Thief review: A game torn between tradition and today
At a Glance
Early on in Thief, master burglar Garrett says to his accomplice, "It's not how much you steal—it's what you steal." He then spends the next twenty hours pilfering knives and spoons at four gold apiece.
Why do I bring that up? Because the hypocritical anecdote sums up this fun, but ultimately forgettable reboot of the classic stealth series held so deeply in the hearts of legions of gamers. Let's dig in.
Is it really Thief?
Thief is a reboot, but it once again puts us in control of the aforementioned Garrett, a master thief who for some inexplicable reason feels the need to steal every little trinket he sees instead of merely focusing on the prize at hand. As you might expect from a game about thievery, it's a stealth game played out from the first-person perspective. You'll take on all manner of jobs around The City—one part medieval-era slum, one part Industrial Revolution-era factory town.
This time you have amnesia, of all things (video game trope #1: check). After a job gone wrong, you awake to find you've forgotten the last year. What were you doing the whole time? Why is the entire city ravaged by a plague known as The Gloom? And who the hell did the people of this city call on to do their interminable, inane fetch quests while you were gone?
Let's forget all the "Is Thief Thief-y enough for a Thief fan?" controversy for the moment—that whole argument is too subjective for me to really want to delve into. Suffice it to say, Eidos Montreal did not take a Dungeon Keeper-esque crap on a beloved franchise. This might not be exactly the Thief game you wanted, but it's also not a mockery of everything you held sacred.
Many of the hallmarks of the series are here: heists and capers, incidental petty theft, environmental puzzles and traps, a bow that shoots too many types of arrows, multiple paths to objectives, and a touch of the supernatural.
Unfortunately it takes about twelve hours too long for all of this to come into play.
I'm about to lay into Thief pretty hard, so I'd like to state for the record: I think Thief is a perfectly decent game. It's a serviceable reboot, and a fine time-waster to cap off the slow February release schedule.
That being said, I have a lot of problems with the game—some so minor they're more properly termed "quibbles," and some very serious.
For one, the first half of Thief is so forgettable that I've quite literally forgotten most of it already, a mere two days after playing it. We're talking about ten to twelve hours of lead-up and fetch questing—on relatively linear levels—before the plot really finds its way and you get a feel for the world. To say it "starts slow" is a gross understatement.
But once started, the story is actually fairly compelling in that summer blockbuster way we've all come to expect from AAA games. It's an amalgam of a bunch of game tropes—for instance, game trope #2: level taking place in a mental institute, and game trope #3: vital information conveyed through notes conveniently scattered around the level—but it's all pieced together with enough intrigue and tragedy that it held my attention through at least the back half of a solid 20+ hour experience.
The game even manages to do supernatural without seeming hokey—no small feat. I'd go so far as to say that Thief has the best Amnesia: The Dark Descent-esque horror level since Amnesia itself.
A post-Dishonored world
But while Thief's lore has its die-hards, most people are just here for the larceny.
So let's talk Dishonored for a bit, because as far as I was concerned we'd already gotten a modernized Thief game. Remember when Fallout 3 came out and everyone dismissed it as "Oblivion with guns"? And then by the time Skyrim came out, people were joking that it was Fallout with swords?
Dishonored took some of the best parts of Thief—weird industrial-fantasy setting, multi-path stealth gameplay—and attached it to a superb combat system that was there if you wanted it, though you were of course free to run each level without killing people. (Plus it had that cool teleport spell.)
Which brings us to Thief. Thief plays a lot like a Dishonored prototype. Like Dishonored, except you're not quite as agile, and you suck at combat. In other words, like Dishonored before Arkane really figured out what would set Dishonored apart. And, as a result, I spent most of my time with Thief wishing I could just replay Dishonored.
Thief feels torn between tradition and modernity. It wants so badly to feel like original Thief, but it also wants to feel approachable like Dishonored. As a result, it's something of an unholy abomination of the two. Thief even has a pseudo-teleport: An action the game labels "swooping," which allows you to run rapidly across a brightly lit area without being seen, as if the guards are too dumb to see the man clearly sprinting across the light in front of them.
Garrett is just not very agile, however—even less so now that there's no dedicated button for jumping. Instead, one button makes you free run like you're in Assassin's Creed. This is not Assassin's Creed, though (except when the game pulls back into third person perspective for no reason and you climb a wall like Assassin's Creed).
I remember going to a Thief preview event and the person running our demo told me, "I'd save every time I get on the roof if I were you. Otherwise there's a good chance you'll jump off by accident and die." Things have not gotten better. I committed at least a dozen accidental suicides by mistakenly jumping off the edge of the roof. There are also plenty of times I was stopped in my path by a box ankle-high.
The lack of a jump button, to me, is the fundamental area where Thief breaks down. It ties into everything. Level designs are simplified—you can only get to areas the developers clearly mark as climbable, so all paths to your goal are relatively obvious and there's less chance for items to be truly hidden. It's easy to get frustrated by puzzles because you clearly see the solution, but Garrett won't do what he's supposed to. Garrett just doesn't move like a master thief.
The other problem is the enemy AI. I'm not just talking about it being too easy on the game's equivalent to Normal difficulty (though it is really easy). The enemies are inconsistent. Sometimes you're taking out a guard's buddies in broad daylight and he doesn't even notice. Other times you're quietly sneaking up on him from behind and he whips around with an "A-ha, I just caught you eating the last piece of cake you bastard," look on his face without provocation.
And forget about that talk of enemies knowing the level layout and searching for you accordingly—at least on Normal, enemies are woefully dumb when it comes to your whereabouts.
No, I don't even want to bring up the infuriating boss fight 90% of the way through the game.
Might as well be Van Gogh
I also think the sound deserves a specific complaint section in this game. Stealth games live and die by their sound—it's essential to know where enemies are at all times, and since you're often hiding behind objects it falls to your ears to keep things straight.
Thief has major audio issues. Sometimes you'll enter areas and two characters will repeat the same conversation ad nauseam until your brain breaks. Sometimes two sets of two characters will have the same conversation overlapping each other, like they're singing a round.
Ambient noises don't fade as you walk away; they drop out. Noticeably. And then come back in full volume immediately when you step back into range.
Sometimes a guard speaking in the same room as you is whisper-quiet. Other times the guard three floors above you comes in loud and clear.
It's all a bit disconcerting, and makes your life as a thief even harder because your ears are basically useless. Hopefully this can be fixed in a patch, but at the moment it's a bit of a mess. No word whether the console versions have the same problem (I played the PC version).
I know I've hit Thief pretty hard in this review. But for all its flaws, I really did enjoy Thief for what it is, and "what it is" is a harmless and even sometimes fun game that I kind of wish was Dishonored. Thief is both a decent version of its ancestors and a decent version of Dishonored, but doesn't excel at anything on its own—and as a result, it won't amaze or stick with anyone. At the end of the year, when it comes time to create your own game of the year list, it will be one of those titles you think back on and go, "Oh yeah, Thief came out this year didn't it? Hm."
That's it. No hatred. No love. Just total ambivalence and faint recollection of a few fond hours spent stealing the nobility's dishware.