As I vaulted my way from rooftop to rooftop through Thief‘s opening sequence, following my imprudent protege, Erin, through The City’s malignant homesteads, my sense of anticipation for what Eidos Montreal’s Thief had to offer was at an all time high. Swirling mantles of mist caressing dingy city streets and moonlit rooftops paint a beautiful picture for the player to get lost within. Unfortunately, that’s where the game – for the most part – ceases to impress, as its intricately crafted setting can only fool the player for so long before he or she grows tired of Thief‘s redundant gameplay and decrepit storyline.
Before I continue, you should note that I played Thief on Xbox One without any prior experience with past games in the franchise. Therefore, my interpretations and opinions on Thief‘s reboot by Eidos Montreal and Square Enix are unfiltered by anything players may have seen in past games. That said, let’s take a look at what Thief does well and where it fails to execute.
In Thief, players take control of Garrett, the game’s protagonist and master thief of The City. Returning after a long stay away from his hometown, Garrett uses The City’s plague to his advantage, stealing anything – well, almost anything – his heart desires in the midst of social turmoil between the rich and the poor. And while the story itself has potential, it stumbles out of the starting gate very early on, before shattering into a million confusing pieces that neglect to give the player any real reason to place them back together. Dull moments of dialogue from Garrett, voiced by Romano Orzari, in conjunction with major audio issues and a supernatural-driven plot that doesn’t care to show up until two-thirds of the way through the story constantly kept me at a distance throughout the entirety of Thief‘s narrative.
Class-based warfare as a theme and concept for a game can work well, as displayed in Bethesda’s Dishonored. Unfortunately, Thief provides a frail framework for the game’s plot, causing a great sense of dissatisfaction throughout the entirety of the game. Cutscenes are often awkward and cliché, with key information overshadowed by predictable one-liners from Garrett and an unoriginal – albeit late – focus on the game’s supernatural element, the Primal. It felt as though game was telling itself the entire time, “I’m not Dishonored,” but then decided to forcibly infuse itself with a supernatural twist, convoluting the story’s plot even further. In other words, it’s as if Star Wars didn’t introduce the Force until Episode Six…yeah, it just doesn’t work.
The Primal, if you were wondering, is a supernatural force that the game’s antagonist, the Baron, channels early on in the game. However, this short interlude – along with a few other brief moments – is the last time players will really even see the Primal or its effects until much later in the game. What’s so disconcerting about this is that the game itself feels as though it neglects major plot points brought up early on in the story, relegating players to unfocused tasks such as unlocking the Thief-Taker Genral’s strongbox. Granted, other chapters do in fact have plot-driven objectives, but the game fails to make those objectives feel important to the player or the game’s story, which, to be honest, is never fully laid out in a way that feels satisfying. This probably has something to do with Garrett’s renegade demeanor, a trait that disconnects not only himself from the overarching narrative, but in turn the player as well.
A lack of innovative characters for Garrett to interact with causes The City’s drab exterior to wither internally as well. What should be an ominous and forbidding setting, ends up feeling dull and uneventful, as NPCs filter through small cycles of dialogue while event-driven characters are portrayed as exaggerated, yet sorrowfully uninteresting. However, there are moments in which the game catches you off guard by means of conversations within closed buildings concerning events taking place in The City. Listening in during these brief interludes can become rather charming, as dialogue from behind-the-scenes serves to remind the player that The City is indeed alive, albeit somewhat limited in its depiction.
I’m hard pressed to find anything Thief‘s story does well, aside from burden the player with somewhat funny offhanded remarks from certain characters. If anything, the most entertaining part of the story involves dialogue from The City’s guards in each chapter, who, for some reason, absolutely love to smoke bowls of opium. You can see an example below.
Comedy aside, the game does shine when it comes to optional objectives and side missions, which allow players to lose themselves within the more mundane antics of The City and its citizens. Although somewhat middling, side objectives in Thief really round out the game’s setting, creating context through objective notes and NPCs. My one complaint when it comes to side missions, however, is that not enough information is derived from the NPCs themselves, which forces the player to read every single note in order to fully understand the implications of the task at hand. Still, bonus objectives are a definite plus for Thief overall.
Throughout the entirety of playing Thief, I couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing from a gameplay standpoint. In its entirety, the game’s mechanics and controls feel smooth, but fail to push the player to try anything new that hasn’t been seen in previous stealth games. Sensitivity to sound and motion work well for Thief‘s guards, making voice and motion controls on Xbox One somewhat fun to use. However, “stealing loot” as a core gameplay mechanic can become somewhat tiresome, as combat and the fulfilling sense of “escaping the scene of the crime” are dragged down by vacuous AI.
“Swooping” is Key
From a stealth standpoint, Thief‘s controls work quite well, allowing players “swoop” between shadows as they attempt to bypass guards and traps. The “swoop” mechanic – activated by pressing “A” on the Xbox One controller – acts as a quick dash and is quite helpful in creating space between the player and nearby enemies. In a game that focuses primarily on evasion and sneaking, being able to move around in a nimble fashion is something Eidos Montreal has done quite well, as I found myself using the “swoop” mechanic heavily throughout my time spent playing the game. To balance out the mechanic’s quickness and slight of sound, “swooping” over broken glass or dry leaves will alert guards, a concept that I grew to appreciate due to the challenge it presented throughout a variety of different levels.
Voice and Motion Controls
One of the biggest surprises I encountered while playing Thief on Xbox One was the ability to incorporate voice and motion controls into the play experience while using Kinect. Motion controls allow players to control Garrett’s leaning mechanic while hugging corners in the game by physically leaning in a designated direction. Leaning backward or forward also causes Garrett to “swoop” in said direction. And while the concept sounds rather straightforward in theory, motion controls often feel rigid and unresponsive, making Xbox One’s controller a much better option for leaning around corners and skulking beneath the shadows.
Voice commands, on the other hand, are extremely beneficial to Thief‘s gameplay and rather funny when utilized properly in certain situations. Voice detection can be switched on in the game’s pause screen, allowing players to gain the attention of guards and other NPCs by using the Kinect’s microphone to make noise, or in my case yell obscenities at the guards. This feature works surprising well as a supplement to the game’s already built in noise detection and can be used strategically to call guards away from certain areas, generating a clear path by which players can progress through the level. Although somewhat simple, voice detection in Thief is definitely a positive and makes good use of the Kinect as an additional feature in the game.
Combat, Painfully Unrefined
Garrett uses a wide variety of tools and weapon types in Thief, although combat is primarily reserved for his blackjack and bow, with items such as flash bombs thrown in for added measure. And while taking out targets with different arrow types often feels satisfying, close-ranged combat is unimaginative and a detriment to the game’s overarching mechanic – stealth. More often that not, I found myself reloading my last save when I alerted a guard in order to avoid the endless chase that was bound to end in a pathetic hand-to-hand combat confrontation between one of the dimwitted pursuers and myself. The pattern never changed throughout the entirety of the game – dodge with the left bumper, attack with the right bumper, repeat. To an extent, I can grant Thief‘s combat mechanics a bit of grace due to its larger focus on stealth, but it still doesn’t excuse the game’s overly simple AI. In reality, the bigger issue with Thief lies not with the game’s combat itself, but rather the inability of the player to navigate buildings and The City in a fluid manner, primarily while running away from enemies.
Navigating The City and Level Design
For a series that prides itself on freedom of movement and maneuverability, Thief‘s reboot does little to allow the player to feel in control of its surrounding environment. Locations that utilize rope arrows – used to reach higher up levels within The City – are scarce, limiting players to the setting’s ground level in many instances. Certain walls and steam vents are marked with gritty, white paint and serve as indicators as to where the player is able to climb. The game might as well have put up signs saying, “Climb here. Shoot rope arrow here,” as its limited pathways and confusing city layout often times cause the game to feel frustrating and unintuitive from a design standpoint. Without the ability to freely scale walls and rooftops, Thief forces the player to feel small and closed in, which becomes compounded by untimely loading screens and a mini-map that does nothing more than confuse the living hell out of the player.
Escaping a building is often a chore due to the game’s requirement to initiate a 15-second quick time event in which Garrett pries open the window before reemerging into The City’s quiet streets. That, however, isn’t the worst of it. Some windows initiate major loading screens between certain key buildings that function as transition points between different parts of The City. These breaks are often ill-timed and remove any sense of immersion players should hope to feel while navigating Thief‘s picturesque surroundings.
As an unwritten law in the game, every major window and air grate Garrett opens will automatically shut itself upon entering. While this may seem like an unwarranted complaint, Thief‘s constant closure of passageways behind the player acts as an agent of confinement and fractures any fluidity the game had hoped to achieve.
The Asylum, A Welcome Deviation
As a somewhat unexpected surprise, Thief‘s Asylum level – chapter five in the game – deviates exceptionally well from other sections of gameplay. Ruined by the plague and its crazed inhabitants, The City’s Asylum marches boldly into the realm of the supernatural, but in a way that is both fresh and rather terrifying. Ghostly apparitions slinking between hallways partnered with the Asylum’s bloodied halls create a dense atmosphere ripe with anticipation. The problem with this is that the level itself feels almost 100 percent different from other chapters in the game, aside from its looting aspect. Despite the elements of this particular chapter than make it stand out from the rest of the game, it is an idea that would have been better served as a singular entity. From what I personally experienced while playing through the Asylum, I would love to see it turned into an entirely new horror game of its own, replete with similar elements of distress. You can view some of the scarier moments from my playthrough of Thief‘s Asylum level below. But be warned, this will spoil a lot of the chapter’s more spine-tingling moments for you.
Thief is an incredibly appealing game from a visual standpoint, with its setting and character models rendering in incredible detail from start to finish. Smooth cobblestone streets that act as the canvas by which small droplets of rain paint recurring ripples with fine-tuned precision, sheltered by the glow from the windows of tarnished city houses are but a few of the images Thief offers up to players. Aesthetically, Thief is an absolute pleasure, with even its darker subsections serving to add a sense of depth and mystery.
Details found within the constructs of Garrett’s gloves and vambraces both serve to immerse the player into the world of The City’s nefarious thief, the likes of which move with incredible fluidity and finesse. It should come as no surprise, then, that those very same hands serve as the game’s primary source of interaction, picking up carefully crafted collectibles – often rendered with incredible sheen and detail – that add to the player’s sense of satisfaction with every successful theft. As far as appearances go, both the world of Thief and Garrett himself look wonderful and serve as the game’s primary driving force.
For a game that relies heavily on sound, specifically when it comes to stealth portions of gameplay, I was surprised to find a plethora of audio issues in the form of ducked volume during cutscenes and repeating sections of dialogue from NPCs that loop continuously within certain sections of the game. Other scenes cause the audio to cut out entirely, making subtitles a necessity in order to fully understand the implications of Thief‘s plot. Character voices often spike in certain cutscenes and then drop down to nearly inaudible levels in others. This saddened me throughout my time spent playing the game, as my expectations for titles published by Square Enix have traditionally been fairly high. In comparison with other issues I have with Thief, its audio issues are the most disgruntling, as they make the game feel unpolished and rushed on Xbox One.
Thief was reviewed on Xbox One with a personally bought copy of the game.