After rebooting the much-beloved Deus Ex series in 2011, Eidos Montreal earned a decent amount of fan-cred for their successful translation of an old, much beloved series. So when the Square Enix-owned publisher announced they were releasing a new chapter in the Thief series, a franchise with the same kind of hardcore fans, it seemed like a good fit. Unfortunately, in every way that Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a success, Thief is a disappointment. It is hard to tell if Thief fails to remain faithful to its previous entries or if its gameplay fails to translate into a post-Dishonored era, but the game feels like it lacks vision, mechanics, and creativity. Filled with frustrating encounters, funneled design, and poorly explained rules, those waiting for something exciting to download onto their next-gen consoles should keep waiting.
Thief had an opportunity to signal the true arrival of the next-generation. Decently separated from the launch of both the PS4 and Xbox One, Thief kicks off a handful of releases that will finally add to both consoles launch line-up. Thief squanders this opportunity, failing to separate itself from the generation before it. There are a few cutscenes that look impressive, but the early pre-rendered work is rough, the textures are flat and the environments dull. While these sequences often feature Garrett running for his life, attempting a daring escape, all the action was drowned out by the voice in my head asking, “Is this it?”
Once you get passed the cutscenes, the game itself is a mixed bag of technical ability. Most of the game fails to impress, but there are spots where real care was applied, such as Garrett’s hands which interact with the world around him interesting ways. Garrett is constantly touching things, his hands tense when he hiding or about to strike, it adds a nice flavor to Garrett’s character. This attention to detail creates immersion and empathy, when Garrett’s hands are injured, by weapon or circumstance, you cringe, feeling his pain. You are Garrett, you are the Thief. However, Eidos Montreal bails on this idea with strange third person platforming section, breaking their well crafted immersion. These janky third-person sections feel like a forced nod to Uncharted.
This feeling of stolen ideas is present throughout Thief. It almost plays like a hodge-podge mixture of every popular game in the last three years. The plot features a lower-class revolution, whose intentions are no better than their upper-class subjugators. Not unlike BioShock Infinite. There is a free-run trigger than you use to interact with your surroundings. Not unlike Assassin’s Creed. There is a tense horror-esque section, where you wander through an abandoned asylum, filled with dark secrets. Not unlike Outlast. You sneak around lavish mansions taking out guards in a steam-punky world. Not unlike Dishonored. I don’t believe that Eidos Montreal actually stole these ideas, many of them were part of the Thief series before being used in other games, but these constant comparisons remind me of games that I would rather be playing. It is not that Thief uses so many similar ideas, it is that so many games execute them better than Thief.
The rules of stealth games are key to how good the games is. The more information communicated to the player, the more obvious the rules of the stealth, the better the game will be. Thief is horrifically coy about its rules. Hiding in the dark makes you impossible to spot half of the time, but sometimes guards will spot you no matter what. At times I could sneak past enemies, almost brushing against them and be undetected, other times they seemed to detect me using their “Spide-y Sense”. A circle in the left-hand corner indicates whether you are in the shadows or in the light, but the way sources of light would affect this meter seemed almost random. The lack of structure cheapens the stealth elements which the game so heavily relies on. A lack of rules makes success seem random and unrewarding.
The mechanics themselves are hit-and-miss. The free-running and platforming is some of the better design in the game. A couple early levels abandon the idea of stealth and focus more on exploring the environment. Thief is much more in its comfort-zone with this exploration gameplay. Pulling myself through ruins and discovering secret passages feels fun and creates a satisfying sense of discovery. Running from guards or escaping crumbling structures is a blast. It is fun to leap across rooftops and outrun the fuzz. Half the time, I would forsake the frustrating, time-consuming motions of hiding, tailing, and sneaking in favor of just running to the next objective. It saved time and was far more engaging, almost like a medieval-era Mirror’s Edge. Most of the time, sprinting through levels is not an option, and you are forced to methodically eliminate guards and look for your only way out.
The “only way out” is the biggest problem with Thief. The game feels like it should be bigger. Occasionally a level will offer you two divergent roots to reach an area, but the paths diverge for only a matter of seconds, constantly funneling you back to a linear path. More often than not, Garrett is flinging open the front door, announcing his entrance. There are constant hints that, at one time, more routes were supposed to exist. I constantly found secret passageways leading to dead-ends. Variety is painfully lacking in the game’s level design. I would hope discovered secret passages would lead me to a way around a guard, or allow me a nice vantage point, but they often inexplicably led to food and money.
The problems with Thief continue. The audio is poorly mixed, so at times you will miss key parts of the dialogue, leaving you wondering where to go and what to do next. The story is a ham-fisted tale about redemption, ending on an ambiguous note indicating a sequel but leaving me feeling uninspired. The main antagonist has no development, consistently appears out of nowhere and is party to one of the most frustrating boss fights I have played in recent memory. It is all so bad that there is little left enjoy.
The sad part is, there are little moments when Thief seems to put it all together. The asylum chapter makes good use of atmosphere and weaves true tension into the game. A couple of destruction scenes are fun to run through. Here and there, you can see flashes of a game that might have been fun, if Eidos had fleshed out their design. Unfortunately, that game is little more than dream.
Despite it’s brushes with success, Thief is overall a disappointment considering the great work Eidos Montreal has done in the past. The mechanics are uneven, the level design is stifling, and the stealth is poorly communicated to the player. While one can criticize the game’s various technical flaws, the problems seem to run much deeper, making Thief a difficult game to enjoy.
Thief has its moments, but they are only moments. Most of the game is frustrating, lacking creativity or excitement. There are technical flaws, yes. But Thief's biggest issues are with its level design and unpolished mechanics.