Publisher: Square Enix | Developer: Eidos Montreal | Out: 28 Feb
In books, or TV, or film you can safely label something a ‘genre’ item. Sci-fi, typically, is the label this is applied to – something so defined by its tropes and themes that it becomes the default way of describing it. This hasn’t really happened in games – it tends to be the mechanics of a title that define its place in the great gaming Venn diagram; a game is a first-person shooter, a beat-em-up, an RPG. Thief takes that one step further, though – it creates its own sub-category and makes sure to firmly and unapologetically place itself within its boundaries. Thief is not a stealth game; it’s a thieving game.
Long-time fans of the franchise will immediately feel at home, back in the shoes of Garrett. Things have changed since the last time we took control of our favourite kleptomaniac, though – Eidos Montreal is keen to point out that Thief is a complete reboot of the series, starting a new storyline and introducing new characters. The City remains its bleak, drab self – existing exclusively within a colour palette that makes Mordor look cheery. This art direction suits the gameplay (you need shadows to stay hidden, therefore there are a /lot/ of shadows) but can become tiresome after a while.
Luckily, the game’s visual language is given variance by Garrett’s hands – you’ll spend a lot of time looking at the Master Thief’s most valuable tools: if you’re not skulking around a dark corridor somewhere, you’ll be slicing a painting from its frame, picking a lock or fiddling with a piece of loot you’ve just lifted. The subtle animations and dexterity of Garrett’s hands is almost hypnotic – Eidos knows that the hands are kept in frame for the majority of the game, and the developer is keen for you to pay as much attention to your digits as Garrett would.
When you’re not enraptured by Garrett’s nimble fingers, you’ll be marvelling at the fantastic lighting engine. Light sources are varied and inventive – you’ll come across everything from flaming braziers to ethereal glowing fungi – and each casts its own eldritch glow on the cobbled floors and buckling walls of the City, showing off just what a next-gen light processor can do. The game forces you to be attentive to how light works, too – a really nice touch for a game so obsessed with making you hide, watch and wait.
There’s an achievement for finishing the game in over 15 hours – proof that Eidos wants Thief to be played at a considered, thoughtful pace. Rush the game, and you’ll be punished – the combat mechanics are brutal, unforgiving and cruel. Should you get sniffed out by one of the myriad watchmen, you’re honestly better off just legging it. Some players may take issue with how punishing Thief is in combat – if you’re approached by more than one enemy, that’s it.
Game over. You will die. Garrett is armed only with a cudgel and a bow, the former more defensive than offensive and the latter more of a tool than a weapon. This game is all about creating a Thief fantasy – this isn’t about the uber-macho power trip of Gears Of War, this is about the intimate thrill of outsmarting your opponent. The way Eidos Montreal has balanced Garrett makes you think before you act – an approach the stealth genre as a whole has been neglecting of late.
It’s a good job then that the stealth mechanics are phenomenal – we’d go as far as saying Thief does stealth better than any other game we’ve played recently (it puts Splinter Cell: Blacklist to shame). But the point of the game isn’t just about being stealthy. You’ve got to be thief-like. Loot is everywhere, and the more you steal, the more you’re rewarded. Unlike Dishonored – whose mechanics revolved around the Blink ability; swoop down, wreak havoc, retreat – Thief keeps the pressure constant by forcing you to play on street level. Aerial locations are rare, and offer thankful moments of respite.
Surveying the environments can be aided by way of the focus mechanic – tapping Y activates Garrett’s weird mystical eye, highlighting interactive objects, loot and watchmen (of course, this can be turned off through the options menu if you want to have a more hardcore experience). Objects such as windows, grates and doors can and will be illuminated with focus, prompting you to explore pathways that might be a little more off the beaten path. The downside to playing this way is that animations tend to be long and tedious when unscrewing grates or passing through sub-level barriers. If you’re in a rush, or get stuck, and have to constantly watch Garrett gingerly push aside a piece of lumber, frustration levels can quickly rise.
Endure the tedium of the animations enough and you’ll be rewarded with little hints and moments of narrative exposition given in the form of ambient conversations – listen in here and there and you’ll hear about a bonus piece of loot stashed nearby. Our favourite was the tale of a woman whose alcoholic, gambling husband was selling off the couples’ belongings to fuel his addictions. The woman hid her wedding ring in a crack in the chimney… which we then took.
These moments give more life and character to the City than any of the game’s central narrative. The story, admittedly, is atrocious – it’s clichéd, it’s forced and it’s trite. Eidos Montreal seems to know this, though – amidst the game’s many customisation options is the ability to turn Garrett’s irritating inner monologue off, rendering him mute unless a mission objective changes. We preferred playing the game this way – Thief is an incredible Thief simulator, it really is, but whenever it tries to do something outside of its comfort zone, the seams holding the whole experience together start to show.
The chapters themselves are designed competently and inventively – the levels take you on a tour of the City, from the poverty-stricken back allies and slums to the dens of the rich; brothels, mansions, watchtowers. There’s enough variety to keep your brain engaged at all times, with each level having a number of playable paths that’ll get you to where you need to be. Herein lies another of Thief’s greatest assets – its replayability: there are achievements for completing the game without killing, finding all hidden areas, finishing off every side mission, replaying the game with all the difficulty mods turned on, and finishing the game without using focus. The levels have been designed to accommodate multiple playthroughs – some of the maps are huge (and occasionally difficult to navigate thanks to the awkward mini-map) and even the developers are still finding new ‘routes’ through the levels without being detected.
There’s a ton of fan service in the game, too – the whole City is modelled closely on the world in Deadly Shadows, so those that remember the old Xbox title will feel right at home in Garrett’s dank city. There’s a nice spattering of references through the chapters, too – most are purely cosmetic, but the attention to detail clearly highlights Eidos’ passion for the series.
Overall, Thief is a game that has a solid stealth core that encapsulates everything a title operating in the genre should be. Unfortunately, the whole experience is let down by Eidos’ insistence that Garrett needs to be propelled by some ludicrous and unnecessary story.
We want to jump into the City, go plunder a few houses, outsmart some bad guys and go back to our Clock Tower to admire our handiwork – not be pushed on through some occultist drivel that feels tired and forced after about three chapters. Luckily there’s enough variation in the gameplay proper to overshadow the complaints we have about the story. Our advice would be to play Thief through once, unlock all the missions, and then enjoy it as it was intended – as a series of challenge maps to ghost your way through, taking as much loot as you can en route.