This was never going to end well. You can’t resurrect a franchise that’s near-legendary in its ability to make those who played it at the time wax nostalgic about Hammerites and Taffers and expect to please both those people and the new audience of console gamers that this new Thief is designed to attract. Last time that happened we got Thief: Deadly Shadows, and despite being a decent game in its own right it’s something that gets looked down on a lot for not being as good as the originals. When you look at it that way, Thief wins the smallest of victories: it isn’t quite as bad as I was expecting, and I don’t completely hate it. Thief is an okay stealth game, and if its development had gone smoothly I dare say we might even have gotten something on the level of Deadly Shadows out of it. Unfortunately its development didn’t go smoothly (you don’t take five years to make a game like this without fucking up badly at several points along the way) and so Thief ends up being something more like The Bureau: it’s a hodgepodge of ideas and mechanics thrown together into something whose shortcomings and general lack of polish ensure that it’s far less than the sum of its parts.
Let’s start with the City. Contrary to what you might have heard, the level design of the story missions in Thief isn’t actually all that bad. Some of them are distressingly linear, but most are chock full of secret areas and alternate routes that attempt to reward a player who doesn’t just slavishly follow that objective marker. There’s nothing anywhere near as sprawling as Shipping and Receiving from Thief 2, but that was never going to happen anyway; what’s on offer in this remake is just about as good as I’d expect from the modern console age. The catch is that in order to get to the story missions you have to spend 5-10 minutes slogging through the City, the game’s sprawling hub area that’s so large it has to be cut up into four or five different segements. That in itself is something of an issue in that the transitions between City areas are not always clearly marked; some of them are highlighted by glowing gates, but some are just window entrances that are identical to window entrances you might use to gain access to a shop or a house, and it’s really irritating to have your exploration suddenly interrupted by a loading screen (or two, if you want to get back where you came from). Then you have just how insanely dull the City is. It’s very large, yes, but also largely pointless. It’s visually uninteresting, shrouded in a permanent twilight with no colours used that aren’t drab brown or gloomy grey. There’s lots of nooks, crannies and hidey-holes in it, but there’s nothing in them; it’s extremely disheartening to remove a concealed vent cover, drop down into a hidden area, get the “Secret Area Found!” sound effect, disarm a trap, pick the lock on a chest and open it to find… a cup and an ashtray worth 12 gold pieces. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding as to the player’s motivation behind exploring a level; it’s not enough to just splurge out a confusing mess of buildings and assume a player will obsessively comb through the lot just because it’s there. There has to be some incentive, some cool loot or secret or easter egg to reward exploration.
The City doesn’t have any of these things, and as a result I gave up on exploring it several hours in. Even after I minimised the amount of contact I had with it, though, navigating it was still by far the most boring and frustrating element of the game; because of how segmented it is getting to a destination usually involves at least two level transitions, and I had to dodge the magically respawning guards at the same time. This was exacerbated by Garrett’s movement, which is sufficiently awful that it made me realise just how badly I’ve been spoiled by games that do it right. He moves like he’s wearing a pair of concrete overshoes, is incapable of leaping more that a foot in the air and resolutely refuses to do any sort of context-sensitive action unless he’s standing up, leading to absurd deaths where he steps off a ledge and plummets to the ground rather than grabbing hold of the rope that was two feet in front of his face. I spent far, far too much time battling the awkward movement controls and deeply wished they’d taken a few pointers from Assassin’s Creed; it was okay for Garrett to move like a tank in 1998 because we didn’t know any different, but things have moved on slightly in the intervening decade and a half. Thief should have moved with the times instead of plastering itself to a wall when I what I actually wanted was to pick a guard’s pocket.
At least Garrett’s other interactions with the game world are done right. Where most other games would have loot disappearing into some nether dimension when picked up, Thief has his hands shoot out from the sides of the screen and physically swipe it. Where he stashes it afterwards I do not know — which is a little weird considering he must pick up half a metric ton of stuff during any given mission – but I appreciated the way the game constantly tries to create a connection to the game world, with Garrett rifling through desks a drawer at a time, swiping his hand through candles to snuff them our and reaching out to push buttons and switches. This tactile interaction is also used to great effect during the puzzles as Garrett runs his hands across a bookshelf or around the edges of a painting looking for a secret switch. I know it’s just a pretty dressing for what is ultimately a very simple minigame, but it does a great deal to make up for the clunky movement and general failure on Thief’s part to promote any sense of immersion or place.
Thief’s world design is bloody awful, there’s no getting around that. Where the original Thief’s budget, stylised cutscenes did so much to enhance that game’s sense of atmosphere – a critical accomplishment given how primitive the graphics were, even for the time – the reboot uses bland in-engine cutscenes that look just as dull as the rest of the world. Given how effective Garrett’s first-person interactions with the environment are it’s jarring to be yanked out of his body and shown something unutterably tedious happening in a cutscene, usually involving his persistent “nemesis”, the Thief-Taker General, who has some of the most atrociously bad voice acting I’ve heard in a triple-A game in a long time. Not only is his accent horrific, but he mumbles and slurs so many of his lines that I started to suspect the voice actor might have been hitting the drink in order to blunt the pain of having to utter such hackneyed, claptrap dialogue. Sometimes when Garrett is talking to somebody during a cutscene their conversation will suddenly drop in volume while the ambient soundbites of the people around them continue unabated and drowns them out. And those soundbites, holy shit. You thought the guard lines from the original Thief were bad? At least they had a B-movie sort of charm, which is more than I can say for the ambient conversation in the remake. Garrett overhears the usual selection of conversations telling him where to find valuable items as he traverses the City, except these voices appear to come from thin air; I think they’re supposed to originate from poorly soundproofed rooms or something but they sound like the people speaking are right next to Garrett, making it seem more like he’s starting to hear voices in his head. The denizens of the City you can actually see also never shut up, saying at least one line every ten seconds like clockwork. Considering their limited repertoire (they’ve done the weird Elder Scrolls thing of having different voice actors record the same selection of five stock lines) they repeat themselves frequently and often to the point of absurdity; witness the guard patrolling the ancient underground ruins where no-one has set foot for centuries who said, and I quote: “Wish there was a sloop-seller nearby!” If it’s not sloop it’s coffee, or sleep, or a tooth coming loose, and it never, ever stops.
It gets so bad, in fact, that I resorted to brutally beating1 every single guard I saw in a futile attempt to get them to shut the hell up (I was not allowed to do the same thing to civilians because of the difficulty setting I’d picked). I actually enjoyed having to sneak through a catacomb filled with mutant monstrosities later on in the game because they at least didn’t go on and on and on about sloop every five sodding seconds. Of all the insufferable things Thief inflicts on the player the voice acting is probably the worst, followed closely by the economy of thieving and the lip-service paid to side-jobs. I’ll spend about as much effort describing the latter as the developers did putting them into the game: there’s about twenty of them but every single one consists of going somewhere in the City and pressing E, after which you get a generous payment of about 50 gold. Not only is he a miser with his job fees but Garrett’s fence must be making a fortune because he apparently charges a ruinous commission on every item Garrett steals; golden cups and brooches are worth about 6 gold each, while even the supposedly valuable big loot (like a solid gold bust of the City’s ruler) clocks in at around 60 gold. For reference one rope arrow costs 75 gold, while the permanent upgrades required to access alternate routes through a level are 500-1000 gold. Because the things you steal are next to worthless it strips a lot of the joy out of the act of thievery, which is understandably something of a problem for a game called Thief; time and again you’ll crack open a safe only to find that the loot inside is worth less than the equipment you used to get to the safe in the first place. Where’s the fun in stealing things if they’re not valuable? That I’m even having to ask this rhetorical question of Thief is a solid indicator of just how badly it’s veered off the rails when it comes to the game’s core mechanic.
I’ve spent all this time talking about the world and the act of stealing and almost none whatsoever talking about the stealth gameplay. That’s because it’s solid, but almost completely unremarkable. The light gem is present and correct. Shadows are an almost impenetrable barrier to a guard’s eyesight, and they’ll only spot you if they’re right up close. They’ll hear you coming a lot further away, especially if you’re stamping over broken glass or something, which is why you do spend most of the game shuffling along in a crouch. Caged crows act as noise sensitive alarms, and caged dogs act as proximity alarms. You sneak up behind guards and press Q to do a silent takedown. You drag the bodies away and dump them where nobody will see. In short you do the rote actions you do in literally every other stealth game under the sun, and Thief’s problem here is that its approach to stealth is unimaginative and doesn’t make enough use of its curiously combat-oriented set of gadgets. I can think of at least two games I’ve played in the last couple of years that have done stealth far better than this Thief remake: Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and – despite its many flaws – Dishonored. Given that, I don’t feel like being particularly generous towards Thief just because it didn’t completely fuck up it it’s raison d’etre.
Still, if I don’t feel like being generous I don’t particularly hate Thief either. Once I gave up on the City and started tearing through the missions – with their actually quite good puzzles and level design that made the most of Garrett’s environment interactions — it became mildly diverting, and I dare say I would have made it to the end if not for a persistent save glitch that eventually stopped me in my tracks. The quick version of this: Thief will occasionally fail to save your game state properly, meaning that on loading the save you’ll find that sleeping citizens have been awoken and lights will have been turned off. In my case it failed to reset the swarm of angry guards that was about to stab me to death and I’d foolishly failed to make a separate save, meaning it was something of a game-ender. This is actually a huge bug and I’d be far more annoyed about it if I really cared about finishing Thief, rather than being kind of relieved I didn’t have to play it any more and could make a start on other, more interesting games. I think that reaction – or lack of one – says rather a lot about Thief; it’s a stealth game that is merely average when compared to its competitors and which is stunningly unimaginative throughout, and it does mean that we’ll likely never see a proper continuation of the Thief series after this reboot has turned out to be so awkward. I’d argue, though, that the Thief series in particular has never needed one; it said what it needed to say in the original trilogy and there is something to be said for knowing when to stop. They were groundbreaking games that had a huge impact on gaming, and Thief was never going to repeat that kind of success with a modern reboot. I don’t begrudge it the attempt, but perhaps now that that attempt has been made — and has turned out to be decidedly lacklustre — they’ll finally let Garrett rest in peace.
- It’s supposed to be a non-lethal takedown, but the guards you “knock out” are quite clearly dead, as evidenced by the open eyes and general lack of breathing. ↩