Some games are put together in an obviously slap-dash fashion – released in order to make a quick buck with little consideration for the end user. Thief is not such a game. It is a title which oozes style and which has, at its core, a great concept (okay, yes, the game is based on a dormant franchise, but that doesn’t diminish the concept). Unfortunately, so many of the pieces of the game are done in a fashion that truly diminishes one’s enjoyment of Thief.
The story follows Garrett, master thief, and generally a sort of bad guy who isn’t really bad because he seems to find himself morally obligated to destroy greater evil. This means that you can have fun stealing stuff because you’re really doing good. But, I’m actually not concerned with that, it’s just a distressing aside. I tell you about it because it’s as much of the plot as we’ll be discussing. It isn’t that things don’t happen in the game, they do, and while they’re not really all that interesting, so many of the plot points are treated as surprises that I would rather not discuss them.
Instead, I want to talk about the stuff that really doesn’t work… like that aforementioned great style. The game is dark and atmospheric. It opens dark and atmospheric in order to instantly draw you in, and it succeeds. It is an intriguing looking city, a place you want to explore. The prologue takes place quite quickly and then the game jumps forward a year, and the city is even more dark, even more sinister. Unfortunately, because the developers did such a great job setting the dark tone in the prologue, the only way that we know that things are worse now is because Garrett says so, the visuals really do not change substantially. Now, if they had set the prologue during the day or offered anything besides murk and gloom in it, they could have shown us the change in the city rather than just telling us about it. That sort of small alteration would have made a huge difference, but they opted not to go that way.
Garrett is, as stated, a thief and consequently has to go and steal things. Much time is spent in the game with you doing just this. People leave trinkets everywhere in game, and everyone has desks, dressers, cupboards, and drawers. This means that you spend hours and hours (seriously) opening every single drawer you find in order to steal stuff and make money. The first time you open a drawer and swipe a ring, it’s fun. The 10th time, it’s just something you do. By the 5,000th time, it’s downright annoying and the developers clearly needed to figure out a better mechanic. When you, the player, don’t want to perform an activity that is the character’s raison d’etre, mistakes have been made. Can you imagine playing Call of Duty and deciding that shooting someone was just plain boring? How much longer would you want to play?
Of course, Garrett does things besides steal, he regularly finds himself needing to solve puzzles. They are not terribly interesting puzzles. Were I to spoil one particularly distressing puzzle (it deals with moving stairs), I could explain piece-by-piece why the puzzles in the game don’t work, but I would rather not ruin any individual element of the game like that. So, instead, let me say that if the solution to a puzzle is not readily apparent and you feel stuck, you’re working too hard. Puzzles in Thief are all about the easy, obvious, solution. There is no “Oh, that couldn’t possibly be right, that’s too simple” notion. That “too simple” idea is the exact right answer.
Going back to that stylish, atmospheric city. It is a closed in place, one where there is constantly danger lurking around the corner and you have several choices about how to avoid the danger. You can eliminate your enemies or you can avoid them. The game does not reward one over the other, but it does, within missions, let you know exactly how you approached a level (via stealth or in a more aggressive manner).
Eliminating opponents can, in general, be done either from a distance with arrows or from up close with a blackjack. The latter tends to be used more often because arrows are at a premium. And, while the game purports not to make judgments about how you choose to execute a mission, it does feel like it is against fisticuffs as swinging the blackjack is done with a single button press. You then fight with an awkward avoid maneuver and pressing the same button over and over again to swing your weapon (upgrades make this slightly more involved, but not terribly).
The city, as it turns out, isn’t that spectacular either. It is full of small neighborhoods and long loads as Garrett goes between them. It is, initially, fun to traverse the place, but just as with opening desk drawers, it gets old very, very quickly. Garrett has a map that is regularly expanding as you hit new corridors and alleys of which he was unaware, but the map does a dreadful job showing you what exists at what elevation and does not update once Garrett learns that a path is permanently closed. It is, in short, a bad map.
In the end, Thief feels like a great blueprint for a wonderful game. It shows everything that will eventually be fleshed-out into a full, brilliant title. It offers up a look at the great graphics and, initially, interesting story beats. It shows the beginning of a thieving mechanic that needs more work. It hints at what will be a robust set of sneaking maneuvers and a brilliant hand-to-hand fighting system.
It just isn’t any of those things yet, and that isn’t because hours haven’t been put into Thief. The game is clearly complete, and it shows lots of effort. Playing it, however, one gets the sense that it needed another set of outside eyeballs to question things a little more along the way.
I hope that people out there find Thief good enough that they want to play it and want more, because it’s a genre I love and it has a great foundation to it. It just should be better.
Thief is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB Blood, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, Violence. This game can also be found on: PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.