Thief: A person who steals another person’s property, especially by stealth and without using force or threat of violence.
Eidos Montreal’s modern day reboot of the classic sneak ‘em up Thief gets part of the above definition right. It steals from the player their time and patience with little to nothing in return. Unfortunately it’s not all done with stealth, and quite often the failures apparent are like a sledgehammer to the forehead, repeatedly. Within the confines of the game itself you, the player, will find yourself rapidly frustrated and forced towards violence in-game and quite possibly outside of it, too.
Thief is the newest title to land on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (plus the less new platforms) and given its heritage is one that has been longed for by modern day gamers who’ve not experienced the Daddy of first-person stealth games before but also, and perhaps more so, folks who’ve wanted this since the third and last game in this particular series dropped in 2004. Eidos Montreal have taken on the task of rebooting another masterpiece having succeeded so well (if we ignore boss fights) with 2011’s Deus Ex. It is definitely a game which superficially feels like the kind of game we’ve been waiting for and one which does good service to the latest cycle of consoles, but as you start to look under that top layer of gold you find the trinket you’ve wanted for so long is nothing more than worthless.
The game sees you play as Garrett, Master Thief in The City, a place owned by Baron Northcrest and policed by the Thief-Taker General. It follows a chapter-based structure but with some non-linear opportunities afforded by the hub world itself, allowing you to do side-missions for loot or to complete certain challenges set by the game. The nine chapters (including prologue) tell a wholly stupid story which is presented as being twisty and turny but only the least observant folk will wonder about the twists at all before they’re actually shown onscreen as you make your way from start to end.
The game’s story opens with you thieving. So far so good. The prologue tasks you with getting from A to B and stealing jewellery and so on along the way. It encourages you to try different techniques and serves as a tutorial somewhat, showing you how you can move around, swoop between hiding spots quickly to avoid being seen and how transitions from darkness to light can change the awareness of guards nearby. Movement is easy to control and with L2 pressed you can climb and move more quickly in order to get to the next safe place or escape folk who’ve become too nosy. A press of X will make you swoop and at first this is wonderful. Combine the free-running with swoop and you feel like you did the first time you played as Altair and the world is quite simply your oyster. But the world isn’t really set up for free-running and nor is the game, given you are trying to hide. If you swoop you only travel a short distance and you want to quickly go again; there’s a certain delay before it will accept the instruction and this frustrates. Eventually you’ll run out of city or be unaware which direction you can head in and any attempt at movement stops. For a game which wants you to play in the darkness and avoid kerfuffles, it stops you from doing so regularly at a free speed.
It might be that free-running is out of place in this game anyway and that’s why the design of The City is set up so, or the guards are placed accordingly. Maybe so but it feels so good when you’re able to run and swoop and hide and avoid that when you’re forced to stop and spend hours looking for the way through the pre-programmed route of the surrounding guards it can get thoroughly irritating. The guard’s AI is woefully unsuitable for this game too. They hear you moving, they see you moving and this becomes even more clear when you’re not hidden in complete darkness or you’re running compared to tip-toeing. But you can quite easily sit behind a crate looking at the guard and nothing will happen. They often walk around to you and look at you for thirty seconds but ignore you because it’s dark; but next time they’ll see you and attack. It’s inconsistent and frustrating. How can you plan the stealth route through an area when the guards are random? If they were randomly clever it might be ok - the challenge would be exciting - but here it’s just very rote and stupidly random, leading to plain annoyance and lack of fun.
The worst part about all this is that when it’s hard to see where you can go, or when the guards are often making you, it forces you to either run - which you can’t as you do not know which pieces of the environment you can scale, wiggle through or ignore leading to regular fail states - or fight. With your club. From close quarters you have a club-type thing; your blackjack. It’s pathetic. It has no power and the guards have swords. You hit them and either it leads to a slight yelp, or their sword defends then attacks. Sure if you have the requisite inventory you can try taking them out in advance using arrows, for example, but even an arrow to the head often only harms them. Hand to hand combat - which quite often you’ll find yourself inexplicably involved in - is just awful. You’re duty-bound to lose unless you can be bothered to move around, watch the guard’s animations and so on, but you can’t be. In fact when forced into combat you are immediately overwhelmed with a sense of dread and despondency forcing you to just sit there and wait for the “You Are Dead” screen to pop-up, or perhaps even reloading the latest checkpoint save manually to avoid even that. It’s just poor. It’s like Eidos Montreal saw Dishonored and looked to mimic that game but forgot the whole action half because this is about a Master Thief.
The PlayStation 4 is put to good use throughout this game. It looks great graphically, running at 1080p throughout. The frame rate is stable much of the time aside from some action set-pieces and this in turn leads to unresponsive controls for a period of time. The best part of the graphical fidelity is the lighting system which is wonderful as it should be for such a game. In the world the change from light to dark is well-managed and lends definite atmosphere to the title. Atmosphere largely blown away by the light bar on the Dualshock 4 which turns bright white when Garrett is in the light ever in-game, including in the in-game cutscenes. These are the main method of story filler between levels although there are a couple of full motion video sequences which look like they belong on a Gamecube. Mystifying decisions. The Dualshock 4’s touchpad is used to great effect, translating to your equipment inventory with a five by two grid effect on-screen mimicking the same on the pad enabling you to trace a thumb to the right arrow or food piece as needed. Aurally there is some great stuff going on, with conversations overheard, sound effects providing requisite feedback to your choice of path and music subtly enjoyable.
The City serves as a hub area in-between missions. If you can be bothered to spend anymore time in the game. There’s a merchant who can provide various items but honestly on the normal difficulty level it’s hardly needed, such that we forgot to go back to him at all after our first meeting. There are three difficulties plus an option to customise your difficulty where you can turn on or off various aspects of the game. A great idea but unless you start out with the custom setting it’s unlikely you’ll ever try it because that would require a replay of the game. Within the hub is the clocktower, your base. Here you display all the collectibles and special items you steal as you progress through the game. Wonderful. We didn’t look at our collection once. There’s just no reason to. There are all kinds of collectibles strewn throughout the game but aside from the documents which tell a story there’s little to no reason to care what it is you’ve picked up, aside from wondering how close to that new trophy you are, or how much more money that provides for not buying items from the merchant. This is not Resident Evil 4. Elsewhere in the hub area you can visit the Queen of Beggars who in exchange for gold will provide focus points allowing you to buy focus upgrades. Like most games these days Garrett has a special power which is switched on by pressing Triangle. Your focus power is refilled by using a poppy and it allows you to see where the guards are in the dark, see traps and actionable environmentals. It also - depending on your upgrades - can let you do special things like hit a guard more easily. If you choose to develop your focus powers it can lead to a better level of gameplay but one further removed from the spirit of the original Thief games.
You can’t help but think Eidos Montreal have been caught between reverence to the original but the need to incorporate everything good in modern-day AAA titles. They setup some wonderful moments in the game then take control away as it’s not really a Thief moment at that point. They do include some boss-type battles - with feedback from Deus Ex understood - still when it’s just not needed. They give you half of what’s good about Dishonored and forget the rest and they model their storytelling on Lara’s latest or Drake’s series of adventures but forget to actually write the story to tell. It all adds up to the most frustrating of games. It looks great and plays smoothly. It encourages you to play in a certain way and sets up some wonderful moments only to drop you into a world of frustration, failure and insouciance nigh-on immediately. There are glimpses of wonder but this is the top layer of gold only. The bulk of the game is a frustrating, irritating, random mess. In itself this is frustrating, as what could have been great struggles to be merely average.