Early reactions to Thief suggest it falls somewhere between enjoyable and a complete disaster. To the latter I ask: what were you expecting? Thief is a very playable stealth adventure, but gets caught short by offering little beyond the bare basics outside its covert focus.
As a series, Thief has lay dormant for a decade, unsighted since 2004’s Deadly Shadows, but lingered on the cusp of a resurgence since its development began in 2008. That’s the first red flag; while I was playing on PlayStation 4, Thief isn’t a next-gen game, but we’ve come to expect that of 2014.
Set in a post-Victorian metropolis, known only as “The City” and looking a helluva lot like London, Thief reintroduces players to a new, darker Garrett. In fact, the whole game is engrossed in a darker tone with a somewhat whimsical story that does a rash job of explaining anything — but it doesn’t really matter; you’re a thief stealing everything in sight, and there’s some weird shit going on that serves to make everything harder than need be.
Thief is at its best when you’re gathering as much loot as possible, trying to complete every chapter without disrupting a single guard. The more confrontations, the worse Thief becomes.
After an introduction to assimilate into the world of a master thief, Garrett returns to the Clock Tower, which serves as a base of operations to restock and arrange contracts with shady underworld characters that’ll have you breaking and entering in a number of optional side quests; all in the name of compiling an impressive collection of loot.
Armed with a scarcely stocked bow and arrow, and the blackjack baton to knock out enemies, the hooded Garrett is free to explore a seemingly open, but actually quite restrictive, world at his leisure. Each area needs to load for an unusually long time, and none of it feels connected. Yet he’ll need to explore, because despite being a master thief, Garrett can’t steal any of the handy upgrades or tools, like a wrench to sneak into vents and knife to cut pictures out of frames. He does snag a great many pairs of scissors, but apparently, there are no good for cutting anything.
The stealth route is true to Thief’s origins, as a patience game. You’ll need to learn guards’ movement patterns before electing when and where to sneak past, and hope there isn’t a ruddy dog waiting around the corner to sniff you out.
Unlike most cross-gen games, Thief uses the PS4’s light bar really well. It illuminates bright white when Garret can be seen, contrasted by dark blue when he’s hidden; it’s awesome playing in a dark room.
The other gimmicks are rubbish. The PS4’s inventory defaults to the touchpad, in the worst implementation of it yet. You have to swipe to one of eight positions to select your weapon, then press it to change. It never works and is completely unusable. Fortunately, it can be subbed out for the D-Pad using an inventory wheel. Likewise, Kinect will get confused trying to listen to you, and let’s not even get started on PS4 motion control.
One eye always needs to peer at the light or shadow meter, which glows when you can be seen. The DualShock 4 lightbar illuminates bright white in light areas contrasted by dark blue when Garrett is out of sight, in what is the best use of the technology yet. It’s actually useful, and really cool in a dark room. The other next-gen gimmicks aren’t so good.
The swoop ability, a short silent dash between darkness, is the only time you really feel like a thief. Otherwise, Garrett feels more like an Assassin’s Creed character, only ungainlier and in first person, making a horrible racket, rather than a nubile burglar. That’s the biggest problem I have with Thief; I can see it trying to relive Deadly Shadows, but I never really felt like a master thief.
The bow can be used to subdue enemies non-lethally with a blunt tip, or aggressively with something sharper, but it’s more effective causing distractions or extinguishing flames using the ice-tipped arrow to blanket unsuspecting henchmen in darkness; they’re even more confused when the flames of a burning light mysteriously rage back to life from a precise hit with the fire-tipped arrow.
When it all goes pear-shaped, Garrett can enter combat, but it’s horribly clumsy. Edios Montreal told me they wanted to make combat a more viable option compared to older games, where players tended to reload checkpoints if they were spotted, but they’ve not succeeded. Unless you’re willing to waste a rare sharp arrow hitting a stagnant minion between the eyes, the only way to take-out enemies is to sneak up on them undetected. As soon as you’re spotted, they’ll start shouting loudly and wildly flailing their weapon. You’re going to get hit, many times, during the dodge-dance and have to mash the attack button in retaliation hoping for the best. It works against one enemy, it’s painful against two and you’re doomed against three. Alternatively, the dumb AI can be fooled by slipping into a closet to have them proclaim “he’s vanished!” as convincingly as a seven-year-old in a mandatory school play.
Thief is trying to incentivise avoiding combat because the odds are stacked so heavily against you, but it’s just frustrating and feels horribly out-dated. If you’re ever seen by more than one enemy, you might as well reload and try again. The best Thief playthroughs are those with limited or no KOs (and there’s an Achievement for that).
Difficulty is further enhanced by a custom option beyond easy, medium and hard, which allows players to select their own mods. It will sound commonplace on PC, and considering its Windows heritage faux-mods were almost a prerequisite, but I can’t recall another console game that offers so many choices.
The HUD is a little busy for hardcore stealth fans, but all of it can be turned. Removing the waypoint, in particular, is a nightmare if you’ve been conditioned to run towards the bright white dot. If you’ve got the time, it makes for a slow change of pace, forcing you to actually think about where you’re going, and giving you ample opportunities to steal cutlery and mirrors from unsuspecting citizens as you waltz through their windows uninvited; but nobody’s ever home.
If you’ve just started playing and can’t see the appeal, you’re about 4 hours away from it really opening up. The entire thing will take you about 9 hours without playing many side quests, and around 15 with most of them. The first few chapters are fairly bland, following the same sneak in through the roof or front door > steal item > get out formula. It’s not until the fifth chapter, in an asylum with a distinct Outlast vibe, that it breaks away from convention. If you’re pushing though the story without disrupting any guards, it’s considerably more entertaining, as you’ve got a single focus that suits Thief’s otherwise slow pace.
There are also some frustrating puzzles to solve — mainly wall-coloured switches — but players can elect to use Garrett’s new focus ability, similar to Lara Croft’s Survival Instinct. It’ll highlight the important objects in the room, and help you locate otherwise almost impossible to find switches. I did start to become a little too reliant on it, and it’s completely optional if you’d prefer the old fashion DIY approach.
If you want to play a tough, but strong, stealth game, Garrett is your man. Thief is at its best when you’re gathering as much loot as possible, trying to complete every chapter without disrupting a single guard. The more confrontations, the worse Thief becomes. Combat is terrible, and some of the opening missions are painfully bland which, coupled with Garrett’s awkward movements, never make you feel like a master thief. There’s plenty on offer within a pure stealth mindset, just know all other facets sneak past on the bare basics.