but it was the means of last resort.  Well, prepare to be disappointed, Thief fans: the sword isn't here.  The only weapons you have, are the blackjack, and arrows, and the arrows are pretty limited.

The omissions of Thief are noteworthy,
and indicative of a paired down and lacklustre successor

So yeah, no sword.  The concession you get here is that your blackjack type weapon (a "claw" from Princess McGuffin) will actually damage alerted guards, but it's a poor concession: it does what I estimate to do a femto-inch of damage to their health bar, and they will shout and alert every guard in the near vicinity.  Oh, and they do have swords.  Lots of swords  The game may as well just restart you, honestly.  I know I was just reaching for the quick-load button at that point.

And this is the other fundamental way where this reboot betrays the spirit of it's predecessor: the best moments in Thief came when you weren't reaching for that quick-load button on discovery, but instead engaging in these energetic chase scenes through the level, trying to find some advantageous position from which to ambush pursuing guards and smack them in the back with your sword, or some gap that you could get across but the AI would have trouble with, so you could plonk them with arrows.  These scenes were invigorating, thrilling, and among the best experiences I have had in gaming.  When you got through that moment, having fought with your shitty swordfighting skills by the skin of your teeth to victory with a couple bits of health you felt awesome.

And the reboot does all it can to avoid you feeling awesome.  That, given the engine, given the serviceable lockpicking and decent looting (if in restrictive, linear, and claustrophobic levels), really betrayed a promise of this title to, if not be a good Thief sequel, at least stand on its own.  Unfortunately, it doesn't realise that promise.

<img alt="The Final Word: Not Recommended - I wanted to like Thief. I wanted to be contrarian, telling you right now that I really enjoyed this reboot. It has a bevy of really great PC port options that we may never see again because of this title’s commercial problems. But, I’m sorry, telling you that would be lying. This is a sub-par reboot that not only misses the spirit of the original franchise, but also fails to stand on its own and offer something of value outside of the franchise." src= title="" class="review-footer" />

Thief's newest iteration is a game that had to deal with lingering in the shadows of it's predecessor.  It's functional, technically-competent, and that's about all the nice things I can say about it.  The characters have been turned into overwrought, maybe, but don't expect it to live up to the name it's using to market itself." title=" " class="review-footer" />