Thief is a muddled but well-intentioned game that undermines smart, sinister stealth with weird controls and lousy characters. An atmospheric setting and plenty of freedom helps matters enormously, but all told it’s a strange compromise of a game.
A first-person game in which killing enemies is a last and often near-disastrous result? Thief’s taking a big risk. This, y’see, is a game about stealth, not combat – the trick is to try to remain undetected as you scoot around a gloomy, gothic, medieval-inspired city, pilfering whatever shiny trinkets you can lay your black-gloved hands upon.
At your disposal are an assortment of arrows – some potentially lethal, but most used to douse or start fires, create a distraction or stun foes with a choking gas – lockpicks, wirecutters and other gizmos to facilitate breaking and entering. The essential challenge in Thief is to find your way into (and out of) of heavily guarded building without being spotted: this means over rooftops and through windows, skulking in the shadows and hiding in conveniently man-sized cupboards.
If you are seen, it’s usually wiser to disorientate and flee the angry guards, who are far, far tougher than you. It’s refreshingly different and it’s often impressively tense, although some robotic AI behaviour and perhaps too much ease of escape keeps Thief from being the heartpounding frightener it could have been.
A sequel to/remake of the much-adored 90s series of the same name, Thief makes some controversial concessions to a different age of mainstream gaming. It’s a little more forgiving, it’s more focused on purchasing upgrades and there are special controls designed to make swooping from cover to cover a little easier (or, if you’re a purist, cheaty).
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on whether you have previous with this light-fingered franchise. It’s best, perhaps, to think about Thief on its own terms, rather than focus on how much lip service it pays to the past.
What’s simpler (or at least baggage-free) to praise or criticise is what’s on the surface. The City is an impressively large semi-open world you’re free to explore between the main, storyline-focused missions, sniffing out secrets, lockpicking safes hidden behind paintings and dodging or engaging the thief-hunting guards who patrol everywhere.
The City is Thief’s finest achievement, and the freedom it offers puts your average first-person game to shame, even if some of its layout is a little too blatantly contrived to keep you out of somewhere or force you to take an oddball route into somewhere else.
While the main missions offer more elaborate puzzleboxes, careful, threat-filled obstacle courses to reach big goals, they’re undone a little by dreadful dialogue and an over-inflated, unexciting plot. Tone shifts unevenly between period chatter and foul-mouthed modernity, and all told this side of the game seems like it was created by committee rather than having a clear focus. The storyline comes across like babble, while the characters are at best dull but more often obnoxious – especially when they’re intended to be likeable.
There’s much stronger personality in the intricate nature of some of the missions and their impressively large settings. While less experienced players will likely miss half of their content, old hands will turn off or ignore the likes of an exaggerated gleam to loot, an x-ray vision mode and a floating arrow that forever tells you where to go next.
Certainly, the game is at its strongest and most atmospheric when you’re playing without such aids, and instead exploring and hunting at your own pace, fearful of ever being seen. Played the other way – in a hurry, engaging enemies, going straight from A-B – it does feel like a weaker, briefer game even if it’s a totally legitimate way to play it.
Really though, Thief feels caught halfway between being the hardcore stealth game veteran players demanded and the accessible, more combative action game the mainstream arguably requires. It doesn’t truly excel at either.
- Available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC. PC system requirements: OS: Windows Vista with Platform Update for Windows Vista Processor: High-Performance Dual Core CPU or Quad Core CPU Memory: 4 GB RAM Graphics: AMD Radeon 4800 series / Nvidia GTS 250 DirectX: Version 10 Hard Drive: 20 GB available space