Garrett the Master Thief returns, and Chris Capel is the Thief Judger General
I've mentioned before, but the Thief series is my all-time favourite gaming franchise. The focus on stealth over action, the wonderful fantasy world, the occasional moments of sheer unrivalled terror... it all adds up to a great gaming trilogy. Now the series is back at last, with a part-reboot, part-many-years-later sequel from Deus Ex: Human Revolution developer Eidos Montreal simply titled Thief. I've played it to completion, and now sit in judgment over the game many were skeptical of but I never lost my optimism over. Read on to see if my faith was justified.
Like the previous Thief games you play as Garrett, Master Thief of the medieval city (simply called 'The City') ruled by the iron-fisted Baron Northcrest. A robbery by Garrett and his rebellious protégé Erin of the Baron's manor a year ago ended with the mysterious death of Erin, Garrett with a year-shaped hole in his memory, and the City under siege by a mysterious illness called 'The Gloom'. After getting back into his thieving ways Garrett soon finds himself involved in bloody rebellion, the cause of the plague and his memory loss, the ridiculously vicious Thief-Taker General, and a lot of nobles who desperately need their wallets lightened.
Erin. Don't trust her Garrett, those goth girls are always trouble
The Thief series has always been incredibly strong in terms of storytelling, mixing stylish cutscenes with disturbing twists and a lot of cool moments. Thief though isn’t... quite... there. The stylish cutscenes are gone as expected, replaced with well-acted straight good-looking stuff, but while the general plot keeps your attention with plague, mystery, and rebellion, it never quite appears in enough detail on screen. A lot is told rather than shown or played, for example the Gloom disease never really appears at all except in a few corpses dumped in ditches, and Orion’s true motives never really become apparent until they happen with little explanation. Still, it goes into things enough to make it all interesting.
As much as I loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution I felt it was a little bit the same in this regard so it’s an Eidos Montreal issue, but then their last game never had a terrible major character like the Thief-Taker General. He’s obviously the result of trying to make an antagonist who’s a worse person than a major criminal like Garrett, but he’s utterly one-dimensional. Which is a shame, as if they’d gone just a bit more ridiculous with him, a step or two towards Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, they could have had a memorable character. As it is he’s just filling a slot, a silly bad guy who pops up at stupidly opportune moments, usually at the end of a level, to cause trouble for Garrett. He’s Dr Robotnik basically, complete with a massive moustache.
Fortunately the rest of the characters are more interesting, and none more so than Garrett. I can't imagine a Thief game without him, and thankfully Eidos Montreal get him right. He takes pride in being the best at what he does but doesn't brag. He kills when he has to but prefers not to. He pointedly does not want to be a hero or get involved in anything political, he just wants to get paid, but always finds himself drawn in to conflicts and when it comes down to it will, although he won't admit it to anyone, do the right thing. The closest thing he has to a friend is his fence Basso, although the pair do seem to look out for each other. Erin brings out something new in him though, the desperate desire to share his methods with someone else who he actually cares for despite his attitude. All of this is done with subtlety by new voice actor Romano Orzari who does a fine job as Garrett, and while I was more disappointed than anyone that series mainstay Stephen Russell wasn't coming back Orzari is a fine replacement. Compared to Splinter Cell Blacklist and Batman Arkham Origins Thief actually managed to get someone at least as good as the guy they replaced, so this fan at least is happy.
In fact I'm going to give Eidos Montreal a lot of credit for their attempts to please series fans. Many new mechanics designed to make gameplay easier can be turned off, from minimaps and flashing loot to such major things as Garrett's in-game narration and the new Focus mode (a finite resource that allows you to see important things and do actions quicker). The fast-paced "escapes" that were so prominent in early videos (that saw players forced to ditch stealth to free-run away quickly, the opposite of what Thief is about) are almost completely cut. Classic series regulars that seemed absent in marketing all make an appearance, and yes, there is a pants-wettingly scary level. Not many developers would try so hard and I appreciate the effort. However, I wish Eidos Montreal had tried a little harder to replace the Hammerites and the Pagans with something equally imaginative, and the City's near total lack of them loses it a little colour.
This two aren't going to know what hit 'em. It'll be my blackjack, for sure
Despite any complaints before and after this paragraph the actual gameplay of Thief is very good, and Eidos Montreal's innovations mostly improve the game. The game is all about stealth, and while you can choose to use violence either with exploding arrow shots or a blackjack to the face Garrett is no fighter, in fact he's even less so than in previous games as he doesn't even carry a sword anymore. You could possibly handle one enemy but two or more and you better run. Staying in the shadows and sneaking past is what you need to do, and even a trusty stealth-knockout has been rendered riskier by far more alert enemies and a longer animation time. Birds and dogs can give away your position, walk slowly across broken glass or water or you'll be heard (and yes, there fortunately is a "creep" button on PC for those playing on keyboard & mouse), and use distractions or alternate routes where possible. While creeping up on a guard I once accidentally knocked over a pot and he swung round and caught me. Buy special gear to help you undo vents or cut traps, or just get some kit upgrades to give you more of a chance. Even new features like Focus or the "swoop" move I'm happy with, the "swoop" in particular I often used in place of running and similarly uses stamina so you can't overdo it. I don't have any real complaints about the stealth gameplay, and that's always the most important thing to get right. I could've done without the button-mashing moments to open windows or lift beams, but otherwise I'm content.
However, I am sorry to report Thief PC fans that once again console compromises has screwed up what should have been the greatest game in the series, but at least PS4 and XB1 owners can join us in sorrow this time. Firstly, controls. Now I was mostly fine with these, but just a couple of gamepad considerations proved bigger annoyances than I was expecting. Firstly hugging walls to lean left and right by pressing Use - yes this does away with the need for separate lean keys, but 8 times out of 10 you'll press 'E' to pick up an item and end up humping the table instead. Secondly, contextual jumping. If handled correctly I don't have a problem with it, but the inclusion of ropes buggered that right up. Often you'll try to grab a rope an inch above your head and won't be able to, or try to jump a sheer drop only to do a little hop off the roof to your death. Small frustrations that could've been solved by only having a proper jump and lean keys.
It's the hub though where the console compromises become self-evident enough to near enough ruin the game. Between missions you can freely explore the City at will, breaking into apartments, stealing, finding secrets, do side missions - all of which sounds awesome but unfortunately has hit the same Xbox-shaped memory block Deadly Shadows did. Due to being a next-gen game scaled down to the Xbox 360 the City's streets are narrow, disorientating, have far too many loading screens, too few residents, and are too one-way in their design. Many doors can't be opened, exits to the next part of the hub aren't always marked, and there isn't enough choice in the way you get around. A free-roaming City was promised in both of the last two Thief games and once again it is a colossal disappointment. Thief's is probably worse than Deadly Shadows, since it's harder and more confusing to get around, and there's often not enough risk since most apartments aren't occupied and an easy burglary isn't much fun.
The missions themselves are better and are at least well designed and fun to get through, but they mostly suffer from being far too linear. There can be multiple routes but often the missions don't feel like places you're exploring, just flowing levels, and that really is the opposite of what the Thief series is about. The one big exception to this is Northcrest Manor, which is utterly huge, has many places to go, secrets to uncover, traps to overcome and every room can be entered. It could do with a few more guards (it may on Hard, I played on Normal which was still pretty tough) but it's absolutely the perfect example of what a next-gen Thief should be like, and if every mission was like it that score on the right would be hell of a lot higher. The mission that precedes the Manor is similarly excellent at least, but I won't spoil that one. Surprisingly it's the secondary missions for carnival operator Vittori (in the Siren's Rest pub by the Docks) and suspicious inventor Ector (in a shop North-West of the Crippled Burrick) that prove the most fun and memorable, but I won't spoil those. Well, one little spoiler: a talking skull that tells the future and laughs like The Count on Sesame Street. Great, more like that please.
Northcrest Manor. This is going to be fun
Graphically at least Thief looks amazing, at least on PC and next-gen consoles. Textures look real, smoke flows beautifully, faces are highly detailed, and the fire effects are amazing - it actually moves naturally across flammable surfaces. Audio is generally superb, with good voice acting all round and some effective, um, effects. Continuing with the technical theme enemy AI also seems pretty good, relighting torches, not always taking bait, changing patrol routes, shouting warnings to other nearby guards and generally messing up my plans satisfactorily. Even if they do still have a bit of a blindness when it comes to things high up and can't climb after me or follow into small areas. What is this, 1998?
Thief does many things right. The gameplay is great for the most part, Garrett is his same wonderful self, it looks wonderful, the AI often works well, and the range of customization options is amazing. Missions are enjoyable with a couple of real stand-out superb ones, the six proper side-missions are all fun, and Basso has over 20 mini-missions (that can be quite puzzling) to make traversing the City hub more interesting and makes the total playing time a decent 15-20 hours. Unfortunately the hub itself isn’t open enough, has far too many loading screens and is both confusing and a pain to navigate. Most of the missions despite being fun are too linear, have too many impassable doors, and feel at odds with what Thief is meant to be about - going to a location, exploring it and plundering it. The few control problems, slightly under-told story, at least one terrible character and console compromises just make things even worse than they needed to be. With a more open City to explore, more levels closer to the Baron’s manor, better replacements for the Hammerites and Pagans, a more compelling antagonist and a jump button Thief could’ve been the greatest game in the series. Now unless it’s your first I don’t think it’s going to be anyone’s favourite. It’s still enjoyable, but it’s too wide of the mark. And that’s a taffing shame.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The Baron’s Manor is the best mission, but I have to go with the traditional horror level. One part literally had me jump out of my seat.