Review

Thief

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In 1998, and when other developers were still chasing the dream of creating the next DOOM or Quake, Looking Glass Studios and a team of videogame literati continued its streak of providing good, interesting alternatives to heavy action shooters with the original Thief, a first-person sneak ‘em up that released to immense acclaim on PC.

The original was followed up by a sequel two years later, with a third series entry four years after that, but the freshness of that first game was difficult to recapture despite the quality of its successors.

Has the 2014 version of Thief been able to bottle up what was fun and unique about the series and bring it forward into the modern era of gaming?

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What You Need to Know

Save for a few brief third-person climbing sections, Thief is a solidly first-person game where you sneak, skulk, lurk and steal your way across The City, a world seemingly inspired by Victorian era designs, tinged with medieval filth and on the brink of exploding into the Industrial Age.

Master thief and chief protagonist Garrett returns to take on a few heists for fun and profit as the city around him succumbs to the ‘Gloom,’ a mysterious plague that has made government officials and local law enforcement nervous enough to announce a curfew for citizens of The City, giving them an excuse to harass anyone seen on the streets at night (and attack Garrett on sight), so in order to make your way from story mission to story mission, and to find houses and stores ripe for pilfering in the game’s side missions, you’ll need to stick to the shadows.

You can use Garret’s abilities to sneak up on guards to knock them out without being seen, or snatch valuable items from their belt without them even noticing, but woe betide you if you’re caught: Garrett is a poor fighter and if more than a few guards gang up on him, it’s curtains… best to stay out of sight. If it comes to it, you can take enemies out with a well-placed shot to the head with a deadly arrow, but it’s much more advisable to use Garrett’s variety of other arrows to extinguish flames, push buttons from afar and climb up ropes to avoid danger and attention.

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While Garrett’s mobility is strangely limited, he can rapidly move from hiding place to another shadowy hollow in a very smooth and satisfying ‘swoop’ motion, but in the absence of a discrete jump ability you’ll need to rely on his aptitude for vaulting over waist-high obstructions to continue to clatter across rooftops and sprint over cobblestones while navigating the murk of The City.

When you happen upon a particularly juicy target, like a locked safe or chest, a desk full of treasure or a picture frame concealing prized possessions, you’ll need to take part in a micro-game to gain access to the loot or quickly rifle through drawers to discover hidden valuables, which crops up more often than I liked.

What’s New?

Thanks to a supernatural event, Garrett can is able to ‘Focus’ in on his environment, bathing areas of interest in blue in order to better see items of value and paths ahead (like climbable walls and ropes), as well as other people. Interestingly, the Focus meter and Garrett’s health don’t regenerate like other modern first- and third-person games which means you’ll need to keep a store of items to fill them back up, adding a welcome decision modifier to your actions.

The ability to ‘Swoop’ between hiding spots is a neat addition to Garrett’s moveset, and while not a magical ability like the ‘Blink’ in Dishonored (which let Corvo Attano teleport short distances), Swooping along the ground is still very useful. Peeking around corners by locking in and leaning to see dangers ahead and peeking through keyholes before opening doors (like in Dishonored) are also both very useful abilities that I’m glad are becoming more common in stealth games.

Thief makes interesting use of the PlayStation 4 controller, too, with the sensor light glowing brighter when Garrett is in pools of light to let you know you’re standing where you shouldn’t be (which is in addition to the ‘Light Gem’ indicator on the heads-up display which serves the same purpose), while your inventory is opened using the touchpad with items selected by swiping and clicking. Unfortunately this doesn’t work very well and I wasn’t able to switch to the simpler radial menu used in other versions of the game.

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What’s the Same?

First-person stealth action is a very particular brand of the genre, with limited vision and a lack of knowledge of your surroundings compared to third-person stealth games, but like other games, you’ll be able to upgrade your skills to not only improve your awareness (by ‘seeing’ enemy footsteps, for example), which comes in handy when sussing out enemy patrols and locations to solve the game’s navigation puzzles: Do I stick to the shadows and wait it out, or do I extinguish torches and silently eliminate the guards one by one to make it through safely?

I usually opted for the latter.

Other abilities are upgradeable, too, with the chance to improve your capacity to carry more items (bought from the local merchant), develop your bow and arrow skills, get better tools to access new areas of The City, speed up pick-locking, increase your health, pick up a few ability perks and much more – while incremental, you’ll be able to slowly nudge Garrett towards becoming a master thief of your choosing.

You’ll Enjoy Thief If You Liked…

… the challenge of stealthily navigating a level in Dishonored.

… the setting and premise of previous Thief games.

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What I Liked

- 5.) This is the third time I’m mentioning it, so I must have really liked the Swoop move – it’s really cool to perform and really made me feel like I was rapidly sneaking just out of eyeshot.

- 4.) Peeking through keyholes (again, ala Dishonored) is a great way to get a heads-up on danger in the next room.

- 3.) Unlike many games, Thief demarks drawers, cupboards and chests that you’ve already searched so you don’t waste time looking through them again.

- 2.) In general, Thief has a good feel to first-person movement and actions, with sufficiently fluid hand animations as you swipe items and wave candles to extinguish them, adding to the sensation of being a smooth operator.

- 1.) There’s a real sense of adventure game puzzle solving in some of the side missions, with hints and clues scattered about that will lead you to find special items.

Favourite Moment

Successfully sussing out a room and navigating through an area without being seen, while using the tools at my disposal to clear paths and cause distractions, was perpetually satisfying.

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What I Didn’t Like

- 5.) The overall presentation of Thief is exceptionally rough, with erratic frame rates and peculiar audio problems with dialogue cutting out and volume changing automatically.

- 4.) The artificially intelligent enemies are very dim, and in modern games the stealth trope of guards only being interested in disturbances for a limited amount of time shouldn’t exist – seeing enemies become alerted to my presence with a swell in the music before almost immediately twitching back to normal (and the music immediately fading out) was painful to watch.

- 3.) I was constantly frustrated by the limited range of moves, and ways in which to move, to get from one place to another. Not being able to traverse an area logically (i.e. seeing a path forward but being forced to go ‘the right way’), not being able to jump or hang on to a ledge whenever I saw one, and having a limitation placed on where I could shoot rope arrows to climb was maddening.

- 2.) While the overall world of Thief may be large, individual areas are tiny and claustrophobic requiring lots of loading when moving from place to place, and added to the murky, bland look of The City, I didn’t enjoy the spaces created for me to play in.

- 1.) I found Garrett to be devoid of personality and an unlikable character. Combined with the other generic characters and a lame plot that hinges on an unexplained supernatural movement in The City, the world of Thief held little interest for me.

Least Favourite Moments

Unfortunately there are a lot of ‘least favourite moments’ for me in Thief, but hearing the same lines of dialogue repeated dozens of times by different guards and citizens around the city was consistently the most grating, which wasn’t helped by a multitude of audio problems that meant I could hear these utterances through walls and clear across a level.

Awkward moments related to randomly selected dialogue was also pretty bizarre to see, with one woman screaming (ostensibly to a crowd, but it was one person) about the ill of the city, before shifting into a non-sequitur about needing to sleep.


Thief Launch Trailer


What’s Extra?

At the end of every mission, Thief encourages you to replay the level by showing you statistics breaking down your actions, including how many guards you engaged with, how many special items and regular loot items you collected, and whether or not you were more aggressive or stealthy – replaying a mission will let you improve your performance.

There are also lots of special treasure items scattered around the game both in the main story path and in non-compulsory side quests, so if you’re a completionist you’ll want to investigate every window and door you can pry open (after a little Quick Time Event, of course).

The customisable difficulty settings will also make going through the campaign a more enticing proposition with the option to turn off checkpoints and manual saves, or forcing mission insta-fails if you’re caught – every option you toggle has a set number of points associated with it and you can post your high scores to an online leaderboard. You can also make things more difficult for yourself by toggling user interface graphics off, like waypoints, hints, the mini-map and the ‘Light Gem’ showing if you’re hidden in shadow or not.

The Bottom Line

Thief unfortunately proves the naysayers and series purists right – while trying to please franchise fans and create a game for 2014 audiences at the same time, Eidos Montreal has delivered a limited and flawed vision of what a modern-day Thief game could be.


Thief was reviewed on PlayStation 4


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