As another title in a long string of recent franchise reboots, Eidos Montreal’s Thief aims to take us back to the masterful stealth-fueled gameplay the original Thief offered in 1998. While it does manage to offer a moody city to explore, Thief ultimately falls short of expectations and instead ends up lost in its own mediocre shadow.
Thief starts off with Garret, the Master Thief, revisiting his old stomping grounds of The City — yes, that’s the actual name of the city — to steal a valuable stone. He runs in to his former apprentice, Erin, who is about as cocky and annoying as they come. As luck would have it, your former apprentice has accepted the same mission to steal the stone, but you two don’t exactly see eye to eye. You see, where as Garrett follows a strict “thou shalt not kill” creed, Erin aims to get the job done at any cost, even if that cost is another life.
You both race to your goal only to discover that a cult has beat you to the punch, and after activating the stone’s power, Erin falls in to the abyss and Garrett is knocked out solid cold for an entire year. Garrett awakens one year later and notices The City isn’t what it used to be. Poor citizens have become infected with some sort of spreading plague called Gloom, all while the rich citizens live it up, locked inside their lavish towers free from the affliction.
Once the adventure begins, you’ll undertake random thieving missions for the first half of the game as Thief tosses a possibly interesting narrative aside for no apparent reason. By the time things do start to pick up in the second act, it becomes an unremarkable tale full of uninteresting characters (including Garrett himself) and terrible voice acting. Your overall enjoyment with Thief will most likely boil down to just how unimportant plot is to your gaming experience.
Thief offers a pseudo open-world to explore, but it’s more of an illusion. The City is rather small in scale and connects to various areas — like a brothel, a pub or an insane asylum — via loading screens that open up during the campaign, with each of the 8 chapters lasting around an hour. The variety of locations are hit or miss, but some of the more detailed levels (toward the end of the game) are easy on the eyes.
I played the Xbox 360 version of Thief and installed it to my HD, but graphically it was full of muddy textures and poor shadowing effects. I can understand when a game has to render in textures directly from the disc, but even after installing the game to the HD it still struggled to zone in textures altogether.
Character models are rather embarrassing, especially for a game to release this late in a console generation. Hair and clothing look like giant chunks of plastic that fail to render even the simplest details like burlap or leather, and shadows fall in weird places as they tend to shade in like Wooly Willy‘s facial hair. Why do hair and mustaches reflect light like a shiny piece of metal would? I have no idea.
Like the Thief of old, today’s Thief plays out in first-person for the most part. Borrowing from Assassin’s Creed a bit, you’re able to hold down one button to “free run” across gaps and up walls or boxes. However, although Garrett is a master thief, he’s unable to climb any wall that doesn’t have a shiny blue latch on it. In a world full of drab, gloomy colors, small bright blue fence latches show you exactly where to go and exactly which walls to climb. Have to reach the top floor of a building full of barred windows? The Master Thief does not approve of climbing unless it has bright blue latches on it. It’s as if The City placed these random latches around town to promote thievery or something.
Thief puts a major emphasis on stealth, so you’ll obviously have the most success avoiding enemies altogether. To do so, Garrett has a few tricks up his sleeve, like water arrows that can shoot out torches, choke arrows to disable targets, or blunt arrows to shoot and bottles to throw to distract guards. If you want to get up close and personal, Garrett’s blackjack allows stealth takedowns and is his only means of hand-to-hand combat should end up failing and going the commando route. You can also use Garrett’s mechanical eye via his Focus ability to see ledges to climb, loot to snag and traps to disable, but Thief is easy enough without it.
I never really found more than one or two ways to complete an objective, since you generally want to stay out of harms way. The option to use water arrows or distractions are there and are definitely needed on higher difficulty settings, but on my default play-through I only used my gadgets two or three times because the game is easy enough without them. Your path is almost always set out in front of you, you don’t really need to explore if you don’t want to, and avoiding most of the game’s enemies is as simple and looking for anything blue to climb on.
Guards are blind as a bat and you can literally be standing 10 feet in front of them in plain sight. As long as your stealth meter shows you’re in some form of darkness, the odds of you getting caught are rather slim. Between obvious stealthing paths and dumb-as-bricks A.I., Thief takes the stealth gameplay it wants so badly to encase you in and makes it more of a joke. If you want more of a challenge, Thief does offer a customized difficulty where you can tweak many aspects of the game to make it much, much harder, and this is probably what you old school Thief players will want to do from the start.
It’s safe to say that close quarters combat in Thief is terrible, but it’s justifiably terrible because you should be avoiding it at all costs. You get a dodge button and a melee button and that’s it. You can probably manage to take down one, maybe two guys at once if you’re using health packs, but it’s usually best to just run for it, hide in a cabinet, pray you don’t get caught and then head back to re-evaluate your strategy. This is kind of where Thief shines, but the path best traveled is usually quite obvious — the box by a ledge, the shiny blue latch to climb or the gaping hole in the wall — so you’re really never put in many dangerous situations.
Garrett can acquire upgrades from the shady dealer, by donating money to an old blind lady or by simply completing optional objectives during the campaign. You can purchase new tools that allow you to disable traps or access new collectibles, or upgrade your offensive, defensive and Focus abilities to disable enemies with a well placed attack, carry more ammunition, move quieter or take less damage from hazards. Upgrades aren’t all that necessary, but if you want to collect them all you’ll be spending a decent amount of time stealing the same 4 or 5 pieces of loot from desk drawers or completing optional missions back in The City.
Stealing is a huge part of Thief, but I never found it to ever be fun. You’ll generally move along with your objective, pick up the random lock you’ll come across or find a safe combination in the same room as the safe. You may come across a bookshelf or a painting with a secret switch that you have to find by moving your creepy E.T.-like hands and pressing a button when your controller vibrates. Every building is full of desk drawers and tables with shiny objects littered about, all free for the taking.
Once you’re finished with the 9 or 10 hour campaign, Thief allows you to stay in The City to complete optional objectives if you’d like. You also have access to two challenge modes, with one tasking you to steal as much loot as possible in a given time limit and the other tasking you with stealing specific pieces of loot, finding them with a “hot and cold” meter. There are only two maps available right now, but they’ll give you a little more time with Garrett and his E.T. fingers.
There was a lot that I didn’t like about Thief, but I think the main thing broke my immersion was just how unbelievable it was. How Garrett can manage to hold 50 desk bells, 100 ink bottles, 12 pair of scissors and 20 hand mirrors, yet can’t just walk over an overturned bench or climb a building without blue fencing is beyond me. Items also seem to be placed at random, as I looted my fair share of desk bells from potted plants or a magnifying glass off of an electric chair.
Even in the narrative, Garrett claims to have this no-kill clause, but you’re free to jam arrows through enemy skulls or light them on fire at your will as soon as the cutscene is over. It was like that scene from the Tomb Raider reboot where Lara kills her first human, has a mental breakdown and then you’re immediately free to paint the walls with brain matter like it’s old hat. If your narrative focuses on something this much, make me believe it without having to customize my difficulty.
In the end, Thief is a technically flawed train wreck. Many of the game’s cutscenes are poorly lip-synched, leading already piss poor voice acting to deliver at odd times. I even had a few occasions where many lines of dialogue would repeat themselves over and over again, enemies would get stuck on terrain during their patrols or I’d get stick inside of doors or curtains as they were opening. A cutscene late in the game showed a group of citizens running across a bridge but kept getting stuck on each other, and there were various instances where an enemy’s weapon would move from their backs to their hands in fast repetition.
Overall, Thief has been my most disappointing gaming experience of 2014 so far. From it’s forgettable narrative and awful cast of characters, to their terrible voice acting and muddy textures, I found it hard to immerse myself in the world of Thief at all. In a game that is all about stealth, I never really felt like I was in control of my actions unless I wanted to unload arrows and swing a blackjack around. Thief has gone ahead and planned out most of your path for you and offers to hold your hand even more with Garrett’s Focus ability. Of course you can always disable some of these features in the custom difficulty setting if you can manage to look beyond its bulk amount of technical flaws. In the end, I feel the only thing Thief ended up stealing was my time and money. Zing?
*This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Thief. It’s expected that Thief will fare better on PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4, and if we get our hands on a copy and find significant differences, we’ll definitely keep you updated. All images used in this review are credited to Gearnuke.com, specifically this comparison article.
Bradley Keene is an avid gamer & freelance blogger from Baltimore, MD who typically handles news and reviews here at What’s Your Tag?. If he’s not knee-deep in an RPG or some form of Nintendo game, he’s usually watching terrible horror films or listening to Gwar. Follow him on Twitter @amgfail_WYT, or contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.