Out of Shadows: Thief Review
by Brian Skahan
Admittedly, I never played the original Thief games. I've enjoyed several stealth games of the last decade and a half, but the original Thief trilogy always felt too slow for me. "Stealth is supposed to be slow," one angry gamer once told me for daring to insinuate stealth from the late '90s and early 2000s (for the most part) doesn't hold up to the standards of today's games. The gameplay of this reboot of the Thief series feels like an amalgamation of both new and old, with players able to keep the nostalgia glasses on (for better and for worse), or to take the modern AAA gaming route of causing hell where they see fit.
At its core, Thief is a first-person stealth game.
Players take on the role of Garrett, a master thief who finds himself caught in the middle of a revolution he wants little part of. Add in a plague that's killing people by the dozens, a malevolent Thief-Taker General who wants Garrett's head, and an apparent cult full of old dudes in robes, and Garrett clearly has his work cut out for him. Mostly, that work involves Garrett avoiding all confrontation and praying that all three guards don't look at him as he moves that last pin in the lock he's picking.
If you want a challenge, Thief has you covered.
When players start the game, the first thing they may notice is a special fourth difficulty setting called "Custom."
In this setting, players can disable several different settings, such as takedowns, focus vision (the Thief equivalent of the trifocal goggles from Splinter Cell), or standard arrows.
Players can even up the difficulty to eleven and cause the game to start over if Garrett dies, kills or knocks out anyone, or even if he is just detected by an enemy. For those veterans who play Thief: The Dark Project and the original Splinter Cell blindfolded for fun, Thief has you covered for the amount of challenge you may want.
The levels are a bit too narrow and claustrophobic.
Players will find themselves hugging the shadows and stealing loot from drawers, cabinets, tables, and the belts of guards and citizens.
Players can shoot out torches with water arrows, shoot rope arrows to climb above the area, and walk on the many catwalks that occupy The City, the setting of the game, to avoid detection.
Players can still use the blackjack (a bludgeon) to knock guards out, though it takes considerable time unless it's a stealth attack. Unfortunately, the levels are somewhat claustrophobic and feel like a less-open version of the levels in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. New paths open up as Garrett gains access to new tools, but this can just leave players feeling like they started a mission too early because they don't have a special screwdriver.
The City is also horrendously confusing.
The map is broken up into different sections, but those sections and paths between them are not well-labeled. The world of Thief feels big, but with such an unclear map, there's really little motivation or joy in exploring it.
Movement is mostly fluid, though not as smooth as it is in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and tension consistently runs high.
Unless you're completely new to the stealth genre, Master Thief difficulty (the second highest setting) is probably the way to go. On Master difficulty, players will frequently need an object breaking the line of sight between Garrett and an enemy, regardless of how well-hidden Garrett is. Shadows provide great cover, but players can't expect to stand a foot in front of a guard and expect them to be oblivious.
Gameplay falters when Thief tries to be other than what it is.
The stealth is intense, and the only times the gameplay falters is when Thief tries to be something it isn't.
Like when Garrett is forced to solve a puzzle involving moving stairs straight out of Harry Potter, find hidden symbols in a brothel during active, loud business hours, and flee during a scripted chase sequence. It leaves Thief appearing to be in the midst of an identity crisis of doing what it's good at--stealth--and doing what it believes the industry wants--an action movie.
The world of Thief is far more interesting than the plot of Thief
Garrett's voice acting is superb, despite the new voice actor.
The story of Thief starts off with a potentially interesting character somewhat thrown to the side, with other unique characters suffering a similar fate. The game could have easily stood on its own with the main plot being a series of heists instead of some vendetta over somebody Garrett constantly (unsuccessfully) convinces himself he doesn't care about. As wonderful as the "grizzled white dude with guilt" trope was in 2013, it's getting a little cliche. Regardless, Garrett's internal monologue and the villainous, wonderfully dastardly Thief-Taker General (complete with curly moustache) remain highlights of the story.
Yes, there's magic. No, it's not too ridiculous.
There's also minor use of magic in the story, which doesn't distract too much, and adds a great deal to the mystery in the same way that Himiko and her Stormguard added the intrigue to Tomb Raider (2013). The story isn't necessarily bad--I actually liked it--it's just not that remarkable compared to other games of the last several months, and considering some of the game's core stealth was replaced by action sequences in the name of said story, it's disappointing it isn't as impressive as it could have been. The story is, at worst, an inoffensive vessel (and at best, an intense thrill ride full of suspense) for the gameplay, which is the real star of the show.
Side quests are a major score.
The game also has several side quests that range from simple breaking and entering to tailing a drunk as he reveals the location of loot. These are where Thief shines, allowing players to tackle jobs and heists as they choose.
The graphics of Thief, fortunately, are gorgeous.
They have a distinct art style that compliments the dark, gothic feel of the Victorian-inspired steampunk world of the game. Rendered cutscenes show impressive facial capture, and Garret's fluid animations while picking locks, opening doors, and peering around corners add a great amount of immersion.
The game constantly crashes, seemingly for no reason.
At the time of review, controller support for Thief is perfect with the exception that on PC, adjusting the sensitivity slider for the camera results in no change in look speed. While on the front of bugs, an equally frustrating one is that guards will occasionally walk into corners or even straight into walls, making escapes feel cheap and unearned. NPCs also sometimes get stuck on objects as simple as stairs only to practically teleport to where they would have been had they not gotten stuck.
Furthermore, the game crashes like no other.
Mostly while swooping (the sidestep command that allows Garrett to move silently and quickly), but also just while walking. It seems to be avoided if players change the "Exclusive Full Screen" setting to off, but the bug is still immensely frustrating. It's fair to assume these bugs will be fixed in the coming weeks, but considering the game went gold weeks before launch, the presence of bugs of this degree is disappointing, and ultimately mars an otherwise ridiculously enjoyable experience.
If you miss stealth from the late '90s and early 2000s, Thief may be a disappointment.
Despite its shortcomings, Thief is an intense stealth game that will likely divide the gaming community for several months (until some other reboot comes out). There is a massive rift in the community over reboot/reworkings such as Thief or Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Your enjoyment of Thief ultimately comes down to whether you want more of the same experience from over a decade ago, or if you want an experience from 2014 with a retro foundation.
Those new to stealth, or to Thief, will find an intense game that will make them want to come back for more.
With game-breaking bugs, which should drive anyone away, Thief is an occasionally clunky but mostly competent stealth game. Thief could have been a great game, and if it weren't for the bugs, it would have definitely succeeded. If you miss stealth from the late '90s and early 2000s, Thief may be a disappointment--it's more fast-paced and cinematic than games from that era and uses many modern conventions such as context-sensitive jumping and more.
For those who are new to stealth genre or just the Thief series, they may find something great amidst the rubble, but until the frequent, almost Bethesda-level bugs are fixed, Thief remains a somewhat broken, though mostly enjoyable stealth game.