(Click the picture above for the Video Review of Thief)
Stealing shit is fun.
This is why despite my distaste for Bethesda's style of RPGs, I keep coming back to them because they are one of the few games which fulfill my fantasy of amoral thievery. Unlocking a safe, pick-pocketing unsuspecting fools, looting graves, stealing treasure from ancient cultures, not enough games let me take other people's stuff. And very few such titles have an adequate enough stealth system to make me feel any more adept than a common crook.
Thief, the recently released reboot of the acclaimed stealth franchise, makes the art of thievery its primary concern. It knows the pleasure one feels in the hungry, outstretched hand, ever reaching for the next big score, that mythical unobtainable treasure. It knows the satisfaction one feels in hiding in the darkness, gazing out into the world of light and civilization and law, planning your next strike to spit in its face by taking its precious artifacts away from it. It knows the joy one feels by leaping from rooftop-to-rooftop, utilizing various equipment to navigate man's world, swooping in from unsuspected places to complete your elaborate heist. Most importantly, Thief knows that stealing shit is fun.
And for the most part, Thief fulfills this terribly depraved desire of mine fairly well.
Thief begins with a job gone very, very wrong. You play as Garrett, a master thief who has been in a coma for the past year after the failed gig. Garrett doesn't remember much of the particulars of his last job, but the ghost of his female partner-in-crime who died in the incident haunts him as he wakes from his deep sleep. He returns to his hometown of The City, a steampunk metropolitan which, like Garrett, has fallen on hard times as a mysterious plague hangs over it. Garrett tries to go back to business as usual, stealing whatever lies within his far-reaching grasp. But he can't get the dead women out of his mind, forcing him on a quest to discover the truth of what happened that dreadful night.
The story of Thief is one of its weakest elements. It admirably tries to bring up questions of the defining nature of alienation and the psychological implications of the criminal, interesting thematic elements for sure. But unfortunately the writing fails to address any these fascinating themes in any meaningful capacity, fumbling these splendid jewels like an amateur pickpocket. And sloppy characterization and a predictable plot progression doesn't help the story either, making resisting the urge to skip the cutscenes and get back to the thieving very difficult.
Indeed, in the act of stealing is where Thief thrives. There's an empowering feeling of Garrett's physicality that did a great job in convincing me that I was inhabiting the body of a master thief. Garrett satisfyingly pockets items, his gaze lingering slightly longer on the more precious of these objects which go into his own personal collection that you can view later. Everything else is immediately converted into money which you can use to purchase new tools which allow you access to new environments, ammo for your bow like water arrows which kill exposed flames, perks like increased health or focus (Thief's version of Arkham Asylum's Detective Mode) and so on.
There are an enormous amount of things to steal which is fantastic, both common trinkets and rarer collectible items alike, including city plagues which you can unscrew from their mounts and various pieces of fine art that you can cut out. Taking all of these objects as your own is incredibly satisfying, and the myriad things you can steal is quite impressive. If you, like me, enjoy stealing in video games, then Thief has got you covered in sheer quantity of things you can strive to steal.
And thankfully, Thief has strong stealth and navigation systems which effectively enable your vile acts of thievery, which is great since the face-to-face melee combat is rather weak and generally something you want to avoid. While not particularly innovative, Thief's stealth revolves around sight and sound. Though it's not only important to move quietly in the shadows, but also to know when you'll need to quickly dive out into the light to move forward. This is manifested in Thief with the Swooping ability. It's a sort of quick crouching sprint which feels great to execute, and does a good job in speeding up the usually glacial pace of stealth gameplay. With the power of Swoop and the overall ease of traversing the environment, both on the ground and on rooftops, Thief just plays great.
There are a number of rough spots though. About halfway through, the game forgets that its title is "Thief" and starts sending you on a ton of missions where thievery is secondary which is unfortunate considering that's where Thief shines like the gold you'll steal. Despite this, Thief's mechanical foundation is strong enough where it's still fun to sneak around in these missions, with most of its levels doing a good job of giving you at least two different paths to your objective. Some of the encounter and level design can be inconsistent, but these instances were very much the exception rather than the rule.
But by far Thief's most prominent issue was its hub world design. You engage with the main story and side missions by traversing The City and its various districts. It's not well designed at all, with frequent loading screens in between sections of The City and the environment just being a straight-up pain to navigate with an esoteric structure that's not intuitive to traverse at all. There are a ton of collectibles and optional side missions in The City, but I avoided most of them because I disliked moving around in that environment so much. It kills a lot of the momentum in between story missions, and discourages exploration with its terrible layout. It's the one aspect of Thief other than the story that is quite bad, and is much harder to ignore than the story itself.
Thankfully, the production values of Thief fare much better. While I've heard reports from our own Ross Hartley that the Xbox One version of Thief is lacking, the PC version looks really good. It's quite sharp, scaling very well on my mid-tier PC, with great shadows and some strong visual effects which help create a fantastically dark, dusty, dirty, disgusting atmosphere that sold me on the world better than the actual story did.
Thief also has strong sound design, giving you good audio clues as to when you've been exposed or spotted, which is necessary for a good stealth title. It shares the soundtrack's dark, industrial-electronica tone which fits in really well with The City's steampunk settling, and gives it quite a unique sound compared to other titles in the same genre. There are some weird moments where character dialogue from other sections of the level invaded quite loudly on others, but I never hurt the gameplay experience.
Stealth games are not for everybody, indicative as there isn't a lot of people out there making big-budget stealth-focused titles anymore. While games like Dishonored try to keep that dream alive, their brand of stealth is usually underdeveloped. This very reason is what makes Thief so exciting.
Thief is a great return to form for stealth-centric titles. While it definitely has unfortunate issues like a terrible hub-world environment, a weak story and some inconsistent scenario design near the end, Thief's core gameplay is so solid that it's impossible not to give it credit. Backed by some strong production values and some great level design, Thief generally makes stealing shit as fun as I've always wanted it to be.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)