The master thief is back, coming out of retirement for just one more job in Eidos Montreal's series revival. It's been long in the making, and it carries with it a heavy heritage. This is a series with pedigree, and there's been intense scrutiny on this new chapter since it was officially unveiled last year.
The scrutiny has come from an eager, but concerned audience, hoping that Eidos Montreal could weave some magic into this cherished IP in much the same way they did when the studio (albeit it with a different team) updated Deus Ex with the much lauded Human Revolution. While Thief sticks with tradition in many ways, there's also been some revisions that have had fans sweating. The question is, are the changes for the better, and has the series moved with the times while retaining its core appeal? Or has the purity of the franchise been muddied by alterations and amendments to the formula?
The answer sits somewhere between the two, but ultimately the Thief revival succeeds in the most important areas. It's not flawless by any means, but there's plenty to like about this new adventure with Garrett.
Looking back, this Thief has more in common with Deadly Shadows (2004) than it does with The Dark Project (1998) and The Metal Age (2000). The first two games were built around individual missions, whereas the third entry in the series (made by Ion Storm instead of Looking Glass Studios) featured an optional third-person viewpoint and an explorable world to navigate. While Thief is played out from a first-person perspective like the first two games, the explorable city from Deadly Shadows makes a return, with compartmentalised areas connected together making a sizeable environment for players to explore.
A lot has happened since the previous games were released, in the tighter confines of the stealth genre, and within the wider world of gaming. In many ways games like Dishonored and Assassin's Creed have moved the genre forward, and in sticking to some of the Thief series' core principles, this new entry feels a little antiquated at times.
This feeling is most obvious in the handling and control of Garrett, and in his movement around the game's various environments. There will be several moments when you'll look up at a wall and wonder why Garrett, an athletic thief and renowned sneak, can't simply climb up with either his hands or using one of the many tools he has at his disposal. There's a lack of verticality in his movement at times, and it feels like some of the set pieces are "on the rails" so to speak, and that the developers have chosen the path you must take rather than giving you the freedom to make your own way through a challenge.
This doesn't manifest itself across the board; there's plenty of sandbox moments where you're free to tackle areas as you see fit, but Square Enix doesn't let you off the leash as often as they might. When left to your own devices, there's some great fun to be had as you edge your way through the game's various environments, dodging patrols, slinking in and out of darkness, and getting out a trouble by the skin of your teeth.
When not confronted by traversal and movement limitations, Garrett moves with precision and grace. There's a swooping dash that allows him to move from one set of shadows to another, quick as a flash. You can pull him on top of certain bits of scenery, and lean around some corners to peak in relative safety. Using a tool called "the claw" you can hoist yourself up onto higher platforms, but only when indicated by certain environmental markers. There's a blackjack you can use to bludgeon unassuming guards unconscious, and you can buy a wrench that opens up alternative routes. Perhaps the most interesting tools available to you are the range of arrows to be used with Garrett's compound bow, with water arrows on hand to douse cover-blowing flames and candles, and wooden-tipped arrows for knocking environmental triggers from range (there's plenty more, with explosive and flame tips being just two more examples).
When presented with the chance to use any combination of the aforementioned skills or tools as desired, it's easy to feel powerful and in control of any given situation. However, the satisfaction enjoyed during these moments only highlights the times that our control is muted at other points, and accentuates the limitations enforced by the design decisions made by the studio.
One area of design that has polarised expectations in Thief is "Focus", whereby the player can activate a visual filter that shows off items and environmental objects of interest. Purists would call using this option cheating - going against the spirit of the original series. In truth, it's not intrusive at all. We used it a couple of times in the campaign, and if we'd had a significant problem with it, we could have turned it off before the game started. In fact, the difficulty customisation options are really robust, offering a variety of ways to tweak and adjust the experience to taste. Not only can you strip out the "Focus" feature, but you can remove mid-level saves, increase the hardiness of opponents and so on. Some of the options available will be a masochist's delight, with failure potentially hanging upon a single discovery by a patrol, and an "Ironman mode" that resets your entire campaign progress upon death.
One reason for not going overboard with the difficulty settings is the glitches that sometimes interrupt the experience. Audio was a big concern, and it's the biggest single mark against the game. Hopefully it'll be patched later, because as it stands the proximity is skewed, and it's sometimes difficult to tell where conversations are coming from. Likewise, the balancing of the voiceover dialogue hasn't been done very well, and we missed several lines of conversation between Garrett and his supporting cast because talk was masked by other audio cues and ambient sound effects. There's a solid soundtrack running underneath the action, with industrial beats pounding out to heighten tense moments, but as with the rest of the audio, it was a little overpowering at times and drowned out conversations taking place between characters in the environment.
The AI of your enemies is also a little erratic at times. Without wanting to be too harsh, it's fair to call it exploitable. Sometimes it works as intended, with guards providing an effective challenge and acting as a barrier to be worked around as you head towards your designated target, but at other moments they'll be completely stupid and miss you when you're hiding right next to them. It's uneven at best. Another area that was less than perfect was the boss fights. There weren't many, and while they tried to weave core gameplay elements into the action, the results were far from perfect and, at times, a little frustrating.
From a narrative perspective the campaign was a bit on the clunky side. Cutscenes didn't flow fluently from the action, and it was all a little bit generic. Many of the story elements were eerily similar to those found in Dishonored (which we'll forgive because Dishonored borrowed so heavily from the original Thief games), and the semiotics felt a little blurred at times. While sticking to canon with the American accented Garrett, he sounded almost like an Italian-American gangster at times, and there was so many references to drinking coffee in the script that each mention would jar us out of the moment. As with previous games in the series, there's a return of the hybrid Victorian-medieval-fantasy-steam punk setting, but it sometimes it felt like there were too many conflicting influences.
Having wrapped up the eight chapter campaign, it was hard not to feel just a little bit disappointed. But following that we picked ourselves up and delved back into the City and started to take on side-missions. Moving around the dank, dark streets might reveal the staggering amount of loading screens that stitch the adventure together (you'll also spend plenty of time loading during the campaign), but it also communicates a really strong atmosphere. Our initial concerns about the lack of verticality started to waiver somewhat, and we started to see the environment as a puzzle, rather than as a missed opportunity. While more traversal options with Garrett would've been appreciated, Square Enix has done the best job possible with a questionable design decision. After time we started to appreciate the challenge of working out how to access different areas and individual missions, tracking potential routes through the rafters above, while hiding in the shadows below and avoiding patrols.
Another of the highlights was the Challenge mode. It's a disappointing sign of the times that of the three maps listed, only two are available to play straight off the bat. The third is only going to be available later - as DLC - which is shame because it's a level lifted from the campaign, just with new objectives. It's also a shame because the other two Challenge maps are really good fun and more variety here would've been appreciated. We'd have minded less if we were being presented with totally new environments to play through in the incoming DLC, because charging us twice for what is effectively a modified version of campaign content feels a little cynical.
Frustrations aside, there's three modes on offer. One's a variant of hot and cold, where markers point you to specific areas and you must try to find a certain artifact before moving across the level to the next target. The other two variants are quite similar. The player must sneak through a heavily patrolled area, picking up loot before a timer runs down, and grabbing trinkets in quick succession to build up a bonus. One mode is open-ended, the second comes with an overall time limit. It adds some urgency to the thievery that was perhaps slightly lacking in the campaign, and it was a welcome change of pace. Leaderboards are on hand to ensure an extra competitive edge.
Having discussed it with colleagues who tested different versions of the game, we can report that there weren't any really noticeable frame rate issues with the Xbox One version we played (apparently there were drops on the PS4 version), although it should be noted that Microsoft's console ran at 900p, whereas Sony's managed to render the game at 1080p. The City itself has been wonderfully realised, and visually Thief is a real treat on the eyes. The character animations are, for the most part, lifelike, and the the different environments that are visited along the way are detailed and boast decent variety. It's an elegant game, with a strong visual aesthetic and solid mechanics underpin the ever-present graphical sheen.
If you were to just finish the campaign and walk away, basing your opinion of the whole on that one (albeit significant) part of the game, we can see why someone might be disappointed. When we'd finished the story we weren't wholeheartedly convinced ourselves. But carrying on past the fall of the credits, exploring every nook and cranny of the City, taking down side-missions and playing through the Challenge mode, our estimation of Thief went back up. Yes, it's got issues, and no, it's not perfect, but underneath some suffocating design decisions is a really solid game. There's enough here to warrant a look, though perhaps not enough to call it the perfect heist.