Thief, and my own experiences with it can be summed up by a particular situation I found myself in. Ascending a set of stairs I caught sight of a group of guards, all facing away from me. I scaled the railing and dropped down behind them, only to kick over a glass bottle and alert them all, cursing myself for being such an idiot. Then, as the guards responded, came the clunky combat that I just gave up on and a failed escape attempt due to not being able to get over the wall I wanted. Thief is a superb stealth game, with incredible attention to detail and immersion that is slightly let down by some odd design choices and bad mechanics.
As always for the series, Thief sees players take on the role of Garrett, a master thief, and is set within a place known only as ‘The City’. A fairly brief and linear prologue introduces players to the newest character Erin, who Garrett has trained personally as his protégé. Erin is far less experienced than Garrett and her fiery personality clashes somewhat with his own, ultimately leading to their job going wrong with disastrous results.
With the prologue over, the game opens up and gives players the freedom to take on the main story missions, seek out side jobs from Garrett’s fence Basso, or even take on client jobs from one or two other NPC’s that seek to hire a thief for their own needs. When not on a specific job, players are able to roam the city through its many different districts and generally set about stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. This is what the game does extremely well, giving players the feeling of being a real thief. As you slip silently through a window and begin to rifle your way through drawers, cupboards, chests and safes you are constantly on edge at the slightest noise, before you disappear back into the shadows with no one ever knowing you were there. Speaking of shadows, one thing I found to be a good piece of design is the way the game handles lighting in general. Thief is a very pretty game, specifically on the next gen consoles or PC, and it’s engine makes for impressive lighting effects; the balance of lighting and shadows however, is just right. The game of course takes place at night and, as a thief, you’re always trying to avoid any kind of light at all, but this doesn’t mean you can’t see anything, there is always just enough light to see comfortably while still being dark enough to reassure you that you can’t be seen.
Exploring the main city districts is where the majority of Thief’s freedom of movement is to be found. Right from the start there are plenty of homes and businesses to raid, with even more appearing once you acquire some of the side jobs. The city is large and, though its hardly the cheeriest place to find yourself in, it feels quite alive, even for the middle of the night. As well as the usual patrolling guards and few dodgy looking civilians, a nice extra feature is the fact that you can hear people inside their homes when you get close enough. Sometimes this also rewards you with information of hidden items but it generally helps to add to the feeling of a living city. One thing that does let down the main city areas though is the terrible map. The way it zooms in to specific areas and often gives you no idea of how to get to areas that seem to be right in front of you left me feeling confused a lot and it became hard to remember what areas I’d already been to and fully looted.
The main missions offer a slightly different gameplay style to exploring the city, which is both good and bad in different ways. The cutscenes are acted well, with a variety of shady characters, and the story itself does get me interested, particularly as the game progresses. The general freedom to explore drops a lot for the story missions and, though some start off well, there can often only be one way into an area, meaning there’s no clever entry to work out. Some missions do have large open areas with different paths to take, but this conflicts with some of the other design choices for the game. For example, after each mission you get an overview of your performance, including the secret, collectible loot items you found, as well as how much of the available loot you managed to steal and also various optional objectives you completed. If you’re the kind of player that wants to 100% a mission, or are interested in achievements/trophies, then you have no option other than exploring every single route through the level. The fact that you need to take all routes completely overrides the idea of outsmarting your enemies by taking a clever route. Also, those optional objectives often conflict with each other, hinting perhaps to some bad design. For example in the same mission I had one objective to avoid detection while another said to score two combat take-downs.
These strange design choices also pop up when interacting with the environment. While Garrett is perfectly capable of scaling walls and ropes, vaulting fences and sprinting across roof tops, I occasionally found that he somehow couldn’t step over a small platform or railing, simply because it wasn’t programmed that he could. I also found an area blocked by two cupboards, both of equal height; when I tried to jump onto one nothing happened at all, yet the other could be climbed easily. The same slightly dumb designs pop up with the use of Garrett’s special arrows. While you might think that having the water arrows to extinguish lights and the rope arrows to scale inaccessible areas would lead to some clever ways around a level, they just aren’t given much use. It’s always glaringly obvious where you are able to use the arrows which takes away any feeling of accomplishment you might have had for figuring it out.These issues don’t greatly impact the game though, the reason I feel so inclined to point them out is because of how much detail has gone into so many other aspects of the game, it’s disappointing to find a lack of detail in these parts.
The upside to the main missions though, is that they are much more tense and involved than just exploring the city. As I said at the start of this review, the stealth is so well crafted that you even need to be careful of where you put your feet as you move around. Spending time to pick a lock always feels dangerous and keeps you on edge, you sneak around guards, hugging the shadows and praying they don’t turn at the wrong moment. Sometimes you might race out to dispatch a guard while the others have turned away, only to find you missed the caged guard dog that you’ve just startled and is now alerting the guards. There’s always something to think about and it’s incredibly satisfying when you manage to take that piece of prize loot and slip away. Unfortunately, if you are spotted then the melee combat is a broken mess of mashing your attack button while trying to dodge attacks which becomes almost impossible if there’s more than one attacker. It’s always been the aim in Thief games though to avoid fights so I never found the terrible melee to be too much of an issue, especially when the stealth is so enjoyable.
To sum up then, Thief is certainly not perfect, but if you’re looking for a stealth game that will keep you on your toes and want to enjoy the feeling of being a master thief, then Thief is definitely worth picking up. It excels in it’s immersion and the detailed stealth gameplay is brilliant. However, if you don’t have all that much patience for stealth and often find in games that you want to just go in all guns blazing and loot the place when you’re done, then Thief really isn’t for you since, for all the stealth glory the game offers, it starts to fall apart if you try anything else.
All screenshots taken in my own game
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