Thief Review – Contextual Stealing

Developer: Eidos Montreal Publisher: Square Enix Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed Version) PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360

For all intents and purposes, Thief is a stealth game. The goal is to steal as many valuable objects, paintings and artifacts as possible while navigating through a central storyline without being detected. Somewhere in the middle of development for the 4th entry in the series Eidos Montreal decided to cast their game out with a larger net, hoping to net a larger audience. It’s a shame, really, because what Thief has in the heart of its gameplay is a great concept.

You play as Garrett; master thief living in a dystopian, Victorian-era City controlled by the Baron. Using a variety of tools and techniques at your disposal, your goal is to find out exactly what happened to you and your protégé, Erin, after one fateful night about a year ago. Your bow acts as a catch-all tool, one to hit targets, douse flames, cause explosions or knock down bridges and ladders. You have a mechanical claw that allows you to contextually climb up grates to get you on higher ledges. Finally, you can utilize your mechanical eye to highlight ledges, traps, treasure and hidden switches in a focus mode.

How you play Thief is up to you, in all aspects of the idea. Not only can you play each chapter in one of three scoring styles (“Ghost” for passing through a chapter undetected, “Opportunist” for knocking out guards silently and without alerting others, “Predator” for killing others), you can also customize almost everything about the actual gameplay itself. Upgrades can improve your thieving and lockpicking skills, improve your health, increase the size of how much you can carry and can be tailored to your play style.

Thief provides a wonderful array of options when it comes to your User Interface. Everything, from button prompts, to directional navigation markers, to health and focus, gold count and even visual lock pick indicators can be turned off. You can have an entirely blank UI and just play through the game as if it were you playing as Garrett, traversing through great mansions and sneaking through people’s windows. It is fantastic to see the flexibility not only in difficulty, but just how the game immerses you into the experience of sneaking around where you shouldn’t be.

In conjunction with UI control, you can also choose just how difficult the game can be straight out the box. As someone who’s always up for a video game challenge, Eidos wanted the opportunity to appease the fans of the Thief franchise by making it extremely difficult to play, if it pleased you. The options include changing aspects of gameplay like removing the aiming reticle for bows, completely disallowing the use of Focus, up to truly insane sliders that include alerts/takedowns/kills = fail and an Iron Man mode that makes you restart entirely if you fail or die. You can remove the swooping mechanic by forcing Garrett to traverse slowly, if that was a big gripe. The level of customization is so remarkable, it actually makes me question why can’t other games provide this much freedom, especially for consoles.

Which leads us to the actual gameplay. Right off the bat, I really dug the dark atmosphere of Thief. You could really see the attention to detail put into the level design in its early stages, as there is no one right way to get through a chapter. It’s great to see just how many options you can use in order to get to the next part of the stage, and sets up for modest replayability. Limitations in climbing and rope arrow usage forced the player to take risks while dancing in and out of the light, especially with enticing treasure placed out in the open. Combat, when implemented, makes you feel appropriately weaker as a poorly-armed thief against a myriad of armed guards. Stealth takedowns are preferable with the use of your Blackjack.

The weather really sets a somber mood, and when lightning clashes entire areas are lit up, giving the player more to think about. Furthermore, when you actually take highlighted markers off, it is quite rewarding to discover hidden secrets and navigate through a tough section without your hand being held the entire way. When you are in between levels, the City itself is quite a marvel. There are lots of treasures buried away, lots of platforms, hidden compartments and areas that are fun to explore. As the game progresses, it is a delight to see how the City evolves with the story’s events.

With one or two rare exceptions, it’s entirely possible to beat Thief without alerting a soul. Eidos was smart to avoid boss battles as much as they could, leaving only one true boss battle in the entire game. Even in those circumstances, I applaud them for their ability to treat the encounter with two gameplay styles in mind; confrontation and avoidance. You don’t have to sacrifice your play style to complete it, allowing players to stay immersed in how they play their version of Garrett.

I must also congratulate them on not chasing a multiplayer experience. So often do great single player games feel like they need to throw in an online competitive component, but instead, by implementing an online leaderboard based on how customizably difficult you choose to make the game, a sense of online community exists within a single player campaign. There is enough gameplay over 8 long chapters and several side jobs to make those truly interested satisfied with the value of their purchase.

Now comes the heartbreaking part; if you’re a fan of the Thief series and are expecting a true-to-its-roots experience in the reboot; you will be greatly disappointed.

When it comes to game direction, the finished product screams out that the creative team wanted cinematic action sequences over cunning and wit. There was a part in the beginning of Chapter 1 where, after making through 90% of the map, some sort of EDM music breaks out and completely destroys the mood. This happens quite a few times throughout the game, and is quite frustrating when you’re slinking in the shadows and for it to suddenly jut into action for no apparent reason. It is a total mismatch for what the series is built on.

The most egregious case of weird direction is near the middle of a later Chapter in Thief where you are caught in the act as part of a scripted story scene. Instead of using your abilities to bail out of the scenario, you are forced to jump out on a ledge and complete a silly chase sequence. It includes breaking through a glass window onto a table full of city guards, pushing through them and running over barriers until you finally escape. It is 60% uncontrolled, scripted action and 40% running forward. As someone playing throughout the game like a Ghost as much as possible, I felt betrayed by the game.

Everything to do with sound didn’t fare much better, either. The dialogue between characters in cutscenes is the true standout, utilizing the widest collection of corny one liners you could expect in a game featuring a reluctant hero. Also of note is the fact that both dialogue and actions that create sound during cutscenes don’t always sync up, including clashes of falling debris making no sound until 1-3 seconds later. Dialogue during gameplay segments isn’t all bad outside some choice moments, but does provide some rather abstract conversations, as if to tell the player, “Listen to my conversation! I’m only talking like this to my friend to directly tell you where a hidden treasure piece is!”

The worst part about Thief is its AI, which is truly unfortunate when it is such a key component to the game. It’s not rare to see a guard on patrol walk endlessly into a light post or over a box. If you ever get caught by said guards, fleeing into a closet will thwart them easily. Even in cases where I was followed by 3 guards who saw me hide in the closet, they just stood right outside the door, all three clipping into each other as they searched for my whereabouts. There’s nothing that makes you feel less involved with a game than having NPC’s be bumbling idiots.

Speaking of performance, from what I played on the Xbox One, I truly wondered at times whether or not I was playing a next-gen game. Not only are there loading screens reaching and, rarely, surpassing the 20 second mark, certain chapters have faux loading segments masked by you entering a tight crook or passage. The game will prompt you to repeatedly hit a button to push something out of the way, which can be done quickly at times, but also can artificially hold you back no matter how quickly you hit that prompt. They won’t let you progress until they finish loading what’s behind the tight hallway you are trying to push through, despite how well they try to hide it. Don’t be surprised if you see framerate drops, either.

Thief, as a final product, has become the military shooter of the stealth genre. Lots of flash, big explosions, loud sounds, weak story, laughable dialogue and a shallow center. While it can be fun in the early goings, it comes at the cost of compromising its integrity in order to appeal to more than just stealth fans. This is not a criticism of its three-pronged approach to gameplay (Pure Stealth, Stealth Takedowns, Aggressive Killing); the way the game conveyed its story, unfortunately, removed the thoughtfulness of its gameplay options within its own context. In the end, if you don’t like the series’ new direction, Garrett’s biggest heist may be of your time spent playing this game.

Verdict:

+ Core gameplay mechanics are quite enjoyable

+ Allows for full UI and difficulty customization

– Bad voice acting supported with terrible dialogue and sound design

– Weak AI and technical performance

– Odd choices in direction

 

(A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)