Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the Thief franchise is a tense, tactical sneak-a-thon for the most part – but it tries too hard to please everyone.
I’ll state from the outset that I’ve not played a Thief game before. That might dissuade some of you from reading this review – especially if you’re interested in how it measures up to what’s come before. The rest might decide that I’m perfectly well-suited to review it.
I am, after all, the primary audience for this series relaunch, with many of the included elements designed to impress me more than they are Thief players of old. The fact that not all of those elements succeed in winning over newcomers probably explains much of the frustration that greeted this game on release. It goes out of its way to please everyone, but ends up no-one’s favourite.
Thief is a grab-bag of ideas stolen from other games; games which were, in turn, influenced by earlier entries in the Thief series. That much I know.
So while I might not have played a Thief title before, I have played Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Together, these games make up a modern troika of stealth gaming. Unfortunately, Thief is the weakest of the bunch. Its foundations were strong, but developers Eidos Montreal have undermined them by trying to pile too much on top.
Strip out all the superfluous stuff (which we’ll come to) and the barebones game is a tense, tactical sneak-a-thon. Garrett, the protagonist and master thief, creeps around, through and over The City using a variety of tools – from wire-cutters and lock-picks to flame and water arrows – to avoid traps and guards, and reach previously inaccessible areas with the aim of hauling as much loot as possible.
If you visited Dishonored’s Dunwall, you’ll recognise Thief’s City in its aesthetics. But where Dishonored moved you from place to place through river-boat rides, Thief presents a sprawling hub for the player to explore – and it’s here the game excels.
Between eight main story missions (each about an hour long) Garrett is introduced to several characters, who send him on a series of side quests. For Basso, Garrett’s fence, you’re tasked with looting certain houses of their valuables – but each job typically requires some gentle environmental puzzle solving before you’re able to achieve your goal. Usually you’ll spot a glowing window several stories up, but there’s no obvious way to reach it. Look around though, and you’ll see the an overhanging beam – perfect for a rope arrow – or a raised fire ladder that can be knocked down with a strike from a blunt arrow.
None are taxing to solve, but as well as opening up access to loot, they serve to create new routes through The City, so that by the time the end-game rolls around, you’ll spend hardly anytime at street level – instead, swooping across rooftops and swinging across ropes to reach the next mission icon.
The grander side quests usually present larger, well-guarded buildings to break into using the same mix of tactics you’ll be called on to employ in the main missions. You might favour front door entry, but that risks attracting attention from guards. Instead you can hunt around for alternative paths: vents maybe, secret passages or open windows.
Once inside, it might be a straightforward case of rummaging through drawers, chests and cupboards to find the desired items. Other jobs require more lateral thinking. One memorable side quest late in the game, sees you break into the house of a senile, wealthy old man who has a hidden safe stuffed with treasure. Opening the safe requires a code – the year of the man’s birth – but to figure out what that is requires you to uncover personal documents and make a guess based on incomplete information.
In these moments, Thief feels like a Thief game – in the sense that you’re doing what thieves typically do: breaking and entering, safe-cracking, exploring and stealing. There’s enough of these quests to make a game in and of itself: of my 20-hour playtime, a good half was probably spent on side missions.
Regrettably, though, side missions only open up when you complete story chapters – and the story Thief tells is badly misjudged; involving some mystical gubbins, a power struggle and a reluctant thief who’s tasked with saving the world.
Magic shows up early in the game when Garrett is blessed with Focus Vision. Like Batman: Arkham’s Detective Mode, it presents the player with a view of the world that highlights all the interesting stuff in it: trinkets, treasures, secret passages and traps. It has other uses too: when active, Garrett is harder to spot. It’s an invaluable tool – something the developers recognise by granting you limited use of it, even when your Focus gauge runs empty. But it’s invaluable in the sense that, playing without it, the game would become something of a frustrating chore. I found traps, in particular, to be almost impossible to spot without the aid of focus. But with it turned on, disarming traps became a simple task of ‘follow the blue wire back to the control box’.
As the game goes on, it becomes harder to shake the notion that Focus is simply a pain-killer masquerading as a play mechanic. It’s there to ease you through the game so as to remove the onus on the developers to fix other aspects of the game’s design. Eidos Montreal tries to paper over the cracks by giving Focus its own upgrade path – but the ability boosts are underwhelming and unnecessary. One upgrade grants you an alternative lock-picking minigame, replete with its own set of controls. If that’s not the definition of superfluous, I don’t know what is.
The same could be said of the vast majority of Garrett’s armoury. I used precisely three sorts of arrows during my playthrough, but there are six in total to choose from, plus flash bangs. It’s as if the developers wanted to make the player feel like they had tactical options – ignoring the fact that a thief’s best course of action is to be silent and stealthy.
On the evidence of the story missions though, Garrett is anything but a master thief. There are some tense and exciting infiltrations – the brothel house early on being a particular highlight – but each missions seems to end the same way. Garrett gets discovered, someone starts a fire, and then there’s a chase scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Call of Duty game. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a bit of visual bombast – but Thief’s engine really struggles in these moments. On PS3, the stable but generally low frame-rate makes traversal at speed a fairly disorienting experience.
But that sums up the game quite nicely: it’s not quite sure of where it is, or where it’s meant to be heading. There’s fun to be had with Thief, though, and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone interested in stealth/exploration gaming from picking it up at the current asking price (c.£20). But if Eidos Montreal gets another crack at the franchise, I’d like to see a bit more focus next time – and not the kind you turn on with the click of a button.
Brian Tarran is a journalist by day, and videogamer by night. Tweet him @Fatso_Jetson