A little while ago, Eidos Montreal released a new game that rebooted the Deus Ex franchise. The game was quite good, and it captured the feel of the older games really well if you just ignored the boss fights, which they didn’t even develop anyway. Whatever. The developers have now set their sights on another franchise that Square Enix would like revived, that being the Thief series, and the hope is that Eidos Montreal can work their magic once again.
So the Thief series was primarily a PC franchise, with a couple of exceptions, and to be honest, the games never really grabbed me. They were released at a time when I was big into star fighters and giant robots. Okay, I’m still into all of that, but I have come to appreciate the more subtle art of sneaking around and hiding in the shadows. Which is what Garrett, the Master Thief who stars in these games, excels at. Our thief has a moral code, though. He won’t kill unless forced to. Which raises the first problem with the game. The first levels of the game feel like Dishonored did right before you get all of your magical abilities. You learn how to navigate in the world, how to pickpocket someone, how to sneak into the shadows to avoid detection. All great so far. But what made Dishonored so fantastic was the lack of identity Corvo has. You create him, you choose what to do. So if things go pear shaped during a mission, killing is an option. You can be a bloody minded monster if you choose. Garrett, on the other hand, states quite clearly that he isn’t that kind of guy. He chastises a fellow thief at the start of the game for killing a guard. From there on in, I was playing a game where I had the option to kill people with my various specialty arrows, but was choosing not to because it went against my character’s… character. That may sound silly, but I was role playing a character who was against killing when a simple distraction would do.
As you progress in the game, you are judged at the end of every level according to how you accomplished your mission. Each stage has a preferred method of achieving your objective, and if you manage to do so, you are rewarded. Some levels lend themselves more easily to just sneaking around, while others will reward you for being prepared. A good thief will always have an extra rope arrow, or a glass that can be thrown to distract some annoying guard who won’t look away long enough for you to swoop by. You have at your disposal an entire arsenal of tricks and gadgets. Most of them are arrowheads, like the previously mentioned rope arrow or the water head arrow that can be used to extinguish some annoying light sources. You also have poppy flowers, which can be consumed to boost Garrett’s senses, and food to keep your health bar up. Garrett’s senses feel a bit like easy mode. If you picture what the world looks like when Frodo puts on the One Ring, and then imagine that everything dangerous gets highlighted on the screen, you’ll have an idea of what you can expect. You don’t really have to use it if you don’t want to, but it gets addicting when you suspect there might be a trap lying around. When you are out of poppy and are used to it, you really miss it.
The world feels like it could have been open world, but it’s not. The developers have chosen to break the game down into levels, but you always start the same way. You start the level in your hideout, a clock tower in the center of town, and then work your way through town to get to where you are going. This allows you to liberate any coin or valuables you happen to run across on your way, as well as buy any supplies you might require. For much of the story, the game does a good job of not coddling you. The game does not suffer from the annoying (though understandable) habit of leaving the special ammunition needed to accomplish your goal lying around right next to your goal. Instead, you are encouraged to stop by your local vendor before you get into things to stock up. You can even pre-purchase things and leave them in your hideout. While I appreciated this approach, the developers seemed to give up on it in the last few missions of the game. You still wouldn’t find the special ammo, but you could, if you looked, find a vendor sitting where no vendor ought to be. I discovered one hiding in a ventilation system near the end of the game. The most annoying thing about him was he didn’t even have the one item I needed in stock. It was silly and destroyed my sense of disbelief, as though the developers were intentionally teasing me.
The story is a bit of a mess. Some portions of it are played in dream like sequences, while others occur in normal time. What really disappointed me was how disjointed it was. It felt, at times, like there were originally going to be two or more endings, as there are moments where you seem to make a choice. Instead, there is only the one ending, and I found it quite unsatisfying.
Regarding those dreaded quicktime events, fear not. They are long gone, done away with by a developer who wanted to appeal to the original fan base of the franchise. I mean, you can see where they were, the events are still there, you just get to sit and watch them.
The time line seems to have moved forward since the last time I payed attention to a Thief game. Gone are the dark age undertones, replaced by 1890s style technology. Electric lights can be found in many affluent houses, as can elevators in some of the larger buildings. Streets are often deserted, but you only go out at night, so that’s just fine.
It’s hard to judge the graphics. Things look good, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t really say that the game is fantastic looking, because it doesn’t look that much better than last generation. I think Assassins Creed 4 suffered from the same thing. When you look at it on its own, it only looks good, but when you compare it to its last gen counterpart, you’re amazed by how good it looks. The comparison to Dishonored has to be made again here, because when you look around, you could easily be convinced that it was a more realistic take on the world created for that game.
The character models all look good. All, that is, except for Garrett. He just looks weird to me. Perhaps it’s the way that the costume sits on his character model, which gives him something of a reptilian feel. The rest of the cast all fit into their surroundings quite well. Nothing else will seem out of place.
Voice work and music are adequate at worst, and often good. Where the game really stands out is in the use of environmental noise. You can throw glass across a room to distract a guard, but as the game is about a thief sneaking around in the night, not waking people while he burgles them, the developers have gone to great lengths to present you with a pretty realistic soundscape. Walking on carpets is quieter than walking on wooden floors. Broken glass will sound like an alarm when you step on it, alerting guards to your presence just as quickly as lighting a fire would. You can use these loud noises to your advantage too. Guard dogs will growl when you are nearby, which will draw guards in to see what the racket is. Birds, too, will give you away. If this game did anything right, and it did more than one thing right, it was the environmental audio.
What the game failed at is the combat. More than once, due to my own clumsiness, I bumbled into trying to club a guard into unconsciousness while he hacked me to pieces with his sword. Sneaking up behind enemies to knock them out is not as easy as it should be. I would often get right behind the person and expect to hit the knock out blow, only to watch as Garrett whiffed and the breeze alerted the guard to his attempt. Compare this to Dishonored, where sneaking up behind an enemy and either knocking him out or killing him is as easy as choosing which you want to do and doing it. Fortunately, Thief allows you to save wherever you want, and the game will resume from the exact place you saved, so if you find yourself struggling in the game, consider saving every time you run into a sticky situation. A little cheesy, yes, but oh well.
Short Attention Span Summary:
The story of Thief is underwhelming, and the rest of the game feels like a Dishonored wannabe. Which is a shame considering how beloved this franchise is for some people. It’s not a total loss, but it’s not especially fun.