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Thief Review: Ignore The Naysayers
Eidos Montreal’s new Thief title is a game divided. On the one hand, you have stealth gameplay and exploration legitimately as good as the series’ best. On the other, you have a tear-inducingly bad narrative and some design so clunky you want to clunk your own head off something until you forget about it.
For me, the quality of Thief’s gameplay trumps any of the missteps Eidos Montreal made with the game.
Because Thief’s gameplay is great. For the most part. That’s what surprised me. I heard so much shtick about the game before it came out; and yet there I was, several hours in, exploring a pretty large city hub by myself, having a great time avoiding guards and looting houses, finding a surprising level of verticality in the levels and trying to save up for that much-needed B&E tool. I was in heaven; that nirvana-like nicking-stuff bliss I hadn’t felt since Thief: Deadly Shadows.
When Thief’s gameplay happens by itself, with no stupid bells-and-whistles cutscenes or corridor shoehorning, it is the new experience we’ve all been dying for. However, this great experience is buffered by awful, limited story missions.
After the badly judged, irritating prologue was several of hours of sincere, joyous immoral fun, where the bitter taste of bad design left the tongue immediately. That is, until the next flimsy and frustrating mission set in an abbatoir sort of place with little to no freedom at all.
Let’s linger on these negatives. First off: that prologue is really something. To be specific, it’s something which sets the game off on the worst footing possible. Garrett, a loner master thief who is only out to cover his own back, is accosted in the first five minutes of fun thievery by an accomplice. An accomplice?!
It all begins well enough- an apartment scattered with loot and a sleeping resident, and you notice how insanely good the graphics are- but then a sidekick? An accomplice for the guy who would give his dying mother the slip? Really? It’s the first of countless character and story misteps by Eidos Montreal.
What’s worse this accomplice is a really irritating accomplice; a one-dimensional teenage girl who has some sort of rebellious-apprentice-and-tormented-mentor relationship with Garrett. It doesn’t suit his character to know her at all. They even mention other thieves and a “thieves code” etc., none of which should ever be mentioned in conjunction with Garrett. And we’ve only known the girl for about two minutes before she gets trapped in some magical thing while a building collapses and stuff and a bunch of Keeper-like dudes (who aren’t really Keepers) do some spell.
Before any of this questionable plot kicks off, Garrett and Erin race across the rooftops. Race? Garrett? Race?!
The scripted, linear segments of the game are basically Garrett Goes To Hollywood. Awful music, dialogue and events that don’t make sense with the characters or the tone of the world.
Why is Garrett’s primary fence a New Yorker with a rambunctious attitude? It’s like Danny DeVito turning up in Game Of Thrones. Garrett doesn’t have friends or acquaintances- everyone he knows he uses. A fence is a tool. But Basso is turned into a one-dimensional sympathetic character in Eidos’ Thief. A character who literally speaks in clichés. We’re in what is essentially a plague-stricken London, so why would this guy come barging like a done-dead noir stereotype, reacting to Garrett’s cool with over-the-top friendliness? Breaking all immersion.
The only good thing to come of any of this new, fundamentally broken narrative is that (ooh controversial) I really like Garrett’s new voice actor.
Sure, he’s not old classic Garrett, who I do dearly miss and who is better than the new guy. The original is categorically the best. But the new guy’s still good! He’s less self-assured and more slimy-sounding, which actually fits with, you know, a wiry, smart and physically wimpy thief. Except in cutscenes, where Garrett becomes someone else entirely.
Thief suffers from the same problem as Eidos Montreal’s previous effort, the excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I loved that game, but one couldn’t deny that the cutscenes and the gameplay were clearly made by different people with different ideas. Cutscenes were unrepentingly bombastic and badly written, whereas gameplay was more subtle, real and engaging. The same thing has happened to Thief, only a million times worse.
Garret’s actually written well in Thief‘s gameplay, dropping familiar self-assured, badass lines just like in the earlier games- but the instant we enter cutscene he talks in “what do you want from me” half-shouting cliché just like everybody else. Garret would historically never shout. In Thief he does, all the time.
Yet, for every time we are abused by these tonally abysmal aspects, the player will be suddenly slipped into surprisingly brilliant, slowly paced thievery and stealth.
For most of my playtime so far of Thief, my experience has not been Garrett Goes To Hollywood. It’s literally been Thief: Deadly Shadows, but streamlined. Just like the golden old days, this Thief’s purest gameplay has sneaking, hiding in shadows, distracting, picking pockets, rope arrows, noise arrows, water arrows, flashbombs, climbing to rafters and rooftops, finding intricate hidden paths through levels to circumvent baddies,picking locks, enjoying atmospheric dialogue, some scary bits… the actual gameplay, when we experience it in its pure, distilled, un-story-adulterated form is absolutely cracking. It’s just like the old days.
Almost all of the old game mechanics have been improved massively- except perhaps the new addition of Focus. You press a button, and get to see useable stuff as glowing and get some special moves.
I played literally the entire game with Focus mode and the entire HUD switched off. I’ve never even seen what it looks like. My experience was fine, except a couple of minor setbacks when it wasn’t clear where interactable objects were to progress.
Eidos even added in a bunch of utterly brilliant additions that are welcome steps up from the original games.
Traps which we have to defuse before we can loot stuff? Check.
Safes with secret buttons which we have to check around paintings for? Check.
The ability to swoop- a swift, super useful glide from place to place? Check.
An insanely detailed and realistic first person perspective where we see hand’s Garrett’s as if they were our own, on an unprecedented scale? Check.
Insanely gorgeous graphics? Check.
Eidos clearly took fan uproar into account when designing the game’s mechancs, and for the most part this is clear. The gameplay is still classic. The only niggles still stuck in the game’s side are the occasional baffling control decision and level design problems.
Eidos Monstreal decided to make peeking- an action intrinsic to the series’ stealth experience- a context-sensitive action. So you can only peek when you’re right up against a wall. And it’s limiting, locking you to the surface like some sort of third-person cover mechanic. Those moments when you get caught out in the open and need to peek to get a better view of a distant alleyway- but you can’t, leave you feeling frustrated and breaking the immersion.
Yet the main disappointing thing about the Thief‘s gameplay is the campaign levels, whose flawed design frequently disappoints. The latter missions are very good, occasionally bordering on early Thief‘s, but the game’s early levels are awfully linear. Not just linear, but full of lame choke points and questionable “interact to proceed” moments, which usually break the player’s fun experience. This isn’t an issue in later levels and at all in the game’s open world, but I’ll talk about later.
The most disappointing aspect is the linearity. Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm managed to design perfectly open, believable, holistically-designed locations for all of their levels. There were always a few ways in, a few ways out (the same ways if need be), and a lot of secret places and paths. Every level felt like a real place, a location which was surrounded by history and context and lived-in design.
This new Thief does surprisingly well with secret places and paths, but areas are hermetically sealed in on most sides. There’s no holistic approach to buildings or areas; you can’t skirt whole parts of the map. Levels are a few rooms in an arbitrary chained sequence, not complex, large, deep environments with their own ecosystem.
Some levels do successfully break this trend with surprising shortcuts or secret routes- but this highlights the most frustrating thing about Thief‘s level design: it’s totally inconsistent. Some levels are as linear as Gears of War. Some near Ion Storm’s perfection from Deadly Shadows.
The one really consistent, brilliantly designed aspect of the game is the City itself, operating as the open world hub. It’s fantastic, and far better than Deadly Shadows’. It’s bigger, loading screens are generally fewer, and it’s far more detailed. If you played Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s two hub maps, you’re on familiar ground, but imagine that doubled with several times more side quests and indoor loctions involved.
There’s a sense of verticality about a lot of Thief‘s City, specifically the sprawling Southern Quarter. A compelling vertical aspect is a very unique feature among open worlds in games. Standing atop a wooden bannister in front of a pub, a guard carrying a lantern approaching from behind, and looking down a plunging depth into sewer slums- which you can totally delve into and explore- is liberating.
Running away in the City is also better than ever before- definitely beating Assassin’s Creed for the quality of the chases on show. You really have to think on your feet and run with your toes.
Mixed in to the well designed City are tons of little puzzles and secret crannies nearly, almost on par with Batman: Arkham’s ingenious puzzles and secrets. Once you get to the end of the game, an extra fifteen or twenty side-missions open up, providing countless hours of fun to be had.
I had many experiences of high-immersion puzzle solving, lock-picking, lateral thinking and damage controlling. Eidos Montreal have done and incredibly good job of turning a lot of the side missions into puzzles. The player has to find the right place to shoot a rope arrow, to find that one ladder which will give best access, to notice that guard’s one blind spot, or to spot the floor traps before they fatally set foot upon them. It’s immersive and fantastic.
The fact is, the game’s story is a thing of horror. Horror not of Shalebridge Cradle’s brand, but horror of B-movie sub-par-everything proportions. To the extent that it actually insults the original games. Out of the eight or nine chapters, only the latter three or four are any good at all as levels. The rest are just bad, with awkward, mostly linear areas and frustrating choke points and flat-out rubbish scripted sections.
But when you finish this awful campaign that mostly plagues the game, you’re kicked back out into the city to finish of some of the 30+ side quests in the game. This is Thief‘s real core. This is where it really begins. Garrett’s city. It also helps that players can tailor the experience to what they want; I played with no HUD and no Focus and it was largely fine, with hardcore Custom difficulty options turned on…it was really something.
If we look at the City and stealth alone… Thief is just as good as Deadly Shadows or the earlier games in the series. There are flashes where we see Eidos Montreal’s ambition: they were remarkably close to making a true next-gen, game-changing cinematic first-person experience. Your perspective on world interaction as Garrett is unprecedented in the genre. His hands are fantastic, the thieving immersive, the atmosphere suffocatingly rich. Under this sheen is stealth as good as it’s always been.
In pure gameplay terms, Eidos Montreal nearly nailed the perfect crime with Thief. But new-Garrett’s awful, badly-footed story messes with the players experience, ruins the games consistency, and almost entirely botches Eidos Montreal’s attempt to steal this classic series’ crown.