Review: Thief Is Confused And Disappointing, But Has Merit
Thief was an exciting title to get early in the new generation, as it offered the kind of game we've seen very little of in recent years. There were high hopes for it among Thief and stealth fans. Did it deliver?
- Worth The Time?Yes, but mainly to the desperate, deprived, or those searching for somewhat satisfying stealth. You won't feel like you wasted your time.
- Things LovedThe swoop ability is the best part of the game, the weighty feel of your character adds immersion, being able to customise your difficulty, stealth gameplay can be addictive and fun when it's going good, some ideas are well executed, the side missions are great.
- Things HatedThe story is convoluted and it goes nowhere, Garett has no character, the voice acting and dialogue is cringe-worthy, the stealing system does the game a disservice at times, gameplay is very clunky overall, combat is weak, the game often feels far too restricted, gadgets are one-trick ponies, the city is bland, navigation is a pain with too many loading screens, it doesn't at all feel next-gen graphically or technically, the lack of variety.
- RecommendationYou will get something out of Thief if you want it enough and it will entertain you for a good amount of hours when it's working well. But hardcore Thief fans should not expect to get their classic. Avoid buying at full price.
- Name: Thief
- Genre: Stealth
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer: Eidos Montreal, Nixxes Software BV (PC)
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Price: R440 (PC), R779 (PS4, Xbox One), R699 (PS3, Xbox 360)
- Reviewed On: PS4
Thief has been on many gamers’ minds due to it arriving so early after the launch period of the new consoles and offering a type of game that you’d rarely see on the last generation. The previous generation largely popularised the choice between going in guns blazing or taking a stealth approach, whereas Thief is more traditional in the sense that combat is an option, but a rather bad one unless you’re going to play silent assassin and arrow your enemies in the neck from afar. Limited resources puts a dent in the longevity of that plan, though. Sadly however Thief does unfortunately plummet from an early stage already, and you have to be prepared to go through somewhat of a roller-coaster to get the good parts of it. I think that does enough by means of an introduction, so let’s move on to dissecting Thief and exploring why it’s not quite a classic, and has left its predecessors unsurpassed.
The first major issue with the game is the characterisation of Garrett – which is to say that there is none. He has zero charisma, shows no personality and speaks without a shred of emotion or interest. It wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that his sole purpose seems to be to drop dry one-liners at every opportunity. This made me feel that Eidos was trying to appeal to a typical action crowd, where that sort of thing is usually found. Garrett also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and neither does the story, especially the supernatural elements. I’m no stranger to the fact that previous titles explored a supernatural element, but Thief uses it in a way that you just can’t follow. There is no pacing to this story or meaning, and all I could gather was that things happen. That’s the best description I have. Neither the characters nor the world are particularly memorable or interesting, and you’ll feel as though there’s something you’re just not getting – as though you dropped in on a conversation too late.
I dislike not knowing what’s going on because it makes me feel as though I’m missing something, but truthfully Thief is convoluted and doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s one of the strangest deliveries of a story I’ve seen in a game, and my best description is still that things happen. It dabbles in political themes in the intermission between chapters, it tries to have an emotional element with Garrett’s associate Erin, who falls victim to a cult at the start of the game, and it tries to explore a city getting progressively worse due to a depression referred to as ‘The Gloom’, which was caused by a plague and a tyrannical leader known as The Baron. But none of these are ever explored past being mentioned, and most of them fall by the wayside when the supernatural elements randomly take over and you find yourself facing monsters for a brief period. Don’t ask me what happened to the cult either. I just recall that there was one. I don’t quite know what Thief was about, and really couldn’t describe the story or objective of it all if asked, which can only lead me to conclude that there’s a problem.
This is a video game of course, so one can always forgive story mishaps if the gameplay is wonderful, right? Too bad then that Thief is really a mixed bag, and there’s a laundry list of things to get through to explore why that is. To begin, when you first start the game you’ll have the option of choosing from preset difficulties or creating a custom one, which is an awesome feature. Unfortunately once you set your difficulty you can’t change it again, not even any one feature. So be prepared to start from the beginning if you realise somewhere down the line that you actually wanted an aiming reticule for your bow. Nevertheless, it was a great idea that works well to let you feel in control of the way you’ll approach the game. You’re free to enable a range of modifiers, and you can unlock additional ones by playing the game. It’s a good system that genuinely tries to cater for newcomers or veterans in a decent way rather than trying to do so with the gameplay and fumbling about.
You’ll control Garrett from a first person perspective, except for the strange and extremely rare climbing sequences which randomly switch to third person. On the plus side, there’s a physicality to being in Garrett’s shoes that really adds immersion to the experience, largely thanks to the good camera work and visual touches. When you peak around a corner, Garrett will huddle up against it and place his hands on it, so it feels far more natural than having your perspective awkwardly tilt. Similarly, the most effective use comes from the best feature of the game, which is the swoop ability. This probably lets you feel the closest to a creature of the shadow, as hitting the button executes a long-range dash that comes packed with a cool visual and sound effect. It feels fantastic to use, even though it can easily be abused due to its silent nature and distance covered. Still, it actually gives you the sense of agility you’d expect from a master Thief, and is part of what makes playing enjoyable. It’s also just undeniably awesome to dash forward, grab a valuable and retreat back into the safety of the shadows.
Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of parts to controlling Garrett that are not in any way as fun. Parkour is the first victim here. Thief is rigid when it comes to this. You can only climb exactly what the game allows you to, and by that I mean the game is strict to the point that there’s little room for any freedom. It’s not free-flowing or open, and many times I got frustrated when trying to climb some place that looked a suitable path, but turned out not to be, and I was cornered. On top of that it’s clunky to control. Garrett will often disobey you, or something just won’t quite work out the way you want it to. For example, sometimes Garrett automatically dropped from a ledge when I was holding the sprint button, other times I was forced to press the grab button and in a few instanecs he just didn’t do it. The same thing happened when trying to climb up somewhere, which is frustrating when trying to escape guards. It feels really clunky and slow, running as well, and Garrett doesn’t have nearly the same level of agility he does on the ground with the swoop ability. It’s just far too restricted, with little options.
This carries over to the main missions as well. Surprisingly, most of the them are restricted and claustrophobic, not giving you a lot of incentive to really push at the game and try and play your own style. The paths and options are few, rigidly set out and there’s very little room to maneuver. It’s then a really weird thing that side missions are far more in line with what you’d have expected from Thief, with you being left to your own devices and your own approach. I had an enjoyable time sneaking around the open world hub and partaking in side missions, which were great at times. But even here, Thief becomes tiresome. The reason is because the open world hub is less free-flowing than the parkour, and is split up into many segments – all with loading screens in between. This makes traversing fast become a chore, and takes you back to the olden days of games in a bad way. It also has a worse effect, and that’s making the world feel tiny and reducing your desire to actually explore it.
I haven’t even discussed the core mechanic yet, which is the art of thieving. This side of the game is a double-edged sword, as the theft system does the game a disservice more often than not. To describe the feeling of thieving in one word, it’s kleptomania at its finest. Garrett doesn’t just steal valuables, but seems to have a particular liking for cutlery, pens, ashtrays and just about everything that is valued at under ten gold. What you steal is instantly converted to money unless it’s a collectable, but the novelty of theft as well as the accomplishment dries out extremely quickly when you don’t get the enjoyment of making a big haul. It’s puzzling why a master thief would be taking useless junk, or why the game would encourage the theft of everything instead of setting out with core items and various loot on the side that is difficult to obtain but worth a lot. Even something like an inventory system to make players choose what to take or leave in each mission or heavily guarded valuables would have added a sense of importance. Ultimately the minute-to-minute stealing becomes tedious, and you may give up on it.
It becomes further puzzling when the game is so restrictive, even with your equipment. There is a store where you can buy passive upgrades, resources and tools from and some of these are good ideas. For instance, you can buy a wrench as a once-off deal that enables you to reach previously inaccessible areas for extra options and more loot. A cutting tool lets you steal collectable paintings, and a wirecutter allows you to disable traps. But the opportunities for these don’t have a major impact on the game. Although perhaps the biggest disappointment here are your gadgets. It’s fantastic to have such a diverse variety of arrows, from lethal to utility to distraction. The problem is though that because of the restrictive design, most of them are one-trick ponies. The rope arrow for instance can only be used on one particular surface, so no discovering vantage points for you. The single-function arrows would have been perfectly fine if the game and environments had been more open and diverse to allow for experimentation, but there is zero of that so the result is you being left feeling like your imagination is of no importance to the game. There’s very little to interact with, and as a result few reasons to think.
Then we get to the combat. Look, no one was expecting a hardcore combat system with super combos and brutal executions. But Thief’s combat is like most of its other gameplay, and that is to say that it’s really clunky. Not in the good sense where you’re deliberately weak, but in the awkward sense where it looks bad and feels bad. You have an attack and dodge button, and spazzing out between the two of them makes for very awkward encounters. If you have combat takedowns on and you’re playing on normal, about three hits should stun an enemy for a takedown. What I liked was that facing more than one enemy can easily spell a death sentence for you, but what I disliked was the lack of the fluidity to all areas of the game that makes getting out of hot spots and fleeing a very irritating affair more often than not. Your best bet would be to use the swoop and stealth takedown abilities in unison. You also have access to an aerial takedown if you fancy that. Avoiding combat though is ideal. The severe lack of animations as well, with combat and takedowns, contributes to things getting old.
I can, however, level some praise at your enemies. It brought a smile to my face and added to the immersion when a guard became suspicious after I had left a door opened, or put out a candle. It can be nervy when a caged bird makes a racket and brings guards to your location. Sometimes the AI can act the way you expect them to, and I mean that in the good way. It can actually make you want to test them. Other times, and depending on your difficulty, they can be rather stupid and do things like walk into walls, not notice you go into a hiding spot or stand around like morons when trying to search for you, leaving you to literally just wait for a minute until they leave. It also does take away the tension when guards leave you alone once you climb up somewhere, as they can only pursue you on ground level. And it’s a pity that there are so few enemy types, giving you very little to adapt to or think on. Still, the AI can make for an entertaining experience when their screws are tightened, and it can be enjoyable to misdirect them and test their limitations during some of the better missions.
The mechanics and how clunky they are can often make you feel as though Thief was built to be an action game, but at the last moment remembered it was a core stealth title and the result was just awkward. This is especially evident in the combat scenarios, cinematic set pieces and the ending boss fights, which are some of the worst I’ve seen in recent history. Thief isn’t about the story or the cinematic experience, it’s about what you do in the side missions of this game – which is finding a way to steal a particular item in a clever and stealthy way. That should have been the core approach to the game’s missions. Resource and item management, open-ended levels, the encouragement of exploration, environmental interactivity, letting players use their imagination and variety should have been core attributes here. But Thief’s bland level design, cumbersome navigation, restrictive environments and lack of diversity contribute to it losing its spark and getting tiresome.
I’m sure you’re wondering by now where the positives are, or when this review will end. Kidding on that last one. But in honesty despite all the game’s flaws, of which there are many, I couldn’t help but have fun or find myself really enjoying myself when things were going well. In addition to the great feeling of stealthy movement, there are some good moments in this game and times where it feels like the stealth title you wanted. There is also a lot of content and the customisability of the difficulty settings can easily gift you with incentive for more than one playthrough if you find yourself loving this game. The game can be finished very quickly if you don’t participate in side missions and play on normal, but if you psych yourself up for a stealth game you can get plenty of hours out of it, as well as some rewarding sneaky gameplay. I couldn’t help but enjoy Thief when it showed signs of being true to itself.
Unfortunately I’m back to criticism when it comes to the graphics and technical side of things. Thief doesn’t feel like a next generation experience on either fronts. The game often drops below 30 frames, stuttering heavily during cutscenes and sometimes when gameplay gets busy. There are lip syncing and animation issues too. The worst offender is the loading times. Every time you die, restart from a checkpoint, move to another area or start or end a chapter there is a loading screen. Loading can often go up to twenty seconds even on PS4, and to see this each time you move to another area of the open world is annoying. It makes the PS4 and Xbox One versions not worth the investment. As an extra note, the touch pad integration on PS4 is bad. It’s used for the inventory but its two-row block structure makes it very inaccurate to select items and frustrating when you need to act fast. Graphically, there are glimpses where Thief looks really good when exploiting its strengths in lighting and atmosphere, but its dull colour scheme, uninteresting textures and environmental design and ordinary visual effects result in a game that comfortably fits in with the previous generation. It’s just very underwhelming.
Thief is unfortunately a mixed experience in the end, and is disappointing as a result. That’s not to say that it’s without its fair share of merit though, as you can certainly find plenty to enjoy here when it’s all working smoothly. Sadly the tragedy would be in the fact that Thief is just an unintelligent game that leaves very little to the imagination. There are far too many restrictions and the overall playing experience is clunky and unfocused. The graphical and technical frustrations bring the game down as well, preventing it from feeling like a next generation experience. Truthfully, it’s easy to enjoy Thief, but it’s far easier to find it tedious or frustrating. Hardcore Thief fans shouldn’t expect the classic of old. Stealth fanatics can be satisfied by what’s on offer here, but to be blunt Thief is its own worst enemy.