This is a republishing of an older review that I did on Gather Your Party. Somehow it wasn’t moved over to this blog, which is a shame because it’s one of my favorite reviews that I’ve done
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Released: February 25th 2014
For convenience, Thief (2014) will be referred to exclusively as that in this article and older Thief games will be noted as such.
What is the new Thief game if not inauthentic? It sought to reboot the classic franchise, which could be considered perhaps the most defining stealth game in the history of the genre. Interestingly, this new Thief is not without precedent. Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the series, was already disfavored among long time fans. This was primarily because, in the transition to consoles, it ended up with smaller levels impacted by heavily segmented loading zones. The console transition also meant the removal of the rope arrow due to issues with the engine and, presumably, draw distance. It was replaced instead with a wall climbing mechanic. Deadly Shadows even added a mostly pointless city hub between missions. Given the similarities between the two, Thief (2014) feels as if the developers only played Deadly Shadows and thought that all of these problems should be exacerbated in addition to a host of new problems. All details below will be from my experiences playing on master difficulty mode and playing with all difficulty mods enabled, except iron man mode and slower movement. I am currently at the top of the leaderboard for Thief’s custom difficulties, with a significantly lower time than the next two people on the list, making me best Thief (2014) player in the world at the time of writing this review. (February, 28, 2014)
Thief is played through a first person perspective of Garrett, the series’ protagonist. The primary goal of the game is to evade detection by guards to make it to the next checkpoint. The player is given a variety of tools to use, primarily different types of arrows fired from the bow. These arrows have a variety of effects, and are typically restricted to affecting either environments or enemies. In addition to these, the player can throw bottles from the environment to distract guards, use their blackjack to fight, and perform silent takedowns. Players navigate their environment through use of sprinting, crouching, sneaking, contextual climbing/jumping, and swooping. These actions provide different ranges of visibility as well as noise. Crouching makes the player make less noise and be less noticeable. Sprinting makes noise on all surfaces but is the fastest way to move. Sneaking allows passage over noisy surfaces, like water or broken glass. Swooping is a fast and silent burst of movement across the ground, used to move between patches of darkness or cover. Much of the game is about interacting with various collectible objects and opening various doors. Many objects are locked, and can usually be unlocked via a lock picking minigame. This involves rotating the mouse or analog stick until the circle is white, then pressing the use button. Pressing in the wrong place will make a noise that can alert guards to your presence. When anything is interacted with in the environment, Garrett will snap to it, performing a short contextual animation in first person, like grabbing the loot, or putting out a candle. Garrett also has a Focus mode that highlights objects in blue and can provide a number of active benefits.
Thief introduces a number of new features to the Thief series; such as the new Focus mode, an upgrade system, and the Swoop mechanic. Focus is a similar mechanic to detective vision in the Batman Arkham games, highlighting enemies and interactive objects in the environment. It highlights enemies through walls, hidden traps, and the wires to their operating mechanisms.
A common theme in stealth games is the battle of information between the player and the environment. In other first person and fixed camera stealth games the player must put themselves at risk in order to ascertain the locations of enemies relative to themselves. This was especially prevalent in the Thief series, which had sound design and the lean mechanic to accommodate this. Leaning allowed one to peek around walls and doors in order to see what was ahead, making themselves partially visible, but keeping the shadow value of the area they were standing on. By putting themselves at risk, players could determine the dangers that lied ahead. Focus mode and similar modes in other stealth games exist to remove the risk element from this battle of information, simply providing the information up front. Leaning still exists in Thief, though now is it called peeking, and is a contextual action, not allowing the player to look freely while leaned or perform leans where the contextual points do not exist, which is highly annoying in many sections of the game, especially when one wants to check around certain columns or barrels. Leaning forward, which used to be a useful tool for increasing the range at which objects could be interacted with and the range of your blackjack, is no longer possible. This removes another useful tool from the player’s set.
Focus functions less like a tactical option, with advantages and drawbacks, and more like a type of “cheat mode” relative to past Thief games that lacked it. The only thing constraining the use of Focus is a Focus meter, which offers only the strategic choice of using Focus now at the potential cost of not using it later, rather than doing anything to bring it to a level of balance relative to a Thief game without it. Eidos Montreal assured players that Focus was not required to beat the game and, indeed, the option exists to disable it. However, there are a number of death traps throughout the game which cannot be bypassed except through disabling them by finding well-hidden switches on walls. It is improbable that a first time player will be able to fairly locate these switches without the use of the Focus mechanic. Additionally, where classic Thief levels were typically sparse and clear, Thief has levels that are cluttered and dense, which can make it difficult to locate objects in the environment, not to mention pick out which objects are actually important. Focus mode outlines important objects in blue, making them easy to spot. It can be extremely hard to determine which objects can and can’t be climbed, with inconsistencies in many places. This can lead to death in combat situations or make it unreasonably difficult to determine the path forward. Given all these difficulties, Focus mode becomes a necessity.
On the topic of environmental feedback, the sound design is another note of contention. Footstep sounds from enemies are now much quieter, and do not distinguish by the type of flooring they are walking on, same for the player. Furthermore, the sounds aren’t represented very well in 3D space (if they are at all) so it is close to impossible to determine the direction of an incoming guard from their footsteps, assuming they can even be heard over the music. Guard dialogue is also pitifully uninformative about the guard’s current state of awareness. This means that all the older methods of collecting information from the environment to determine the location of guards before you encountered them are now completely useless compared to the Focus option. Playing without Focus provides the player with little means of determining enemy placements short of stepping into the same hallway as them. About the only improvement in sound design is the use of a tone to indicate that a guard is in the process of spotting the player – a necessity, given that the normal means of ensuring you don’t get spotted are now hopelessly insufficient.
The game features a few upgrade systems, from the Focus points, to a number of tools providing interaction with different elements in the level, to an assortment of random trinkets which boost various stats like flame resistance, discounts, and stealthiness in general. None of the upgrades are necessary to beat the game, and most of them are outright disabled with one of the difficulty mods (except the Wrench, Razor and Wirecutter). The Wrench is particularly notable as a number of vents across the game are marked as wrench only, which clearly provide risk-free ways through the level. The irony of the wrench is that it costs a large amount of money, and as the game progresses wrench-only vents become almost absent. The same goes for contextual points for rope arrows and the wire cutter. Again, these tools don’t have the flexibility of a tool like Thief 1 or 2’s rope or vine arrows, which can stick to any wooden surface.
Thief (2014)’s rope arrows tend to be used on the few contextual points they interact with to grant a fast and easy way through the level and some extra loot. There are a number of Focus mode upgrades purchased with Focus points that are found in the level, awarded at the end of missions or purchased from the Queen of Beggars character. It’s possible that these were likely awarded with experience points system that could be seen in footage from earlier builds of the game, but are now distributed through other means. The Focus upgrades increase the number of things that happen when Focus is highlighted, like giving additional environmental hints, allowing for fast combat takedowns, faster movement. Focus upgrades also unlock an alternate lock picking minigame, slowing down time, additional stealthiness, and the ability to see noise produced by enemies. These further reinforce Focus’s status as a type of “cheat mode” rather than a more natural part of the game.
Swooping is one of the most controversial changes after the Focus mode: it replaces jumping, which now only exists as a contextual action. Swooping is a move where the player will rapidly move from one point to another without producing any sound, though it is no less noticeable than normal movement. It can get Garrett through patches of light or guard lines of sight easily because Thief‘s new detection system is a detection meter that fills too slowly for the guards to spot the player if they swoop. Direction of travel can be changed mid-swoop with precision control through fine mouse movements and precise directional inputs, allowing for a range of expression in the action. Swoops can be canceled with sprinting, allowing one to immediately swoop again if done right before the cooldown period, though leaving one in a standing position if you forget to hit crouch during the last swoop in the chain. Swoops can also cancel a number of contextual actions in the environment, like most loot pickups. Swooping exactly when the loot is grabbed, however, keeps the loot and gets you moving ahead a bit quicker.
Swooping by itself is not a negative change. Unlike most of the other changes to the franchise’s formula, Thief adds a new tool to the player’s arsenal which adds a decent degree of depth to the game in a way that is surprisingly nice to use. Swoops are surprisingly well balanced with the rest of the system, and require a fair degree of control to use correctly and efficiently. Using a swoop too soon, for instance, will frequently plop the player right in sight of a guard. The drop in speed between swoops would lead to detection where one swoop clean across will not. Swooping or sprinting a lot will result in Garrett getting tired for a bit, his faster movement slowed until he recovers. This can put a natural end to chases unless you can find a hiding spot before you get tired and it sets a limit on how many times you can swoop in a row.
Regrettably, this depth is gained at the loss of free jumping, one of the loudest actions a player can take in classic Thief, and which had a variety more applications than the swoop did. Platforming was actually a large focus of the classic Thief games, as it allowed jumping across high areas which were typically outside the range of sight for most guards at the risk of being loud. Jumping, integrated with the vaulting system, allowing the player to scale tall ledges with carefully positioned jumps.Dishonored integrated an improved vaulting system into their game as part of their tribute to classic Thiefgames. Jumping was also useful for moving between quiet patches of floor, like sections of grass or carpeting. Players could conserve moss arrows, which quieted footsteps, by spacing them further apart and making careful jumps between patches. A favorite use of jumping in prior Thief games was drawing guards’ attention. Since jumps are one of the loudest things a player can do and have no cost, the player can jump in place to make loud sounds on most floor types, which draws guards over, allowing the player to manipulate guard behaviors at a distance to sneak around them. Manipulating enemies is, generally, the primary source of depth in any stealth game. Swooping is an interesting maneuver unto itself, but not worth the sacrifice in depth and skillful play that jumping brought previously. At many points there is a simple path across a gap, but it cannot be crossed because no contextual jump point is there. The trouble with swoops is not their existence, but rather how it shifted the level design focus from large areas with many light gradations to swooping past small gaps in the darkness or past guards’ vision cones.
Despite the removal of free jumping, the Thief developers saw it fit to include a massive number of platforming sections in the game. These are frustrating as Garrett frequently gets caught on level geometry in all areas of the game. Sometimes contextual jumps will outright fail to work, leading to the player plunging to their death because they fell off the platform instead of jumping. The contextual points for jumps are rather sticky, and for some reason many of them in more dramatic scenes require the player to be running off the edge to jump successfully, leading to many inadvertent deaths due to not hitting the contextual point or not being of the right speed before making the jump. In addition to the dramatic sections involving movement through collapsing pipes or burning houses, there is a new third person climbing mode that pops up when certain pipes are encountered. This functions much like a mix between Remember Me and Assassin’s Creed‘s climbing systems. The climbing often proceeds in a linear fashion, to a single destination, and there is almost no chance of failure. Garrett sticks to ledges and grates automatically, and the player can progress by mashing the general direction forward and, occasionally, jumping when prompted. This seems reminiscent of the climbing gloves from Deadly Shadows, but is otherwise completely pointless filler. It’s as if it was put it in to show off Garrett’s third person model more than for any practical purpose.
Enemies and AI
The Guard AI isn’t very clever. It isn’t designed for luring or searching as in prior Thief games, or even like the AI in most stealth games. It’s oddly reminiscent of Dishonored, which also had guards that did not search around for the player in the majority of circumstances. Guards can frequently be escaped by outrunning them, and they will actually lose the player if the player gets too far ahead. The loading zones, and movement through secret passages and gating mechanisms, make evasion of guards trivial in many areas as guards cannot pass through these to chase the player. The previous Thief games based their guards as much on avoidance and tricking the guard AI as they did evading patrol patterns, but Thief seems to be more exclusively about timing puzzles to pass through guard patrols with an assortment of other options that tend to just make the guards hostile, rather than serving a useful function. The game contains a number of ways to distract guards, like tossing bottles, but other than my experience in the tutorial, guards never investigated the source of the noise. Rather, they just glance over toward the source of the noise then stand in place, in a hostile stance, before continuing their search for Garrett. Overall this means that there is less interplay between the player and the guards, less of a process of the player taking risks to lure guards around and bypass or disable them, and more a process of the guards simply seeking Garrett out and the player hiding until it is over. Play tends to revolve less around long drawn out encounters with multiple guards across large areas, and more on tight gambits that usually involve a swoop at the right time through a patrol pattern, or a distraction to make the guard look the other way while you swoop past. Despite this, the guards do have a few improvements, like lighting torches that have been put out (a feature shared with Thief 2 fan missions and The Dark Mod), noticing when doors are opened in front of them, remembering if some specific doors should be closed or not, staying more wary after you’ve alerted them before, using ranged attacks when you move to high ground or elsewhere they cannot reach, and passing on alerts to other guards in the level as they encounter them.
Detection now works on the basis of a meter over guards’ heads, similar to Dishonored. This meter fills slowly in darkness and quickly in light. If it fills completely for an unalerted guard, they will move to investigate. If you are in full light or too close to the guards, they will just attack you. Disturbances in the level will instantly bump them up to investigate. If they have been alerted previously, then any disturbances will provoke a hostile reaction. This meter system makes it so the player can get away with movement through a guard’s line of sight; something that would instantly provoke a hostile response or at least investigation in older thief games. In some ways this is more forgiving, but there is very little time between an investigatory response and a hostile one. Thief also introduces two new alarm type systems: caged dogs and birds. Caged dogs will steadily rise in alertness as you remain close to them, eventually barking and alerting the guards. Birds react to your rate of movement around them, and will grow more agitated as you move more quickly. Swooping nearby a bird will instantly alert it, bringing in trouble. With the No Alert modifier active this means an instant game over if you swoop too close, which can get agitating.
Additionally, a common complaint about guards in stealth games is how they repeat a few lines seemingly ad infinitum, and Thief seems to have hit the mark there more strikingly than even Dishonored with its bear pits or whiskey and cigars. Guards can’t seem to stop saying, “Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight after my shift,” “Not so sure about this,” “Wonder what’s in the sloop,” “wonder where all the sloop sellers have gone” one after another while patrolling around. Many NPCs repeat the same lines one after another. This was especially annoying in one section where a conversation was triggered by a brothel client asking a prostitute to beat him harder,and it continued to loop through exploration of the entire area. More irritating is having enemies continually shout the same few lines while chasing you.
The new melee combat system is more than a touch absurd, allowing one to circle strafe enemies while beating them, then hold down the button to perform a takedown. It operates through the use of the blackjack buttons, as well as a dodge button that is only active in combat situations. In prior Thief games, it was impossible to take out guards non-lethally without first allowing them to cool down to a lower alert level from outright hostile unless you expended a precious gas arrow. Being chased into a dead end by a guard usually meant death, but now it is entirely possible to escape from such encounters with the guard downed and your health bar completely unscathed. On higher difficulties, though, guards are incredibly lethal and it is almost impossible to survive encounters with more than one guard without using Focus. On lower difficulties, guards can be beaten down without losing health, unless there are several of them.
The new takedowns seem to miss the point of the original blackjack. It had a certain heft to it that was imparted because it actually occupied a physical space and had a real swing to it instead of being a canned animation that activated with a button tap in a certain radius, snapping on and doing the whole job for you. As a result, there is much less of the original dynamic of attempting to get in close enough to land a blow without arousing suspicion, though some of that does return with pickpocketing. Pickpocketing is done by holding the use button close to someone with a pouch that can be stolen. Garret will magnetize to them and a meter will fill, after which he grabs the pouch. It can be tricky to pickpocket moving targets for risk of accidentally bumping them. Also disappointing is how guards cannot be woken from unconsciousness and will not wake on their own. This was not present in the older Thief games and was an unfortunate oversight, yet Eidos didn’t see it fit to at least correct that with the newer release. The limited size and linearity of the levels would mean that none of the guards that are knocked out would be close enough by the time they wake up to be of danger to the player if that feature even were to exist. Because of this, there is no functional difference between killing an enemy and knocking them out.
One of the classic features of the first two Thief games was large sprawling levels filled with guards and loot, along with differing patches of light, darkness, and floor textures. Classic Thief was a game that aggressively attacked the player through its level design; by placement of lights and shadow, and floor patterns that gave off more or less noise so the player continually had to evaluate where the best place to move to or merely stand was. Levels were large and interconnected, with a variety of entrances and exits and paths to encourage wandering around in and sporting few chokepoints that really forced the player to go one way over any other. Levels were comparable to large playgrounds consisting of specific stealth challenges that could be tackled from a variety of angles. Regrettably, in the most recent Thief, this was not to be.
In much the same fashion as Deadly Shadows, 2014’s Thief features very small level areas with loading zones acting as chokepoints between them. Unlike Deadly Shadows, these loading zones are common and always lead the player further into the level in a linear progression. Rather than having sets of 3 level sections all interconnected (or the preferable solution of one large level like Thief 1 and 2), levels are divided into tiny chunks. On consoles, these load times are very long and can be as close together as 3 loading screens per minute at one point. This means that all the areas are self contained, preventing guards from neighboring areas chasing after you and from being called in when you provoke an alert in another area. Additionally, the levels themselves are extremely narrow and linear. For a ghost playthrough (in which you never get noticed by any guards) there is usually only one real way to make it through the level, and the levels in general feel much more constrained than even Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s levels. Waypoints are completely linear and very close to one another. Previous Thief games relied on players interpreting their maps to figure out which way to go as well as their own sense of direction and hints from the mission objectives or contextual clues in the level. 2014’s Thief, however, has a perfectly accurate minimap and full map available in addition to their constant waypoints. Given the cramped and linear structure of the levels, the difficulty of interpreting what is going on in the environment, and lack of contextual clues, it’s usually much simpler to follow the waypoint rather than bothering with navigating the environments themselves as there is nothing else to look for but the next waypoint. The game simply lacks the exploration and deduction element of its priors.
Levels in previous Thief games were more malleable through the various types of arrows available, such as the water, moss, and rope/vine arrows. Moss arrows no longer exist in Thief (2014) because the differences in flooring present in previous Thief games are now absent. The sound produced by moving used to differ by the texture on the floor, between silent carpets or grass, softer stone surfaces, louder wood or other types of stone, and tile or metal grating, which cannot be passed over without making some noise. Even the tile floors which previously could not be walked on without making noise, except at Garrett’s absolute slowest speed, are now mostly silent even while standing up and walking around. Now the only loud parts of a floor are broken glass or water, which are rare and too inconsequential to warrant a moss arrow. Half of the original franchise’s classic stealth system died with that change alone. Rope arrows and vine arrows, which previously allowed clever players to make new routes through the level by attaching them to wooden surfaces or grating, have been cut from the game entirely. Rather than requiring the player to aim carefully (to position the rope arrow well) and pay attention to the environment (to figure out new ways forward that were actually functional), they are strictly limited to specific points designated as working with rope arrows, vastly limiting the range of expression possible in exploring or completing a level. Rope arrows now function closer to a rigid gating mechanism on specific portions of the level, and another new addition, grates over vents, which must be opened with a screwdriver that is permanently purchasable as an upgrade, opening these grate routes permanently. The new metal claw used to climb up metal grates has a similar digital feeling to it in contrast to the rather analog style of access present in older thief games.
Water arrows still function as they did before, though the role of light itself has been reduced. Older Thief environments were generally much larger and more open than 2014’s Thief ‘s and were usually fairly well lit, meaning that players had to either move between rare patches of shadow, or risk detection in the light.This Thief, instead, has very dimly lit levels, which can no longer have the player choose between walking over loud stretches of floor or dealing with well lit areas. Lights in general are either very bright, creating areas of complete visibility, or completely absent, with very little between. The old light indicator had 11 possible levels of illumination, each of which had a different effect on a guard’s reaction. The new light gem features only 3 levels of illumination: total brightness or complete darkness, with a single level in between. It might as well not have the in-between level, unfortunately, as the lighting in most areas is so divided between light and shadow that not many dimly lit areas exist, whereas in the original Thief the lighting conditions ran the gamut with very few places having complete shadow or complete light.
Replacing the standard stealth sections in many areas are puzzle sections, of the sort where a simple mechanism must be operated until the pieces are in the correct places and the player is allowed to progress. In at least 4 different game sections, the player is presented with a puzzle where they must look at one thing, then rotate a set of pieces until it matches the reference. In addition to this, many sections involve a cinematic run-about through collapsing or burning buildings while others see Garrett wandering through supernatural dream sequences until the next waypoint is reached. These are common throughout the game, massively breaking up the stealth challenges with close to non-challenges, presumably with the purpose of pacing, spreading out the stealth sections so they don’t become tiresome, and expanding on their narrative by having ghosts talk to Garrett as he follows them. Cutscenes have also worked themselves into the levels, instead of being restricted to the level introductions. These are more numerous than ever, intruding frequently enough to be an annoyance. For a game ostensibly about sneaking around and stealing things, perhaps only half the actual game time is spent actually engaging in these activities.
Another step down from classic Thief installments is present in the difficulty modes and, more specifically, how they fail to alter the way levels play. There were 3 difficulties in classic Thief: normal, hard, and expert. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of these difficulty modes was not just how it improved the AI of the guards, but also the additional mission objectives, ranging from as simple as exiting the level once you were done, to stealing more specific loot or accomplishing more specific goals in the level. In addition to this, there was always a certain amount of loot that the player was required to steal, which also increased across difficulty levels. Thief not only has no loot requirement, but all the loot is split up into tiny pieces and scattered across the level. Most pieces of loot are things like utensils, cups or ornate tools, worth 2-10 gold. This means that for the few people attempting to 100% a level, a few hundred small items will have to be tracked down. The older Thief objectives were interesting because they forced the player to explore the level in order to progress, which runs them through the gauntlet of all the guards and other enemies patrolling the level. The fewer objectives of lower difficulty levels meant that the player could finish up a level while only seeing a tiny portion of it and only dealing with a few guards. In contrast to the classic games, the lack of loot collection vastly decreases the amount of actual sneaking required by the player. This runs counterintuitive to the aims of Thief. It seems here that Eidos Montreal thought Thief was a game more like Deus Ex. It may be that the reason Thief originally had experience points was because of this misunderstanding of style, which now persists through the Focus Points that are hidden throughout the levels and the weapon upgrades. As if in response to this change, the levels are now so narrow that interactions are forced with most guards, albeit not as many as if loot were a requirement rather than optional.
An additional component was the non-lethality imposed by higher difficulty modes. On hard difficulty you couldn’t kill civilians or other unarmed people, and on expert you were not allowed to kill anyone. This meant that the only weapon that could be used to disable or remove guards was the blackjack, which was additionally notable in that it could only disable enemies that were not alerted. This reinforced the stealth style of gameplay by forcing the player to run from encounters and not openly engage under any circumstances. In Thief, there are no additional objectives imposed by different difficulty modes, there is no loot requirement in the levels, and one is perfectly capable of knocking out a guard in the middle of a combat encounter. Loot that can be seen by the player will occasionally glint, another feature that was disliked about Deadly Shadows, and heavily controversial among the community.
However, one thing Thief did arguably right was the inclusion of additional custom difficulty modifiers. These range from decreasing the number of checkpoints, to mandating only stealth kills, no killing or knocking out at all, to disabling many of the new features in the game, and even to a mode comparable to Metal Gear Solid‘s European Extreme, giving a game over for even being seen. Some of these allow a difficulty change in guard interactions similar to the prior Thief games, and it’s undeniable that they make the game much harder, but they ring of Eidos Montreal’s laziness, and the lack of loot goals and additional mission objectives are not at all fixed by this. Regardless, it is a kind gesture. The least that can be done is giving them credit for including these difficulty mods.
This calls into question some of the historical roots of the practice of ghosting. In the classic Thief games, players devised a self imposed challenge that they called ghosting the level, involving not taking down any enemies in the process of beating the level. The reason for this is because when the level was over the player would frequently be asked to exit the level again, meaning they had to go back through all the enemies they had bypassed earlier. If they took all those enemies down on their first go-through, then it meant they simply walked through a level filled with unconscious bodies, making their exit far easier. This objective no longer exists in Thief (2014). The purpose of challenge and difficulty is to bring out the depth of the game, and to force the player to think cleverly and engage with the wide range of systems in the game to find a solution. This, in turn, creates a more intellectual challenge placed upon the player, in contrast to a purely physical one. Ghosting in classic Thief games meant that a player had to avoid detection both going in and out. European Extreme mode worked spectacularly in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 because the player had a wide range of tools for dealing with enemies in stealth encounters that did not involve the player getting seen outright. There was a wide range of depth in that space between unwary enemies and full detection, and European Extreme existed to bring that depth out, forcing the player to use their entire arsenal intelligently. Thief does not have such depth, and even the classic Thief games were light on enemy manipulation relative to titles like Metal Gear Solid. These new difficulty modes certainly force more intelligent solutions, but they alone are not the solution to a flawed game.
Regrettably, the custom difficulty modes do make the game harder, but they fail to really bring out the depth of the game, as there isn’t much depth to bring out, largely in part due to the narrow, small, and linear level structure. Between Thief’s difficulty modes, a game that already had a narrow possibility space is reduced to an extremely tight execution challenge, like what some people might call puzzle stealth rather than the wider creative range of thought that is brought out by the high difficulty modes of other stealth games. Rather than accentuating the range of strategy possible, the mods tend to limit the player to very precise solutions to each room.
The obvious question is: Why did Eidos Montreal go to such lengths to produce a reboot of Thief with such obviously high production values, yet end up with a product that is so inauthentic relative to the original? Thief forgoes many elements of the previous games, like the Pagan, Hammerite, and Keeper factions. None of the old characters return, except in name only or in the the most vague of allusions. In both tone and structure, Thief seems most similar to Deadly Shadows, in contrast to the other Thief games, had a heavy focus on the sinister and supernatural. It had open world city exploration, limited climbing, an abundance of gas arrows or other means of knocking enemies out, and most notably, a level called The Cradle. Most of the Deadly Shadows levels were considered to be fairly average in comparison to the previous Thief games, but The Cradle stood out as a masterpiece of level design, featuring superb environmental storytelling, a very well-done horror atmosphere, great arrangements of enemies, level objectives, and rooms, and a large concentration of supernatural content. It seems, more than anything, that this level was the basis for the entirety of 2014’s Thief game, given the large number of segments related to puzzle solving and supernatural entities. What’s more, it seems as though the entire game was Eidos Montreal not wanting to stick to the foundation laid down by the previous games in the series to deliver a true sequel. Instead, it seems they wanted to deliver their own game, but use the Thief name, as if to call attention to themselves. It’s like they think they’re too good to be restricted by the previous Thief games and want to show that they can do it better. Instead of carrying on a legacy, they wanted to build their own.
The original Thief games were brilliant but had their flaws. These could have been fixed or improved upon, but rather than take the original concept and building upon it to make a better stealth game, Eidos Montreal focused on reworking the plot, seemingly to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, the large focus of Thief is the overt and intrusive narrative, rather than the environments, enemy encounters, and level design. The plot aims to control Garrett’s actions directly, leading the player by the nose all the way through. There are a large number of cutscenes across the game, they take a long time to skip, and most of them are completely unskippable, in combination with the many many canned animations that lock out player input, this gets irritating quickly. The developers were quoted multiple times during development as stating it is a very narrative driven game, and even stating that the new rope arrows were made that way so as not to harm their intent for the narrative. As is typical, the narrative intentions of the developer have ruined a game, not just through intrusive cutscenes, but through uprooting the central focus of the gameplay, sneaking around guards, and stealing things. These are supplanted with various forms of storytelling that give the player no option to progress but waiting. The previous Thief games had storytelling too, primarily through overheard conversations and the environment, but none of them saw it fit to force the player to wander around until enough plot points had been brought up to satisfy the quota, or to include long areas completely missing guards or enemies of any type.
And of course, the narrative is terrible. It relies heavily on attachment to characters the player has barely spoken to, familiarity with various factions that the player has no interaction with until they’re breathing down your neck, and crazy supernatural forces that are poorly explained in the course of the main story. In many scenes Garrett is forcibly put into a detection state through no fault of the player, usually at the hands of the absurd recurring villain, the Thief-Taker General, who is depicted as an insane sadist that frequently just lets Garrett go for no reason at all. Near the end of the game they even force a boss fight with this character, which can either be played out, or escaped by opening a door and picking the largest lock in the game. The player is offered no opportunity to buy new supplies after many missions and as mentioned before, the missions themselves are filled to the brim with filler in the form of pointless non-puzzles or walking through supernatural sequences. The motivations of pivotal characters are unknown at the end of the game, and much of the story content is shoddily sewn onto older Thief concepts, like an ancient city beneath the current one, passing references to various discarded characters like the trickster and Basso’s wife, the district names of the city, Burricks, Jacknells. The entire pacing and structure of the asylum was ripped from Deadly Shadows, and the female protege too. The ending had the characters talking and acting nonsensically, and concludes abruptly without adequately explaining what the final events mean, let alone providing any type of catharsis to the unresolved plot conflicts that have built up by that point.
In conclusion, Thief is not a good stealth game, is not a good game, and is, in addition to those things, inauthentic to the Thief legacy. Inauthenticity can be tolerated, solong as positive contributions are brought in kind. Thief is a trainwreck in all regards and has made no such effort. It’s not a failure because it is different, it’s a failure completely on its own merits, no matter how much “Thief DNA” the developers claim it has. It has not taken efforts to make players engage with the core stealth gameplay, it filled the game with a lot of dead content, and the stealth gameplay itself is weak due to poor AI, and level design. Maybe in time we’ll see a reboot that actually stays true to the franchise it is based on, that dares to aim higher and do a better job than its predecessor, but that time is not today.