We are living in a post-Dishonored age. Normally that’s something you wouldn’t think about as a gamer; Dishonored was good, but not “landscape-changing” good. Until you play the latest, and very anticipated, Thief.
Bringing with me no baggage from previous Thief games, I couldn’t help but see this new entry in the aging franchise as a poor knock-off of Dishonored - but one missing a lot of the fun of that title. Of course, fans will suggest that the opposite is true (Dishonored stole from Thief, see what I did there?) Given that the last Thief game, Deadly Shadows, released in 2004 (Dishonored came out in 2012), it's fair to say that Dishonored did a lot of its own thing, too.
The comparisons are between the two games are far too easy to make, so to be fair to Thief I will try to not mention them from now on.
Thief’s world is claustrophobic. The buildings loom in on you. It's not a free running open world, full of shadows to hide in. The walls of the ramshackle buildings lean in and offer very few walls to climb. The map is completely unhelpful. The world of Thief is not a place where challenges happen, it’s a challenge itself.
Discard intuition as you play, objects do not do what you think they will. Some windows open, most don’t. The same goes for doors. You will know guards can see you when they start yelling that they’ve seen you and the alarm is raised. Even when you’re completely hidden, guards will often pass by while looking right at you, as if to say “we know where you are, we’re just not allowed to let on yet”. Don’t bother fighting; run or restart.
But the game doesn’t start like this. The opening sequence is all sneaking through the shadows, stealing valuables, avoiding guards, and running across rooftops like a first person version of Assassin’s Creed. Then in the space of a cutscene, suddenly you are trapped in this world of dead ends and infuriatingly closed windows.
The main game follows master thief Garrett, a year after he disappeared while on a job. He returns to his now disease-ravaged city in a corpse wagon with no memory of what’s happened to him since that night. His protege Erin disappeared at the same time, and Garrett’s connection to her serves as the reason he keeps pushing forward in his quest, rather than leaving the city and its weird plague called “The Gloom”.
As Thief is a first-person game, you’ll get very used to seeing Garrett’s hands, but if you look down at his feet you may be impressed that they they don’t look like they were suspended from beneath a terribly made marionette, as they are in most FPS titles. That I am listing this as a positive in the game should tell you a lot of what I think about it.
Each mission or “job” can be attempted in a number of ways. You can choose to be stealthy and make no contact with guards, or you can knock out everyone you see. At the end of the level you're graded on a scale from Predator to Ghost (which would be much more fun if it referred to the movies.)
Darkness is your friend and at every opportunity you should douse all light sources. Doing so oddly creates mist, even inside houses. I assume this is meant as a visual depiction of of how you hide so well, and not a visual bug. In the bottom left hand corner of the screen is a small dot that shows how well hidden you are. Annoyingly, the only useful readings are "black" or "white;" the grey shades in between give no indication if guards will spot you or not.
Garrett has a super-thief sense that lets him see things he can steal and bad guys. I was annoyed to find that this vision was not like “eagle vision” in Assassin’s Creed (what did I say about not comparing to other games?), in that it doesn’t stay on, but instead drains over time and doesn’t build back up by itself. Once drained you’ll need poppies to fill the meter back up, something the game failed to mention. As a result I found that I never used it, I just couldn’t see the point.
While the game claims multiple routes and multiple solutions, I couldn’t help but feel funneled towards particular routes. Perhaps these were the easy options and I was missing stronger challenges and greater rewards by not walking across the extremely well lit courtyards and instead skulking down darkened alleyways.
There was actually a fair bit I enjoyed, too. The way you had to keep checking your environment, even what you were walking on, to make sure you wouldn’t alert the enemies. Also the fact that sound in the game was important, rather than an atmospheric element (with the always-on cameras that come with the new consoles, I’d have loved an option for the microphones to pick up ambient noise in the room, so if I swore the guards might hear it.) I realised that I’d need to keep an ear out for guard dogs after gliding into a shadow right next to one.
When Thief first came out it was a revelation. You could play a game and not kill people; in fact, you get points for not killing people. Since then the stealth mechanic has become really nuanced and lots of games use it. Sadly, Thief has come out not long after a game that did this stuff quite well. Moreover, that game was a lot more fun to play. Thief isn’t terrible, it’s just not as good as other games, so in a way I want to say leave Thief for a while; come back to it when it’s on sale, wait for it to be a steal.