The best thing about Eidos Montreal's Thief reboot hits you before the very first loading screen (I thought the new generation was supposed to get rid of those?!) and might well waylay you for a good quarter of an hour before you even start jumping into Garrett's new-but-familiar boots.
I never thought I'd say this, but the best thing about Thief is its array of difficulty settings.
Allow me to explain. In case you've not been around these parts much over the years, we tend to bang on about three things repeatedly here at Dealspwn:
- Mentioning food in a podcast is a surefire way of making everyone hungry.
- Quality is a type of value.
- We absolutely, fundamentally, religiously adore choice.
It's that last one that really counts here, and Thief basically puts out a banquet of options that prove essential to look over before you start playing. There are three regular difficulty templates, of course, but maybe you'd rather play a more traditional Thief game in the mould of this shiny reboot's predecessors. Perhaps you want to sweep all of the visual feedback clutter off of HUD. Manual game saves? Nope, we're getting rid of that. Mission failure as soon as an alert is raised? Yes, let's slap that on there. And let's get that obnoxious waypoint marker out of here too.
Stealth has always been a slightly niche genre, but back when making games didn't seem to cost the GDP of a small nation, critical acclaim occasionally also led to some semblance of commercial success too. It's much harder for stealth games to do well these days, particularly those with a big name and a bigger budget -- that's the line we're fed, and it's the excuse used to peddle a more expansive brand of action-stealth. But what that usually means is toeing the line between two distinct styles of play and rarely satisfying fans of either.
It also often means making things much easier for the player.
So it is that we have HUDs bombarding players with information, waypoint markers overriding level design by making finding your way superfluous, and the superpowered overlay that's put down to the protagonist's sixth sense or honed skills or expert training or some other utter tripe. You know the one I mean -- that "Press Y to look through walls, have enemies glow, highlight the path up that wall, and generally remove the need to examine and understand the world around you". Sod off Instinct Mode, there's no place for you here.
Incorporating those elements into a game isn't inherently bad, let me make that clear. But simply putting in a switch isn't quite enough. Sometimes you can turn these helpful settings off only to find that what they've really been doing all along is masking dubious design choices and providing a form of mechanical deus ex machina in gameplay terms. In these circumstances, it becomes clear that these features are Get Out Of Jail free cards for both player and developer: the player doesn't really have to expend much energy to work out where they need to go next or what they have to do, and the developer can get away with being lazy or rushing things.
That's a pretty sad state of affairs, but it's where we're at these days.
Enter Thief's customisation features. Switching most of these options off in Thief has led to a gameplay experience that's so much more rewarding than when they're all on, and that's because the game has been purposefully balanced for life without a bunch of visual indicators and superpowered overlays and modern cop-outs... and that's brilliant. For the most part, too, the game lives up to its ambitious goals in trying to really deliver an enormously broad spectrum of challenge. You can get through the whole thing without raising a single alarm or harming any living creature, and if you want to bet a score multiplier on being able to do that, you have that choice. But equally, if you're not familiar with this genre, or perhaps if you just want a slightly easier ride to live out your clandestine fantasies of being a roof-hopping master thief, you're taken care of.
Turning off the HUD elements changes your perspective too. Removing navigational markers forces you to explore more, and you naturally discover more loot, more secret passageways, and more of the City than you would if that weren't the case. I naturally like to explore expansive worlds anyway, and it often takes me ages to get back to a game's story once it's left the door ajar for exploration, and here I found myself taking my time a lot more. To be fair, I did this to a huge degree on my first game save; I barely used Focus, I tried to avoid open combat as much as possible (not just out of stealthy altruism, but also because it rather sucks in Thief), I jacked open every window, safe and chest that I could. But it meant a little more when I flipped those switches on, and really it just enhanced everything I'd already been doing, made those actions matter more, and pushed me further.
All too often these days we end up playing the system rather than playing the game, and though there's fun to be found in the former, it's all too easy to create a game that revolves around mechanical functions and forgets that the very best games have players meet the designer halfway. In simple terms, that just means allowing players to figure things out for themselves. It doesn't mean artificially making a game more difficult (see Chris's cracking opinion piece for more on that separate concern), but rather allowing level design and art direction and mechanical toolsets to speak for themselves and daring the player to take a step forwards on their own.
You can't deliver extra depth to a game that never had it in the first place, but Thief works the other way and is all the better for it. It doesn't seem that way to begin with, mind. The Thief (medium) difficulty setting is incredibly generous and a bit too forgiving (certainly for longterm Thief fans), but that's why Custom options exist. Is it sad that we've reached a stage where games such as this rather need to try and be all things to all folks? Yes. But there are good and bad ways of going about that, and hopefully developers take a lot of inspiration from the way that Eidos Montreal have balanced this game. Instead of taking an easy game and then breaking bits off of it to try and make it more of a challenge, what we have here is a game that channels the spirit of Garrett's debut fairly keenly and puts in the hard work first, creating a game that works fundamentally on a pure stealth level made for those who love a hardcore challenge, and then offers up a bunch of helpful bells and whistles by default to make it easy for those who don't have the knowledge or gaming experience to go back and tweak the lot of them.
It's a slight difference, but a damn important one.
It doesn't give Thief a free pass, and its difficulty balancing and user experience customisation options doesn't automatically make it a good game (we'll tackle that tomorrow), but it does rather answer the question that many have been asking since the start. Sort of.
Does Thief (2014) play like The Dark Project? Yes and no. It's definitely got that Thief pedigree, but the depth of the stealth systems, the scrutiny of the AI, the high price for failure, all of these things will come down to you and your choices. So the answer is really it's up to you.