Thief 2014 – Final Review

Thief is an incredibly immersive title, with a near constant maintenance of the first-person perspective. The master thief and protagonist, Garret, navigates the game world with ease, deftly climbing boxes to reach rooftops, climbing ladders, and scaling predetermined walls and structures. All of these actions are accompanied by incredible animations, which bolster greatly the immersive aspect, which marks perhaps the game’s greatest success. Rather than simply mounting an obstacle automatically, for instance, a brief cinematic plays out, Garret’s hands visible as he exerts himself. Every looting action has an animation, Garret opening drawers or lockpicking a secure chest. His hands and feet are visible, while falls from great height have a certain impact, the controller vibrating and Garret groaning under the strain of the fall. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop becomes this liberating experience, a certain connectedness and intimacy existing between Garret and the player; it is exceptionally done. This great success is tempered by a rather odd design choice, though. In every major cutscene in the title, the camera shifts to a third-person perspective; Garret is visible as he discourses with friends and clients. His character model is impressive, with a large compound bow on his back and a garb made entirely of black leather. His voice acting is decent, but he is far from endearing, being aloof to an almost excessive degree. It seems as though the developers wanted to craft this dark, brooding, melancholic character. They certainly succeeded on this front, though Garret is simply unlikable, an outcast to a cliched degree. Little of his past is revealed, so there is some intrigue present on that front. But as a player, I wasn’t very interested about his backstory – why he acts the way he does, why he is regarded in this almost elevated light by other NPC’s in the gameworld, like old Basso. His character model is also interesting, with dark skin and a prominent hat. He seems gay and affable, more interesting than Garret; he occupies a fairly prominent part in the narrative, and I actually gravitated towards him, as Garret’s somberness was tempered by Basso’s light-heartedness. A few other characters round out the cast; first, there is the secondary antagonist, the Thief Taker General; then his master and employer, the corrupt, tyrannous Baron; and, most critically, the juvenile, plucky Erin, a friend of Garret’s who dies in the opening, setting the overall plot into motion. Her immense brashness is again exaggerated, further destroying relatability.

If the immersion is an overwhelming success, then the plot is a relative failing. During the disastrous opening – centered around a bizarre sort of ritual – Garret falls into a state of stasis, his history and experiences during that lull never touched upon or developed. Waking from his slumber, he finds a city gone mad; a terrible plague, The Gloom, is spreading on the city streets, killing many, darkness and uncertainty overtaking all. This is interesting and compelling; a terrible, pestilential illness, killing innocents and corrupting a seemingly thriving, happy location evokes pathos; what is the history of these doomed citizens? What are they leaving behind once prematurely departing from the world? What is the extent of their suffering? These are intriguing questions, and I was far more curious about these unnamed denizens than the moody, brooding Garret. Sadly, the plot squanders these grounded, human components. Rather than focusing on The City and on the oppressed, supernatural elements are instead developed. True, at the ending of every mission, as Garret returns to his hideout, there is usually a brief animation that plays out, men violently hanged for some unknown, perhaps arbitrary reason. It lends to the world this sense of change and motion, of conflict. This is largely a façade; while there are newspapers spread about the gameworld, dealing directly with Garret’s exploits, the world is fairly hollow and empty. There are many ups and downs in the narrative, though there are few compelling characters, Garret’s totally detached nature only worsening as the plot proceeds. The ending, also, is immensely unsatisfying, serving as a cliff hanger of sorts. Indeed, as I approached the ending of the narrative, I had lost almost all interest. A terrible, forced boss battle at the end only served to worsen matters.

Fortunately, Thief excels in its gameplay, being an almost pure stealth experience. True, there are a few combat options available to the player in the form of more offensive weaponry, like explosive or flaming arrows, though the only tool of physical defense is the ineffective blackjack, which Garret flings wildly when engaged directly with an alerted enemy. It is awkward and unintuitive, but that is partially the intention – you are a thief, meant to stay in the shadows, out of sight. So horrible is this combat, I instinctively and automatically loaded a previous save if detected, to try my luck again and avoid terrible frustration. Fortunately, the loading times were fairly quick. The options for stealth, they being the primary focus, are fairly immense. The mentioned blackjack, for instance, can be used for silent takedowns, whether by approaching the victim from behind, or leaping upon them from a high vantage point. These animations are accompanied with an intense, brief musical flourish, only heightening the tension of the moment. The animation quality is again impressive, though in these instances, they go on a bit too long, Garret silently and slowly laying the target down. As a rule, it is best to hide felled foes, to avoid detection from their comrades. But these incapacitated foes cannot be carried automatically, right after the animation concludes. It is a cumbersome oversight, and resulted in an unfair number of detections, as I attempted to drag an enemy out of sight, only to be rushed on by another enemy before succeeding in my concealing endeavors. There is a firm reliance upon these takedowns, though archery plays another pivotal part to the gameplay, being used both as weaponry and as form of interacting with the environment, principally through highly useful rope arrows. The bow and quiver provide much flexibility to the gameplay and help greatly in maintaining a position of undetection. Extinguishing an open flame with a water arrow or affixing a climbable rope to an overhead beam – these are very engaging things.

There are a handful of factors when considering stealth; most prominently, there is line of sight, though light plays a similarly crucial role. Being under a streetlight, Garret’s entire outline is illuminated, resulting in immediate, believable detection, even if the observer is some distance away; darkness and shadows are Garret’s greatest companions. A dashing mechanic also helps here; as a form of silent movement, it helps move from place to place while avoiding detection, darting from shadow to shadow. There even appear to be vision cones attached to the enemies, even as this is not explicitly relayed in-game; approaching a target, visible only in his peripheral, results in slower detection, though it is advantageous to always engage foes from behind. Assisting with this, there is a light gem which exists, showing Garret’s current level of stealth and shading; it is a valuable tool, though the way environments are designed, it is not totally necessary; so well-designed are they, it is intuitive to engage what is concealing cover, and what is inadequate cover. In addition to line of sight, though, sound also plays a critical role in the stealth. The majority of time, Garret will likely exist in a crouched state, with slower movement, but far less perceptible noise. Approaching a vulnerable enemy from behind can still result in failure, if he is advanced upon too quickly, alerted by audio cues. Walking along glass generates great noise, while carpets dampen them. Similarly, sprinting draws an excess of attention, and is generally unwise, unless in a position of relative protection – namely, on the beams and rooftops on the upper tiers of the city. Freedom of movement greatly assists the stealth, particularly in the main missions, abounding in branching pathways with clever altitude. The stealth, then, is very well done, and unlike many other games in the genre, it is rarely frustrating; I genuinely felt my mistakes were totally my fault – I was too aggressive, or I hesitated too long, and was consequently punished for those mistakes, learning from the experience.  

Connecting back to the freedom of movement. The City is designed expertly; not every object is climbable, but many objects are, and with clear environmental indicators, there is rarely any confusion; a box, for instance, will be dappled with paint, or a scalable wall will have scratch marks and a glowing light. Maintaining the high ground is an absolute necessity, and with the incredible, immersive animation, motion becomes exhilarating. With sufficient speed, Garret can leap small gaps, or deftly slide over smaller obstacles. Given this major emphasis on verticality, one major flaw becomes evident – the fall damage. Usually, there is a safe way down from a great height, various descendible platforms to fall upon, to cushion the weight of the impact. Other times, though, there is no such safe opportunity. Being pursued by a guard, desperate to break his line of sight by scrambling over the rooftops, only to fall ten feet and instantly die because of the damage is terribly frustrating, and this problem persists unmitigated even once an upgrade has purchased to increase safe falling height, which seems to serve no real purpose. It is a small gripe, but death by falling happened to me countless times. Still, exploring the city is a pleasure, and there is an almost puzzle-game aspect to it. Say you accept a small job from the mentioned Basso. Rarely elaborate, they are still enjoyable, as they provide an added incentive to explore the game world. Always centered around infiltrating some building or structure to steal an object, the puzzle mechanics emerge in force; typically, there is only one way to reach these objectives, and getting there often times involves climbing, leaping, scaling and descending ropes. Even as the reward for getting there is objectively trivial – it is typically but a few gold coins or a pointless collectible – there is a secondary reward, attached merely to arriving at the destination. With the verticality and lighting, The City is interesting, though oftentimes, it seems too mundane, not creative enough. There is a dark, grimy aesthetic which certainly appeals to me – the entire game occurs at night, but running on the ubiquitous Unreal Engine, it feels at times generic. There are cobblestone buildings, church towers, poverty-stricken areas populated with dying, gloom-infected peasants. The atmosphere is palpable, with incredible fog effects and decent if slow-loading textures; but I was still unimpressed when it comes to graphics – technically, with occasionally bad pop-in; and creatively, the world doing nothing substantial to differentiate itself, other than the immense focus on atmosphere.  

The game tries to counter graphical repetition in the various primary missions, mostly hit or miss. Among the most remarkable is a small brothel, swarming with prostitutes and their patrons; and a secluded, island-situated asylum. The brothel – The House of Blossoms – is certainly unique, prostitutes plying their trade, smoke and opium floating in the air, guards patrolling. It is surprisingly crisp and colorful, with vibrant curtains and lamps, far removed from the cobble-stone streets of the city. It is refreshing aesthetically, but from a gameplay perspective, it is flawed. The map seems incredibly claustrophobic, with almost no verticality, and, thusly, flexibility. Notably, though, there is a great example of environmental interactivity present within this mission. There is a gas device of sorts, which can be tampered with, the end result being the death or incapacitation of all NPC’s within the level – whether innocent sexual patron, prostitute, or the more deserving patrolling guard. It is exhilarating to explore the entire complex, with no tangible opposition in sight. There is present no morality component in the game, though reflecting upon my actions, I eventually reloaded a save before my tampering, to reduce the body count. This mission in particular stretches on for fall too long, involving puzzle-solving and the exploration of cavernous ruins existing below The House of Blossoms. Admittedly, the diversity here is incredible; the vivid colors are replaced by the grey and the decrepit. The other ambitious mission of note takes place on the mentioned Moira Asylum. Having commandeered a boat from Basso, Garret sails away to the secluded island prison. Given the gloomy aesthetic which exists already in The City, this mission was not quite as visually jarring or remarkable, though it was very atmospheric, by virtue of its seclusion and the very nature of such an institution. Seemingly abandoned for decades, it is eerie to explore alone a location once populated by throngs of people. Pursuing clues as to Erin’s fate and backstory, the majority of the level is spent in search of these baubles and clues. As it actually unfolds, though, the game basically devolves into a walking simulator for thirty minutes; there is very, very light puzzle-solving, and the reading of various documents spread about the asylum. For a loud, bombastic game this would be welcome. But Thief is already a slow game, and for progress to grind to an even greater halt was very negative. I left the area very unimpressed, even as it attempted to convey a compelling story. Even worse, the supernatural elements rear their head in force, as blind, humanoid monsters patrol the corridors. Both of these environments are highly ambitious, but they never really resonated with me. I enjoyed others, though, like the infiltration of the Baron’s Manor, which synthesizes the open areas with the more claustrophobic environments of The House of Blossoms. Towards the late game, a cathedral is also explored, which is fairly compelling. Still, while I like certain of these levels, none were especially memorable, and will be easily and swiftly forgotten, even The House of Blossoms and Moira Asylum.

Beyond this main narrative, the secondary, all-pervasive objective of the game is the acquisition of coin; there are dozens and dozens of lootable objects spread throughout the primary missions, while there must be hundreds spread throughout The City proper, with its manifold districts and nooks. Fortunately, every looted object is immediately translated into coin; there are vendors in the game, but they exist primarily for purchasing resources and upgrades, with selling on the part of the player being very limited, only then to sell unneeded resources. This results in a streamlined focus, which keeps things moving – there is very little inventory management. Each object has various monetary values, and it can be exciting to seize upon some especially lucrative loot, or even to find one of the collectible objects; exploration and creativity are rewarded highly and tangibly. The mentioned Basso missions – plain as they are – also provide coin, while the more elaborate “client” missions similarly weighten Garret’s pockets, and optional challenges in the missions afford a bonus. That’s basically it – the entire game centers around coin, with numerous purchasable objects which offer various buffs like increased arrow damage, or an expansion of the quiver size. Garret is a thief, so the accumulation of coin is natural. But my greatest complaint in the entire game is centered around this, and around the progression systems overall; the majority of purchaseable upgrades and abilities are fairly pointless, and there is very little to get excited about in anticipation, even as there are more exotic objects which are acquirable. Early in the game, Garret meets with a blind woman, The Queen of Beggars, who can distribute focus points, which unlock a handful of upgrades; almost all of them are useless, or highly situational. Increased lockpicking or pickpocketing speeds are dull and unexciting, and nothing stands out as highly remarkable. They seem to be a rather forced inclusion, as all games supposedly need these progression systems. The only consistently useful ability is unlocked from the start, highlighting loot and interactive objects in a glowing blue light. The other sort of upgrades – related primarily to equipment and trinkets – fare somewhat better, though they are still flawed. Increased melee damage or damage resistance are totally useless in a stealth game, with the great emphasis on remaining undetected, so I found myself primarily spending my coin in amplifying my abilities as an archer, increasing arrow damage and the speed with which an arrow is notched. These were certainly useful, and made archery consistently viable in the endgame, where for some inexplicable and arbitrary reason enemies have more health. But with the absence of these systems, very little would change.

The developers of Thief have crafted a world that is abounding in potential. The City is a compelling place, very enjoyable to explore, populated by an ailing, oppressed, and disillusioned people, literally dying and wasting away. The City seems a character in its own right, even as creatively it is unremarkable; the brooding atmosphere, though, elevates the game to something greater, as does the overwhelmingly successful sense of immersion. Garret and Erin may be dull and mundane, but the actions they engage in are consistently riveting, despite the overall slower pace. Indeed, the game excels precisely because of that slowness, as it evokes an almost constant sense of tension and anxiety. Brutally difficult at times, it still controls very intuitively, and mistakes are easily correctible. Learning and mastering these varied stealth systems are highly rewarding, and the game overall evokes a sense of player satisfaction, partially because of how vulnerable Garret is. Despite these positives, the game is destroyed by a convoluted narrative, creating player agency, certainly, but not player interest, certainly not in the dull narrative. The upgrade systems, similarly, serve no ground-breaking purpose. Appealing and useful in theory, some do heighten the gameplay experience; but the majority do not. There is certainly great fun to be had in Thief, though it is certainly not for everyone. While of a fairly short length, if the plot had been extended much farther, I can certainly see repetition as settling in; but the game excels in the flexibility which is offered the player; with many avenues of experimentation and highly-customizable difficulty settings, I can certainly see myself returning to the game sometime down the line, maybe opting for a more violent playstyle. While difficult at times, the game remains inviting, and would be a solid introduction to the stealth genre, if one is inexperienced regarding those specific games.

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