Platforms: PC, X360, XONE, PS3, PS4
Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 9h
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Review Published: 2014-08-27
Review Updated: 2021-12-21
+ High-fidelity, good-looking game
+ Absolutely brilliant PC port with a variety of options
+ Highly-customisable difficulty
- This is not the Thief sequel you were looking for
- Unlikable characters
- Lore inconsistent with previous games
- Extremely linear, claustrophobic levels
- Uninteresting, uninvolving stories
- Very janky sound engine which is a core mechanic
- Poorly-designed AI
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.
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.