Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Thief (2014)

The master thief Garrett returns to his home, the City, after a year away. His last memories are of his protege, Erin, falling into a field of light during a ceremony conducted by weird cultists. As Garrett tries to get back to his old life of thievery, aided by his friend and sometimes-employer Basso, he is struck by visions of the ceremony suggesting that something is not quite right, something that could destroy the City if left unchecked.

Thief is a reboot and revival of the classic Thief Trilogy of video games: The Dark Project (1998), The Metal Age (2002) and Deadly Shadows (2004). These games were hugely influential in their introduction of stealth elements to video games, with importance placed not on combat and killing enemies but on the player sneaking past foes and 'ghosting' through levels to complete objectives with the enemy not even being away of their presence. The SF roleplaying game Deus Ex (2000) also followed a similar strategy, though gave players more tools to choose stealth, combat or other options as they wished.

When Eidos Montreal released Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, they received praise for managing the difficult feat of making a game that honoured its predecessor's freeform choices and design whilst also making the title more accessible and approachable to modern gamers. Hopes were high that they could manage a similar balancing act with Thief. However, it is far more questionable if they have succeeded.

The newest incarnation of Thief is, at least superficially, similar to its forebears. You have a large hub area in the City where you can buy supplies, carry out opportunistic robberies or undertake minor side-quests for a number of different employers. There is also a main storyline that you can dip into and out of at will. Garrett is not very good at combat (although he does receive upgrades as the game progresses and can hold his own more effectively later on), so stealth is the order of the day. Hiding in shadows, moving quietly and making use of both the environment and tools such as rope arrows are all essential to avoid tedious fights which will usually end with Garrett's death. The game puts a large amount of importance on light, with enemies only being able to spot you motionless in well-lit areas. Water arrows can be used to extinguish torches and Garrett has a special 'swooping' move which can be used to move rapidly through lit areas whilst only briefly confusing guards, rather than fully alerting them to your presence.

All of this is theoretically good stuff, and the game is at its best in tense moments where you have infiltrated the heart of a dangerous location and one wrong move can spell disaster. However, it also feels a bit too stage-managed. Unlike the previous titles, you can only use rope arrows on certain, specific beams of wood, which makes no sense. The game also discourages you from using certain lit routes by making the light sources indestructible gas lamps (which inexplicably can't be smashed by any of the tools at your disposal, including explosives) or oil lamps instead of torches. Exactly how oil lamps in the City work when they have no external controls of any kind is something the game leaves a mystery. The game then goes a step further into hand-holding by allowing you to jump and climb walls in certain contextual circumstances, usually by sign-painting climbable walls in white paint or sticking very large and obvious grills on them. Thief seems to delight in giving you an array of options and toys to play with and then arbitrarily places restrictions on how and when you can use them.

There's still usually a variety of different ways of accomplishing each task, but these boil down into two or three approaches per mission that everyone will experience. The original Thief trilogy was more of a simulation, which let you run riot with the tools and abilities in the game in large, sandbox-like levels, with dozens of viable approaches for each situation at hand. The new Thief never comes close to replicating that experience, which is a shame. Sequels should expand and improve upon their forebears, so for this game to be more limited than what came before is disappointing.

Even worse for Thief, and something completely unexpected by the design team, was the release of Dishonored in late 2012. A homage and love letter to the Thief series (amongst others), Dishonored featured a mix of stealth, combat and magic in a weirdpunk world that felt more like the original Thief games than the official reboot does. Dishonored did place more emphasis on magic and combat, but it was also extremely atmospheric with a well-designed world, a reasonably well-written (if not particularly original) storyline and a well-defined supporting cast of characters. Thief, on the other hand, features a wafer-thin and superficial backdrop, a badly-written and corny storyline and a largely forgettable cast of cliches. If you haven't played or are not interested in playing Dishonored, such a comparison may be meaningless, but between the two games Thief definitely stands as the weaker.

None of this is to say that Thief is a terrible game. As the first title in a new franchise it would have gotten a much more favourable reception, and there is much to enjoy about it. The game is decently long: doing all the side-quests will take it well over 20 hours, and successfully 'ghosting' some of the trickier missions gives a real sense of achievement. There are a couple of missions, most notably the excursion to the lunatic asylum, which are chillingly atmospheric and well-designed. And, as superficial as they are, the game systems are intermittently effective at creating the illusion of being a master thief. It never really lasts very long, however, and in the endgame Thief loses whatever grasp it had on being a stealth title and turns into a linear action adventure with you dodging explosions, defeating your enemies in a series of boss fights and completing the game in the exact one way the designers want you to, to get a tediously predictable cliffhanger ending. I should probably also mention the mutant enemies who have super senses, can't be disabled with a takedown and have lights coming out of their eyes making it hard to hide from them, which comfortably lift from Far Cry's Trigens the title of "Most Pointless and Annoying Cheap Enemy Ever". A woeful game design decision.

Thief (***) is an enjoyable stealth game that fails to live up to the titles that came before it and is distinctly less accomplished than the similar Dishonored but, when taken on its own merits, is entertaining enough to merit a play-through or two. But the title falls way short of its potential, and fails to replicate the magic the design team brought to their Deus Ex reboot. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3, X-Box One, PlayStation 4) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3, X-Box One, PlayStation 4).

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