Warning: The following review will contain some minor spoilers.
Shortly after Christmas in 1998, my parents took me to a book store near our house. It was a unique establishment (at least back then), because it had a number of computers set up for the sole purpose of showcasing videogames. I can remember walking in, sitting down, and then loudly protesting – some two or three hours later – when my mother wanted to drag me away from this amazing new world that I’d discovered. Since that day, the Thief series has been my favorite franchise of all time. I read every bit of lore that I could find, memorized verses from the game’s fictional religions, and even pressured my father into framing the front cover of each trapezoidal box for me.
I’m a fan, basically, is what I’m trying to say.
As you can imagine, I was absolutely overjoyed when I learned that another Thief installment was on its way. It was, in all honesty, the first game release that I’d been excited for in a very long time… which made it all the more painful when I finally got to play it, and I discovered that the opening chapters were rather underwhelming. Everything about the game struck me as being linear, constrained, and deeply dissatisfying. A number of people told me that it would improve once I got beyond the initial stages, but I was all but certain that this new title would be Thief in name only.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
“Get on with it.”
In fact, “Thief” is an incredibly appropriate name for the game. Not, as I had hoped, because it serves as a satisfying addition to my favorite franchise, but because almost every aspect of it – from the story to the gameplay itself – has been shamelessly lifted from another one that did it better. Still, as much as I could complain about the primary plot being a shadow cast by the worst parts of the Bioshock games, or as angrily as I might declare that I’d already seen one of the side plots while watching Fringe, I understand that inspiration has to come from somewhere.
I only wish it had come from the Thief franchise itself.
In Thief, players follow a man named Garrett, who is allegedly the same urchin-turned-Keeper-turned-criminal that was present in the previous games. He’s similar in appearance to his predecessor – although his leather corset probably raises a few eyebrows – and even sports what might be a mechanical eye, which was one of the character’s defining features… but the likeness ends there.
“It’s a vest…”
The original Garrett was calm, intelligent, and witty. This one is a whiny, preachy, and often pretentious character, voiced by an unenthusiastic actor whose poor line delivery – which sounds like it was prompted by the phrase “Canadian Batman” – frequently detracts from the game’s already threadbare atmosphere. He’s not the only badly voiced entity, either, though the others at least have the decency to remain absent for most of the game.
Now, I’ve heard it said that high expectations will often result in disappointment, and it’s true that I might have had unrealistic hopes for Thief. I really wanted to see a continuation of the expansive story from the other games, and I had hoped to keep exploring the world I had come to know and love. I didn’t get either of those things, which may have tainted my perspective a little bit… but the thing is, I probably would have been able to adapt and enjoy a new take on the series if it had offered something worthwhile. Sadly, the plot was bland and predictable, the gameplay was tedious and frustrating, and there were so many bugs that I have to wonder if the Quality Assurance team will ever find work in the industry again.
Quick! Someone get an Ouija board!
As with previous games, the entirety of Thief is set in a metropolis known as The City. In this version, however, none of the familiar fixtures or organizations are present; no Hammerites, no Keepers, and not even the barest mention of any events that have gone before. Garrett’s hideout is in The City’s clocktower, which would likely seem like an excessively odd choice to fans of the franchise. Even the series’ staple cussword, “taffer,” is almost entirely absent from anyone’s vocabulary, showing up only once in a piece of randomized dialogue and once in text… where it is misspelled as “gaffer.” There are a few subtle nods to the previous games, but they fly in the face of the established lore and really only serve as reminders of things that are missing.
Where is your Builder now?
Here’s my fan theory: This latest Thief game takes place in an alternate universe from the previous ones, and it mirrors the events of Thief 2: The Metal Age. All of the familiar elements are the result of the two realities colliding with each other after the accident that occurs in the prologue. There’s actually a fair amount of evidence to back this up, but that’s a topic for another article. For now, I’ll just say I’m surprised that Garrett’s surrogate daughter, Elizabeth – sorry, Erin – never utters the phrase “Constants and variables.”
Cue the Fringe theme.
Still, with nothing to tie it down, Thief had the chance to achieve its own variety of greatness. Sadly, it chose instead to thoroughly miss that mark and wind up being spectacularly bad. The story is a weak and contrived mess which heavily “borrows” from other games, as though the writers had been told to take all of the controversial parts from 2013’s greatest hits and find a way of stitching them together. There’s only one remotely original aspect, and it seems to have been the product of a lone contributor shouting “And then the bad guy shows up!” at random intervals during brainstorming sessions. Even the finale is about as exciting as getting in a staring match with a dead goose, and equally as unsatisfying.
One thing I will say about Thief is that it’s consistent. The story, which is terrible, is a perfect match to the gameplay, which is also terrible. While the game ostensibly encourages players to explore, its restrictive control scheme and stifling environment make that more aggravating than enjoyable. For instance, Garrett can only jump or climb in very specific places, which are often marked with what appears to be bird poop.
No, no, it’s paint. Really.
This mechanic, along with some other, similarly limiting ones, completely undermines the open world aspect of the game. Exploration becomes a hassle and a chore, particularly when every other building can only be accessed via a window that must be slowly pried open (by repeatedly mashing on a button) whenever Garrett enters or leaves. One would think that a master thief would plan on having an accessible escape route, but he opts instead to go through the same time-consuming process with every passage. To top it off, the level design makes each new location feel like a place that Garrett is supposed to be, which seems a bit strange for a character whose expertise is breaking and entering.
“I prefer the term ‘unexpected guest.’”
Another problem is that Thief bills itself as a stealth-oriented game, but there’s very little reason to be stealthy at all. I played on the highest difficulty (short of the user-customized ones with social media integration), and I found that the most efficient way to explore a level was to sprint through the halls, make as much noise as I could, then lead the resulting conga line of guards back to one of the numerous wardrobes that dot every environment. After ducking into one of these freestanding closets – which were always conveniently empty – I’d simply have to wait for an adversary to approach, whack him with the door, then club him over the head while his buddies stood and watched. After that, it was just a matter of repeating the process for every other guard, until I was left with a pile of unconscious bodies and an unpatrolled mansion to loot.
Waking up will be awkward.
Really, though, that’s probably for the best, because combat of any kind is a mess. Garrett’s ability to manually attack is actually disabled when he’s sneaking up on an enemy, which forces players to use the scripted “Takedown” animation every time they want to incapacitate someone. Fighting an adversary head-on is just a matter of mashing a button as quickly as possible, and arrows are either instantly deadly or completely harmless, depending on whether Garrett is aiming at his target’s throat or not.
Presented without comment.
Even if the guards were less inept and Garrett had the freedom to explore, it still wouldn’t fix the excessive hand-holding that the game provides. Every mission objective has an associated waypoint marker enabled by default, and although it can be disabled, the damned thing quickly becomes an obnoxious necessity for attempts at navigating the haphazardly designed environments. Worse still is the inclusion of “Focus,” an ability which highlights every piece of loot, every hidden button, and every object with which a player can interact. I consoled myself by reasoning that the Focus ability could be an aspect of Garrett’s mechanical eye, but any comfort I would have derived from that went out the window – after an aggravating prying animation, of course – when I discovered that Focus could also allow Garrett to move silently, turn invisible, or slow down time… and that it was replenished by getting hopped up on opium.
Honestly, it seems like very little attention was paid to the world-building, save for three notable exceptions. The puzzles, while frequently engineered with the least intelligent players in mind, are nonetheless entertaining and gratifying to solve. This is a mark in Thief’s favor, though it often includes elements that seem a bit gratuitous. At one point, the player is expected to spy on naked prostitutes getting it on with fat old men. This is actually required in order to progress the story.
Watch it for the plot.
Here, in stark contrast to the rest of the game, the amount of work that went into sculpting bodies, animating motions, and recording moans is all too evident. One might even say that the scenes go a little bit overboard, which is also the case when Garrett visits the local insane asylum.
This is (at least) the second time that we’ve had to visit a madhouse in a Thief game, with the most notable example being The Shalebridge Cradle in Thief: Deadly Shadows. In that title, the insane asylum offered one of the scariest and most atmospherically intensive experiences of my entire gaming career. Unfortunately, while Thief is clearly trying to emulate that effect, it goes so far overboard that it winds up being overtly comical. Horror is the art of subtlety, and there’s nothing subtle about a Muppet-like voice shouting “BLEAGH!” every three seconds. In fact, it sounded oddly reminiscent of another scene that I’d witnessed earlier.
The thing is, I could go on and on about where the game falls short and how it could have been improved, but the truth of the matter is that literally every aspect leaves something to be desired. I tried, desperately at times, to find more than a handful of redeeming qualities about it, but even the music – which I initially thought was well-written and appropriate – quickly gets repetitive and has a tendency drown out everything else. (That, in addition to the incredibly buggy audio, made listening to anything a challenge.) Somehow, the people in charge of this game managed to take a series that once had the appeal of a tempting vixen and give it all the allure of an old man in drag.
“So, are we going to do this, or…?”
I’ve heard that fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender like to pretend that M Night Shyamalan never made his live-action movie, and I’m saddened to say that I finally understand how they feel. I still love the series, and I’m proud to admit that I had been waiting for a new Thief title since the moment I finished playing the last one… but this latest game is not Thief, and it looks like I’ll have to go on waiting.