Sneaking about The City -- creeping from shadowy corners to rain-soaked rooftops, gliding about this Victorian-esque urban warren in the periphery of the guards' vision, always just out of sight -- is a wonderful thing. I'd turned off pretty much every modern concession to the expansive approach to stealth gaming gimmickry that I could find, and wiped my HUD clean of maps and modules to aid the process of immersion. I love first-person games that don't limit themselves to shooty-shooty-bang-bang action, gifting players the chance to more fully explore virtual landscape with out the barrier of staring constantly at the protagonist's arse (it's why I fell in love with Thief: The Dark Project in the first place, sixteen years ago), and the fact that Eidos Montreal's reboot allows me to do that if wonderful.
Waypoints were the first to go, encouraging me to explore further, to use the sights and sounds of The City to aid my navigation, to read letters and documents more carefully and to more fully absorb the information the game was giving me. Turning off so many of these features led me to realise just how lazy a gamer I have become, and how much I seem to rely on map icons to tell me where the interesting things are rather than discovering them for myself.
But then I spent half an hour trying to look for the route from one area of town to another, finding rooftops inaccessible, windows and gates firmly shut, and no visible way through. Then I remembered that Thief's City is broken up into depressingly small hubs separated by incessant QTE-powered bridges, even when it comes to the PS4 and Xbox One versions. So I stood in front of a nondescript bunch of barrels and beams and hammered the Square button for half a minute.
Herein lies the uneasy relationship at the heart of Thief: a worthy game, a good game in parts, undone by restrictive design and what seems, rather too often, to be a case of running out of time.
Let's begin with why we're here. You'd think that the only real narrative reason we'd need for a game titled Thief, in which we play a master thief, would be to steal things. Indeed, in the past, it's been Garrett's will and determined self-interest that has driven much of the narrative action, but here it's about avenging the death of his female protege, Erin. An ill-advised mission goes wrong, there's a bunch of magical hokum, Erin takes a huge fall, and Garrett wakes up a year later to find The City on the brink of a civil uprising, and that he can now see things in blue.
The story is awful, but it's really just there as a frame upon which to hang a whole bunch of stealthy activity, and though the script is clunky and suffers from a distinct lack of people shouting "Taffer!", and the civil unrest backdrop is horribly written, and the characters therein are woefully uninteresting, it doesn't actually matter a huge amount. There was a real opportunity here to do something great with The City, and Eidos Montreal pretty much bottled it, but it doesn't really take much away from the game as a whole. A chance for greatness missed rather than something by which to condemn Thief.
Part of the reason for that is because when Thief gets going, it's really very good indeed.
The lighting in this game is fantastic, and that's crucially important, because the light spectrum sits at the heart of things in Thief. Candles, streetlamps, braziers, moonlight -- all can give you away, filling the screen with light when you're in plain view. Slip into the darkness, though, and shadowy wisps creep into the edges of your vision, meaning you're well hidden from sight. To aid you in your hidden purposes, Garrett now has a slick little fluid swoop that he can use to quickly retreat back into the shadows, cross small patches of open ground, and use to make a swift getaway if spotted. No, it's not quite as cool as Dishonored's Blink ability, but the Swoop is damn useful, particularly on the harder difficulty settings. Just don't use it near dogs or birds, or over water or broken glass.
All of the things that you steal throughout the game can be spent on new equipment, arrows of varying kinds, permanent upgrades for Garrett's health and Focus (this game's superpowered overlay that's de rigeur these days, which allows you to pick out interactive objects, enemies and other points of interest), little trinkets to make things cheaper or increase the master thief's abilities. These are all fairly subtle and, to be quite honest, largely superfluous; and although you can spend gold to make aiming your bow quicker or hardening your armour, I never really saw the point. Same with the Focus upgrades that you can get from the Queen of Beggars -- nice to know that they were there, but ultimately I never found much of a use for them.
To speak of how Thief makes things easy by default would be churlish when the game does so much to encourage long-time stealth fans to customise their own experience. Yes, things are a lot more obvious with navigational markers, loot glint, enemy awareness indicators, and a mini-map -- but all of these things can be turned off should you wish (check out my article on difficulty and customisation for more on this), and on the Master setting, the AI is more persistent, and alerts and damage carry a far heavier price. This isn't really a particularly open game, you're not given a myriad of special abilities or tools with which to work, and close quarters combat is a terrible idea, not only because Garrett can't take much damage, but also due to the fact that it's awful. You swat at guards with your blackjack, occasionally pausing to dodge an attack, but it's clunky at best and the odds are never in your favour.
If things seem a little restricted sometimes, particularly in the story missions, that's because they are. The City is purposefully made to feel claustrophobic, and closed off at times. You might expect Thief to follow in the footsteps of games that have taken on Garrett's spiritual legacy over the year, offering up several different pathways in and out of locations and situations, but quite often there are only really a couple of possibilities, and the reward comes from working out how the hell you're going to use what little the game has given you to slip through unawares. You have to work much harder and truly take note of the things around you to succeed. It can be brutally frustrating at times, but also phenomenally rewarding.
Things open out a little more in the client missions -- and there are quite a few of them -- that see Garrett infiltrating smaller, individual locations such as various shops and houses to steal something in particular. There's a purity of focus to these missions, something attractively clean and clinical about them, coupled with a report at the end of each segment that serves up incentives to try again. Players can also jump into a handful of levels in the Challenge Mode off of the main menu, offering twists on the standard gameplay such as amassing a certain amount of loot within a time limit, chaining together shiny takings to extend the timer, or hunting for special collectibles via Hot and Cold feedback like some kind of medieval Easter egg hunt.
But for everything that Thief gets right, there are moments where it absolutely gets caught in the act, red-handed, with its pants down.
First of all, there's the lack of a manual jump. There are moments when the hold-LT-to-parkour system works and looks cool -- usually when you're running away from something in an enormously scripted story sequence that seems to have more in common with COD than with Thief. But by taking control of traversal away from the player and making it automatic, something is lost. It's not just the fact that shimmying up walls and across rooftops is absurdly easy now, god only knows how annoying first-person platforming can be at times; but at least you knew where you stood with a manual jump. There've been several occasions when I've jumped for a ledge, only to see Garrett dribble off of a high platform instead of leaping to safety, and faceplant the ground. Under certain difficulty conditions, I'd have to start the whole thing again.
There are also a host of little things that just point towards a rush to get the game out: Guards occasionally walking straight into walls, audio balancing making the bird noises from the next street louder than the conversation in the next room, horrendous lip-synching, a man endlessly smoking bits of his hand where a cigarette used to be, and more little details that glitch and warp and could have done with a bit of polish. There are a handful of terrible third-person Uncharted-esque platforming sequences that do absolutely nothing except break the immersion that the game works so hard to achieve. I found myself screaming "WHYYYYY?!" at my TV, unable to understand why these vestiges of awfulness were left to remain in the game, and time is the only reason I could think of. They're about as necessary as a shotgun to the face.
I also loathe the fact that The City is broken down into really quite small areas. There's little of the scale and grandeur that we've witnessed in last-gen games this past few years. It's pretty unforgiveable and it makes organic pathfinding an absolute pain. So much of the game is balanced very well for life without modern concessions and glaringly helpful overlay features, but turning off the waypoints, whilst making for a better experience in general highlights the awful nature of this hub system, as you desperately scour your surroundings for quick-time events designed to hide loading screens that were supposed to be dead long ago. For a game that's so wonderfully detailed in its mission locations, The City itself has been rendered fairly dull and samey, with little of the character or environmental narrative context it deserves.
Ambivalence, that's the feeling Thief has left me with.
It's not a great game, and I wish that after basically starting to make one game, realising that everyone hated the idea behind that game and then coming out with this, Eidos Montreal would have had an extra month or two to really tighten things up and get rid of those hideous QTE-ridden loading bits between districts. But for every complaint that I have, there have been moments of pure joy. It's no modern classic, but neither is it the disaster than many were predicting last year. The story is horrible, and the game's narrative gets steadily worse in its final third (wait...boss fights?! WHY?! DIDN'T WE LEARN ANYTHING FROM HUMAN REVOLUTION?!), the unclear rules of motion and the choppy disassembly of The City can make for a trying experience at times. But then I manage a seamless infiltration and get out unnoticed after swiping the necklace from a sleeping noblewoman's neck, or I recognise the markings of an arrow hole in the wall and scour the building up in for wires to cut without using Focus. For all of its faults, I got a kick out of Thief. It's a bit of a mess, but it's my kind of mess.
- Being the Master Thief is still pretty thrilling
- Ridiculously awesome array of experience customisation options
- Fluid, non-linear stealth mechanics that make you feel like a shadowy badass
- Challenge mode, collectibles and swathes of options present long-term replayability
- Distinct locations are well detailed
- Side missions are great fun
- But The City itself lacks character
- Breaking up the main hub into much smaller districts is horrible, particularly on new-gen platforms
- Annoying loading times even when within districts
- No manual jump
- Irritatingly needless third-person camera cuts
- Seems rushed in places
The Short Version: It's the fourth-best game to bear the Thief name, but it doesn't trample on Garrett's legacy as some might have predicted. The story is utter balls and the game as a whole isn't as cohesive as it could be, but when Thief remembers its name and has you working out the best way of breaking into a place and picking it clean, it does a damn fine job.
Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One
Developers: Eidos Montreal
Publishers: Square Enix