Thief, as you might have guessed, is a game about being a thief, and for the most part it succeeds in making you feel like one. Sneaking through the shadows, picking pockets, busting locks and lifting every shiny object that isn’t nailed down – all the while avoiding the ever-watching City Watch – is a true thrill, even if you’re not big on stealth.
But then something happens, something that completely ruins the immersion, and you realize you’re holding a controller in front of a very dark screen. You are no longer a thief; you’re just playing one.
It could be one of a few things; maybe it’s a guard walking off a walkway, floating on air seconds before he falls to his death; or it could be a bystander repeating the same line of dialog again and again until you feel the urge to put him out of his misery. It may even be the story that doesn’t seem to be able to decide which way it wants to go. Whichever the case, these instances make Thief a very unbalanced experience. One minute you’re Garret the master thief, and the next you’re just someone playing another unpolished video game.
However, while the illusion lasts, Thief is the kind of game the keeps you going forward, drawing you deep into its world. And what a world it is. The main setting in the game – a gloomy and industrial European-looking city called The City – is a character all onto itself; maybe even the most developed character in the entire game. Other characters (even Garret) don’t get enough “screen time” to develop any sort of personality. As you walk its alleys and rooftops, The City comes alive with the chatter of guards, the light of fires around which the downtrodden gather, and the occasional piece of useful information about stashed loot.
Exploring The City is both fun and rewarding, mostly because of the many secrets there are to uncover. Most of them don’t enrich your gaming experience beyond giving you more things to steal, but they do offer a small challenge in the form of “how do I get there” or “how do I open it” puzzles. In the Thief of days of old, Garret could barely climb or outrun any pursuers. Today’s Garret can sprint and climb with the best of them. He’s no athlete, but thanks to his new found mobility, it’s easy and fun to get about the city and explore every nook and cranny. It would have been nice if the story was centered a little bit more around this interesting setting, rather than focus on Garret himself and his apprentice Erin.
The story is another part where the game goes off its balance. At first, the game seems to follow Garret and his role in the future of The City. Garret’s been missing for a year – a year he doesn’t remember – and now the city he left behind is under siege by a deadly plague called The Gloom. The local nobility isn’t very concerned with the fate of the people, so it is up to the very reluctant Garret to help. But then, for some reason, the story turns away from the political struggles of The City, and moves towards Garret’s personal story, which involves his missing apprentice Erin and a lot of the supernatural – something that feels completely out of place in the world established so far. Because of this shift in focus, the game’s story ends up feeling really unsatisfying and even unimportant.
Same as with the story, the main missions in Thief are a hit and a miss affair. They are bigger than those of the classic Thief games, but a lot more linear and a lot less challenging as a result. There’s always an indicator on the screen telling the player where to go or where to find the treasure you’re looking to steal, taking away part of the fun of figuring it out on your own by exploring the level or listening in on conversations.
Fortunately, you are still free to explore the level on your own if you choose to, and find every precious item and collectible. By doing so you’ll also find alternative routes to your target and minimize interaction with the guards, just as a thief should. The places Garret goes on his nightly escapades are varied and interesting as well, and you’ll even see some that should be familiar to those who played the old games. One mission takes Garret into an underground brothel, another to an abandoned insane asylum, and yet another to an old cathedral with a familiar insignia. Each of these locations has its own look and challenges, ensuring there’s never a dull moment to be had.
However, the best missions are the ones you find around the city. When out and about in between story missions, Garret can pick up contracts from several shady characters. While they are pretty short, these missions are where Thief really comes into its own, weirdly enough. The objective is often very simple – steal a certain item – but what Garret has to go through to reach said item is always new and exciting. It could be solving a series of puzzles, or clear a path for a drunkard so he can lead you to his stash. The side missions aren’t as linear as the main missions, and usually let the players figure out how to complete them on their own, without leading them by the nose.
Garret has a small arsenal of weapons and gadgets to help him traverse all these missions undetected. His main two weapons are a blackjack, which he uses to knock out guards or flail around helplessly during combat, and a bow with assorted arrow types. While a master thief can usually rely solely on his skills, it’s fun (and it makes the job much easier) to use a water arrow to extinguish a lit torch or a rope arrow to reach higher grounds away from prying eyes. When everything fails, and you’re drawn into a combat situation, Garret won’t last against more than one enemy, and even then he won’t leave unharmed. It’s possible to dodge coming attacks, but the blackjack isn’t a very effective weapon against an armed guard, and Garret doesn’t really know how to use it as one. After all – he’s a thief, not a fighter.
To make it easier on new players, Thief introduces Focus – a new mechanic that lets Garret detect traps and valuables, slow down time, or take down an alerted enemy quickly. In order to get all these benefits, you’ll need to upgrade your Focus abilities using money or upgrade shards you find around the level. Thief fans can choose to turn it off completely (or just avoid it) since it sucks out all the remaining challenge out of the game. You’re much better off saving your funds towards buying the socket wrench and wire cutter – two tools that give Garret access to secret areas and disable traps. Still, Focus is useful if you want to make sure you snatched everything in a dark room.
Yeah, Thief is a dark game, but still a good looking one. It’s no next-gen title, but the lighting alone is more than impressive. You’ll be spending most of your time in the deep blue of shadow, and watching a guard walking around with a torch, lighting up the darkness in bright yellows is a sight to behold; the contrast is almost hypnotizing. Textures are smooth and detailed, which is good since you’ll be studying them from up close as you rummage through drawers and sticking your face up against crates and walls for cover.
Sound contributes to the game’s highs, as well as lows. Ambient noises are great, and each different surface Garret walks on creates a different sound. Stepping on broken glass or stone floor is louder than stepping on wood or carpet. This doesn’t only enhance the game’s atmosphere, but factors into the way you play it too. Garret also needs to be careful not to knock over bottles and other fragile items, since the sound of shattered glass will draw unwanted attention.
Unfortunately, the instances in which the sound design fails are way more noticeable. The voice acting is subpar for a game of this caliber, with most characters coming off as bored or just not invested in the story. Garret stands out as the exception since he is actually supposed to sound bored and cynical, but his inner monologue often sounds silly under the circumstances. Oh, and apparently The Gloom causes some sort of brain damage, since not only are the guards and thugs particularly dumb, they also repeat the same dialog over and over and over again, and the only proven cure is an arrow to the face.
Thief is not a perfect game. It suffers from a few weird glitches, daft enemies. and an unsatisfying story. At times it feels like the game can’t decide whether it wants to preserve the spirit of the classic Thief games, or appeal to a new audience with faster gameplay and more linear maps. But the truth is, that under each unpolished mechanic lies a true Thief experience that does one thing great: it sucks you into its world and makes you feel like a master thief. Sneaking your way through a mission, stealing the purse off of a guard’s belt, or cracking a wall safe to reach the goodies inside bring a great sense of accomplishment only few games offer. It may be an unbalanced experience, but Thief is probably still something you’d want to put your grabby fingers on.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.