DJ Arruda ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Thief series has finally returned to the gaming industry after a decade-long absence with Thief: Deadly Shadows being released back in 2004 as the third game in the series. This fourth title, Thief, has been rumored since 2008, officially announced in 2009 as Thi4f, and has finally arrived at the dawn of a new generation of consoles.
The fact that the game has taken so long to arrive should indicate a sense of quality and familiarity while also bringing something new to the table due to the new gaming technology and consoles released in those ten years. And yet there is a mixed bag here: a game that excels with the stealth gameplay implied by the title but struggles with story and hardware to give that admittedly fun gameplay a stable home.
The game’s story is simple, yet even in its simplicity, it tries to be something that it is not. It is easy to compare it to the many other stealth games that have been released, 2012’s Dishonored being the most obvious choice. One can compare the rat-infested Dunwall to the equally dreary City plagued by both an infection of its own and a revolution.
Additionally, both stories share some supernatural elements. But such comparisons only serve to limit the scope of review to two games instead of the industry in general. Where Dishonored’s Corvo had a vast array of supernatural abilities, Thief’s Garrett only has heightened senses, and even then they are not a direct result of the supernatural inherent in the tale. Yet the whole supernatural element of Thief’s plot seems unnecessary, and only serves to elicit some jump scares in one particular level and to add to the aforementioned gloom inherent in the air.
By tying the story to the existence of a supernatural force while also piling on a growing revolution, the writers lose track of both Garrett and the supporting cast who see no real growth, only reacting to the world around them. The Client Jobs, more on those in a bit, serve for a much better frame for the story, as it would have been much more plausible if Garret was just taking jobs and watching the revolution unfold instead of hunting ghosts and being directly involved with its leader. In addition, the plot twists are tired and expected, and the ending is left unnecessarily ambiguous. Garrett has not really changed by that end, though he may have struggled with being a thief and feeling remorse for his sister figure who “died” in the prologue, while the villains are little more than cartoony stereotypes.
By mainly telling the story through detached third-person cutscenes, and removing any element of story choice (an increasingly important element in the industry), the writers make the story seem like a chore, though a necessary part of the gameplay. In addition, the one choice the player is able to make has absolutely no effect on the ending whatsoever, or on the story in general. The ambient dialogue heard between the guards and citizens serve as more than enough place setting and world building, and it would have sufficed to have kept the storytelling to them while Garrett stalked the night.
In this exposition, we waste many words talking about an element of the game that should fall in-step with the stealth, not usurp it. Dishonored worked its story because the characters felt real, and the way you played changed the world around you. Skyrim’s Thieves Guild quests were mainly fetch and grab, but there was also an element of growth and change that made you feel like you were in control. And Assassin’s Creed has an entire universe built around its titular protagonists. The story needn’t be the biggest selling point for a game based on stealth, but when it comes across as so unoriginal and uninspiring that it hurts the rest of the game, there is an issue.
Amidst the narrative woes there is a game, and one that plays smoothly, at least chapter by chapter. The game is bogged down by many loading screens, even on the Xbox One, whose processing power should be more than enough to make the game work well. Perhaps it is the fact that the game is situated in both the new and old generations, and perhaps the long wait has something to do with it, as well. Whatever the reason, they exist, and significantly slow down progress. Even though the game is based on taking things slow and being stealthy, that should rest on the player, not the engine.
The game does look very pretty on the Xbox One; the darkness and gloom of the city moodily cloaking Garrett and an impressive lighting system worked well with the surprisingly responsive AI. These are not the run-of-the-mill guards seen in games that feature stealth but are not stealth-based; they react to things such as doors closing, candles being blown out, bottles thrown, and footsteps on glass. Despite other technical issues, Eidos has nailed the art of sneaking around and pilfering goods, and that is arguably what makes the game worth playing despite narrative flaws and technical issues.
Though you can play the game as a killer and murder your way through each level, that is not the goal of the game, and the developers make that a noticeably harder challenge. It may be rewarding to shoot a guard in the head with an arrow after being frustrated at a save point one too many times, but it does not seem to be the most rewarding play style. Figuring out the timing of the guard’s movements, ways to manipulate the environment, and varied paths through each level encourage re-playability. It is not an open world game by any means, but there is a sandbox quality inherent in the City that is explored between levels and the chapter-by-chapter missions that comprise the story.
The game also allows you to upgrade your bow and purchase tools to aid in your thieving, which offers the player gameplay choices as to whether or not they want to be offensive or defensive and knock guards out or kill them; that is a testament to the gameplay’s versatility. The Focus system, which allows Garrett to find hidden goods and detect traps, along with pick locks and detect guards also has multiple paths open to it, and the freedom to see the world in a way that suits your play style is also rewarding. The thieving itself can grow tedious; however, if you’re not one for collectibles, it eventually devolves into activating Focus and pressing X on anything highlighted in blue, and moving on to the next room. That is the main place where the gameplay can grow tiresome. Some third-person platforming is most reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, and the first-person point of view recalls both Dishonored and Skyrim.
The save system also works quite well for the most part, allowing the player to pause at any given point in a chapter and save one’s position in case things go awry. The game thankfully does not trap you in a mid-combat save loop since you cannot save if guards are looking for you, and that also plays into strategy. The brief amount of combat experienced in this playthrough seems fluid and even fun given the upgrades available, but again, that is not the biggest draw. Playing through on the thief difficulty, akin to medium, did have its frustrations, and higher difficulties would surely add to the challenge.
In addition to the story chapters, there are also several Basso jobs, named after the NPC who gives them to you. These amount to little more than glorified fetch quests, and the more interesting Client Jobs are given by two intriguing figures and offer a view of a way the story mode should have gone, amounting to missions that are a middle ground between the story and fetch quests. The story may offer the juxtaposition of a heightened action sequence through a revolting City against a suspenseful stroll through an abandoned asylum, but keeping Garrett a thief instead of a freedom fighter would have been the wiser choice.
Overall, the game boasts a modest 10-hour playtime, give or take, though there is an Achievement for completing the game in 15 hours or more. The game is not built for longevity but re-playability, as collecting the oodles of collectibles in each chapter adds time, and the addition of Challenge maps and higher difficulty settings, including a custom one that can push your sneaking to its limits with such options as never be detected or never kill anyone, add hours of playtime.
In addition, a robust Achievement list on the Xbox One encourages many playthroughs for those inclined to 100% the game. Ultimately the game is as long as you want to make it, based on your interest and desire to sneak. Despite its admittedly weak story and somewhat deterring technical issues, what lies at the heart of Thief is a solid stealth gameplay that sets the standard high for any games incorporating stealth in the future. While it may not live up to the hype of a decade-long waiting period, Thief offers what the title states in its gameplay and heart, and though it may not win any game of the year awards, it is a somewhat promising start to the slow trickle of games beginning to flow for this new generation of consoles.
Overall Grade: B-