Despite its inherent ponderous nature, Thief is actually a rollercoaster ride filled with lofty peaks and disappointing valleys. One minute you're gleefully looting a powerful individual's most precious treasures; the next, you're staring in consternation at yet another technical misfire. If you qualify as a stealth aficionado, you might be willing to overlook the slipshod manner in which this adventure is portrayed. The atmosphere definitely works and stealth is indeed rewarded. But unfortunately, when a game feels rushed, it's always noticeable.
The environment really is quite remarkable. Sure, it's a little dark and oppressive - okay, it's a lot dark and oppressive - but that's sort of the point. "The City" has fallen on hard times, as the few seem to have everything while the majority of the populace is dying of hunger and an unnamed illness that ravages the streets. Strictly from a presentation standpoint, Thief excels and in many ways, the overall graphical palette is a triumph. The detail isn't especially amazing and it's a tad claustrophobic for my taste, but above all else, the atmosphere is highly effective.
That effectiveness is partly due to the ambient audio, which continually infuses this adventure with a sense of hopelessness and urgency. Many civilians are in dire straits and every conversation you hear, every random vagrant you see shuffling past, reminds you that in fact, this is a diseased metropolis (literally and figuratively). I actually think they went a little too heavy on those conversations, though, and the balance between the soundtrack and effects is a little off. The sound category is another example of a fantastic idea with plenty of appeal, only to be dulled by a less-than-impressive technical performance.
The protagonist Garrett returns. Franchise fans have been awaiting his revival for many years, and I don't mind that he's mostly faceless. I don't mind in the slightest that this story is more about The City and the evil that infects it, rather than the main character. Master thieves are supposed to be shadows, after all; keeping his deepest desires and motivations secret complements the spirit of the Thief series. The foreboding city takes center-stage, as does the gameplay. This is exactly the way it should be, in my estimation, and I'm not about to cast aspersions on the writers who didn't fully unveil the veiled night stalker.
What I do have a problem with is the way this story unfolds. At first, it seems intriguing because you're going to learn more about the socioeconomic issues affecting The City. The plot starts out with promise, too, as Garrett's pupil, Erin, meets her demise during a bizarre cultish ritual. How does that cult operate? Is it responsible for what's happening to the town and its residents? How are the rich avoiding these problems? These are all legitimate and interesting questions. Too bad they're all lost amid a pile of mystical weirdness in the latter half of the game. Somewhere along the way, the thread of this narrative unravels.
Well, all right. That's no catastrophe. If the gameplay is compelling enough and I can lose myself in that fitting, absorbing atmosphere, I won't mind so much. And in fact, I did indeed have a blast looting everything in sight, taking down unsuspecting enemies, and earning new skills. To the dedicated stealth fan, there's nothing quite so satisfying as stealing precious heirlooms out from the under the noses of twenty heavily armed guards. With multiple missions and a variety of shiny trinkets to snag, there's always something fresh to plunder. This is the essence of Thief and make no mistake: If you can focus on this, you'll probably enjoy yourself.
However, that brings me to the following point: Focus. It's a great ability that is, for all intents and purposes, overpowered. This reveals interactive objects in the environment, but it also slows down time, thereby giving you the automatic edge in confrontations. The good news is that if you're a purist, you can turn off this feature. If you leave it on, you may realize that in fact, the challenge has disappeared and you're just breezing through the game. You may start to rely on Focus too often. Then again, you do get that old-fashioned feeling of invincibility when you use it, which isn't in the spirit of the Thief IP but remains undeniably attractive.
Another nifty ability that may feel a tad like cheating is the Swoop, which basically allows Garrett to avoid dead giveaways like treading upon broken glass. Used tactfully, this can be extraordinarily useful, and adds to the mystique of the protagonist. General movement isn't always precise and pristine, and the wrong movement can alert nearby guards. But again, even if you do garner unwanted attention, losing your pursuers isn't that difficult. Because the AI is so mediocre and the technical elements are outdated, enemies will often get stuck running into a wall, or they won't be able to follow you up or down. Just climbing or descending is often enough, and that's disappointing.
Exploration is a big part of the game, and that's hindered by the closed-in feel of the city. Worse, it's nearly crippled by the incessant loading screens that continue to interrupt the flow of the adventure. Even just opening a window can result in yet another seemingly interminable loading screen. It's amazing how the mind works, though; the load time aren't awful but as you keep running into them, they start to seem a lot longer than they really are. In this day and age, you just can't get away with such things. It's actually somewhat ironic that this Thief reboot has some of the technical misgivings of a time when...well, when the last Thief released.
And yet, despite it all, I kept playing. I really liked some of Garrett's super-cool gadgets and abilities, even if they're hardly realistic. Water arrows work very well to add more shadow to your environment (remember, you're in a time period when fire is used to heat and illuminate) and their counterpart, the fire arrows, are also awfully handy. Yes, it can be argued that the Focus and Swoop abilities turn Garrett into something of a superhero but we had fun doing that in Dishonored, didn't we? Yeah, well, the latter title didn't have the same foundation as the Thief franchise, and it was also much more stable.
Like I said, it's a rollercoaster. "Hey, the AI just noticed I left a door open and now they're investigating. That's pretty cool." "...hey, that guard can't seem to avoid a simple crate." "I just stole all this great stuff without anyone raising an eyebrow!" "...okay, I had several unfair advantages." "This atmosphere is wicked immersive." "...this atmosphere makes me feel like a rat in a maze." The contrasts are just everywhere but luckily, the gameplay is dynamic and engaging enough to counteract many of the downfalls discussed here. It made the game worthwhile to me, but it won't be the same for everyone.
Thief was one of my most anticipated games of 2014. I have to say, I'm disappointed in its lack of cohesiveness in terms of story, its lack of stability and solidarity in terms of technical stuff, and the missed opportunities. At the same time, I never seem to tire of looting the most difficult-to-approach treasure caches, and Garrett is a suitably entertaining character. Also, don't forget that if you think it's too easy, you can alter the experience so it's more of a challenge. That shouldn't be overlooked, even though it's obvious that the designers want you to use slick skills like Focus. Thief needed a bit more time to cook but all in all, it's a decent experience.
The Good: Highly effective atmosphere. Nice ambient sound. Garrett has some great skills. Looting and sneaking never gets old. Lots of cool missions to tackle. Control is mostly solid and responsive.
The Bad: Environment starts to feel cramped. Story has promise but remains jumbled. AI is dated and even stupid at times. Way too many loading screens.
The Ugly: "Wow, really? I'm seeing these sorts of errors in a ‘next-gen' game?"
3/3/2014 Ben Dutka