After three days of looking at nothing but Thief, the way we see the world has changed. Drainpipes are routes to the rooftops and freedom. Every fork and plate is accompanied by a twinkly glow. And loose change on the street mandates a sickening dipping sensation as our Tommy Cooper-poised hands swoop towards it. Despite their ubiquity, we can't say that any of these are enjoyable feelings.
Square Enix's previous two reboot gambles paid off handsomely. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a fine amalgam of innovative mechanics, robust research and a rich world; Tomb Raider was a solid exploration of modern action-adventure arenas and plot clichés. Thief is the latest to sneak out of that Montreal-San Francisco collaboration axis, but has a bigger trick to pull off: the paradox of creating a successful, brash modern game where in-game achievement is quiet and understated. And it all takes place in the elegant shadow of 2012's Dishonoured.
The choice to go with a reboot, rather than a prequel or the originally-mooted sequel, has enabled Eidos Montreal to meet that challenge, though classic elements from previous Thiefs have been retained. The new game takes place in the same semi-magical, semi-steampunk, semi-Medieval setting - simply called The City. It has the same hero at its heart - the soft-voiced thief Garrett.
And the core game - the stealing, the tools, the sneaking - is the same. However, it has disposed of much. The factions have gone, so Garrett is no longer an erstwhile member of a hidden order - he's just an extremely-agile thief. The memorable layout of the old city has gone. And the sense of a history that's more than architectural is absent too - despite all of the books and manuscripts you'll find in the game, there's no meaningful narrative depth to the world or its inhabitants.
Your task as Garrett starts simply. Following a short tutorial, where your impetuous protegé Erin falls into the middle of a magical ritual run by The City's leader Baron Northcrest, you wake a year later with amnesia and strange new focus powers. Following that ridiculous coincidence, Erin has vanished and The City is in the grip of a mental disease called the Gloom. Your fence Basso tasks you with helping a group ominously named The Graven, and from here on out events drag you along a back-alley tour of your home town.
Job number one is to stay undetected. Thief is a proper stealth game, so you'll need to stay anonymous by sticking to the shadows and staying whisper-silent while you fill your pockets with goodies. In previous Thiefs, walking on stone was enough to alert the over-caffeinated guards to your presence. Things are less punishing now: sound 'traps' come in the forms of rarer surfaces such as water and broken glass, or as animals (such as pet birds) that squawk if you disturb them.
As you'd expect, the lighting effects are gorgeous. Garrett clings to the shadows naturally, avoiding or negating brightly-lit areas with his toolset. He's undetectable if he's motionless and he has a dash move that lets him quickly transition between patches of shadow. Of course you can cheat and make the actual game as light as you want in the settings, but even so you'll find yourself occasionally navigating dark vents or cobwebbed corridors by touch, using your regulated focus skill as a makeshift night vision. And the game just isn't the same without a pervasive gloom...
The lighting effects are gorgeous. Garrett clings to the shadows naturally, avoiding or negating brightly-lit areas with his toolset
Garrett also has another tool for staying undetected - the levels' verticality. You'll find yourself hopping onto the rooftops (or onto bookshelves or rafters) for alternative routes past patrolling guards. Plain old running isn't a guaranteed escape plan if you should fall, either: the guards are quite capable of pursuing you anywhere you go.
Of course, how the AI reacts to these skills is key. When you've not been detected, the AI patrols efficiently but formulaically. Guards will follow the same paths, peering into the shadows and muttering incessantly to themselves until they're jolted out of their routine by an alert. It's easy to judge their behaviour: a hollow eye icon sits above every guard's head to denote their suspicions. It fills up according to your proximity, exposure and noise level, and once a guard's suspicious it'll continue to fill until it turns fully red - meaning the guards have clocked you and will start chasing you down.
Even if you avoid this stage, a suspicious guard is a dangerous guard. If they suspect someone's around but they're not sure they'll explore every corner they know about. Eventually, they will track you down if you don't get out of the area - take our word for it.
Invisible, not invincible
Thief's all about stealth, so if guards spot you you'll want to run. Forget early demos featuring combat: you're a wimp when it comes to fighting, which is how it should be. The solitary duck/parry move you've got takes a couple of seconds to recharge, and with no sword to rely on you must repeatedly club enemies with your blackjack to knock them out. Using focus lets you eliminate baddies faster, granted, but against more enemies Garrett will be overwhelmed unless he flashbombs his way to safety.
Desperate to spill blood? Then engage enemies from range with Garrett's arsenal of arrows. He's got eight types in total, which are much more combat-oriented than old Garrett's quiver. Out goes the moss arrow (useless now you don't have to soften surfaces to walk quietly), in comes the blast arrow (think: BOOM!). Garrett's arrows also fire dead-straight, so when you're killing people with your blast, fire, broadhead and sawtooth arrows you won't have to worry about gravitational pull.
The four that are genuinely useful in ways that don't (always) murderise are the water, fire, blunt and rope arrows. Water arrows extinguish unshielded fires and torches, while fire arrows light them up (useful against light-fearing freaks later in the game). Blunt arrows can be used to knock switches, pulleys, and so forth, opening up areas or dropping large items on enemies. Finally, rope arrows attach to specific rope-bound areas in the world, opening up new areas higher-up. Enemies will only notice the impact of any of these arrows if they're looking right at the thing when it hits - and even then they might not notice you're around.
These few items - combined with Garrett's flashbombs and preternatural agility purloined directly from Assassin's Creed - massively increase your survival chances as you move through levels.
There are other upgrades too, but they're much less effective and interesting than the few gear-gated ones. Lockpicks, blackjack, bow and armour all have upgradeable facets to make you tougher, faster, more lethal and so on. Despite this, we made it through the entire game without buying any of them. Similarly, the expensive trinkets that are available don't really change how you play the game. Instead, they mostly reduce resource costs (unlike Dishonoured's innovative Bone Charms).
And what of Garrett's all-important 'focus' powers, which were born from that prologue 'incident'? These are more clearly magical, but only work when you turn on focus mode. Using focus at different times makes tasks slightly easier. So you can pick-pocket quicker, knock out enemies in combat with a single blow, highlight the important areas in a given environment, enjoy a healthy zoom for steady aiming, spy footsteps through walls and so on...
Using focus makes the game much, much easier (with the exception of focus lockpicking, oddly, which we found tougher than regular lockpicking). We can't imagine how difficult it would be to track the wires from a trap without these magical 'n00b' skills.
Individually these core mechanics work well, but something doesn't quite feel right. Where Deus Ex: Human Revolution was an inspired meeting of engine, plot and mechanics, Thief feels like it was conceived as a set of mechanics and a series of vignettes separately, in buildings continents apart. Afterwards, the story was then plugged in.
That lack of coherence occurs across the whole City. Entire levels feel like over-familiar setpieces. The majority of The City has that ugly Tomb Raider 'shanty' design about it; occasionally spruced up with a seafront or a tall building. It's simply not distinctive and, without using waypoints, it's almost impossible to know where you're going or get a feel for how it all links up into one giant world.
Though the storyline takes you through every area The City feels fractured. Where Dishonoured wowed you with each new setting, Thief drops you into a series of grimy tumbledown towns linked by cheeky quicktime level transitions you can't back out of. Start opening a window and Garrett will sit there until either you hammer the buttons enough to finish the animation or reach the point of total cosmic entropy, whichever's first.
Thief feels like it was conceived as a set of mechanics and a series of vignettes in buildings continents apart
Moreover, it's not always obvious how you find your way around The City. You can replay story missions, so we attempted to find a particular quest we felt we could easily ace second time over in order to unlock challenges. Only that became a challenge in itself: we simply couldn't find the starting point, as the representational map is functionally useless if you're not on a mission. We walked around and around The City aimlessly, and couldn't tell if the map we could see included neighbouring areas or was just the area we were in; or whether we could walk through the piled junk in doorways or not. Eventually, pin-cushioned with arrows from pursuing guards, we gave up.
These frustrations are exacerbated by the writing. Though there are plot elements we're not allowed to spoil they're simply not interesting enough and feel like they were nailed together arbitrarily to justify the transitions between vignettes. Just a few hours after the credits rolled the generic details of the main story were already beginning to drift out of our minds.
Why were the guards stripping the corpses on a production line? Why was the Baron running an asylum when he seems happy to let most of The City rot? The game doesn't prove to us that the designers know these answers either. It's frustrating because at times the scripting is entertaining, and well-researched and witty to boot. But story decisions and plot points jar with these moments.
This isn't a first for Square's games: similar simplistic story revelations are also visible in Tomb Raider, for instance, where characters are also ham-acted caricatures. Another mealy-mouthed gritty hero, another impetuous protegé, another authoritarian despot, another abusive henchman, another dodgy outsider, another mob that's reduced to inhumanity so it's okay to kill them... Like Tomb Raider, people are flagged as betrayers so far in advance that their mothers must have looked down at their swollen bellies and thought, "Oops, I've got a bad 'un coming."
Compared with the three-way factional struggles of the original Thief series, even with its ancient lack of animation, compared with To The Moon, compared even with Lost Odyssey, there's a real poverty of imagination in the narrative and how it's presented.
To be fair to Thief, it's not an awful lot worse than a number of other AAA games' plots (Assassin's Creed's nonsense-on-stilts has a lot to answer for) but it still irks us.
Primarily because it could be robbing you of a good experience. When we first finished the main storyline we'd left most of the optional side missions that are designed to build up the colour of the world unexplored. Did we feel the need to go back to finish any of these? Not especially - and that's the problem. These side-quests, so easily ignored, actually provide Thief's greatest unexpected challenges.
In one mission we had to sneak into a man's house to uncover some carefully-hidden loot. After slipping through some vents we found ourselves inside a wine cellar. Even with focus activated, there was nothing obvious in this cellar - until we looked up. Behind the beams on the ceiling, invisible from the entrance, were four buttons. Hitting them with arrows dropped a rope, leading down to an ancient tomb where gilded cups waited to be snatched.
Would it be worth doing that mission for anything more than the challenge of that puzzle? No. The money you get from the side-quests certainly doesn't require you to deviate from the main path to succeed. But because the puzzle we just described was probably deemed too challenging for the average player, it would never have been allowed to be a part of any core mission - certainly there's nothing like it in the main quest.
Indeed, the impetus to complete the challenges in any given level is for the thrill of the challenge itself, nothing more. The fact that doing so also unlocks a series of so-so leaderboard quests, where you run around the same location trying to grab as much loot as possible in as short a time as possible, doesn't excite us.
But we were hooked, regardless, not for the story, but for the mechanics of stealth and exploration. Finding routes through the levels peaceably and intact is a genuine challenge on the normal 'Thief' difficulty - and with the aids turned off, it gets much, much harder. Add in the custom difficulty modes, which allow you to recreate old Thief - indeed, which allow you to make a much harder game than any Thief - and it's an enjoyable, challenging customisable sandbox. It's just sad that the main story and The City itself don't match up to the toolset Eidos Montreal has created.
Thief doesn't deliver on all of its swagbag of stolen promises, but still outshines many new-gen titles.
- The stealth mechanic works well; mistakes are your own.
- The sandbox level design complements the stealth.
- No sense of history in the city
- Mechanics don't feel cohesive
- Writing leaves a lot to be desired