Thief review (PS4)
We have never stolen so much. We stole ornate hairbrushes, statues and paintings. We stole all manner of trinkets and heirlooms and whatnots. We cruelly bludgeoned a frail, unknowing old lady over the back of the head with a club, all for a fountain pen that was in the drawer next to her. It probably wasn’t even an expensive pen. It was a silvery colour, sure, but they sell pens that look like they’re made of silver in WHSmith and we’ve never needlessly assaulted another person in order to obtain one. Such is the Thief player’s modus operandi – if it’s there, you’ll take it, no matter what it is or who you have to wallop in order to snag it.
Despite the game’s title, though, nicking stuff isn’t really the main emphasis here. For the uninitiated, Thief is a reboot of a franchise that began on PC in 1998 with Thief: The Dark Project, a game penned by BioShock head honcho and 2013’s official Man Of The Hour Ken Levine. Eidos and Square Enix have swiped the franchise and given it a good old working-over, while still retaining the pure stealth experience that the series has purveyed for the last 16 years.
And now we find Thief nicely at home on PS4, squeezed through the mangle to create a product that is enjoyable, challenging, well designed and imaginative. It’s also a bit muddled, and seems to wander off down a strange path as time wears on, leading to a final third that is less than satisfying.
You are Garrett, a master thief. Despite his ignominious job title, Garrett is a lovely chap. Armed with a bow and a blackjack – which is essentially a club-thing for cracking people around the back of the head with – Garrett also possesses a wide spectrum of ideals. This is a man who claims to be a master thief. His kleptomania truly knows no bounds, and yet he very much fills the shoes of the hero. He does the ‘right thing’ and, honestly, never shows himself to be the utter bastard that you’d hope he would be. We won’t reveal too much here, but the story revolves around Garrett attempting to uncover some weird goings-on surrounding Baron Northcrest, a strange Masonic figure who rules The City.
The game opens with Garrett and his compatriot Erin as they stalk across the slate rooftops of The City, the game’s primary setting. The City is a steampunk-style principality, largely modelled on a Victorian-era European town. There are winding cobbled streets dimly lit by flickering lanterns, lined with creaking wooden houses and malnourished beggars. It rains a lot. You know the score. Anyway, as he hops through someone’s window to pinch a necklace, Erin challenges Garrett to a race through the streets. Through holding down L2, Garrett can engage in an Assassin’s Creed-style free-run to scale certain obstacles. He’s a little more restricted than Ezio or Kenway in terms of movement, and yet the design of The City coupled with this mechanic creates an atmosphere of free roaming as you stalk across the rooftops before leaping down next to an unsuspecting sentry.
And here’s where the first missed opportunity rears its ugly head. It seems a real shame that in a game where you are encouraged to explore and to use the environment to your advantage, you are tethered to a hub-based world. It’s not for us to say that every modern game needs an open-world component, but Thief just feels lacking without one. The world itself is decent enough – if a little monochrome at times – but if Eidos was to kill the hub structure and open everything up then Thief would have benefited tremendously.
When you’re on ground level, the stealth aspect of Thief really comes into play. Remaining out of sight of the Baron’s henchmen is totally reliant on shadows, and Eidos Montreal has exploited light and shadow extremely well. A small orb in the bottom-left of the screen indicates whether or not you are easily visible, and is well worth keeping a close eye on.
The stealth mechanics here are brilliant. Sure, there are occasions when just because you are in shadow a guard can be stood within kissing distance of you and not notice you lurking there, but for the most part it is a believable and intuitive system. Deus Ex: Human Revolution also peddled a great stealth system (despite not being an out-and-out stealth game), and Thief continues to improve upon Eidos’s formula. At a time when the stealth genre’s big-hitters like Splinter Cell are peddling awkward action mechanics, Eidos Montreal has created a game that – the vast majority of the time, at least – nails its primary objective.
However, the problems with Thief become apparent as soon as the narrative comes into play. The confrontational nature of Garrett and Erin’s relationship soon fades into obscurity and a number of unwelcome supernatural elements work their way into the story and cause a disturbance. This is a game that is crying out for a dark, gritty take on storytelling – The City is in a state of turmoil and an ailment named ‘The Gloom’ is running rampant throughout its populace. We have to ask: where are the Robin Hood moments? Where is the enigmatic hero that fights for the weak and impoverished? Nowhere, it seems; he’s far too busy chasing a load of magical shite. It becomes really hard to identify with Garrett, as little has been done to try and flesh out his character. Only the Thief-Taker General, Garrett’s main rival, enjoys some exposition – everyone else may as well be an android.
There appears to be a real missed opportunity as far as the narrative goes, as the most interesting aspect of Thief’s story is Garrett’s relationship with the fairly sociopathic Erin. We would’ve loved to see this relationship develop in a different way, as the fragile nature of their friendship would have offered a perfect way to structure the story. What we are left with, though, is a supernatural tale that fails to hit the spot.
It’s a real shame, as in terms of gameplay Thief is generally excellent. As well as the stealthy options, there are a few ways in which Garrett can dish out a bit of punishment. The most useful is the blackjack, with which Garrett can either whack people around the back of the head if unspotted to execute a takedown, or simply attack people head-on. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that attacking enemies at all is a dangerous affair. Garrett can only take four or five slashes from a guard’s sword before he buys the farm, and so it’s best to avoid combat as much as possible.
When in direct combat Garrett can utilise a slightly clunky dodge move, although we generally resorted to smacking R1 in desperation whenever we went toe-to-toe with an enemy, aimlessly hitting away with the blackjack until they crumpled. As soon as anyone else stepped in to help, though, we found the best option was to run away like a coward. Although running away from your problems seems like the right stance to adopt in both games and real-life, in Thief it doesn’t quite have the desired effect, as all of the Baron’s cronies are crazy fast and always seem to be able to catch you up. This becomes annoying later on, as it generally means that if you’re spotted you are as good as dead, without a hope of fighting back or being able to escape.
Graphically it hits the levels you’d expect on PS4, and a couple of slightly odd animations aside it all looks bloody superb. We would’ve liked to have seen a little more variation in terms of the environments though, as with the exception of a seedy, velvet-lined brothel and a fantastic mental asylum Thief’s environmental design becomes fairly repetitive as time wears on. It’s a double-edged sword, as through creating a dark, mysterious game world Eidos has slightly limited itself in terms of visual output.
It all feels like a brilliant framework held back by a few unsavoury elements. The hub-based world and other problems would’ve been less apparent if there was actually a decent narrative to prop the game up, but instead we’re left with a half-baked tale that feels shallow and dissatisfying by the time you reach the end. Still, there is still plenty to be happy about here, with a wealth of great gameplay flares and a strong aesthetic. If there’s a sequel, then opening the world up and allowing the characters some room to breathe will work wonders.