The HD re-releases publishers seem to be churning through these days are risk-free. You screw with textures, fix things people disliked in the first place and change the HUD to be compatible with widescreen monitors. Modders do this shit for free on a regular basis though, yet somehow we'll still buy it if we remember the source material favourably.
The reboot/remake concept on the other hand is like Tom Cruise when his parents are away on vacation. For every The Sands of Time we get four Sonic 2006s, and all too often even decent revisits get harsh receptions thanks to our rose-tinted glasses. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Castlevania: Lords of Shadows are two very good examples of these.
The chief problem is that once you take the name of a beloved franchise, you're assuming responsibility for upholding its legacy. My chief complaint regarding last year's Tomb Raider reboot was that it featured almost no challenging puzzles, and I have very fond memories of being regularly stumped by previous games in the series.
By the metrics of the legacy of the series, Thief is in for a tough ride.
The series is remembered for hardcore stealth play, for its unforgiving approach to forcing players to stay hidden in the shadows. It is a series remembered for really pushing players not only to find multiple avenues for approach, but to carefully survey and analyse each approach before progressing.
Thief is an 'Action Stealth' game in much the same vein as the Splinter Cell series. It used to be that if you were seen in Splinter Cell that was game over -- you'd have to reload your game -- but now Sam Fisher tags enemies and executes them on the run.
The new Garrett hasn't quite started running and gunning, but he's moving a lot quicker and he's capable of getting out of sticky situations. That's the sort of game you're looking at now. Thief is a stealth game the way The Bourne movies are thrillers.
If you can't accept an action stealth Thief, move along now; there's nothing more I'll tell you that will change your mind.
With that said, there's still a lot of the Thief series DNA in our new game -- though the game is definitely from the Deadly Shadows family tree more than The Dark Project or The Metal Age lineages. The system of arrow gadgets returns, and the hub world gives you ample reason to explore between missions. Story notes -- lore elements like The Trickster and The City -- are paid brief nods, but in keeping with the reboot theme the world is 95% new content.
Having established that Thief is a reboot, not a remake, I am now free to judge it on its own terms.
The story is woeful. I'm not just talking about the stilted voice-acting or trite plot -- it seems like there might be scenes missing constantly, and the game's insistence on throwing you between the real world and a spirit one are inconsistent and jarring. It's hammy videogame storytelling at its very worst -- the Thief-Taker General is your chief nemesis, and he's portrayed as a corrupt cop who comes just shy of twirling his dastardly moustache.
It's a shame, because there's some fairly good writing hidden within the game. Stories of mad painters and loan sharks are told second-hand through notes and letters you steal, embiggening an otherwise non-cromulent narrative. The fact that you could miss these factoids if you weren't searching for them makes them better -- it's as if the strongest effort went into elements of the game people might miss, while the part everyone would see was left wanting.
Exploring the world as you hunt down new tidbits of information is probably my favourite part of Thief. Playing on Master meant my resources were dramatically low, so having the money needed to buy rope arrows (arrows with ropes attached to them) and blunt arrows (arrows with blunted heads good for knocking out pulleys or pushing buttons from a distance) provided a constant challenge.
The exploration is hampered somewhat by the lack of a jump button, but only because the system in place is repeatedly inconsistent. Instead of jumping up walls, or a parkour style system ala Battlefield 4, Thief opts to allow players to climb up walls only at certain points. Obviously this allows the level designers more control, but there are too many instances where a ledge is a similar height to what Garrett has climbed before when he's suddenly incapable.
I say the exploration is hampered by this issue, but it's worse during the story missions outside of the Hub. Within the Hub areas, Garrett has ample opportunity to try a different escape route if the one you chose happens to be a dud. In the story missions, Garrett's options are much more... limited
. The missions themselves are quite linear. They're not the corridors people associate with Call of Duty, and you can spend a significant amount of time working your way through every nook and cranny, but the game does railroad you down to one place.
Once you steal the item you are after, Garrett finds himself caught in the act more than once and you'll engage in an action-filled escape scene instead of sneaking your way back out. Even when you don't get caught 'black-handed' (a phrase so-named because a caught thief has their hand tarred in boiling pitch) you'll probably wind up at some convenient exit point anyway.
The story missions -- with the exception of one -- were far and away my least favourite part of the game. They awkwardly stomp from one clichéd environment to the next -- the architect's mansion, the whorehouse with secrets, the massive keep -- and with the exception of the brothel every area tends to be one of 49+ shades of grey. Here the AI is at its very worst, hilariously exploitable -- because guards can't duck, they figure nobody else can duck either. So if you can find a crawl space, you can knock out a guard, lure his friends to his body and knock out his friends as well.
Here's the thing about exploiting the guards though -- you get judged based on your playstyle and rewarded accordingly. If you play like a Predator, killing all the guards in the fashion described above, you're told this at the end of the level and you get a pitiful sum of cash as a reward. If you knock people out when they get in the way but you don't actively search for people to kill, you'll probably earn the Opportunist reward, and if you go completely unseen you'll be awarded the Ghost rank.
This is standard for stealth games these days -- ranking systems have been in Metal Gear Solid for as long as I can remember, and the latest Splinter Cell used the ranking guide as a solid tool to encourage players to replay missions in a different style. It doesn't negate my concerns regarding the AI, but it does mute them a little -- the AI follows rigid pathways (like most stealth game AI) and so they're fairly easy to distract and avoid. Well, they are until later missions put goddamn birds which sing out when you're near everywhere.
On the subject of the AI, the game does switch things up on you a little. There's an Asylum in Thief, and it's the best story mission in the game. The atmosphere is creepy as hell, it's multi-levelled and multi-winged, allowing for quite a bit of exploration and it also introduces a completely left-field enemy type -- corrupted inmates. Corrupted inmates abhor the light, so instead of Garrett staying in the shadows at all costs there comes a time when you'll try to light up as many torches as you can. These decrepit souls actually take damage when they're in the light (and they take very little damage from arrows) so you wind up relying very heavily on the fire. It's a nice bit of turnaround for our Master Thief character.
The other new addition to the game is the Focus vision, a system you can trigger to highlight nearby interactable elements of the environment. I could definitely see a hardcore Thief player not wanting this to mess up their game, and it's something you can turn off in the options if you like, but I found it extremely helpful. The world is designed in such a way that interactive parts of it are indistinguishable from art assets, so while you'll eventually learn what an enterable door looks like, without Focus you could spend a fair bit of time running into bits of wood stuck in door frames before you do.
Finally, I couldn't finish this review without talking about the bugs -- Thief's got some doozies. Audio bugs appear to be chief on the list of problems with the code I played -- occasionally I'd get no audio for a cut-scene, or ambient environment audio (the canned lines nearby NPCs spew over and over) would play during a conversation between Garrett and others -- and it would be louder at that. The wheel menu from the console systems breaks its way into the game sometimes, showing up for a microsecond before disappearing again (usually after loading screens), betraying the true lead platforms for the game. I also had an odd glitch where if I tried to upgrade my focus powers, the screen would become pillarboxed but my Field of View and HUD would stay widescreen, making it very difficult to read or see descriptions of my focus powers.
Like I said earlier, if you're coming in expecting a Thief game like those from Looking Glass, you're not going to be pleased by what you lift here. The problem with Thief is that the studio spent so much time trying to make a game for all kinds of people that it forgot to execute any single part of the experience perfectly. It has this hub area for people who like to explore, but it's almost void of people and gated with constant loading screens. It has these action-packed story missions, crippled by a generic story and bad AI. It hides some great writing away in letters and behind jumping puzzles, instead showcasing the aforementioned generic story. Most importantly, while it does have some extremely solid stealth-focused puzzles they're wrapped in a package I found it immensely difficult to care about. Thief isn't a bad game, but it's not a good one either.
Joab "Joaby" Gilroy is a huge fan of sports games, racing games, first-person shooters and 4X strategy games. He's awful at fighting and real-time strategy games although he'd love to get better. He thinks the Halo universe is hollow and that Arkham City was the real game of the year in 2011 and that AusGamers' managing editor Stephen Farrelly only gave Skyrim the nod because he is a filthy Marvel fan. His top three games of all time are (in no particular order) Deus Ex, GTA: Vice City and DayZ.
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