Let’s start with an admission; I’ve never played any of the original Thief games. I’ve gazed at them appreciatively, but when the original came out back in 1998 our humble little family PC wasn’t anywhere near capable of playing 2D games, let alone 3D ones. I also wasn’t too great on PCs anyway, it was around that time when I deleted nearly the entirety of the hard drive, including a folder named ‘drivers’ which I was soon to learn was somewhat crucial to operation, because I was under the impression that I was “cleaning it up”. But I digress.
I don’t think a lack of experience with a franchise is necessarily a bad thing though. Thief is a title held in such high regard by gamers and reboots are always a delicate issue. While you may gain a number of new fans thanks to your reimagining, there’s going to be another subset angered by the developers daring to change any aspect of the original game. Here I am, pad in hand, ready to take my first steps into the new world of Thief.
Set within what is referred to as ‘The City’ which, judging from the accents is some kind of steampunk reimagining of Victorian London, the game places you in the role of the master thief Garrett. ‘The City’ is ruled by a tyrant known as the ‘The Baron’ and cityfolk are falling foul of a deadly plague known as ‘The Gloom’ that’s sweeping the streets. Public hangings are used to dissuade attempts of public uprisings and the poor live in squalor. It’s a promising universe to set the game within, and the theme of oppression is readily apparent. The guard-patrolled claustrophobic streets are littered with homeless citizens, some begging and some dying. You get the impression that ‘The City’ is teetering on the brink of rebellion, if only the deprived underclasses were strong enough to do so.
It’s a shame that the plot doesn’t live up to the standard that’s set by the world it inhabits. It starts with the loss of Garrett’s part friend, part rival, Erin, a former protege of his, then moves into quests which see you steal targets given by a contact named Basso, before culminating in some quasi-mystical gibberish. I found the move into occult elements to be deeply unsatisfying as it made the well-realised game world feel less like an alternate path that history’s timeline could have trodden.
As it be expected, you will spend much of Thief inhabiting the shadows as brightly lit areas are your prime nemesis. The ‘swoop’ mechanic will have you darting between cover and darkness throughout the game, and helps keep inquisitive eyes off you. Garrett is also able to manipulate the darkness, to a degree. Within his weapons are water arrows that can be used to douse torches or fires from distance, and if a candle is within close proximity he can pinch the wick to extinguish the flames. Both of these are useful tactics to ensure avoidance of the patrolling guards.
However, it seems that ‘The Baron’ picked from the cheaper end of the scale when hiring his minions. As is frustratingly often the case with stealth games, the guards are mostly half-blind cretins. The discovery of a fallen comrade will have them distracted and break their patrol path for a small amount of time before a shrug of the shoulders and return to their starting point with a comment along the lines of “Oh well, must be seeing things”. What? THERE’S A DEAD PERSON IN FRONT OF YOU, BRO. Surely in this time of our new, all powerful next gen consoles we can get past the days of pre-scripted routines? It’s a frustration that repeatedly breaks the immersion and something I hope we can start to move past.
Despite all this darting between shadows, you’ll feel less like a master thief and more like a kleptomaniac magpie because you’re constantly stealing anything vaguely shiny. You’ll quickly lose count of the amount of ashtrays, candelabras, and, somewhat oddly, scissors that you’ll pinch throughout the course of the game. Any nefarious feelings that are created early on because, let’s face it, the idea of being a master criminal is pretty damn compelling, are fairly quickly replaced by tedium as you nick what seems like your 1,356th pair of scissors.
One new addition to the franchise that caused a minor uproar from the more fervent fans of the previous titles has been the new ‘focus’ mechanic. It does exactly what it says on the tin, it allows Garrett to highlight objects around him that he can interact with, for example enemies in the darkness, surfaces he can climb or items to collect. Undeniably, it does simplify the game but whether this is a positive or negative comes down to the individual playing; personally, I’m no fan of aimlessly wandering around trying to figure out what I should be doing so I have no issue with the inclusion of Focus. For those who wish to have a more difficult experience, they’re more than welcome to switch it off.
As you may have read elsewhere, Thief is not without a few technical issues. On the PS4 version tested here I was repeatedly plagued by severe frame rate drops. While it’s not an unattractive game, it also doesn’t seem overly taxing so I’m going to point an accusing finger in the direction of the developers rather than blaming the still fledgling system.
While we’re blaming the developers, I’d just like to single out whoever was responsible for level design for their own, individual contribution to the frustrating elements of this game. The main hub of ‘The City’ acts as a conduit for missions, side quests and the store, however it’s often not clear if you waypoint is contained within this particular area or instead somewhere that involves transitioning to elsewhere. This can lead to prolonged, hair-tearingly frustrating periods where you know where you need to be but have no idea quite how to get there. Why this central hub wasn’t open world is absolutely beyond me.
All considered, Thief falls down mostly because there’s too few peaks of excitement and far too many troughs. The stealth aspect feels overly formulaic, mostly down to poor AI, at a time when competitors like Dishonored are attempting to move the genre forwards, and the story’s descent into mysticism is a terrible misstep. You get the feeling that the 5+ years in development may have hindered rather than helped, with too many different people coming in and out of the project and ultimately leaving it feeling disjointed. It’s such a shame though, because the the atmosphere and universe that surround the game are top notch and deserve a much better game with which to be paired. A lacklustre restart to this much loved series.
MLG Rating: 5/10 Format: Xbox One/PlayStation 4 /Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC Release: 25/02/14
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Thief for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks on the PlayStation 4. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.