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Thief: A reboot that misses its mark

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Sneaking around, bopping guards on the head, stealing everything - the ingredients are all there, but Thief feels undercooked.

Sneaking around, bopping guards on the head, stealing everything - the ingredients are all there, but Thief feels undercooked.

I suppose everybody who ever falls in love with a particular medium at a particular time considers themselves to have lived through a golden age, but the mid to late 1990s was a pretty special period for PC gaming. It's the period that gave us Half-Life, Starcraft, and Baldur's Gate, just to name a few.

It was also the most prolific period for a small development team called Looking Glass Studios, during which they gave the world System Shock and System Shock 2, and of course the seminal Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age.

The original Thief was not just groundbreaking; it was genre-defining. No other game had ever featured stealth gameplay from a first-person perspective that made use of light and shadow, as well as sounds. The first time I walked carelessly across a metal floor and heard my footsteps clanging loudly, alerting every guard within fifty feet, I was startled and dismayed but also rather impressed with the technology.

Sadly, Looking Glass was shuttered a very long time ago, and it has been a long time between drinks for the Thief franchise. Fans of the two originals, like me, reacted with a mix of cautious enthusiasm and low-level anxiety when Square Enix announced they would be reviving the property with a brand new game. Its status as a fully-fledged reboot was cemented when its initial title of Thief 4 (TH4EF according to the cringe-worthy teaser images) was reverted to simply Thief.

It's been a couple of years, and the new Thief has finally arrived, but rather than making a big splash it has landed with a hollow thud. Critical reviews have been savage, with Metacritic reporting averages of 68 and 69 on various platforms. Is this simply frustrated nostalgia that refuses to recognise the need for the medium of video games to evolve, or is the game really a turkey?

Having spent the past week or so in the soft-soled boots of Garrett the master thief, I think the truth lies somewhere between. Thief is competent enough, and would likely have been considered great five or six years ago. The problem is that it's just a little too sloppy, too meandering, and too cliche-ridden to really succeed. It also doesn't help that Dishonored beat it to release by almost 18 months and turned out to be a better Thief reboot than the official one.

No one thing in Thief is woefully broken. All of its components are, in isolation, reasonably good. The world design is fairly stock medieval gothic, but it has its moments of dark beauty. The core gameplay presents a blend of old-school thievery and modern script-driven action, and achieves a reasonable balance. The characters are fine, if a little over-familiar, and while there are moments of embarrassingly amateurish voice acting, the main cast are competent enough.

It's the way these elements are pieced together that causes problems. First, there are just too many glitches for such a high profile game. Considering how vital light and shadow are to the gameplay, it just couldn't afford to be sloppy with this, and yet it did: dark corners will sometimes have inexplicable slivers of light in them, occasionally a light will shine through a wall, and all too often random objects will appear fully lit even though they're in the dark. There's also too much ambient light, and the nice character designs are often ruined by horribly flat lighting.

The other major issue is sound design. Put simply, it's awful. In one part, I was in a first floor room looking for loot when I heard two guards walk past on the street below, as clearly and loudly as if they were standing beside me. Only minutes later, I was standing beside two civilians having a conversation on a street corner, and when I turned my back on them to walk away, one of them dropped out and the other kept speaking. I could hear him clearly, without any fade-out, until I was half a block away, and which point he abruptly cut out.

This is a Thief game. Lighting and sound are probably the two most vital elements to getting a game like this right. You're supposed to pay attention to the sound you're making and listen for the sounds of approaching trouble, all while slipping from shadow to shadow to remain unseen. For both of these to be problematic is a major blow to the entire game.

Animation is also sloppy. While Garrett himself moves beautifully, and creeping along rafters and leaping from rooftop to rooftop feels fluid and fun, other characters are disappointingly wooden. Guards will have conversations without moving their mouths, and will sometimes walk right through each other. Considering I was playing on the PlayStation 4, which appears to be Thief's flagship console, these problems are woefully non-next-gen.

I've been very negative so far, and that feels unfair. There is a lot to like, with the customisable difficulty being a highlight. You can pick a base difficulty when starting a new game, and then go into a menu to fine tune your difficulty options, such as disabling mid-level saves or forbidding the player from harming innocent people. Once you've chosen, you're stuck with it, so choose wisely - the only way to edit it is to begin a whole new game.

Another thing I like is the retention of the classic steal-everything-that-isn't-nailed-down aspect of the game, with how much you steal dictating what equipment and upgrades you can buy. There are also unique collectible treasures cunningly hidden in each level, and instead of selling these they are displayed in Garrett's hideout. Discovering that you have only four of a set of five unique rings is a strong incentive to go back and replay levels.

I also quite like the lock-picking and searching mechanics, though I strongly recommend turning off the graphical prompts and doing it via touch (i.e. controller vibration). Lockpicking is a standard exercise in tilting the stick and pressing a button when you feel the vibration, but when done without visual aids it actually feels quite good. There is a similar exercise to find hidden catches on picture frames and in bookcases that open secret hatches and trapdoors.

Finally, I like how Garrett moves. He has the occasional moment of clumsiness where is fumbles a jump and falls to his death from a high rooftop, but for the most part he moves well, convincingly stealthy and nimble. I particularly like the addition of a stealthy swoop to his movement capabilities: press a button while moving, and he will flit quickly from shadow to shadow. He can still be seen - it doesn't make him invisible or silent - but it allows him to zip stealthily from cover to cover in the seconds while a guard's back is turned.

Overall, though, Thief feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps it needed a bit more time to get it right, or maybe the team ran out of resources, I don't know. There is the skeleton of a great game here, but the body built around it just has too many problems for me to recommend it.

If you miss the old Thief games, go play them; GOG.com has them for ten bucks each. If you want a modern take on the core Thief gameplay, go play Dishonored. I don't know who to recommend Thief to. It isn't bad, but it feels too old, too incomplete, and too pedestrian to be good.

I have only ever played Thief because I had to, because I needed to write about. Not once during my hours with it did I pick up the controller to play because I really wanted to. That's probably the most damning thing I can say about it. When the modern reboot of one of my favourite games feels like a chore to play, you know there has to be something seriously wrong.

 - James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

11 comments so far

  • yeah I really wanted this to be good but reviews put me off. I'd say it'll be a free PSN giveaway in not too long

    good news is that the south park game is getting suprisingily good reviews. as a fan of the show gonna grab it on Friday after pay day

    Commenter
    mongey
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 8:20AM
    • Only 'criticism' of the South Park game I've heard so far is its length. I would be doing the same thing as you and picking it up randomly off the shelf, but the censorship annoys me. I haven't gotten in the mood to import a copy from the US yet.

      Commenter
      Raito
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 9:29AM
  • Ironically, I totally saw that coming.

    Commenter
    Blurry
    Date and time
    March 05, 2014, 8:35AM
    • Sad to hear. The only reason I didn't buy it day 1 was because, much like Black Flag, Watch Dogs, Crysis 3, and I can't think of what else, I'm waiting for my computer upgrade before jumping on them. Which means I might as well wait until I can grab them for bargain bin prices.

      I'll still likely get it though. I have the old Thief games and Dishonored, and I'm still hungry for more - so that's who to recommend this one to.

      Commenter
      Lucid Fugue
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 05, 2014, 9:09AM
      • They are totally incompetent, I bet the people that made the game didn't play thief 1 or 2. The game was entirely mangled They had no understanding what made the Thief Series great.
        This game also being 15+ has no excuse's for dumbed down the game the way it did.
        Your right about 90's being the golden-age which I call the renaissance, today's games are bad, I've seen series of games getting dumber and dumber every release. Crysis, Call of Duty, Now Thief. I gave Thief a ZERO, many other's also did the same, those that gave them 1 or 3 out of 100 were too generous. Gamers need to start punishing video game company's for releasing bad games. What's even worse the new age gamers today are used to bad games, bad games have become the normality, if you ever experienced renaissance, normality today is totally foul and disgusting. Thief has become a perfect example, of once great game, turned into one of worst increment in living game history. His a tip for you game developers, don't hire anyone that game's more in their lounge room then their bedroom, has a console as main gaming platform instead of PC. Console's are partially to blame for this dumbing down culture. His another example ID software created Doom series, loyally to PC games, until they released Rage, was more of a Console Game, not a PC game, where is ID software now? Gone to the Abyss.

        Commenter
        Timmy
        Date and time
        March 05, 2014, 10:02AM
        • Loving the passion Timmy.

          I've never played the series before (and haven't played this one either) but you're right regarding the huge budgets games being more geared to the average market demographic rather than just building a tight focused game.

          I'm not as pessimistic about the state of game development as yourself as the emergence of indie developers and other smaller studio producing focused quality games is shaping to be a disrupter to the big developers and more importantly the publishers which I suspect are demanding developers produce games that are dumbed down.

          Commenter
          Knotpossible
          Date and time
          March 05, 2014, 10:28AM
      • I pre-ordered it cheap on PC, as I love first-person stealthy games, but after everything I've heard I've completely lost interest in playing. That's pretty much it for me and day 1, I think.

        Commenter
        js
        Date and time
        March 05, 2014, 10:22AM
        • To be honest, I've been enjoying playing it. It's a good game, not great but not bad. I'm a fan of the original series but I'm not blinded by my love of it. The original games had flaws as well, don't forget. The glitches I've encountered haven't been game-breaking and enough works just fine to make me not care about the glitches. In fact, some of the lighting glitches resulted in finding some interesting ways to stay off the ground and away from the roaming guards.

          My criticisms of the game lie in the story and characterisations. The story was a bit too mystical for my liking. TDP had some mysticism but it was linked to the Tricksy Lord. The 'source' of the mysticism in Thief is never properly explained. The ending was a bit too abrupt as well.

          What annoyed me the most is that they dumped all of Garrett's backstory and all of the backstory for the city but they still left vague references to it in the game, which must be a bit confusing for newbies. I'm not find of the main female character and annoyed she ended up a typical damsel in distress who has to be rescued and I'm not a fan of Garrett's new VA. But those are all personal preferences so YMMV.

          In a lot of ways it felt like they had been making another game and someone dug up the Thief series, realised it had a loyal fanbase and their new game had some similarities in gameplay and only needed some small adjustments to story and characters and switched over to that IP to take advantage of the existing fanbase then decided to call it a 'revenvisaging' so they could ignore the existing backstory.

          Commenter
          Kit
          Date and time
          March 05, 2014, 11:50AM
          • That's Woodsie Lord. Damn, I've been reading a book with a similar type of character called the Tricksy Lord and I keep mixing them up, sometimes even in the same sentence.

            Commenter
            Kit
            Date and time
            March 05, 2014, 1:30PM
        • Here is your problem pal, i`ll quote you: "Not once during my hours with it did I pick up the controller to play because I really wanted to."

          First of all, if you were a HC thief fan and raised in 90's u`ll never get a console CONTROLLER in your hand, but u`ll stick to a good old PC

          Secondly, if you were a true thief fan, you`ll love this game because is awesome and it brings the old thief spirit to the game, i really really dont know what is so "wrong" with this game, or maybe just how most of the casual players (aka kids) are feeling this days...

          Thirdly, this game is AWESOME, no matter what you write (or anyone elses review) It really feel like a thief game. As i see, most of the reviewers really dont know what they want or what should expect from a game. Yes, thief is totally different experience than any other generic console shooter..but you should have expected this...

          So, this review is totally INVALID. why? Anyone is generalizing thief as same experience on any platform, WELL NO. Thief is totally different experience on any platform, and mainly it was MEANT to be PLAYED ON PC. Try playing the PC version before you put a load of bullcrap in a "review". Thief is a PC game...but hey, you should have known that....dont you!? I bet you`ve never played original thief games

          P.S.
          I`ll quote you: "TH4EF according to the cringe-worthy teaser images".
          - REALLY? You as an journalist aren't even educated well enough, did you at least check on internet if this is valid information??? For your information, it was named THI4F, not TH4EF.
          FAIL

          Commenter
          kickoff
          Location
          space
          Date and time
          March 06, 2014, 3:01PM

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