Sneaking onto the PlayStation 4, developer Eidos Montreal’s reboot of Thief aims to put anti-hero Garrett back on the throne as the king of the stealth genre. It’s been ten years since the last game in the series, and in that time, undercover titles have undergone a few changes. Gone are the days of instant failures, as the gameplay format is now all about power empowerment and plenty of options. However, with a fervent fanbase and an expectant new audience pulling this dormant property in two disparate directions, has the abovementioned studio successfully managed to tailor the experience to both types of players?
Plying his trade in the Victorian steampunk sprawl of ‘The City’, the protagonist’s a burglar who’ll happily acquire items through less than legal means for anyone willing to pay the price. While working to lift a mysterious stone with another scoundrel, things go awry, leaving his comrade dead and the lead with a twelve month gap in his memory. Waking to find his home not only on the brink of full blown rebellion but also in the grip of a plague called The Gloom, the thief takes it all in his stride and gets straight back to his thieving ways. Despite his best efforts, though, the rogue soon finds himself embroiled in a battle for control of the city and also in search of a terrible power that could destroy the very home that he loves.
While it begins with a promising prologue, the story veers into unoriginal territory quickly, beginning with video game cliché number one: memory loss. Indeed, by the time that the credits roll, you’ll have seen more than a few elements that bear a striking resemblance to another rather recent first-person stealth game. Plague? Check. Mission set in a brothel? Check. Obvious plot twist? Check. It’s all desperately disappointing, and we couldn’t help but feel that forgoing the usual ‘save the world’ yarn for a more intimate story of robbery and high stakes heists may have provided a much better backdrop for the stealth gameplay.
Most of your time’s spent skulking around the shadows as you’re tasked with infiltrating a variety of locations on your quest to rob people blind. Guards in static positions and on patrol routes are your main opposition, and getting past them requires careful timing, use of the environment, and the gizmos in Garrett’s bag of tricks.
The most useful tools at your disposal are the physical skills, and chief among these is the ability to ’swoop’. Pressing the X button prompts the protagonist to soundlessly dart in the direction that you’re holding the analogue stick, and this is useful for not only sneaking around undetected but also getting yourself out of trouble. To give Garrett even more of an edge, he also has his ‘focus’ which grants enhanced vision for a limited time, highlighting enemies, loot, and other points of interest, helping to make you feel even more like a master thief.
A budding Robin Hood, the light-fingered lead has access to a variety of arrow options as well. Water arrows can be used to extinguish light sources to create more shadows to hide in, while rope arrows can be employed to create new routes through the city (though these can only be used at specific pre-determined points). During our time in the shoes of the safecracker, we found that the arrows that helped keep us undetected were the most useful. Consequentially, we avoided the arrows that kill or alert guards – such as the fire and blast types – as these didn’t feel like the types of tools that an infamous robber would use. That said, it doesn’t help that the gameplay goes off the rails when you stray from the shadows.
The light gem that Garrett carries around with him helps you to determine how well you’re hidden at any time. Sticking to the shadows means that guards will have to trip over you before you’ll be discovered, although as the difficulty ramps and the inevitable supernatural enemies make an unwelcome appearance, you will need to tread more carefully. If you do find yourself caught out in the open, all hell will break loose, leaving two options: run or fight. Should you choose to spar, you’ll need to work your way through some depressingly boring battles, but you may as well forget about trying to win if you’re against any more than two foes.
The combat can best described as some sort of violent, uncoordinated folk dance. When a guard takes a swing at your neck, pressing L1 makes your avatar step back out of range, giving you the chance to smack them in the face with your blackjack. Repeat this enough and a button prompt will appear allowing you to trigger a cinematic takedown that puts everyone involved out of their misery. It feels like the combat’s punishing you for your failure, and this negative reinforcement is successful in a way, as we started to take fewer risks as we worked through the campaign.
Fortunately, stealth games don’t exist solely for their combat, and the above issues would be somewhat forgivable if there were a variety of routes to sneak through. Sadly, we often felt like we were sloping down a corridor, as there’s very little opportunity to explore off the beaten track. This is mainly due to the stages feeling far too restrictive, with limited scope to tackle different approaches. The controls are at least great, but this doesn’t help to redeem the disappointing design.
The issues are further compounded by frequent loading screens which divide each level into smaller sections, seriously hampering the creative opportunities that a larger more open map would’ve provided. This is particularly problematic in the hub world, as it feels quite non-linear at first, but quickly presents itself as a series of pathways with guards that reset once you pass between various districts.
However, that’s not to say that there aren’t any enjoyable settings to explore, as there are a couple of standout scenarios that show flashes of brilliance in spite of their linearity. These include a jaunt across some rooftops to steal plans for a prison tower, and a foundry that’s being used to dispose of the citizens who’ve died from The Gloom.
All of these settings have a nice layer of next-gen gloss, and while very monochrome, they still look great with some nice lighting effects adding plenty of atmosphere. It’s a shame, then, that this level of polish is not maintained throughout the rest of the package, with ugly character models, a choppy framerate, and instances of ambient dialogue repeating over and over detracting from the experience.
Of course, if you do happen to fall for the gameplay, there are side quests and a challenge mode to keep even the keenest kleptomaniacs satisfied. You can also customise the title’s difficulty in a variety of ways, allowing you to tailor it to your own personal tastes. If you’re feeling particularly hardcore, for example, you can strip away all of the player guides entirely and turn up the awareness of the guards, making it so difficult that even a mouse breaking wind will bring the city watch running.
Thief is by no means an awful game, but it is a thoroughly disappointing one. By introducing a customisable difficulty setting, the developer has attempted to placate stealth veterans, but the restrictive level design, poor combat, and lack of polish make it a difficult title to really recommend. There are glimmers of outstanding moments on occasion here, but sadly the overall affair is criminally mundane.