Creeping In The Shadows: Thoughts on “Thief”

(Note from the author: The copy of Thief that I played for this review was developed for Xbox 360–it’s only fair to take that into consideration while reading.)

The stealth genre just wouldn’t be the same without Thief. Begun in 1998 with Thief: The Dark Project, this was the first of a series that would emphasize guile over strength.  This is an important distinction, considering the fact that the video game age of the 90’s is best known for its gore-soaked first person shooters. What the Thief series offered was something you didn’t see in games very often: the intellectually-stirring chance to execute a well-thought out plan.

It didn’t work out.

"This game isn't rewarding my lack of impulse control with a screen full of dead bodies--I HATE IT!"

“This game isn’t rewarding my lack of impulse control with a screen full of dead bodies–I HATE IT!”

I’m exaggerating, but it’s true that while it influenced a whole slew of stealth games to come (Hitman and Splinter Cell, to name a couple), Thief only enjoyed what could be referred to as a cult following. After a pair of sequels, the Thief franchise hung up its spurs in 2004, and it would be a decade before it once again saw the low-burning candlelight of day. Last week, to the thrill of stealth-purists all over the world, Eidos Montreal and Square Enix released the fourth in the series: the simply-titled Thief.

It didn’t work out.

"Damn you, Conquistadork! Quit toying with my emotions!!!"

“Damn you, Conquistadork! Quit toying with my emotions!!!”

Thief has you playing Garrett, a master criminal, as he attempts to recollect the lost year of his life that seemed to wink out of existence after the death of his protégé Erin. It takes place in a Nesquik-soaked piece of urbania simply called The City. To put it lightly, The City has drama: cults, a plague, corrupt police, and the stirrings of a revolution are some of the undercurrents that run through Thief‘s setting. Add in the many alleys and gutters of The City, and one ought to have a deep, devious story to play your way through. The truth, unfortunately, is that Eidos Montreal has found a way to make stalking through the shadows irretrievably dull.

Thief is not a particularly pretty game. Actually, scratch that. The environment around you–The City itself–is actually tremendously gorgeous. A clocktower (your home base) reaches up to the fog-filled skies, shedding a small amount of light on the graffiti-covered streets below. But it has little to no variety. If you’ve been down one alleyway in The City, you’ve been down them all, as your setting resembles the same sepia-toned Charles Dickins-esque orphanage you’ve seen in Fable and all sorts of steampunk adventures in the past. Occasionally, this does indeed work to the game’s advantage–when a jewel gleams so brightly against a dull backdrop, the thief’s motivation is that much more apparent. Largely, however, it gets dreary and redundant pretty quickly. The characters and their animations aren’t particularly polished, and that becomes even more glaringly obvious when the game chooses a moment to show off a particularly gorgeous piece of scenery.

You wonder why The City is so brown? Well, for starters: that's not rain.

You wonder why The City is so brown? Well, for starters: that’s not rain.

For what is supposed to be a labyrinthine place of twists and turns, The City is actually pretty linear. The whole game is. There are the occasional tributaries and lanes that lead away from the main path, but finding your way back to the task at hand is never difficult. Despite what was promised, this isn’t a city that you can really venture out and get lost in, the way other open-world games boast. It’s a fact like this that stresses the irony that some of the most engaging moments of Thief happen to be in fully enclosed areas. Spelunking through the largely abandoned ruins of some ancient civilization comes to mind. I adored working with the various puzzles and levels that came my way–even to the point that I found myself disappointed that I had to return to the usual breaking-and-entering of before.

I also really enjoyed the collectibles in Thief. This is the sort of game that was made for collectibles–all the shiny baubles and ill-gotten gains that you can fill your HQ with are quite a bit of fun to retrieve. One category of them in particular, city memorial plaques, was a truly unique experience, as I can honestly say I’ve never had to sneak past heavily armed men to unscrew a sign from a wall before. You too can steal your very own “Washington Slept Here” signpost, as long as your shoes don’t squeak.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with Thief. The sound design. The sound design is… well… nonexistent at some points. And overwhelmingly awful at others. Being that this is a stealth game, one must use all of their senses to detect when there might be someone behind you or around a corner. This leads to moments of quiet tension that when properly executed feel absolutely divine. Those moments are hard to come by in Thief. Footfalls are completely muted, meaning that you can sneak silently into a room, pick the lock on a strongbox, and turn around to be surprised by the house’s resident who just happens to possess the stealth and chicanery of a spymaster. And when you finally do achieve that tense moment of anticipated mayhem, the dull thump-thump-thump of the game’s repetitive soundtrack bores through your speakers like one of Dr. Wiley’s drill robots.

Hardcore butt-grabbing action, graphically portrayed!

Hardcore butt-grabbing action, graphically portrayed!

This issue with sound isn’t limited to the times of quiet. Scenes that are supposed to be loud feel impotent. There’s no rumble to heavier moments–absolutely no impact. One scene has an enemy throwing a massive table at Garrett, which lands with all the force and sound of a handful of tree branches. There are no heavy crashes–no thudding booms. It makes you wonder how much the designers took the description “stealth game” to heart.

Thief is a AAA game. But it is not AAA. Thief is a mediocre, unpolished indie game or side project that is being touted as a big-budget blockbuster. It simply does not live up to the hype that its publisher and developers built up. It’s not a horrible game–it has its moments, and at times it’s genuinely fun. But the lack of variety and some glaringly bad design choices keep it from having a true AAA game feel. Perhaps if Eidos Montreal and Square Enix had taken the time it took to develop $5 release day DLC and instead used it to improve the core gameplay issues of Thief, we would have a genuinely entertaining experience. As it stands, however, we’re left with a by-the-numbers entry in a franchise that genuinely deserved better.

Thief was developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix. It was released on February 25th, 2014 for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, and PS4.

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