When Dishonored was released in October 2012, it hit gaming like a revelation, a breath of fresh air for gamers used to wading through the sequels and spin-offs that usually accompany the final years of a console generation. August, thankfully, had seen Sleeping Dogs revitalize the sandbox/action/crime genre, and Dishonored followed suit for first-person games, eschewing convention and breaking classifications.
It was a masterful work of contradictions, with open levels that invited exploration and examination in first-person, equal opportunities for nail-biting stealth and all-out carnage, a story that blended intrigue and betrayals with just enough of the supernatural, and a moral choice system that made you work to find solutions beyond simple murder.
The game received high praise from critics, players and other developers, but there was a sect of gaming where it was seen as more of a continuation of tradition than something brand new. This sect, myself included, used a single word when trying to describe what Dishonored had tapped into: “Thief.”
Originally released in November 1998, Thief: The Dark Project was received in a similar fashion to its later spiritual successor, and it is possible the praise it garnered was even higher at the time. PC games had been growing steadily more ambitious for years: Half-Life came out a mere three weeks before Thief, System Shock 2 followed a year later, and Deus Ex arrived six months after that.
Where Thief excelled was open-ended levels that not only encouraged, but demanded that players use cunning, critical thinking, and a variety of tools and skills to navigate to the objective. If you’ve played Dishonored, you get the general idea, except Thief’s ambition and execution preceded it by fourteen years. I can still remember playing the original, and being absolutely enthralled by things like rope, water, and moss arrows.
Thief II: The Metal Age came out in February 2000, and was even more beloved than the original; to this day, most Thief fans still point to it as the high-point of the series. The core concepts remained the same, but the story was deeper, darker, and held more legitimate consequences for those involved. The third installment, Thief: Deadly Shadows, added the element of The City as a hub between missions, where players could buy and sell goods, or take on side quests and odd jobs. Deadly Shadows was the only previous Thief to appear on consoles.
After Deadly Shadows in 2004, Garrett and crew disappeared into the darkness; the studio that developed Deadly Shadows closed soon after, and the series passed into gaming memory. It wasn’t until 2009 that Eidos Montreal revealed they were working on “Thi4f;” the studio had only been around since 2007, and their only other project at the time was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It saddens me to say that as of March 4, 2014 twenty-seven people were laid off from the studio. Keep reading, though, and that decision may seem in the company’s best interests.
Over the development cycle, the game that was released two weeks ago simply as Thief went through numerous changes; for instance, the “4” was dropped because the game was no longer a sequel, in addition to the fact that “Thi4f” is a stupid name. The developers toyed with numerous ideas, and games like Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, Splinter Cell, and even Dishonored impacted the final product. The extended development cycle also lead to the game being developed for two different console generations, as well as PC.
The end result is a new title that takes place several hundred years after the original games. The protagonist, still named Garrett, is potentially a descendent of the previous character; other characters share similar naming connections, and clues / references can be found throughout the game to The City’s past. The game opens with Garrett and his sometimes partner Erin trying to steal a rare, supposedly supernatural item from the baron who rules this time period. Things go horribly wrong, Garrett is presumed dead, and a year passes during which a strange plague starts to take hold in the city.
I’m going to stop there. Have you played Dishonored? Then you’ve played a much more compelling version of this story, which is mostly nonsensical garbage. It jumps all over the place, characters come and go seemingly at random, and things just kind of happen without resolution. There are supernatural forces, secret orders, conspiracies, civil unrest, family secrets, and the like all just kind of shoved in there; Garrett see-saws between reluctant hero, anti-hero, hero, and asshole mid-conversation. The final cutscene literally confused me so badly I looked it up and watched it multiple times, and it still makes no damn sense. At this point, I’m going to briefly deal with the “why” of this issue, as I think it may be of some importance.
The story is told, like in most game of this ilk, through a mix of in-game events, scenes rendered with the game’s engine, and a few CGI cutscenes; interestingly, these are not the same CGI used in the trailers, which is far superior. These moderate-production bits are scattered seemingly at random throughout the game, and somehow don’t ever seem to really mesh with the rest of the events. Oddly enough, they also aren’t as sharp-looking as the scenes rendered using the in-game engine, which makes their inclusion questionable.
My half-baked theory is that these scenes were produced, probably at considerable cost, earlier in the game’s development. As time wore on, the story and concepts changed, but these few videos represented too big an investment to simply throw away. As a result, the developers found themselves obligated to try and bend the story in ways to keep these scenes viable. I know how that sounds, but trust me, if you play the game all the way through it will seem a lot more grounded.
The other massive blow to presentation, content notwithstanding, is unfortunately the game-rendered scenes as well; they have better lighting, character detail, and animation, but also have one major flaw. In these scenes, as reported across all platforms, and verified by myself and Erich on PC and Xbox One, the audio and animation are so badly out-of-sync they become almost unwatchable. Not just characters’ lips and voices, either, but the sound and video for entire scenes alternate lagging behind or jumping ahead of one another to a jarring degree.
This is a real shame in some of the game’s better scenes, when I would have genuinely enjoyed being able to just take in the dialogue and atmosphere. One character in particular, Basso, is extremely well-realized; he’s Garrett’s handler, job contact, fence, and sometimes friend, and their conversations are the high-point of the game. The low-point is undoubtedly Erin, who’s basically a Hot Topic cashier dropped into a Thief game with her diary as her script. The story’s biggest drawback is that they expect the player to give a shit about her, which I never once managed to do.
You couldn’t be blamed at this point for wondering why I took the time to keep playing this game, let alone beat it in just under a week, and so I’d better offer an explanation. Without too much run-around, I found the gameplay to be genuinely engaging, if not necessarily fresh or innovative. Running around, hiding in shadows, using tools and trick arrows to move through the levels was fun; seeing the glint of some trinket and knowing immediately that I was going to risk getting caught just to nab it only lost its luster toward the end.
The game is set up with The City as a hub, with your base in the giant clock tower near the center, and a shop to buy supplies and upgrades just a few rooftops over. Navigating is a mixture of fun and frustration, as well-designed paths sometimes end abruptly, or force you to go around seemingly benign obstacles. The game doesn’t have a “jump” button, and instead gives you a context-sensitive “action” button that either works perfectly or fails inexplicably at the worst possible moments.
The City is not seamless, but instead there are two types of “loading” screens you can encounter, one which requires you to jimmy open a window with a crowbar, and one which has you lift a fallen beam out of the way in crawlspaces. Of course, not all windows and crawlspaces are load screens – some just lead to small rooms with collectible loot – and so moving around the hub isn’t as smooth as it could be.
Starting each mission usually requires you to go chat with various characters around the city and progress the story, and then head for a certain spot on the map. As the story progresses, certain things about the map may shift and change, and what was once a clear path may suddenly be blocked or more heavily guarded. The game shines at these moments, forcing you to carefully be on the lookout for grates you can slip through, traps you can disarm, or objects you can shoot with blunt arrows and make a new path.
Each mission takes place in its own self-contained level, and while you still have multiple paths to choose from, they don’t feel as open-ended on approach. The most frustrating moments are when the game intentionally sends you into a heavily-guarded area only to have Garrett encounter a locked door or barred gate, at which point some new means of approach becomes clear. Each level comes with its own various collectibles and unique pieces of loot, as well as dozens of little trinkets to nab along the way, or documents to collect that deepen the story or offer clues to your objective.
These items are often hidden in locations you need to be actively searching for, or that you need to listen to conversations around you to become aware of. Often you’ll need to follow a guard or civilian and slip in unnoticed after they unlock a door or activate a switch. There is a serviceable lock-pick mechanic in the game, and sometimes you’ll need to have purchased the wrench or wire-cutter tool to access a certain area. I found myself seeking out the chances in earlier levels to explore for secrets, but by the last mission I was more concerned with getting to the next objective, especially since spare cash was in no short supply by that point.
Each mission grades you on your performance with one of three monikers: Ghost, Opportunist, or Predator. Predator if self-explanatory, and given if takedowns and murders were your style; Ghost is awarded for making as little an impact as possible, never even giving guards a reason to be alarmed. I got Opportunist on almost every level, meaning I was willing to use the environment, traps, and distractions to my advantage to get past guards. I still managed to make it through the entire game without getting spotted or killing someone, and the only takedowns I had were those mandated by the game at certain points.
The meta-game to this mechanic is that the optional objective for each mission changes depending on what your play style was. For example, a Ghost might have needed to pickpocket six guards, an Opportunist to disarm five traps, or a Predator to get five kills with fire arrows. Completing the corresponding objective nets you extra gold. I got about half of these just by playing the level, but was frustrated that the game only gives explanations of these mechanics in one place: Loading screen tips. Apparently, you can keep track of these objectives from a menu, but I didn’t find that until the second-to-last mission.
I will give the developers credit for at least trying to reward varied play styles. To be honest, I can’t imagine playing the game in an aggressive fashion, because the combat system, even when using arrows, simply isn’t geared toward direct confrontation. Many reviews complained that the melee “combat” is nothing more than a system of dodging and weak attacks with your blackjack, but my response there is simply “You’re playing a game called Thief; why the Hell are you in combat?” True, this leads to a lot of reloading saves if you get spotted, but since that’s the same way I played Dishonored, it didn’t bother me that much.
The game does have some flawed and ill-advised mechanics. There are occasional bits of third-person platforming, and in addition to looking really silly, it’s not always clear where you should be going. The map is useless for anything other than getting your general bearings, which is frustrating when you climb up three stories and use a precious rope arrow only to discover a room with some generic loot instead of a way forward through the mission. There are “loud” surfaces like broken glass and water in some places, as well as dogs or birds that can make noise and bring guards; I never seemed to get a handle on when and why any of these things attracted attention, even after repeated trips through the same area.
Garrett can do something called a “swoop,” where he dashes quickly across a short space in any direction; sometimes I could do this past four guards in front of a torch and never be spotted, but then try and do it past a single enemy in total darkness and immediately alert him. Combined with the occasional failure of the contextual action button, and the unpredictable nature of what does and doesn’t constitute being “in the shadows,” this probably led to more reloaded saves than anything else in the game.
The other so-so mechanic is Garrett’s supernatural ability to “focus,” highlighting people and objects of interest, which can be upgraded so that you move more quietly, deal more damage, pick locks faster, etc. while it’s active. On the difficult level I played through on, it didn’t regenerate automatically, and had to be replenished by finding and consuming poppies in the world. Thing is, even when empty, I could still hit the button and everything of interest would flash with a blue glow that slowly faded. I actually found myself preferring this method, and would intentionally drain my focus meter anytime the game refilled it.
There are a few missions that contain environmental hazards or run-for-your life scenarios, usually involving scripted events of guards spotting you or something catching on fire. The best of these is also the worst, as it involves what should be a breakneck race to get out of a burning, collapsing structure. Instead, what happened was that the scripted events to open a new path, or the ever-cursed action button, wouldn’t work properly, and I’d find myself falling to my death or burning alive before reloading a save.
The missions can be played back through, but the method of doing so makes so little sense it baffles me. Upon completing the game, you’re told that you can replay missions and try to get all the collectibles. Being a gamer, I assumed this would either be done from a menu, or some sort of journal / display case in the clock tower, where there are journals and display cases for all of the collectibles. No such luck, and the map wasn’t helping, either. In the end, I went online to discover that you have to find the original mission start point in The City to replay a mission. Start points which, despite the fact that Garrett has already been there, don’t appear on the map in-game.
This knowledge of how to replay missions is apparently hidden in a loading screen tip as well, along with this bit of info: Basso can offer you side-mission that require you to steal unique loot from various places around the city. I had read reviews that talked about side-missions, but never encountered the ability to start one, and the game doesn’t give you that information freely. In fact, the game doesn’t really make it clear that you can go to various shops or talk to other characters between missions; after each mission, it drops you back in the clock tower with an objective indicator, and you’re off to have a story-driven conversation or two before the next chapter begins.
I think, in the end, that cycle may be a fitting analogy for this game as a whole: Pointed in one direction and told to go, sometimes without context, while other possibilities get bypassed unknowingly. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as other reviewers say, and I found the game to be enjoyable and enticing during the campaign. I honestly don’t know if I’ll go back for side-missions or extra unique loot, though I might play any extra content or full expansions that may come along.
If you were wondering why I said I was “saddened” about the layoffs at the studio mentioned earlier, beyond people losing their jobs being sad, look no further than Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I think my words here – long development, uncertain mechanics, unfocused story – could have applied directly to it, as well, when it was released. The developers in that case got a second chance with the “director’s cut” version that came out last year, and was widely seen as being superior to the original product. This is also the studio that brought us the Tomb Raider reboot, which saw the updated “definitive edition” come out recently, albeit a different team within the studio.
I feel like Thief could be easily upgraded from a mediocre experience to a good, at times great experience if given a similar chance to be expanded, polished, and sent back out again. In the long run, though, that’s no excuse for releasing a title with obvious flaws, lackluster design, and broken mechanics. The cutscene sound and audio issues alone should have raised some flags, though its likely publisher Square Enix would not have brokered further delays. As it stands, Thief is the tarnished silver knock-off to its successors, as opposed to the platinum tribute of craftsmanship apparent in Dishonored.
I played Thief on PC. It is also available on [amazon_link id=”B00CYNTHA0″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]360, One, PS3, PS4.[/amazon_link]
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