You exist only in the light or in the dark. There is no gradient and there is no nuance. It is a binary state: can you be seen or can you not? It is a problem with the new Thief game, and it is also every problem with the new Thief game. It is a product wholly comprised of blunt interactions and, occasionally, broken ones as well. But it is perhaps not as lackluster as it is disappointing.
Long ago in an age of video games where standard mechanics and player-interaction vocabulary had yet to be established, Looking Glass Studios set out to create as many molds as it would eventually break. Among the wreckage of abject creativity was Thief: The Dark Project, blazing the path for much of what we consider to be part of stealth games.
16 years later (and 10 after the last release of Thief: Deadly Shadows), we have Thief, a revival of the series more than a reboot or any such thing. You continue to play as master pilferer Garrett, returning to his hometown of The City after, uh, some long time away. Unfortunately, he finds that The Baron has taken over, ignoring the plight of the amassing poor in the streets and the plague ravaging his subjects. Garrett plans to do something about it.
Or something. It’s a strange, unfocused tale including an inordinate amount of mysticism. It’s not that any of it doesn’t make sense. Quite the contrary, for it makes far too much sense because we’ve seen most of it all before, and now in Thief it has achieved some blob-shaped conglomerate form. The plot meanders and plods along until it ultimately reaches some hazy end.
Which is somewhat funny considering that one of Garrett’s primary abilities is called Focus, though it only seems to serve to highlight the unrefined nature of the game’s grand design. You see, there is a great deal of objects in the gothic world you can interact with including objects to climb, traps to avoid, and people to mug. Other than his enhanced ambulatory skills, Garrett’s ability hone in on these things is his greatest asset.
Focus, however, drains an expendable resource. By consuming poppies, you can restore this meter and continue to go through the game with your enhanced perception. Or you can forget the poppies completely and keep using Focus with little to no consequence. So then why in the world would you bother collecting poppies? Thief immediately undermines itself with this decision, but it is a necessary one to avoid you stumbling aimlessly through its levels.
You find this problem strewn throughout Thief, defeating itself before you have a chance to defeat its purposeful obstacles. Enemies are so incredibly mindless that it renders much of the stealth you attempt inconsequential. Either you are too brazen and get spotted or too slow and get bored. Get in a fight with all but one guard and the last one will peek into the room and shrug his shoulders. But then knock over a vase and he will vow to spend his one life finding you in the darkness.
Indoor areas are so mind-numbing in their linearity that the thought of getting lost is a welcome one. One-way exits and inscrutable leads flatten the spatial representation in the mind rather than expand it. And then you will often find yourself on the tail end of a massively scripted sequence meant to get the blood pumping but will do little more than scramble the brain as you wonder, “Aren’t I supposed to be sneaky?”
Just as importantly, The City’s design is undermined by its own denizens. In what is presented as a Victorian-era environment of caste systems built atop a foundation of astounding poverty, we get guards with an indeterminate range of modern accents and dialects (one bark includes the word “stuff,” a monosyllabic utterance that completely shattered any interest I had in the world) and an obviously blind populace judging by how much god damn jewelry and gold they leave in the streets.
And for no particular reason, we have a nimble and crafty thief capable of clambering up to rooftops in a matter of seconds and yet he can’t get over a barrel. Instead of a discrete jump or climb button, you have an Assassin’s Creed-equivalent “high profile” button that enables facilitated locomotion. But for all the windows you can open and the vases you can break, so much of the world falls under the banner of Can’t Touch This, leaving you with a bumbling Garrett and an invisible wall.
There are, however, bits and pieces that standout. Sneaking around can be exciting in its raw state. Stepping out quickly from the shadows to snag a pouch of gold before retreating unseen is smile-inducing. There are optional areas you can break into that reveal execution matching the exemplary concept art shown in the loading screens, production value and diligence abound.
But that does little to mask Thief‘s greater failings. Overly linear in places while availing you with a somewhat open world and a thief of limited yet great capacity. A world of amazing genesis but stumbling, muddled execution. Plot points that seem like a regurgitation thrown over one of the great antiheroes of gaming lore. It tries—sometimes too much and sometimes too little—but rarely succeeds. Thief doesn’t steal my heart so much as it has stolen my time.
+ Occasionally come across areas of inspired design and implementation
+ Darting from shadow to shadow as you pilfer riches can be fun
– Eventually stealing just becomes tiring, as does sneaking, fighting, and playing
– Story is rote despite it overly mystical nature
Final Score: 5 out of 10
Game Review: Thief
Release: February 25, 2014
Genre: First-person stealth
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One