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REVIEW: Thief - Missed opportunities

Thief was released on February 25, nearly 10 years after the last entry in the series – Deadly Shadows.

As a longtime fan of the series, I was excited to see Square Enix revitalizing the series after so long a time. Unfortunately, the newest entry in the series fails to meet the high standards set by previous entries.

Thief can be breathtaking, even in the most mundane moments.

Before diving into the gameplay, it’s worth mentioning that the eponymously titled Thief is essentially a reboot of the series. Some of the names, places, and even symbols may be the same as the original trilogy, but the newest entry takes place in a different universe, with a different Garrett.

This becomes a problem in Thief because its plot is almost criminally underdeveloped, forcing it to to lean on the established Thief universe, which this entry doesn't fit in.

The game starts as Garrett, an experienced thief, realizes that he has been given the same job as his former apprentice, Erin. After the job goes wrong, Garrett finds himself back in the City with no recollection of how he got there, though it is apparent a great deal of time has passed.

Much of the ensuing plot involves uncovering what happened after the job went wrong, not just to Garret but to the City as well.

Almost immediately, however, the game fails to make the player feel a connection to anything happening in the game world and simply rushes things along into plot twist after predictable plot twist.

The bulk of the game’s plot spins off of Garrett and Erin’s mission together, but this segment is never really that well developed to begin with. In what is essentially a tutorial, the player finds out that Garrett and Erin have different methods of thieving but that about it. Erin mostly scampers on ahead, waiting for Garrett to catch up, until the job inevitably goes wrong.

Thief's plot sometimes feels rushed, especially towards the beginning and end of the game.

After Garrett’s return to the City, the initial focus of the plot is on uncovering what happened to Garrett and why the Watch and the Baron are acting so evil. Again, these are elements that are underdeveloped at the beginning of the game, so we never get a true idea of how bad things are in the City other than that they are “worse now” when Garrett returns.

Unfortunately, the story is not the only place where Thief is a major step back for Thief as a series.

In general, the new Thief boasts what you would expect from a modern action/adventure game: parkour, stealth, an inventory wheel full of different weapon choices… But it never really goes above and beyond what you would expect from a modern day checklist. In fact, for Thief in particular, it’s a step back.

Unlike other Thief games, you can no longer jump freely. Instead, jumping is linked to a context sensitive parkour button. Sometimes the player might find what they thought was a good jumping opportunity, but no. No jumping there. A good example of this is on certain ledges, especially with low rails, Garrett will simply insist on not jumping. Garrett will also refuse to jump off of a rope in certain scenarios if there is not a close enough platform. Other times, Garret might run around in circles beneath a rope within arms grasp, refusing to grab on, until the player finds the proper ledge to jump towards the rope from.

At first it feels like Garrett’s jumping-phobia was added as a way to keep players from falling to a cheap death, but no, that will still happen quite a bit. If the player jumps from too great of a height, or gets too near a ledge, Garrett can still plummet to his death. So limiting Garrett’s jump feels all the stranger.

The selection of weapons in Thief, or rather arrows, also feels a bit more limited for the series. Water arrows, fire arrows, choke arrows, and the like, all make a return. Strangely missing from the set are the moss arrows, however. In past games, the moss arrows have allowed the player to create a patch of "quiet ground" to tread on. Thief seems to make such an emphasis on sound reduction that the lack of a moss arrow seems idiotic. In the new Thief, segments with broken glass strewn on the ground or with nervous dogs and birds (all of which can alert guards) makes the exclusion of the moss arrow all the more painful.

Fortunately, rope arrows make a return in Thief though they have been majorly nerfed. Essentially, rope arrows can now only be used at select points in the City and in missions. There are only a couple dozen locations where the rope arrows can be used and it feels like a major step back from the original “if it sticks, climb it” mechanic of the original game from 1998. (For those that don’t know, in the original Thief, the player could literally set up a jungle gym of ropes to swing on, provided they had the right surface and enough rope arrows.)

At times, there's a real Dishonored vibe going on in Thief, which is weird considering Dishonored borrowed from the original Thief.

Garrett’s blackjack also acts as both his stealth weapon and his melee weapon in Thief. If Garrett gets into a fight, he must push back attackers with the blackjack rather than pulling out a sword, which feels like an odd choice.

The stealth aspect of Garrett’s blackjack also lacks the same nuance as it did in other entries of the series. Now, the player must come in close to enemies and wait for a “takedown” prompt before pressing the button and knocking out opponents. The automated takedown simply doesn’t feel as special as aiming the blackjack at a guard’s head as you silently stalk him.

Thief does add three new tools to Garrett’s arsenal this time around, with mixed results. Early on, the player can buy an assortment of upgrades ranging from health buffs, to bow balancing, etc. One of best investments is a wrench which can open ventilation shafts, giving Garrett more places to sneak around, as well as opening alternate paths. Later on, a razor for removing painting from frames also becomes available. The razor is fun to use, but never has a major impact on gameplay other than stealing a dozen specific paintings. Disappointingly, the player can only steal those EXACT painting, and the razor is never used for anything else like finding a false wall inside a house or slashing wanted posters. On a more practical level, Garrett can also purchase wire cutters to disable a variety of traps and alarms but this also see limited use throughout the game.

Thankfully, one of the biggest Thief elements makes a return – the light gem which alerts the player to how visible Garrett is to enemies. A dark gem means Garret is hidden and the lighter the gem is, the more easily Garrett can be seen. As a supplement to this, Garrett has two new abilities: swoop and focus. Swoop works similarly to blink from Dishonored, allowing Garrett to dash from shadow to shadow. Focus can impact a variety of gameplay elements depending on how the player spends his “focus points,” though the focus ability is entirely optional. By default, focus allows the player to highlight points of interest such as enemies, traps, and treasure. The player can spend focus points to enhance the focus ability making Garrett’s sight better, his blackjack more damaging, allowing him to slow down time, allowing him to see through locks, and so forth.

Thief plays out in three separate areas: the City – with semi-open world exploration and some side quests that are mostly underwhelming, story missions, and client jobs.

While optional, some focus abilities can help out in a pinch!

The City is fun to explore to a degree and Garrett's friend Basso has jobs available to steal specific items from throughout the city. This is one of the more open parts of the game and it is fun to evade guards on patrol and steal trinkets hidden away in various locations. A lot of the City just feels empty though. The majority of the jobs Basso gives you will revolve breaking into unoccupied houses to steal a specific treasure. These missions feel compelling at first with a brief mission description and Basso commenting about the jobs’ difficulty, but the missions mostly fall flat as Garrett enters an empty house through an unlocked window, picks a locked dresser, and find the treasure. The end. Mission over.

Many of the story missions are not much better. At first the player may be excited to see the option of a air vent, an open window, and a heavily guarded path with flickering lights. Which way will Garrett go? Well, it doesn’t really matter. Largely, whatever path Garrett takes, he will end up at more or less the same place. Fortunately, there are a few well hidden “unique” treasures throughout each chapter that do required a bit of thinking and a bit of exploring to uncover. But ultimately, the conclusion of each chapter just ends with a hint of where Garrett should head next to solve the mystery of what happened to him.

As the game progresses, the story missions do open up a bit, but it’s not until the over halfway into the game that the player’s choice in direction seems to matter a bit more. Taking a different path finally might take you somewhere different, even if it’s only a few rooms away.

Hello! I am trying to locate Sweeney Todd's barber shop...

In Thief, the story missions mostly just feel like a missed opportunity and a rush towards the end of the game unfortunately.

At one point, Garrett finally heads to a high security building hinted at for hours only to find no guards and a series of scripted hallways. This is the new Thief. Doors without doorknobs. Hallways without purpose. A story that feels rushed and unfinished.

In that vein, the story “boss” encounters are extremely underwhelming. Essentially, the “boss fights” boil down to a CG sequence where Garrett gets caught by one of the main bad guys he’s tracking down and then he has to evade guards that are on a default alerted status. That’s it. No satisfaction of taking down the bad guy or anything. Just Garrett being an idiot, followed by him running away.

The eventual ending to the story is no more satisfying, with a modified version of the “boss” encounter followed by a terrible CG ending.

Near the end of the game there is one true boss battle that also has its problems. The game suddenly offers you the moral choice of killing the boss or not, for no apparent reason. If you choose to kill the boss, Garrett makes a speech about how he doesn’t kill people unless they REALLY deserve it… Except that Garrett could have put an arrow through the head of a dozen sleeping guards at this point if the player so chose. While I understand that Garrett by canon is non-violent, this is not necessarily the case for the player’s Garrett, leaving the speech and the boss fight in general feeling intrusive and unneeded.

Each story mission and client job gives you a score at the end of the level. You can go back and play each mission whenever you want which adds a lot of replayability. Or you can set up a custom difficulty for a new playthrough that will give you higher points than any of the default difficulties.

One of the saving graces of the games are the client jobs. These missions are a series of non-story related missions that take place on their own maps. Currently there are a handful of client jobs to complete for a sideshow owner and an Engineer. The engineer has Garrett steal a series of parts to create his perfect automaton. While the sideshow owner has Garrett recover some of the attraction that were stolen from him after the Watch impounded his boat. Both clients have missions with level designs, dialogue, and treasure which are all better than any of the story missions. It’s simply unfortunate that the levels themselves are so much smaller than the story levels. The bank job DLC is also well done and a joy to play if you decide you want to check it out.

Overall, Thief is not a terrible game, it’s just a terrible Thief game. If you’re a fan of the series, you’d be better off setting aside expectations that this might meet the grandeur of the previous three games. It does not. If you can treat Thief as its own individual product, you’ll find a decent stealth game with some fun stealing thrown in.

Thief has some good ideas and the client jobs hint at how good the game could have been.  In all honesty, I hope Thief gets a sequel. Even with its missteps the Thief reboot is still salvageable, but the odds are that Square Enix will push this series back into the shadows.

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About GRiVENone of us since 1:09 AM on 03.12.2010

About me:
I'm in my mid-twenties. Which I say, because I don't particularly feel like having to update my age every birthday.

About video games:
I grew up loving video games. I've been playing games since Windows 3.1 and NES. I used to have a love for all gaming systems and all video game companies. I now find myself frequently annoyed with modern publisher policies.

I would describe myself as a PC gamer. Even though there was probably close to a ten year gap where I didn't play games on my PC. I think that anybody that had to use DOS for gaming, has a different kind of appreciation for video games than other gamers might have.

Some of my favorite games include: Earthworm Jim, The Longest Journey, Shenmue, Divinity 2, Beyond Good & Evil, MGS 3, Majora's Mask, Metroid Fusion, Rogue Galaxy, Jet Force Gemini, and 999.

About the bio:
I always feel like an exhausted cosmonaut trying to write an essay proving he wasn't replaced by a space-alien-vampire-clone whenever I write my own bio. It never comes out quite right... But then I remember that I am a space-alien-vampire-clone, and the stiffness of my writing does not trouble me as much.

Anyway, I hope you don't find me too obnoxious, but then I'm getting a little bit too old to give a shit anymore.


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