Developer: Eidos Montreal | Publisher: Square Enix | Played On: Xbox One (Also Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC) | Price: $59.99 | ESRB: Mature [Blood, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, Violence]
You have to admire Eidos Montreal. Not only do they revive one of gaming’s greatest with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but they go right from there to Thief — a series even more niche and more cult. I initially wondered if they could strike a repeat performance with ostensibly more difficult subject material; now I wonder if there’s any subject material difficult enough for these guys. Thief is a rebirth on equal footing with Human Revolution, though some technical limitations butt heads with the game’s potential.
The game’s structure is similar to, well, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You alternate between exploring an open city (named “The City”) and tackling more directed, objective-based levels — thieving all the while, of course. The game is a klepto’s delight. Shiny baubles abound, and you’ll see Garrett’s hands swipe plunder about as often as Call of Duty cannon fodder gives up the ghost. The money from all that hoarding (where does he hold all those cups anyway?) can be used to purchase gadgets or upgrades that improve Garrett’s base abilities.
Exploring The City is enjoyable, though some technical issues make getting around a pain (more on that later). Shades of MetroidVania are present — as you afford better tools, you can unscrew grates or disarm traps to get to new areas. That leads to new side quests, shortcuts, convenient merchants, and of course more loot to swipe. You’ll find similarly open sensibilities in Thief’s story levels. While there are a few hallway-of-spooks stretches, Thief’s campaign levels are open and sprawling, letting you decide how much to explore or how to bypass a room full of guards. The scripted sequences aren’t particularly unwelcome either, as they’re well-structured and used in moderation.
Mechanically, the game is nearly identical to the previous Thief games: first-person plundering with an indicator telling you how illuminated you are. The biggest addition here is a “swoop” mechanic — a multi-directional dash allowing you to cross lit areas or close the distance on a guard. Though it takes some time to learn, the swoop adds a lot to Thief. Not only does it make you feel like you’re ninja dashing everywhere, but it’s also a safety net for playing in first-person. If someone comes up to your side or behind, you can swoop back to the shadow quickly without setting the hornet’s nest on alert. It also opens the door to fancy moves like dashing up to a guard, picking his pocket, then dashing back to the shadows in one quick motion.
Unfortunately, Thief is not as mechanically successful when it comes to providing an open city to explore. The intent seems to be an Assassin’s Creed style city hub populated with side quests and vendors, only more dense and claustrophobic. They nailed the style, but technical limitations make exploring The City more of a hassle than it should be. The in-game map shows you a sprawling, open city, but it’s actually constructed of several smaller zones with load screens slipped in between. That in itself isn’t so bad, but the lack of predictability when you trigger one is jarring. If you want to get to an objective in another area, you may have to crawl up a story and load through someone’s apartment. Other times you may have to crawl through a vent at street level. There is a certain payoff in eventually learning all those hidden routes, but that doesn’t help early on when you’re fumbling around for the right window to open.
Exploration of The City is also stuttered by mini-loads that are masked with pointless QTEs. Many windows around town can be opened, but most require Garrett to wedge in a bar and meekly pry (read: mash X) until all the texture data for the room behind it has loaded. It sounds minor, but Thief as an experience is so flowing and momentum-based that watching Garrett struggle to pop open a window feels anti-characteristic. These two issues (the vague transition locations and loading areas) combine in a bad way too. While hunting for the window that takes you where you want to go, you’ll likely have to pry open many that lead nowhere… and guess what, you have to load again to come back. It’s annoying, and makes me wish for a version of this game that can flow freely without load times.
There’s a third issue to discuss regarding Thief, though it’ll mostly come down to taste. The trend with stealth games now is to let you decide your experience. Games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Dishonored account for action-based approaches through ability upgrades, but Thief is not so accommodating. Garrett is extremely brittle, and often the best way to deal with enemies is to not engage them at all.
That style of play is highlighted by a custom challenge mode, which allows you to set a number of difficulty modifiers to really push yourself if you like. You can toggle almost anything in the game: turn off elements of the UI, disable specialty items, etc. Some combinations sound insurmountable, like pairing Ironman (no loading of save games) with instant game over upon being detected. This modularity offers replayability on par with XCOM: Enemy Unknown – you beat it once to learn the game, and then play it four or five more times to see how many of your tools you can take away before you hit the breaking point. I could definitely see an extremely hard run of Thief turn into a month-long affair, scraping a little bit of progress together every night.
Luckily, Thief looks and sounds fantastic so return trips are justified. In style, tone, visuals, and sound, Thief hits absolutely every point square on the head. The art team at Eidos Montreal finds a way to lift the veil on whatever environment they create. Human Revolution gave us the smoky streets of Detroit and the oppressive underworld of China. Thief’s vision of The City is just as drenched in atmosphere and even more detail. It’s all about the little things. For instance, after taking an arrow to the hand in a cutscene, Garrett’s hand is then wrapped in a bloody bandage during gameplay.
In fact, Thief exemplifies an attention to detail that you don’t find in many games. Watching Garrett deftly move his hands is an unexpected joy, whether he’s delicately turning knobs on a safe or tracing his hands along a picture frame to feel for hidden switches. It feels weird to call attention to hand animation, but it’s how you see yourself in the world, and the effort Eidos Montreal put into animating it pays off. It’s the equivalent to seeing an extremely cool reload animation in a first-person shooter. That, combined with Thief’s visuals, creates unique stealth gameplay that really only compares to the original Thief series. The vibe is similar to Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory or even Hitman. It’s as though Garrett exists in a parallel dimension of shadow, always seeing the real world through a keyhole, a hole in the wall, from the rooftops. Through him, you get to experience the voyeuristic thrills of being a thief in a depraved and dying world.
The larger story succeeds on identical grounds as the Thief series before. Garrett’s indifference to the world around him make him an ideal thief, and his unwilling involvement in The City’s politics and arcane aspects of the setting are enjoyable to watch. The beats of the story are connected well enough and have the sense to not beat you over the head with characterization or needlessly melodramatic plot points. Those looking will find more than a few similarities between Thief and 2012’s Dishonored when it comes to style and story, but do recall that Thief dates back to 1998 before accusations of theft fly in the comments.
I doubt that will matter though, Thief looks gorgeous and only an idiot would seriously cry copycat after seeing the two compared. I hesitate to call it “next-gen” since PC games have enjoyed higher resolution textures for a while, but this game combines strong artistic sense with incredible Unreal Engine visuals to really bring The City to life. The drawback is Unreal-synonymous: freshly-loaded levels will have a smattering of low-res textures until the good ones are streamed in.
Thief’s audio is phenomenal though, to the extent that I worry it won’t receive proper credit. Not only is the world populated by small conversations to overhear (feeding back into that voyeurism I mentioned previously), but the game’s darker, more occult elements sound wonderfully unique. Triggering Garrett’s magic eye (which activates an Assassin’s Creed sort of highlighted view) plunges you into this swirl of creepy whispers and otherworldly pulses. And, there’s an enemy type that sounds as equally terrifying as The Last of Us’ clickers. If you enjoy the creative aspects of gaming, Thief is worth it for the audio/visual ride alone.
In fact, I can’t think of many reasons not to play Thief, unless stealth just isn’t your cup of tea. Issues with navigation and annoying load problems are impossible to ignore, and it stings to think of a version of this game that doesn’t suffer from those drawbacks. Still, Thief is just about the best modern Thief game I could ask for. Back in 2011, I said that Human Revolution “manages to live up to the impossibly high prestige set by its title.” Now I can say that about Thief. It’s the real deal, and so is Eidos Montreal.
+ Challenging, Faithful Gameplay
+ Amazing Visuals & Sound
- Annoying Loads Hamper Navigation