- Editor's Rating
- The open world hub is well-done
- Replayable levels to try new tactics
- One insanely scary standout mission
- Levels are overlong
- Inconsistent puzzle difficulty
- Dispensable characters and story
Quick TakeThief spends too little time on what feels like the core of the game, and too much time on everything else.
By: Dennis Scimeca
Thief is a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s part open world robbery simulator and part mission-driven stealth game. Its narrative weaves mansion raids with archeological adventures and a terrifying survival horror-quality chapter. Thief pulls itself in so many different directions that it tears at the seams, which makes it easier to notice the game’s inconsistencies and rough spots.
Light management is the most important skill to master in Thief. Snuffing out candles, using arrows with water-filled heads to douse sources of open flame, and switching off electric lights from a distance are your keys to getting through levels without being caught.
Ambush and assassination skills can obviate the need to stay in the shadows for too long. Your arrows can be tipped with steel, poison gas, explosive and incendiary heads, and along with your flash bombs and blackjack, they’ll make short work of almost anyone that gets in your way, as long as they’re deployed smartly.
There’s no getting around the need to plan ahead whether you play it quiet or go loud, though. Turning your back on an enemy who is aware of your presence almost always leads to a quick death if you’re not extremely quick on your feet and retreat into the darkness.
If you’re playing Thief on an Xbox One, as I did, skip the Kinect integration. The microphone allows you to use your voice to distract guards — drawing them away for an ambush attack or a stealthy escape — but the first time someone blows your cover by saying “Hello” to you during a game will be a painful and annoying lesson to forego the gimmick altogether.
Thief does provide a wonderful example of the utility of the Xbox One controller’s trigger rumble, though. When you’re picking locks, the triggers vibrate whenever it’s time to set one of the tumblers. You feel around the edges of paintings for switches, and run your hand over bookshelves to find false books which double as releases for hidden doors.
The game’s ‘Focus’ mechanic, meanwhile, goes the same distance to get in the way of that illusion. When Focus is activated, any object of interest in line of sight — whether it be unclaimed loot paintings with hidden switches behind them, puddles of oil in which you can trap enemies, or delicate vases and pitchers that will alert nearby enemies if you break them — will glow bright blue while the rest of the environment darkens.
Focus is a finite resource with limited recharges until you resupply in-between levels, and you’ll pay if you don’t manage its use wisely. On higher difficulties, Focus could become the difference between life and death, forcing you to rapidly plan an escape route whenever you mistime a guard’s movement or accidentally make too much noise without having much Focus left over. But on the game’s default, normal difficulty, Focus felt like a cheat that allowed me to breeze through the game without paying too much attention to the environment.
Thief takes place in The City. It’s a steampunk, Victorian Era metropolis dealing with the costs of rapid industrialization — notably in the form of an illness called “the gloom,” which is slowly killing everyone. Most of the people you run into at street level are curled up in the muck or slinking back in alleyways and coughing their lungs out. This helps create one of Thief’s immediate problems: Its protagonist, the master thief Garrett, is one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve played with in a long time.
The City is under the harsh authoritarian rule of The Baron, steel-helmeted guards of the Watch patrolling the streets and bullying citizens. You will constantly overhear conversations about living on dried meat, and missing burnt bread, and other nuggets of utter hopelessness as you pass by houses in the street. And yet, here’s Garrett, breaking and entering and stealing what few luxuries remain in these peoples’ lives, their hairbrushes, photo lockets, and pens.
In the game’s opening cinematic, Garrett reprimands a fellow thief for callously taking the life of a member of the Watch. He then proceeds, unironically, to make life in The City much worse for so many more people. Even a brief reflection after that open scene is tragically funny.
Thief’s narrative as a whole is laden with characters I couldn’t have cared less about, spouting lifeless dialogue ripped straight out of a bland action movie. It’s generally about Garrett’s attempt to save a girl we barely get to know before she’s gone, which is hackneyed enough, but it also incorporates a walking stereotype of a villain and supernatural forces which are ill-explained and almost feel haphazardly inserted as a plot device.
I felt it was almost a shame that Thief tried to construct a narrative at all, because the best parts of the game for me were its open world portions. Taking side missions from a fence named Basso, using acrobatic skill and athleticism to navigate rooftops and balance on narrow, high walkways before breaking into homes looking for specific items, working in a healthy amount of lock-picking and locating secret rooms and hidden passageways – this was all more enjoyable than slogging through Thief’s weak central tale.
The story-based missions offer different ways to circumvent guards and navigate the environment in order to support varying play styles, but they were still mostly linear experiences which felt overlong. I partly laid this at the feet of the game’s drab, repetitive color palate, which is apparently necessitated by its grimy, entirely night-based steampunk setting.
Said adventure featured one of the most frustratingly difficult puzzles I’ve ever had to deal with in a video game, an exercise in rotating staircases (think manipulating an M. C. Escher painting) in order to ascend a tower in the middle of a room. But puzzle difficulty in Thief is extremely uneven in general. Half of them felt like gimmes and required little or no work to solve. The other half I resentfully stumbled through, with no satisfaction once I cracked them, because usually I came upon the solutions through random fumbling.
But at least some of those puzzles were actually challenging. At normal difficulty, the stupidity of the guards took away any pleasure of outwitting them. It got to the point where, out of sheer contempt, I chose to openly walk the streets of The City and bash guards in the face with my blackjack because I couldn’t be bothered to pretend that stealth was necessary.
Cranking up the difficulty would solve that problem, but then my concern would be that the stealth tactics would begin to feel just as rinse-and-repeat as my ambush tactics felt. The only major change I experienced as the game progressed was the need to start killing guards rather than incapacitating all of them, in order to whittle down their numbers before I started moving in for knockout takedowns.
There was one exceptional level in Thief, which was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had in a video game since playing the original Silent Hill. The level takes place in a broken down mental asylum, heavily features supernatural elements, and concludes with facing the most dangerous enemies in the game, which absolutely require stealth to circumvent. This was the one time during my playthrough that I felt nervous for having eschewed proper sneaking so consistently.
It also felt like it was ripped out of another game entirely, and planted in what’s here. It was still filled with desks to rummage through, and hairbrushes and pens to pilfer, as if the developers felt obligated to remind me that, yes, I was still playing a game about being a master thief and stealing things in order to make money, even though I was more concerned about when I would face the Gollum-like creature I saw running around the corner a few seconds earlier.
It was in moments like these where Thief’s disjointedness really got to me. Eventually, I stopped being able to ignore how silly it was that silver cups and golden brooches were lying in alleyways and in the middle of the street for me to pick up, or how NPCs unfailingly spouted off the same lines of dialogue for hours on end. It can all feel a bit too hollow.
Now, were I a stealth game fan who had cranked up the difficulty, I may have enjoyed Thief much more. The ability to replay levels and try out new tactics will be a lot of fun for genre fans, and at its core, Thief is an entirely competent stealth game experience. It was just the trappings around those stealth mechanics that got in the way of losing myself in the game.
I left Thief wishing it had been simpler, dispensed with the characters and story I found uninteresting. I wish it provided a much larger open world, made The City a proper character in its own right, gave me a better sense of what this steampunk world was all about, and put the game’s focus squarely on just being a master thief pulling off insanely difficult jobs for fame and profit.
This review is based on a pre-launch copy provided to NotebookReview by Square Enix. Thief is available now on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.
Dennis Scimeca is a Boston-based freelance writer. He is usually on the video game beat, and has been published on Salon, Polygon, Ars Technica, and Kotaku. Follow him on Twitter @DennisScimeca.