Xbox One Review – Thief (2014)
It has been a very long time since I last played a game that I had to agonizingly force myself to finish but lo and behold here we are with Square Enix/Eido’s reboot of Thief and I can safely say that unfortunately, this is one of those titles that really will tax your patience. That is not to say that Thief is an outright awful experience but it certainly feels rough around the edges with bugs galore and a rather pedestrian plot that rarely, if ever, connects emotionally.
I’ll open this review with a short disclaimer stating that I have never before played a Thief game although I have always wanted to give the series a shot. However, for whatever reason, I have never been able to experience any of them until now with this reboot of the famous franchise that basically was the model for all modern stealth-based titles.
The game casts players as a toned master thief by the name of Garrett who comes firmly from the school where heroes look cool by striking poses while saying as little as possible. Set in a grimy fictional world that appears as if inspired by England circa the start of the Industrial Revolution, the game opens with Garrett and his young protégé Erin who are tasked to co-operate in finding and then stealing a rare artifact called the Primal Stone from Baron Northcrest. This short prologue serves to not only introduce both characters but as the standard tutorial level which teaches gamers about the various controls as well as Garrett’s special moves and equipment.
As the prologue progresses, players are given hints about the duo’s tortured relationship as it seems as if the two have had a massive falling out with both differing in their views and morals about being thieves. Being younger, Erin is much more flamboyant and downright egotistical in her abilities, oftentimes chiding Garrett that she is indeed better at everything while Garrett takes an almost Obi-Wan mentor role in constantly reminding her that she is being too proud of herself. The relationship is not at all original but it serves its purpose especially when it comes to defining how both treat their profession as Erin has no compunctions in killing those in her way while Garrett makes it a point to only disable targets.
However, as is often the case, the heist goes horribly wrong and in the process Erin appears to die after falling from a great height right into a kind of mystical whirlpool of energy. Flash-forward one year and a partially amnesiac Garrett wakes up to a totally changed world, now ruled with an iron fist by the local Baron who has inexplicably clamped down on the population. Garrett still retains all his skills and memory right up to the point where Erin supposedly dies but is confounded by the fact that he cannot recollect anything after that event. Flummoxed, Garrett seeks out the council of his former friends and business partners as he begins to patch together the pieces of his lost year while taking on side-jobs that basically all involve stealing objects for cash reward.
At first glance, Thief seems like a solid play as gamers control Garrett through a first-person perspective as he sneaks his way past guards and through the rather labyrinthine town to avoid detection. Players have to always be well aware of their surroundings, especially light sources that will immediately reveal Garrett to enemies. Therefore, the name of the game is sneaking through the shadows and crouching behind obstacles to avoid detection. The game even bestows a kind of super-swooping skill to Garrett enabling him to dash quickly between shadows even if the path takes him through a lighted area.
Thankfully, Thief allows much vertical climbing as Garrett is a spry fellow and can easily scale certain walls allowing him to essentially remain undetected as he jumps from rooftop to rooftop. Guards might still be able to detect him in this state especially if players are careless enough to have him walk into a light source that illuminates the top of buildings. Still, remaining above the fray is obviously preferred to running amok through city streets with a high degree of probability that Garrett will bump right into a town guard.
Make no mistake Thief is all about avoiding confrontations as being spotted by guards usually doesn’t end well, especially if there are multiple targets nearby. Garrett has only rudimentary melee skills while nearly everyone else is armed with swords or even firearms making stealth a top priority. Taking on two guards is almost always fatal since it leaves Garett’s back uncovered leading to an instant kill as an enemy can plunge his weapon unhindered through his back. Yes, it isn’t pretty.
Nonetheless, the AI is rather thoughtless and only has basic routines to charge Garrett whenever possible and resourceful players will realize that quickly running away and finding refuge either through hidden passages or by scaling walls is preferable to armed confrontation. Once in the shadows the guards will usually think he has escaped after a set time and return to their previous patrols. It’s not exactly realistic but that’s basically indicative of the entire game where the core mechanics all break down when scrutinized. Smart players will quickly comprehend the limitations here and completely abuse the “holes” in the AI to oftentimes hilarious results.
For instance, if a player makes a mistake and is spotted by guards and there is no chance to hide the only recourse is to run like a madman to the zone exit represented by a glowing orb. If Garrett manages to get there the guards will inexplicably vanish as none will follow him to the new area. This is a massive oversight and it can certainly be abused to no end especially once players become more aware of the map. Granted, this tactic only works when Garrett is navigating the city streets yet it’s so simple and cheap that many gamers will probably use it to save precious time.
Thief advertises itself as a kind of free-roam adventure where players have a huge city to explore at their leisure but this is only a half-truth as every story mission is entirely self-contained as the city hub is only really used to get from one quest to the next. Side-quests can certainly be found throughout the city but the fact remains that this is not something like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row where players can walk from one end of the map to the other in a seamless fashion as the city in Thief is chopped up into smaller zones that require long loading screens between them.
Garrett might not be the best melee fighter but he still comes armed with a trusty bow with differing sets of ammunition. That means he has access to fire arrows that obviously set targets aflame, blunt arrows that can knock targets unconscious and later in the game, blast arrows that do massive damage. In other words, if Garrett has no recourse but to fight that it is preferable that he almost always resorts to shooting arrows from a safe distance. Some of these arrows actually have dual uses such as the blunt or water arrow that can also douse torches thereby eliminating a light source and allowing Garrett to hide in shadows.
Ammunition can sometimes be scavenged throughout the various stages or else bought from shady merchants. Garrett only has limited inventory space so players can’t get too lax and rely on a steady stream of blast arrows that can instantaneous kill groups of enemies as this would render the game far too easy. The restricted inventory forces gamers to think strategically as needlessly wasting ammo can render Garrett defenseless at precisely the wrong time. Still, the game does cheat a bit by placing merchants at key points within some levels so that players can restock their wares but unfortunately, their placement makes literally no sense. In one later level the merchant is standing all by himself right in the middle of nowhere before the entrance to the final area and in other instances he is stuck in a puny secret room far from the action. It’s great to let players buy more ammo but perhaps a better idea would have been to plant more secret stashes rather than to program some luckless lout to stand like a moron in a cubbyhole waiting for a customer that will probably never show up in their lifetime.
Utilizing ranged combat certainly has its advantages over the game’s shoddy melee mechanics but this can also lead to hilarious results as Garrett can shoot a guard with a fire arrow, watch him cry out in agony as he bursts into flames, manages to somehow douse the fire and then merely curse and go back walking on his original trajectory as if nothing had happened. This is completely baffling behavior watching guards slowly get shot by flaming arrows and then react as if they don’t have a care in the world. This is indicative of the senseless AI and it does nothing but break immersion in the game world that frankly advertises itself as being realistic.
The game’s limitations also pertain to the actual platforming itself as the free-roam world doesn’t offer as much latitude as initially expected. Garrett can certainly scale walls or use his equipment to shoot rope arrows into overhead outcroppings to climb but the issue here is that these locations are all predetermined in the environment meaning that Garrett cannot merely utilize his abilities anywhere he desires. This sets up seriously baffling situations where Garrett cannot scale walls even though they appear of low height and that he cannot fire grappling arrows at anything but clearly marked ledges or wooden protrusions. In fact the game is actually incredibly linear especially if one ignores all the side quests and only follows the waypoint marker that points in the direction of the next main goal.
That isn’t to say that getting to goals is completely linear with only one path to take as the game does build alternate routes but by and large Thief isn’t robust enough for gamers to make up their entire strategy from scratch. If Garrett is tasked to get to a certain room you can bet that there is a straight-forward route that takes him through an area filled with enemies as well as another method that either takes him above the fray or sends him through Medieval-styles grates that run under the floor.
There are also some simple logic puzzles to break the monotony but these are scarce and none are particularly memorable as they involve rotating pieces in certain patterns or trying to figure out secret safe combinations. That might sound rather exciting but in reality they all boil down to just looking at the environment and finding the combination enigmatically carved into a wall or, even worse, searching a desk to discover that some idiot actually wrote it on parchment.
At the same time, it is often obvious what to do and which strategy to take because of the game’s “focus mechanic” which allows Garrett to view the environment in a kind of x-ray vision where objects of worth are highlighted in neon bright blue light. That means any stone outcroppings, ropes, hidden switches and other important objects are immediately identified and though this will certainly aid novice gamers who aren’t sure of the next course of action it is a technique that essentially robs those players who want to figure out the best strategy for themselves. Sure, players don’t have to use it but its inclusion by the developer is more than enough evidence that they intend the game to be played with liberal use of this focus technique.
Being a master thief, Garrett actually feels like a greenhorn merely because the game forces him to steal anything he can find be it as banal as a kitchen utensil like a spoon or fork or an item like an ordinary silver cup. It borders on the hilarious when Garrett enters an unsuspecting apartment only to take cutlery and it devalues his character that makes it a career in stealing items of significant worth even though they are intricately guarded by a plethora of ingenious traps and numerous troops. I can just imagine Garrett walking in on a super-secret thieves’ guild to brag that he had stolen someone’s glass syringe while every other burglar pulls out something on the level of The Holy Grail. It’s like a damned high school reunion where someone shows up boasting that he became a used car salesman while everyone else runs an IT company worth billions of dollars.
Since this is a video game most can forgive the developers for not really thinking this through as it just isn’t possible to have Garrett forever stealing items of significance but it also extends the playtime as gamers are forced to steal mundane objects to earn money. This ingame currency can then be used to purchase additional supplies like food or arrows but it can also be spent on much more important upgrades that boost Garrett’s maximum health or reduced damage from errant falls. Although there are plenty of items strewn about the game world each one carries low worth thus gamers have no choice but to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down.
As a protagonist, Garrett truly is a real bore with a laconic personality that never betrays his inner thoughts. Dialogue between characters is routinely undermined by the fact that everyone speaks exposition except for Garrett and even then his only words fall as sarcastic quips of nonchalance. There’s nothing wrong with writing a self-important character that doesn’t bother to take sides but his neutrality is seriously off-putting especially when he doesn’t seem to take his own advice.
For instance, he chides Erin in the prologue for relying too heavily on a claw-like piece of equipment that allows her to scale walls with ease only to later use it liberally without remorse. At other times in the narrative there are numerous occasions for Garrett to voice his opinion about Erin’s apparent death but instead his dialogue remains emotionless. It would be infinitely more engaging for players to find Garrett wrestling with his inner demons and confronting his shortcomings rather than clinically dissecting the mystery at hand as he treats the loss of his former protégé with as much gusto as ordering a burger at the local McDonalds.
In a way, Thief tonally feels very much like the recent Tomb Raider reboot merely because the narrative has serious issues when juxtaposed with the gameplay. Tomb Raider had an awful tendency to show a massive disconnect in this regards by portraying the young Lara Croft as being traumatized when forced to kill her first human only the point was totally undermined by the fact that the game forced players to kill hundreds of henchmen in her quest. In the case of Thief, the prologue casts Garrett as an honorable man with a strong set of morals, one big point being his reluctance to kill innocent bystanders yet, throughout the entire 12-15 hour campaign he inevitably dispatches hundreds of guards who are only doing what they are paid to do.
Thief is by no means a graphical powerhouse for the Xbox One but it does have a next-generation sheen that neither the Xbox 360 or PS3 could never match. The high-definition resolution and complex geometry really make the player feel as if they are traversing a filthy rat-infested environment akin to London circa the 1800s with ample amounts of thick fog and some spectacular lighting effects. However, the game’s colour palette seriously suffers as it stays firmly stuck in the dark end of the spectrum as everything seems made up of different shades of grey. The Industrial Revolution was certainly grimy as it bathed cities in disgusting layers of soot but the game really takes this concept even further as underground cities and caves are crafted with a similar art style. Being a Master Thief there is justification that he would only steal at night but the dreary atmosphere really dampens the mood. This even applies to the characters as everyone seems to go to the same tailor whose only stock is grey cloth.
The game is also rife with numerous bugs where guards can mysteriously get stuck in the scenery even though Garrett is nowhere close to their position. There was one moment in the game when I opened a door and the AI guard, instead of walking through it, decided that now was the best time to suddenly veer to the left and head straight into the wall. Making matters worse, he kept walking there for minutes with his face smacked into stone even as I maneuvered Garrett around him trying to see if he could get unstuck by detecting the player character. Nope. He just kept walking like a zombie until I felt sorry for him and decided to knock him unconscious.
It is obvious that the game was shipped without sufficient quality assurance as the number of odd bugs crop up virtually every few minutes from audio that inexplicably raises the background music to a level enough to drown out all vocal dialogue to a soundtrack that just cuts off at totally the wrong moment the result might not crash the game but is totally distracting. The game has a high tendency to really mess up the sound oftentimes to the detriment of gameplay especially considering the strong focus on stealth. When one is concentrating on avoiding guards or wayward bystanders one of the biggest elements to focus on besides the various light sources is the noise they make as it provides hints as to their distance and relative direction. In other words, there are many moments in the game where Garrett might be hiding around a corner or behind a crate and the only factor that players can rely on is the sound of dialogue or the clacking noise of boots walking over the cobble-stoned streets.
However, if the sound is messed up one can surely bet that much frustration will abound and unfortunately, this often occurs in Thief as players will hear characters speak as if they are right next to Garrett’s hiding spot when in actuality they are a block away. It’s incredibly frustrating to stay rooted to one spot waiting for people to move only to realize that no one is in the vicinity. Other instances aren’t so game breaking such as hearing guards enter into a conversation about the prostitute they just visited and then hearing the exact same discussion take place in a totally different part of the city mere minutes later.
Thief does include one rather neat feature that other games really should consider by allowing gamers to customize their difficulty level to their liking. This isn’t as simple as setting default difficulty levels like easy, medium or hard but rather the game provides a whole host of individual factors in which to tinker around with. In other words, elements such as autosaves can be turned off or the ability to use crosshairs to aid in aiming can be removed. This level of granularity is actually rather compelling and I have no doubt enterprising gamers who revel in handicapping themselves will have a field day fiddling with every option available. Personally, the default normal difficulty provided more than enough challenge although I seriously considered dropping down to easy merely because of the sheer gaming backlog I have at the moment.
In a way, Thief is a game that can entertain provided that gamers ignore its massive shortcomings. Sure, the AI can be downright suicidal and stupid at times but if one plays the game exactly as they want by messing around with the custom difficulty they can inevitably have some fun by setting personal goals for themselves. Still, one can’t help but feel that this title would have benefitted with a few more months in development as there are far too many niggling issues that detract from the overall experience. Stealth gameplay is usually not my cup of tea yet I also can’t argue with the fact that there is something exhilarating about stealing a precious item while avoiding detection from a throng of guards and traps. It’s just too bad that the overarching plot is of little worth featuring soulless characters and a quick turn to the supernatural comes off as more hilarious than profound and for me that made the slow methodical gameplay all the more mundane as I just couldn’t find much drive to find out everyone’s fate.
** out of ****
Developed by: Eidos Montreal
Publishd by: Square Enix
Released US: 02/25/2014
Released EU: 02/28/2014
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