I’m not a patient person, but the pre-release hype and gameplay teasers for Thief managed to grab my attention from the first moment I saw it. Eidos were promising a next-generation game with unprecedented immersion, intelligent AI, and freedom for the player to customize their experience with every step. So many facets of the promised game had me curious, and I was expecting a beacon title for Xbox One, but instead I spent 14 hours on a game that understandably had critics divided. I’m not a fence sitter myself, but for the purpose of this review I’ll endure derriere-splinters a little longer, and promise that, at the end of the next 1000 words, I’ll tell you where Thief soars, and where it sits in the corner looking awkward, and if it steals its way to being worth the patience.
I’m not usually one for first impressions of games; I find they line me up for disappointment, thus, with my copy of Thief, I planned to stick to my usual methods. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a title screen that alone was like a scene from some epic period piece saga, with details so precise and realistic that I instantly wanted to crouch in the shadow as the guards passed and to steal around the buildings. The design throughout Thief was well presented, and the art was optimized for a predominately poorly lit environment. Traversing the areas was much more limited than I’d hoped, but at least the art and detail level made for easy distinction between surfaces that were interactive or simply decorative. The different locales had little to distinguish houses you wanted to remember for later “safe-breaks”, which also added annoyance to navigation when the mini-map let you down.
Some notable locations (which can’t be named) did dramatically sway my opinion of the game as the design swung from layered ambient sounds and sporadic music, to heightened tension; producing several scenarios I was not prepared for. It was a welcome change from the repetitive nature of the streets and guards, and it was so well presented that it was easily the most memorable section of the whole game, but still, I wouldn’t spend time repeating the chapter. Thief maintained its individual dark and mature style while creating a convincing world. However, to me, it wasn’t exactly a “next-gen” experience, and arguably would have been just as good on 360/PS3. The same can be said for the sound design and speech; it was there, but it did little to boost the game. Finley tuned surrounding audio didn’t feel consistent throughout, but then again, the cut scenes were designed to feel more mature and real to life by focusing on the understated narration by the actors, than on background music.
An exclusive component of the Xbox One edition is Kinect integration, which for the purpose of this review; I tried to use as many of the features available while playing through the first couple of missions. Two important tactics for Garret to stay hidden in the shadows are leaning to peek around corners, and the swoop movement, which is essentially a silent dash. Both of these can be done via the controller or using Kinect, but after several misunderstood leans and swoops I opted for controller only. While game interactivity has come a long way since playing Mario Kart next to that one person that always leaned when turning corners, it simply wasn’t necessary for Thief, and actually added to the overall “frust-fest”. In saying that, I still enjoyed the gameplay and found Garret’s arsenal easily accessible, and with impressively tactile responses; giving it a real-life feel. Timing loot grabs and lock picking whilst being able to peek over your shoulder gave Thief the tension and challenge I was hoping for.
Initially, I relished the concept of being a shadow as I pursued the main quest, but this became stale very swiftly. Choosing the Thief you wanted to be allowed certain gameplay options, such as being a ghost and going unnoticed, or using your surroundings to your advantage. The idea had promise, and I was more than pleased to introduce a well-placed oil slick to my fire arrows on several occasions. Where it was let down, however, was when you didn’t have any options; namely when you hadn’t yet purchased an item, or you had simply run out. While things like the wrench weren’t necessary, it would have been nice to have the shady salesmen hint that you’d need it. Or when starting a chapter, would it kill Garret to think aloud “hmm, I won’t be able to buy anything for a while, I MIGHT need rope darts…” it didn’t break the game, but again, when a chapter takes three times as long as it should because you don’t have what you need, it only adds to the frustration. On a positive note, the AI was a clever assimilation; on more than on occasion, a suspicious enemy would have me frozen in crouch just out of reach, safely in a shadow. It forced more patience and quick thinking, and also helped to keep me interested.
Prior to playing, I was already familiar with the premise, and as such, I was eager to get into the nitty-gritty of the drama right away. Mercifully, the first chapter wastes no time in setting up a narrative full of mystery and malice. At the end of the cut-scene, though, I was left slightly confused. Thinking it would all be explained by the obligatory quest-giver, I hurried along only to be severely disappointed. Lone wolf or not, the fact that Garret seemingly had no interest in the death of his friend, the decay of the city, or most importantly, why he had no idea a year had passed was a smack in the face, to what had been implied as an epic story. In fact, it was roughly two and a half hours before things were finally interrupting his night to night life. While mystery is basically the calling card of a game such as Thief, I’d really like to know by this far into a story exactly who or what I’m running around for, besides the obvious personal gain. It became interesting enough, in theory, but the repetition became a struggle.
Something I feel needs to be brought up is that, prior to release, Edios implied the player could choose how they got around. However, what they should have said was there are some rooftops that get you some places, and some grates that help if you bought a wrench, but to get anywhere your actual options are: stay in this shadow, or move to the next shadow. Yes, I know Thief is all about being a shadow, but a little choice would have been nice; crates, doorway and oddly popular grated cupboards lost their fun soon enough. At certain points in the plot, I’d hoped for mutual spaces as politics shifted, areas that I could walk freely to explore and find missed collectibles, but every time I ventured out, Garret offered an insight into why I still couldn’t walk safely anywhere but the pub.
Much of the story is conveyed through notes and items that require some exploration, which I always appreciate as a narrative aid. The story also works in conversations you’ll hear as you sneak past certain houses; the idea is that you can learn of local goings on specifically in regards to shinies of interest. At first, I thought this was a clever integration with your surroundings, and that it added to the atmosphere. However, that was until I had to pass the same areas so often I ended up hearing the magical tale of Polly Adler, the women with the five month wait list, about 47 times too many. I tried to include some side quests into the main storyline but found that trudging back to markers or even for upgrades became unimportant to the point where I didn’t upgrade until well past half way.
Now, I did promise in 1000 words to explain why I fall on the side of the fence that didn’t love this title, but for those of you that counted this as more than 1000 words; I lied, but in my defense, so did Edios. Thief was supposed to be a customizable, next-gen stealth game that opened the door for highly individual experiences for every player. While the difficulty settings were customizable to a great extent, it didn’t change the fact that your options during the story were almost not worth mentioning. Your only choice was style; how often you killed, what you stole etc., but this should have been linked to achievements and not shown off as anything else. The stealing was fun, the realistic tension added a layer of immersion, and overall, the visual design was beautiful. However, it was the storyline with cut-scenes that skipped around, and chronic repetition that disappointed me. While Eidos nailed “stealth” on the head, it feels as if they stopped there, and then tried build a game around it. I could see myself replaying certain chapters for the skill achievements, and to explore the more unique locations in the game again, but in truth, I’m in no hurry to do so. I only have one question for Edios: why can Garret pick complicated locks, find invisible pressure points, and use focus vision, yet still be entirely incapable of turning off an oil lamp?!