Great core stealth system.
Uninspired story and poor, repetitive dialogue.
Buggy A.I. and sound.
Very poor interface, map especially.
Clumsy context specific controls.
In 1998, Looking Glass Studios gave the world a great gift. That gift was the word ‘taffer’, as featured in the classic stealth game Thief: The Dark Project. It’s a word that has since come to worm its way into the gaming world and become something of a fan favourite. It’s a word invented for a game and used throughout in a variety of contexts. In Square-Enix’s reboot to Thief from earlier this year, I heard it precisely once throughout the whole game. It was reduced to little more than a cameo. I think this sums up the reboot rather well.
The original Thief games were set in a fascinating medieval-like world of magic, monsters, science, religion and industrialisation. They knew they were a bit weird and indulged in it. Taffer was the embodiment of Thief’s sinisterly twisted world. It could go from being a dumb insult or a frustrated curse to being a terrifying threat as a guard searched the shadows for you. It’s the word that defined, what was at the time, a very unusual game. The reboot is so concerned with shoving grimdark down your throat and filling its script with excessive fucks and shits that it seems to have completely forgotten what made the series such cult favourites in the first place.
I’m honestly not sure if this new entry in the series is supposed to be a sequel or a reboot. Much of what made the City of the originals so compelling has been gutted out and thrown aside. The Hammerite religious fanatics are relegated to a simple cameo of their hammer symbol, there’s no mention of the Pagans, the Mechanists, the Eye, the Trickster or anything else. The wonderfully stylised cut scenes are gone and the art style far more Victorian than medieval steam-punk. It just doesn’t seem like the City I remember. At times it bears a passing resemblance but more often than not it feels like I’ve accidentally booted up Dishonored. Of course comparing it so rigidly to the originals isn’t fair and it should be judged on its own merits. So I decided to stop grumbling about changes that my Thief fan-girl mind kept me dwelling on and instead try to enjoy the game as though I’d never stepped into master Thief Garrett’s sneaking tap shoes before.
Thief annoyed me greatly. Not because it’s an especially bad game, on the contrary it’s fairly decent. It annoyed me because it came so close so often to being a good (or even excellent) game only to fall short and switch back to annoying and underwhelming. The game has a lot working in its favour; a development team of very talented people working on it, a rich setting and strong core gameplay. Yet it manages to come together in the form of a dull plot of the most generic and predictable fantasy plot twists and frustratingly clunky gameplay. The plot focuses on a grimdark new disease spreading through the grimdark streets whilst the City’s grimdark authorities grimdark their way through a grimdark plot to grimdark a grimdark ritual for grimdark power. Grimdark. At least that’s what I got from it. Of course there are some obvious plot twists that you’ll see a mile off and it’s all rather tiresome and so desperate to appear gritty and grown up that it fails to see how trite it all is. I was sceptical at first about the change in voice actors for Garrett, but he does do a good job. It’s a shame he’s not very interesting or witty though. The script manages to hold the loosely connected levels missions together but it never exactly held my interest. Things happened and some dialogue was uttered, some dull characters popped in and out of the story and it was all rather uninspired. The main antagonist of the game was a non-entity shuffled out on a couple of occasions to say something vaguely evil then disappear in an impressively anti-climatic way.
At no point did I feel especially invested in the world around me; the game barely shows you any of what is going on. There is a theme of civil unrest against the iron grip of the City’s Baron that emerges as the game goes on. That would be fine if we’d actually been shown how the Baron was treating the City, instead we’re just told he’s unjust and evil without being shown how or why. He broke promises? Great, why not show us that. He doesn’t even appear until about half way through the game, and then never appears again. Even when there’s a rebellion against the Baron and his City Watch are over thrown, it happens predominantly off-screen. This impacts the game largely with the model of the folk to avoid in the city hub changing from City Watch to rebels.
As you move around the city hub areas between missions, you’ll overhear a lot of dialogue from NPCs as they drop obvious hints about where to find valuable loot and make passing references to the story as though it were only a mild distraction in their lives. This dialogue repeats endlessly. Really, I spent half an hour in one area looking for loot and hearing the same discussion about a visit to a prostitute (because it’s a gritty and grown up game and that’s what gritty and grown up games talk about all the time) over and over again. As soon as the last line of the conversation had finished, it would start again at the beginning. It even interrupted itself to start again on a few occasions. This wasn’t the only example. I heard the same conversation about a gold bust of the baron every time I walked past one area, every time through the game (and the game is set over the course of several nights). Why won’t these people shut up? I want them all to shut up. NO BASSO, YOU DON’T NEED TO REPEAT THAT SAME LINE THREE TIMES WITHIN ONE MINUTE, JUST SHUT THE HELL UP ALREADY!
Navigating the city hub was tedious enough without the cyclical dialogue. I’ve already moaned about getting motion sickness from the game, so I won’t go into it again suffice to say that navigating the twisting-turning city hub got pretty nauseating after a while. At first the hub was interesting and offered an interesting way to introduce Garrett back to the City, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off and for the prospect of sneaking your way through multiple level-loads to your next mission to become a frustrating reality. When nothing changes in the hub and you’re dumped back to your start point after every mission, it’s hard not to grow tired of it. It was tiresome in Thief 3 and it’s tiresome in this Thief. While the City looks lovely (even if it is practically greyscale in its colour palette) and has some impressive architecture, navigating around is a real chore. The map is awful, just a big screen of unlabelled blocks with no way of pinpointing where you are or looking at connected maps to see where you’re going. It doesn’t even bother to tell you which windows on the uniform and unchanging buildings will trigger a level load. There is a mini-map but it was so unclear and small that I found it rather pointless and unusable.
In terms of the main story missions, they were much more engaging. The levels are impressively expansive and usually have multiple routes, allowing for various play styles. There isn’t anything especially stand-out but they were pleasingly varied and well constructed. There’s the classic mansion heist job, the old prison breakout one, the sinister warehouse part, the haunted asylum one and the brothel one (because it’s so gritty). I would have been happy to do without the chase sequence parts with the wonky parkour action but they weren’t too obtrusive, just a little predictable. When Thief just gives you a level and a maguffin to steal, it shines a lot brighter. The basic stealth mechanics are just as good as they ever were. The Thief formula has had a few upgrades, such as the Dishonored-style alertness meter of guards being implemented to help judge how likely it is that a guard will ruin your perfect ghost run of a mission. There’s a new upgradable ability called Focus that can grant Garrett a range of powers that can aid greatly in his illicit activities. It’s a nice feature but can feel like it makes things too easy. For those that are against such things, the developers were thoughtful enough to allow Focus to be turned off. The lock picking mini-game works really well and led to some of the tensest moments in my game, as I fumbled with a lock whilst keeping an eye on a patrolling guard. Those kind of nerve-wrecking moments abide in Thief and they’re fantastic.
There are plenty of tools and things to play with. Bonking a guard on the head with your trusty blackjack never gets old. Panicking and dropping a flashbomb at your feet, blinding you and a pursuing guard is still an occupation risk for Garrett. Being tempted to shoot a fire arrow at someone only for sanity to prevail and convince you to try something else is a situation every budding thief will find themselves in. There is a lot to like about Thief’s implementation of the arsenal. In this regard, Thief is a stealth game done right. After being left out of Thief 3, rope arrows make a welcome return, although disappointingly they can only be used in a few context specific places. Context specific actions are everywhere in Thief and it’s a mixed bag. When it works it means you can string together elaborate manoeuvres or smoothly escape a tricky situation in one fluid motion, more likely however you’ll make an ass of yourself repeatedly peaking around a box rather than jumping up to the rope you were aiming for. At best it annoys you, at worst it means you get killed because the game chose to perform an action that left you vulnerable or making a lot of noise. It’s this kind of clumsiness that can shatter the enjoyment of the game and throw you back to being annoyed beyond belief by it. I came across a bug that made the A.I. stop doing anything if they found nothing after being disturbed, which frequently had them standing in a corner staring at nothing for the rest of the mission. I came across a bug that killed a person I’d previously left quite alive (if unconscious) after I reloaded. The sound mixing was very bizarre and left me struggling to hear conversations around the corner but perfectly able to hear stuff from behind closed doors on the other side of a corridor.
It all adds up to an experience that gets so close to being wonderful but falls short and never manages to sneak out of the darkness of “meh”. Ultimately I can’t help but feel that Thief is a game that managed to steal mediocrity from the purse of greatness.