Thief Featured

Steven McGehee  
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February 25, 2014
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Return to the shadows with Thief, available now from Square Enix and Eidos Montreal.

The Thief franchise began in 1998 with Looking Glass Studios' aptly named Thief. It was, if I'm not mistaken, the original first person stealth game. It prided itself on immersing the player in a wonderfully dark and intriguing world where your ability to stalk, sneak, and avoid detection by utilizing the lighting, environment, and special tools was paramount. Being detected or engaging in combat was not only discouraged, but would often result in immediate mission failure, and justifiably so. Having just revisited Thief Gold over the last few weeks on Expert difficulty, I was reminded of just how few games I have played achieved the sense of intrigue and immersion as Thief does, so many years removed from its inception. A couple of sequels later, plus another ten years, and we now have the new Thief...

Thief, referring to the new one from here on, preserves much of what made the original series so great. From the main character, Garrett, to his "friend" and fence, Basso, to the time period, the specialty arrows, the blend of realism and the paranormal, it's here. Planning your movements and actions, avoiding detection, all here, and it works great. Finding hidden loot was as exciting during the first hour as it was in the seventeenth, too. While the new Thief's positives overwhelm its drawbacks -- many of which are patchable, by the way -- there are several issues I noted during my playthrough.

I'll get to what I loved and hated soon enough, but first, a bit of back story. Garrett was an orphan, and grew up in the City (it's literally called The City). His natural ability to pick pocket and tough childhood helped him hone his skills as he grew older to achieve the title of 'master thief' that those in the know refer to him as. These days, Garrett's skills and knowledge are so advanced that he steals for the challenge more so than to survive. The Prologue mission introduces players to some of the gameplay mechanics while leading up to contracted theft at the Northcrest family mansion. What should be a pretty straightforward job for Garrett gets complicated quickly when one of his proteges, Erin, shows up unexpectedly. More apt to kill and use her physical talent as opposed to careful planning, Erin is skilled, but a loose cannon. Garrett and Erin navigate their way through the "thieve's highway (i.e. the City rooftops)," and make their way passed the guards of the mansion. From the skylight above, they are witness to a strange ritual involving an ancient energy known as the Primal. During this ritual, something goes wrong, and everything changes -- for the worst.

Sometime later (intentionally being vague here), Garrett awakens to discover the once peaceful and prosperous City in the midst of a dark age. The Baron has established The Watch, a strict police force, and the presence of a mysterious plague known as the Gloom casts a dark cloud over everyone. Work and food are scarce, but death and illness abound. Times are tough, but Baron Northcrest and his forces continue to push an encouraging message to the distraught citizens. Meanwhile, an underground organization known as the Graven, led by a peaceful man known as Orion is increasingly intent on overthrowing the Baron and restoring the City to its former glory. This tension grows in almost measurable leaps as you complete story missions. Garrett, meanwhile, struggles with the memories of Erin and the ritual they observed. And while he isn't happy about what's happened to his City, he's not the Robin Hood type. So he goes about his own business, or at least until fate intervenes.

Thief's story takes several interesting turns and players will visit a variety of locations during the pleasantly lengthy story including an old factory, a brothel, and an asylum. The City acts as the literal hub in between story missions, with Garrett's hideout being the starting point. Areas of the City are opened up as the story plays out, thus giving the City increased size as you go. I wouldn't call the City huge compared to some other open world or sandbox games, but it's large enough that on several occasions I had wished a fast travel feature would have been included. Navigating the city is almost exclusively done by sticking to the rooftops, using Garrett's agility to leap between rooftops that are close to one another, and his Claw tool to scamper up short vertical walls to new heights. Rope arrows, which you may recall from the first game, create new paths for you, but only at very specific, pre-defined areas. A screwdriver, crowbar, and wire cutting tool also give Garrett more areas to explore by unlocking grates, popping open certain windows, and disabling traps respectively.

The City is yours to explore, and from it you can even replay any mission you have already beaten to either achieve a better score, earn a different play-style rating (Ghost, Opportunist, or Predator), or just try and find the items you missed. Each chapter has a certain number of treasures and documents to find. There are 208 documents (newspapers, notes, diaries, logs, signs, etc) throughout the entire game, with each chapter having a specific amount that you are privy to once you start the chapter. The documents provide a lot of worth-reading back story, especially in the asylum level where there like forty-two docs to find. There is standard loot, which is very abundant, and some eighty-two unique collectibles, too. The standard loot is common, and includes all kinds of things from silver and gold utensils to hand mirrors, flasks, ink wells, scissors, syringes, magnifying glasses, and a handful (or two) of other things. These are only worth like two or maybe upwards of forty gold, but there are so many of them (and if you're like me you'll open every drawer and pick every lock to find them), they quickly add up. The eighty-two collectible items are special, and separated into categories, or sets. There are a certain number of rings, brooches, City plaques, themed-jewelry designs, and so on to find. You can view these at your hideout and read a short blurb about each of them too, which makes them really exciting to find (I'd say more so than finding treasure in Uncharted even).

Moving about with stealth and precision is of course vital, but also pleasantly easy. Crouching, which reduces your visibility and noise output, is done with L3. The new swoop mechanic is great -- simply press a direction, including backwards, and then press X. Doing so will blur the screen for a second while Garrett makes a rapid, almost undetectable movement of eight or so feet in the specified direction. It's perfect for closing the gap to a guard to pickpocket them, or, to duck back into the shadows before they manage to notice you. Garrett can climb many surfaces too, and because there is a significant vertical design to the game, you will use L2 a lot to reach those new heights or grab onto a ladder, etc. I liked how pressing forward when next to a railing or short wall moved Garrett to where he was leaning over the edge to peer down at what, or who, was below. L2 is also used to run, and Garrett can move very swiftly, but at the cost of being very loud. Circle is used to slide down ropes and ladders, or to drop down from above. The Move feature of the DualShock4 (DS4) can be enabled for swooping, by the way, but I left that disabled. The Touchpad is used to bring up your full inventory and to select an item from it; I thought it worked great. The d-pad is used in some puzzles, and to also access the pause menu and toggle the mini-map, while R2 is used to draw your bow, aim, and fire. L1 is used to evade in combat, while R1 is for your trusty Blackjack club. Finally, Square is for item/world interaction and Triangle toggles Focus (more on that later).

So controlling Garrett is intuitive and works very well, but, sometimes getting around is a bit troublesome. Specifically, I am referring to getting around The City, which has, by game's end, at least a dozen load points. Most of these are clearly marked with a blue sphere and you're asked when you interact with the sphere if you want to load, for example, the "South Quarter" portion of the City. Sometimes though, you will interact/pry open a window and the load time will just sort of happen. Other times still, Garrett squeezes through a pile of debris while the next area loads. I prefer that last option as the best, because the other loading areas take a good twenty to thirty seconds each. In fact, any time you reload a savegame, even you just saved a few moments before, expect a near thirty second delay. I think this is something that can be addressed with a patch or two, but for right now, those load times get to be kinda brutal. I was spoiled with the older Thiefs where you can quick save/load instantly, encouraging experimentation, but suffice it to say that the loading screen pops up a little too often and for a little too long in Thief as it stands right now. Being able to Fast Travel would have helped this out a lot. Oh, additionally, when you break into a window that doesn't require a load screen (but does get you into a new residence), you are stuck going through the same ten second routine (animation and mash-Square QTE), which gets old. Strangely, you have to re-break out of the window you just came through to leave, compounding the nuisance.

I would appreciate a better map, too. Once you start taking on optional side jobs in about the second half of the game, the problem with the objective marker and map becomes very apparent. A few of Basso's side jobs I still haven't completed because even though the map shows me directly over top of the objective marker, I can't find what I'm missing. In the asylum level, I had to backtrack several times to try and figure out why the map shows me as being in the right area, yet I was still stuck. The problem is in how it deals with hiding areas you haven't explored yet and also the vertical layers, or planes. Because Thief does a lot with the vertical space, to the point where I was always looking up to see if there was anything to explore (this is a positive thing), it seemed like the map didn't compensate well, and that made getting around frustrating at times.

Just a few more issues I took down in my notes remaining. First, the AI. For playing on the default, normal difficulty, I thought the AI wasn't bad, but, it is kind of forgiving at times in that you can usually escape a little too easily. The problem stems from the AI's inability to search  better -- they tend not to look up and they hesitate to open up cabinets you can hide in, too. Speaking of these cabinets, if you enter one while not engaged in an escape or combat situation, the game creates a checkpoint save -- it's very handy, but doesn't overcome the lengthy load times. Anyway, make no mistake that if the AI gets a decent look at you, their numbers or the damage they inflict will pretty quickly end the game. Between the accurate crossbow shooters and the typical guards with a club or sword, it doesn't take much to die in Thief, which I think is perfectly acceptable given that, you know, this is a stealth game and you shouldn't be getting detected anyway.

The trigger mechanism for getting detected is kind of interesting; initially, an AI will have no threat indicator showing. However, a variety of actions can trigger these, and in various stages. In other words, if they come across an unconscious body you didn't hide, or they notice a door open that was closed, or they hear you stepping on broken glass, or many other scenarios, they'll become alerted. Or, their alert level might start off with rapidly depleting 'grace' period in which you have maybe two seconds to get out of sight, or if you're clearly caught in the act of something, the alert level will jump to full alert/aggression mode. The detection or guard alert mechanism has about five stages to it, but it's very interesting to note that each guard's alert status and cooldown timer thereof is identical, or extremely close to identical. So for a given area, if you alert a couple of guards, their status is timed almost perfectly to one another, which reduces these AI to, well, more robotic than human, because not only do they often look very much the same, but their alert levels are interlocked as well.

Moving on, I found it a conflict of interest and thus somewhat disappointing that players can purchase increased health and combat prowess, and also spend Focus Points on upgrading combat skills to where you can stun and even knockout foes with a single blow while in Focus mode. Combined, the AI with default difficulty and the ability to sustain and dole out more damage in melee (not to mention the Blast Arrows acquired in the latter portion of the story) give players the chance to honestly ruin this game for themselves. I don't think it's Eidos Montreal's job to "police" how the player chooses to play, but, just note that the experience gets nigh destroyed if you choose to play with combat instead of stealth. Now, that's not to say that sometimes using force is a bad idea. Indeed, on the fourth mission I sort of "accidentally" used force when I launched a fire arrow into a pool of spilt oil. Sometimes being the aggressor when in a confined area can be pretty satisfying, but don't kid yourself, pulling off a perfect heist, which is not only doable but a Trophy if you play the whole game that way, is far more rewarding.

The end reward is what being a thief is all about, no? Playing Thief was very rewarding for me. Despite the flaws noted above, and a few minor presentation glitches (also patchable), Thief is the rare breed of game that I could happily, as life's priorities allowed, drop in four and six hour sessions with because I was invested and immersed. I was eager to advance the story and to take on the side missions and find more unique loot and purchase more of the Trinkets that give you helpful one-off upgrades like the Crosswind Medallion to reduce the chance of getting hit by any enemy projectile, or the Grinning Salt that increases the HP benefit of eating. I probably searched over a hundred desks and dressers by this point, and often they come up empty, but the very short thrill of finding something was a neat feeling. Better still is the thrill of narrowly avoiding detection, overhearing conversations amongst citizens as you sit perched above them on a roof, and hearing a particularly awesome musical chime that plays almost randomly -- all that stuff added up to a virtual world I liked visiting. Plus, it helps that I see Garrett as one of my favorite videogame characters, despite the new voice actor (who actually did a great job).

Thief had a lot of small, if not very small, features that I want to basically list here. First, when searching a desk or dresser or whatever with multiple interactive parts, I liked that once you picked the first part of your choice, the interaction icon instantly and automatically moved to the next part for you. This made zipping through these objects quicker and more convenient. Plus, if anything is in said object, Garrett automatically snatches it, instead of waiting for your input. Furthermore, once you have searched this object, you can't search it again, which does away with the potential of wasted time spent re-searching. Next, while I had my doubts at the beginning, I very quickly came to like that the light on the DS4 changes to a bright white (from cool blue) whenever you are visible or detectable. Because I played this game in a mostly dark room, having the light of the DS4 turn to bright white when I was exposed was almost like having a flashlight shone on me. While never startling, of course, it was an effective technique that alerted me to this important fact just by using my peripheral vision, keeping my eyes focused on the game.

The Options menu gives players a lot of freedom -- about fifteen unique items, actually -- in how they want to configure their HUD and other visual cues. For lockpicking and hidden switch finding, you can rely solely on the subtly vibration of the DS4, which is cool. When you start a new game, Thief offers you a variety of customizable difficulty settings to adjust the price and availability of resources, whether or not you can knockout or even alert a guard, enable reticules, etc -- detailed difficulty settings or toggles is something I would like to see more games have, so hats off to Eidos for including it here.

Beyond the story mode, players can revisit chapters and also purchase a couple of freshly unlocked Trinkets. Playing through chapters utilizing a different playstyle or just to try and acquire all the items is enticing, and to a lesser extent the leaderboards and challenge mode may intrigue you, too. Three Challenge Modes are included: Chain & Gain, Chain & Gain Limited, and Special Loot Hunt. These three modes pit you against a ticking timer and task you with nabbing as much loot as you can before time expires. I dabbled in these modes briefly, and welcome their inclusion, but I'm much more interested in going back for seconds on the story mode than playing these.

With that, lets get to the summary...

Editor review


A great game as is, although it has a few very patchable issues that could really put it over the top.

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