While I resented those with PCs capable of running the most graphically intense titles as a young, fallible saphead, I never quite grasped the hype surrounding the original Thief back in 1998. Having just finished the pioneering stealth masterpiece merely a year ago, it’s obviously antiquated mechanically and visually. What is timeless however is the foreboding atmosphere, paralyzing anxiety and overwhelming vulnerability as you look to line your pockets with the possessions of the opulent.
But the goalposts have moved significantly from simply recreating what has come before. Like Tomb Raider of yesteryear, this re-imagining of Thief needs to open up to an entirely different audience, yet retain its integrity and ‘roots’ so that ardent fans can ride the nostalgia wave with glee. It’s an unenviable position for Eidos Montreal to find itself in, but Tomb Raider’s success has shown that a new generation of gamers can embrace a classic icon whilst the cross-armed ‘old-skool’ approvingly nods their collective noggins.
The Thief reboot begins during a heist, with the player reprising the role of master thief Garrett. Accompanied by the capable but arrogant Erin, the proverbial shit hits the fan with Erin plunging towards a mystical light below. A subsequent explosion leaves Garrett in a coma for a year, with the fate of Erin up in the air. Finding out what has transpired in that lost year becomes the objective throughout the substantial 15 hour campaign, though your mileage may vary depending on your proclivity for perfectionism and completing all side missions.
If the plot sounds uninteresting and vague, that’s because it’s exactly that, though it could have been so much more. My biggest fear, despite a decent introduction, was that the game would lose sight of a potentially rich story grounded in a plausible setting. And alas, the influence of the supernatural grows as you progress, to the point where all the interesting narrative possibilities of the first few hours are lost among a steaming pile of mystical gibberish. It’s quite frankly a terrible plot that offers absolutely no sense of closure come the end. I won’t spoil the ‘ending’ of course, but I envisage many players sitting there, scratching their heads thinking ‘so, that’s it?!’ A sequel will undoubtedly follow, but it is inexcusable to leave the player with an incalculable number of questions, none of which have even been attempted to be answered.
It could have been very different however, even if the ham-fisted delivery was as unfortunate as it is here. Dayport – the city hub from which Garrett heads out into story missions – is a dark fantasy setting inspired by Gothic, Victorian and steam-punk aesthetics. Ravaged by a plague known as ‘the gloom’, the streets are at civil war with an affluent, despotic Baron for the typical reasons of depravity, poverty and injustice. Hardly a unique premise admittedly, the narrative still would have been better served exploring this tension and unrest with conviction, but instead leaves it to mere paper dressing to evoke an atmosphere of sorrow and melancholy. A trick was certainly missed in not exploring the motivations of individuals during this conflict extensively, but even when key characters cross your path amidst the strife and your own preposterous pursuits, their intentions make very little sense. It feels as though two polar concepts and plots have been meshed together in a revolting human/transcendent hodgepodge. In this case however, anything but the cream rose to the top.
Away from the clumsy writing however, much fun is to be had with Thief, initially at least. When let loose to utilize your thieving arsenal, there is a real enjoyment and giddiness as you evade guards and surreptitiously pillage your way to new tools and skills. The game can stride along gracefully when the playground is open for you to experiment with. Of particular note are different arrow types which range from dowsing fires, thus reducing visibility, to activating switches from long distances, providing great gadgets to distract your enemies. It’s not just about Operation Arrowhead however (see what I did there?), as future upgrades in the form of a wrench and wire-cutters, for example, provide further opportunity to utilize the different paths to be discovered, whether it be to access vents or disabling traps respectively.
Two further mechanics make their way into the Thief reboot. The swoop mechanic is a brilliant addition, allowing you to dash short distances between obstacles and shadows. It quickly becomes an imperative ability that will prolong your survival and improve your prospective thieving riches. On the other hand, the focus mode is counter-productive, essentially highlighting all of the key points of interaction in the world. While a welcome assistance for more casual gamers or those who simply want to burn through the campaign as quick as possible, the mechanic is antithetical to what the Thief experience should be.
Thief is all about leaving no stone unturned and looking in every nook and cranny; analysing your environment to find a means to progress or acquire a precious ornament. Much like Batman’s detective mode, focus mode can often be relied upon too heavily, removing much of the challenge in discovering how to get from point A to B. Thankfully many of the assists and modern tropes, whether it be focus mode, waypoints or object interaction indicators, can be switched off to provide a more authentic Thief experience, something I’d strongly advise players to experimenting with.
Much criticism has been placed towards the shoddy combat mechanics, which don’t extend beyond a nauseating dance of evading an enemy’s attack, often followed by a swift counter. They aren’t great or pronounced, admittedly, but given the nature of Garrett and his trade its ‘wrong’ to pull the game up for its rudimentary encounters. As a master thief you’re expected to avoid confrontation at all cost; the poor combat helps promote this ideal. The best comparison that springs to mind is Metro 2033; a lacklustre shooter in terms of the responsiveness and accuracy of its controls, but an incredibly rewarding and satisfying accomplishment in its believability and authenticity, ultimately providing an experience far greater than the sum of its parts. Garrett is no assassin, nor should he act like one.
Where criticism can be laid however; thus limiting Thief’s enjoyment, is the structure and design of the setting you explore. Dayport is limited to what you can use when, but it’s never apparent as to why such restrictions exist. Only a handful of the potentially hundreds of buildings can be accessed for example, incredibly frustrating as it takes away much of the freedom for where how you wish to explore. The map itself is far from open world in scope as well, broken up into several small sections, all of which can easily be crossed in a minute or two with relative ease. Frequent loading screens and fragmented city structure rob Dayport of continuity, shattering much of the illusion of ‘one thief, and an entire city to loot’.
Some of the context sensitive commands can be inconsistent as well. For the most part, Thief implements a successful free-flowing parkour element to traversal, but commands such as dropping from ledges often become confused. Sometimes the prompt displays, sometimes it doesn’t. Conversely, it’s difficult to decipher what obstacles you can and can’t climb. The developer sometimes employs visual prompts such as white scrapes on containers or walls which denote a scalable article, but there are other numerous identical walls or objects which can’t be mounted even though they should be. Such self-imposed, arbitrary boundaries severely hamper the luxury of navigating the city how you see fit.
Additionally, extremely ponderous A.I. (to put politely) can quickly break the immersion, ruining the satisfaction of overcoming apparent impossible situations. Frequent incidents of clipping, bugs and hilarious sound loops are destructive in what could have otherwise been a highly immersive experience. Thief can be fun, no doubt about that, but the joy is often sapped away as a result of disappointing implementation and restrictive design choices. More often than not you feel like anything but vulnerable or anxious because of such blunders.
In many ways Thief feels next-gen in its rushed, slapdash distribution – ostensibly customary for an early release on a new generation of consoles it would seem. Other times it feels distinctly last gen in its ambition. Why can’t I engage with civilians, ‘stealing’ my way to vital information that will quicken my passage or reduce potential risk? Why can’t I offer precious items to NPCs to buy protection or distraction from the authorities a la Assassin’s Creed? These are just a couple of ways in which Thief could broaden its horizons, exponentially improving what is otherwise a decidedly empty and passé world.
The complex and liminal nature of Thief’s ambition extends to what lies under the hood. While modern GPU intensive technologies such as tessellation and contact hardening shadows are utilised, the venerable Unreal Engine 3 powering Thief means that the game scales well across a variety of configurations. With an R9 280x frame rates of 45-60fps are achievable at the highest possible settings at 1080p. The biggest resource hog in this case is SSAA (Supersampling Antialiasing), reducing performance significantly. Stick with FXAA (Fast Approximation Anti-Aliasing) however and a mid-range GPU such as the R9 270 or GTX 660 should achieve performance in excess of 40fps at 1080p.
Given the technology powering Thief, it goes without saying that the graphics pale in comparison to cutting-edge juggernauts such as Battlefield 4 and Crysis 3. The typical issues associated with Unreal Engine 3 manifest regularly, in particular stiff animations and texture streaming. On the other hand, Thief can look handsome under the right conditions. The lighting is definitely a high point of the presentation, while the use of tessellation gives the cobbled streets and tiled rooftops provide a sense of tangibility. Thief is far from next-gen graphically, but it’s still a good-looking game nonetheless. What’s most encouraging is that affordable hardware provides an experience that surpasses both ‘next-gen’ consoles visually and performance wise. High end PC gaming has never been more attainable.
Much like butter struggles to disguise the taste of burnt toast, the thinly spread richness of Thief’s strengths quickly becomes buried deep under persistent, bitter flaws come the conclusion. While the game starts out strong enough, the continued focus on melodrama and an illogical, convoluted story entangled in supernatural absurdity bring the game to a close with nary a whimper, losing all sight of the original vision. Add to the mix inconsistencies in execution and castrating design, it becomes palpable that Thief was victim of a troublesome development process spanning some six years. For now, at least, Garrett’s days of master thievery remain in the shadows of time.