For all its big heist ambitions, Thief is all about the long con. It looks good from the start, with just enough shiny bits and nods to the original series to draw you in. But stick with it until the end and you’ll have nothing to show for your time but dreams gone bust.
After the jump, someone switched briefcases and now all I have is a bunch of cut up telephone books!
During the introductory mission I should have known that Thief would break my heart. Garrett, the titular thief, is traversing rooftops with his protege Erin to steal the McGuffin du jour from the Baron. Erin is rash and impulsive! She kills guards when she could just subdue them! She has a climbing tool thingy when she could use her bare hands! Garrett doesn’t like her use of tools despite his own quiver of custom arrows that’s a boxing glove arrow short of giving Green Arrow a run for his money. Garrett feels Erin should learn a lesson and work without her climbing tool thingy, so he steals it. Unfortunately the Baron’s strange ceremony goes awry and Erin dies when her climbing tool thingy wasn’t where she left it. Garrett doesn’t have time to ruminate on his tough love style of teaching as he’s knocked out and wakes up a year later on a cart full of dead victims of the Gloom, the new disease ravaging the City.
The City looks oppressive enough with its dank hallways and flickering torches and its cadre of evil, evil guards. They don’t take kindly to thieves and won’t hesitate to run Garrett through should they catch him wandering their streets, which makes you wonder why Garrett chooses to dress exactly like his wanted poster when all he’s doing is moving across town towards the current mission. Seems to me a simple cloak would solve a lot of his problems.
The ability to navigate through the City is one of Thief’s concessions to the fact that stealth games have come a long, long way since 1998. Another concession is the focus mode that allows Garrett to sense enemy footfalls, see one-hit-knockout pressure points on enemies, and uncover everything in a room that isn’t nailed down. At first, traversal through the City is a joy. Garrett mantles and moves smoothly, swooping soundlessly at the press of a button. As the City expanded though, I wished that Eidos had realized that modern games have things like fast travel points and maps that are actually helpful. At the beginning of the game I was more than happy to take on side jobs from Garrett’s colleague Basso, climbing into windows and kicking off side missions for a bit of coin, or to find one member of the various sets of collectibles sprinkled throughout town. By the end though, after having spent hours going from one end of the city to the other, trying to remember if it was this rope or that window that would let me transition to the next part of the city, dodging the same guards and hearing the exact same conversations for the tenth time, I decided the extra coin wasn’t worth it.
The mechanics of sneaking and stealing are handled well enough, with plenty of visual elements to let you know when you’re exposed. Items you steal magically convert to money. Any atmosphere is undone by the game’s many technical failings. Enemy AI ranges from broken to poorly programmed. Here a soldier endlessly walks into a wall, there two soldiers loiter under a lamppost, immune to the screaming of citizens simply because their detection box wasn’t big enough for them to care. Even when guards are patrolling as they should be, their constant need to fight the silence with the same pithy statements and annoying conversations destroys the tension. It’s no surprise that one of the best levels takes place in an abandoned asylum where the sound of your footfalls and the occasional ghostly wailing are your only companions.
The biggest problem for this game is every stealth game that has come since Thief: The Dark Project. Thief can’t match the visual flair and supernatural powers of Dishonored. It doesn’t have the lean efficiency and murderous creativity of the Hitman series; it trails the razor’s edge stealth and gadget lust of Splinter Cell; it lacks the vision and bombast of the Metal Gear series. Hell, it doesn’t even have a very good thief. In the original game, Garrett was a wry commentator on the corruption that was infesting his city, stealing from the rich and thwarting religious zealots, the pagans and the pious alike, in an effort to save his city. Here he steals everything from everyone. Whether it’s stealing a book for a holy man or taking the last item of value from the resident of a broken down, one bedroom apartment, if he can steal it, he will. At the end of the game, Garrett is told that his fortune is tied with the City’s and if it dies, so does he. It’s a true statement but not because Garrett is a hero. Garrett is a parasite and when the host dies, the parasites die with it.
I stuck to the idea that Garrett is a thief, not a murderer, but the game didn’t seem to care one way or another. You are rated on how well you played, as a predator, a ghost, or an opportunist and pays you off accordingly. But it never explains how much more I make for knocking this guy out instead of killing him, or avoiding everyone altogether. Without a scoring system like Hitman: Absolution’s constant egging on or Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s cataloging of every success and failure, Thief is a black box of earnings. Put some stealth coins in, pull the lever and see what comes out. You can set custom difficulty levels to try and amass a greater score than your friends but I’d be wary of score chasing in a game with AI as broken as this one.
I really wanted to like Thief. The original was one of my favorite games of my PC days. But as time went on, I just wanted this latest Thief to end. And once the unsatisfying ending had played out I was all too happy to eject the disc and move on. All that time I’d spent hoping it was going to get better was just throwing good money after bad.