Between 1998 and 2004 Garrett ruled the stealth game roost. The Dark Project, The Metal Age, Deadly Shadows. These titles ring deep in the hearts of stealth lovers as the cornerstone of their hallowed genre. Favourites from days gone by, hours poured into shifting through the gloom for twinkling treasures. Even so far as the practise of firing water arrows at torches to put them out, all born in the original creation of Looking Glass Studios. After a 10 year absence in the jail of nostalgia, Eidos Montreal are pleased to give us all a reboot of the franchise burning bright in the dark. However it’s not likely to start a fire in anyone’s heart.
Unless its rage at a missed opportunity. Then there’s plenty of fire to go around.
Unsurprisingly in Thief you play a thief (no crazy twists here). Garrett plays as a highly skilled kleptomaniac taking anything that isn’t fixed down and breaking locks or rifling through draws with almost worrying ease. This indiscriminate aptitude for thievery becomes obvious moments into gameplay where you’re stealing forks and rings from anywhere you can.
Further into the game Garrett turns into an art thief skillfully cutting paintings from their canvas and pocketing them, an action which sparks a glaring issue with Thief which continues throughout the game. One of missed opportunity. Quick time events are everywhere in modern gaming and I don’t think I’m alone here in saying that when these QTEs are done well and in context they actually work. Returning to the theft of paintings, a simple QTE, based around moving the analogue stick carefully to slice the painting from its frame would have given the game a great deal more immersive power. Instead its reduced to a simple button press. Like almost everything else.
Criminal in its simplification, Thief continues this dire path in movement. Playing as a thief should be smooth and precise. Even over a decade ago movement felt much more precise than here which is a crying shame. Eidos Montreal have already shown their might in the world of reboots with the gem of Deus Ex: Human Revolution – if you look past its glaringly frustrating bossfights. In a post Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored world, freedom of movement in the premiere of stealth games to reach the next generation of consoles should be a given. Such assumptions don’t hesitate in melting away to the shadows moments after stealing hope from your heart.
Vaulting obstacles and climbing walls are all context sensitive actions so don’t expect to shimmy across the guttering into a window or starting Titanfall-esque wallrun to avoid guards. Alone this wouldn’t be such a problem, but what counts as interactive can be immensely confusing. You’ll be scuppered by a knee-high box and yet be able to launch yourself 6ft in the air to scale a wall. The crime of over-simplification stands on the wanted posters again here, all of these movement abilities are tied to holding down one button. During gameplay one can only wonder why some slightly more complex controls couldn’t have been implemented to make you feel more like you’ve succeeded in scaling a wall than you’ve managed to run head first into the right bit of the scenery while holding a button.
Sneaking puts Garrett’s devilishly dexterous digits into view, hovering uncomfortably in the left and right of the screen. The designed intention behind this is to provide immersion. The unintended result is Garrett’s hands drift forward in a manner more akin to a sexual deviant in a whorehouse than a skilled nightcrawler.
Most areas you enter grant you a selection of paths to take, be they the ghostly dashing across vantage points or swooping between darkened shadows. These open courtyards are one of the few places Thief excels. Sneaking past each guard is a challenge as they show glimmers of Skynet level intelligence. One such instance takes place in a crematorium where you must dash between a pair of stone slabs with four guards standing nearby. As the furnace closes you have seconds to shoot forwards into cover.
Following from this is another new feature Thief gets right, Swoop. The swoop lets you launch yourself forward to get between shadows quickly, easily and quietly. One of the few fine additions to the game but a fine addition which drags it kicking and screaming from the mire at least. What pulls the game back down into the mire though is the AI of guards who will chase you down a back alley and search through cupboards, but won’t look an inch above their heads to see you stood directly over the door they just opened.
That and during this sequence the guards speak about the value of checking male corpses for cockrings which culminates in the best use of the word “Dong” in voice-acting history.
The story in this reboot starts with a smooth job gone sour before skipping forward to a dystopian City-scape where Garrett is granted the magical power of Focus. Focus highlights items as well as points you can interact with you guide you through a little easier. Benefits gained from Focus can be further augmented by spending your ill-gotten gains through an upgrade merchant who feels more like she was jammed in at the last second instead of being built into the game’s original framework. It’s upgrades can grant such gifts as better aiming or sound wave ripples when you toggle Focus on but during my play through Focus was only ever used to find where the hell I was supposed to take Garrett.
Thief’s narrative is rife with opportunities missed and clichés tortured all in the service of mainstream recognition it seems. The main protagonist fills the roll of a dime-a-dozen Lex Luthor style bad guy and the pacing of Garrett’s new tale stumbles at almost every hurdle. Story missions have some cool moments and set pieces but for the most part it’s the side mission where Thief’s designers can give themselves a pat on the back. They play out more like classic Thief and centre around you stealing an item or doing something more interesting.
The standout amongst these is a gleefully well designed portion where Garrett must guide a drunken lay-about home to open a door for him. Cue running around corners to remove obstacles and dunking prostitutes into the City’s sewer system through a trap door. Even dialogue keeps in the theme of missed opportunity. The delivery of lines from the main cast is cringe worthy at points while the line conversations of guards and inhabitants steal the show.
Graphically, on the Xbox One version at least, Thief once again jumps between jaw dropping and lacklustre. Grime and darkness make you feel like a master thief and do immerse you into this world, only for instances of appalling texture pop in and cut scenes which drop in frame rate at points where they really shouldn’t to remove the veneer of polish on what would be a technical achievement. By stark contrast, the sound design is out of this world and besides the lacking vocal chops of the lead cast your ears are treated to a symphony of ambient sounds twinned with some incredibly well composed music.
Add to this the subtitling, one of those pet peeves which should have been dealt with in the dark ages and seems to be dragged kicking and screaming back in. During gameplay some speech isn’t even subtitled but during the FMVs its hard to follow even when you can hear the conversation. Whole paragraphs appear and disappear quicker than the best chocolates in a selection box while single words linger around like the heartburn the aforementioned chocolates cause. If someone with perfect hearing can’t follow them while hearing the speech, how is someone who can’t hear them through background noise or disability supposed to read them.
Thief is a resounding success in providing the industry with a great example of how not to make a Thief reboot. When the only way to get to the best parts of the game requires you to invest time into wobbling around the central hub looking for missions instead of being the centrepiece issues are abound. What could have been a pure and shining example of achievement for Eidos Montreal has instead shown as a disjointed and inconsistent romp of looking in dark corners for stuff and fighting against the mechanics that don’t work to find those that do. The difficulty settings even should help long time Thief fans like myself become almost aroused at the prospect of going back to experiences gone by, but with the amount of shortfalls what’s most difficult about Thief is forming any desire to play Thief.
A swag bag full of missed opportunity and poor design choices topped with ambition and a few gems. Playing Thief is like house sitting for a family member you dislike. You wander around being pleasantly surprised by the good stuff while that unmistakable scent of bad fish follows you around the room. The chance for a reboot which could have set the world aflame instead flickers out without so much as a whimper.