Thief (PS4): A Short Pause Review
Brent: 1st Opinion
When it was announced last March that Thief would be headed to next-gen consoles alongside a current-gen version, my interest in the game skyrocketed. I attribute my level of excitement to the fact that I was still enjoying Dishonored well after having beaten it. The thought of a similarly styled game, with a rich history of hardcore stealth-play (sadly, I never played any of the previous installments) and developed using the power of next-gen consoles, sounded like a sure-fire winner. Here we are, one year later, and Eidos Montreal's series reboot, Thief, has finally arrived.
About two weeks prior to Thief's release, the trophy list was released. On that list was a gold trophy by the name of “Moral Victory," which requires you to complete the entire game without killing or knocking anybody out. I love trophies like this because I believe they exist not only because they’re challenging, but so you play the game the way the developer intended. Sure, you can jump into a game of Thief and eliminate anyone in your path, but in my opinion, to fully experience a stealth game you must use a slow, methodical approach. However, this approach is only as effective as the enemy AI is, so in order to make sure that I was slipping past a worthy adversary, I decided to play the game on Master difficulty. The table was set, I wasn’t going to engage a single person, and I was going against the game's toughest level of difficulty. I was excited and ready!
In the opening scene you are introduced to the game's protagonist Garrett, a master thief who steals from the rich folks of the “The City." While playing through the opening chapter, which doubles as the tutorial, you will meet Garrett’s reckless and unpredictable protégé, Erin. They are both working the same job assigned to them by their employer: to retrieve the Primal Stone for reasons unknown. When the two of them arrive at the location of the stone, they stumble upon a ceremonial ritual that’s underway, which quickly escalates into a supernatural event. Erin’s stubbornness puts her in harm's way as Garrett attempts to save her unsuccessfully. Blacking out during the cataclysmic events, he awakens shortly after, unsure of Erin’s fate or what really happened. The story picks up from here, following Garret as he tries to track down Erin’s whereabouts, while also learning that he may be the only one that can save The City from those who intend to harness the mysterious power of the Primal Stone.
While the story itself is engaging early on, it loses its luster towards the final, third act. To make matters worse, there are a myriad of technical issues that I experienced during my 13-hour playthrough. The most glaring of which are the cutscenes; while some of them look like they were created using in-game resources, there are others that look like they were stripped from an early PlayStation 2 game. When you’re playing a game that features a flimsy story, it doesn’t help when the shoddy, low-res cutscenes actually distract from important plot points.
"About two weeks prior to Thief's release, the trophy list was released. On that list was a gold trophy by the name of “Moral Victory," which requires you to complete the entire game without killing or knocking anybody out. I love trophies like this because I believe they exist not only because they’re challenging, but so you play the game the way the developer intended."
If it’s not the poor quality CG cutscenes, then it’s the audio dropouts and assorted visual hiccups that happen regularly throughout play. There were even a few instances where if I moved my character through a specific location, all the sound would drop out completely. If I moved out of the area, all the sound would resume at once. I encountered other bugs as well, such as enemies getting caught on the environment around them, causing them to twitch uncontrollably. Lastly, I have to mention the silly amount of lengthy loading screens I witnessed. Not only are there loading screens when you move to different sections of The City, there are loading screens that are disguised by a simple action such as prying open a window or moving a piece of wood. While some windows open immediately, there are others that your character will pry at for much longer, and that’s because the scene is still loading. There were a few times I couldn’t tell if I had run into a glitch because the loading process took so long. These are all issues that take you out of the immersion, and remind you that you’re playing a video game. It’s really a shame, considering the game was in development for so long, that the final product has so many technical issues.
Things fare much better in regards to the gameplay, as all the main tactics featured in other stealth games are present here. You can utilize shadows to help conceal you from patrolling enemies, or discover alternate paths to flank them altogether. As you progress through the story, you can use the money you gain from stolen loot to purchase tools that will give you access to otherwise hidden paths. I highly recommend purchasing the hand screw and knife early on, as you'll be able to find hidden areas that are full of loot.
Your bow will likely be your most used item, however, as there are an assortment of arrow types that can be used not only to eliminate enemies, but also to create diversions and extinguish fire-based lighting to create more shadows to pass through. If stealth isn’t really your style, you always have the option of going in guns…er, arrows blazing. It’s quite satisfying to pull off a perfectly aimed headshot, rewarding you with a bullet-cam view of the arrow striking them right through the eye. You also have the ability to perform stealth takedowns from both behind and above your targets. There is no doubt that Thief is fun to play, and it's rewarding regardless of your play-style.
"These are all issues that take you out of the immersion, and remind you that you’re playing a video game. It’s really a shame, considering the game was in development for so long, that the final product has so many technical issues."
When playing a stealth game, the experience is only as rewarding as the enemy AI is challenging, and this is where Thief is somewhat lacking. Just before launch, Thief’s creative director, Nic Cantin, revealed that they had to “tone down the difficulty” because “It's not about being hyper-realistic. It's about being credible, but it's still a game.” However, even on Master difficulty, there were more than a few occasions where I was often saying, “Oh come on, how could they not have seen me?” The reason that bothers me is because I enjoy the idea of being punished for making a bad decision in stealth games. When the AI fails, it takes me out of the experience and removes the tension. That’s not to say that the game wasn’t challenging, because some of the level designs really require quick thinking and utilization of every shadow and closet to remain undetected. I just wish Eidos Montreal would’ve added that original difficulty setting, even as a day one DLC add-on (see: Metro Last Light's “Ranger Mode”), for those looking for the ultimate hardcore experience.
One area where Thief isn’t lacking is in its content. Not only is there a 13+-hour campaign, there are also over 20 entertaining side missions that will have you searching throughout the entire city, long after the story has finished. Plus, there are challenge modes that’ll have you racing against the clock to grab as much loot as possible without being detected. (You are docked points, however, if you are spotted or if you take down an enemy.) Leaderboards exist for the challenge modes, and that adds a competitive layer to the game. Nothing feels tacked on here, which is impressive considering the scope of the single player campaign.
I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been had Eidos Montreal just focused on next-gen consoles and ironed out the technical issues that are littered throughout Thief. While the final product here is brimming with content, featuring a few moments of brilliance within its dark atmosphere, it’s the weak story and inconsistent A.I. that keep it from being the “big score." I really hope Thief does well enough to earn a sequel because I truly believe that it’s a franchise with unlimited potential.
- Core gameplay mechanics
- Plenty of content
- Few moments of brilliance
- Shoddy cut-scenes
- Weak story
- All of those loading screens!
Ben: 2nd Opinion
In the cool of the night, a decadent mansion stands before me. Torches and light posts are sparsely littered across the ground below; the shadows possess a comfortable darkness where the light fails to shine. The ignorant members of the Baron's Watch "guard" the courtyard with all the vigilance of a narcoleptic hummingbird. Inside the stately manor, the object of my night stalk awaits my unannounced arrival. To my left, I spot a greenhouse. If locked, I can easily pick my way in — given the time. Not sure the guard dog standing watch will comply, though. I could defy logic and just waltz in the front door. The guard directly in front of said door doesn't look like the sharpest bulb in the lamppost... but wait, I see a small water control room to my immediate right. Starting the ornate fountain in the middle of the courtyard grounds should prove enough of a distraction, allowing me to slink past the unsuspecting imbeciles and inside the main entrance unbeknownst to any of them. Then again, I spot a ladder in the near distance to my right. While it's not currently accessible from the ground level, a well placed blunt arrow from the end of my trusted bow should provide the silent oomph I need to release the lock and lower the ladder. From there, access to the second floor from an unlocked window is like taking candy from a baby to a master thief such as myself. The path is laid out before me and I've mapped out the possibilities, it's up to me to figure out the best way to enter the mansion and get what I came for.
This is where Thief succeeds.
Following a short prologue introducing me to the game, I'm met with a cataclysmic cut-scene that sets up the story and the driving force for the game ahead. Too bad this cut-scene looks like it was imported from a PS2 devkit 12 years ago. And with a frame rate to match.
This is where Thief fails.
"The City," as it's so cleverly named, is an open book for master thief Garrett to explore. Collectibles, side quests, and guards to cause trouble with await you should you choose to explore the open world. Search for hidden passages, practice your pick-pocketing, or just snuff out every light source you find and see how the people react. It's a sandbox for you to play in, and you can make any castle you see fit.
This is where Thief succeeds.
Unfortunately, in this plague ridden world, no one is home and "The City" is a generally lifeless place. And it doesn't help that every third window you open seems to trigger a loading screen.
This is where Thief fails.
Gameplay in Thief is a fun and engaging mix of stealth based tactics and careful strategic planning. Typically, the game presents you with an objective and it's up to you to figure out how you want to achieve it (as in the gameplay example above). While levels are confined to a certain extent, they're rarely, if ever, linear and require a good bit of planning to make it through to your destination unscathed. From flash bombs that disorient enemies, to bottles that can be thrown to create distractions, to a quiver of varied trick arrows that remains an indispensable ally throughout, Thief provides a wealth of options to potential master robbers. It's this sense of choice instilled in the player that really makes Thief fun to play.
This is where Thief succeeds.
Focus, the supernatural ability Garrett acquires early in the game, doesn't add much to the experience. While is has some cool elements here and there, such as the ability to locate fingerprints which you can follow to secret loot and a brief chance to stay hidden for a few moments when in the light, it generally detracts from the overall experience and the game is better played by not using the ability at all.
This is where Thief fails.
If you've yet to catch on, Thief is a bit of a mixed bag. It's a shame, as there is some real potential in here, but the game as a whole fails to properly capitalize on the fabled "what could have been."
"The gameplay is surprisingly fun to execute and master, and I had a great time entering an area for the first time, scanning my surroundings, and plotting the best course of action to steal all of the loot without being seen."
As Brent mentioned, one of this game's greatest faults lie in the myriad of technical issues players encounter throughout the game. While the game runs at 1080p/30fps on PS4, and sports some great visuals at times (especially in terms of fire effects and lighting), there are visual issues throughout the game. Brent and I have mentioned the first big cut-scene and its PS2-era production values, but the game's penultimate and concluding chapters also find themselves punctuated by shoddy, jerking cut-scenes that fail to look anything like the rest of the cut-scenes you find in the middle of the game (which mimic the game's visuals and don't look half-bad). Frame rate issues abound as well. While gameplay is steady for the most part, there are several big "Hollywood blockbuster" style scenes where the frame rate chugs along, severely impacting the action on the screen and your enjoyment of said action. Of course, the cut-scenes, including the decent looking ones, struggle with frame rate issues as well. While none of these issues render the game unplayable, and it's true that most of these issues crop up in and around the cut-scenes, there's no doubt that Thief's rough-around-the-edges exterior impacts the enjoyment and immersion of the game. One of my favorite sequences in the game ****VERY MINOR SPOILERS**** involves a harrowing escape from a burning building crumbling around you, and it was almost unplayable at times as I herked and jerked my way to the finish line. It was disappointing that a scene that should have been so cool and exciting, was reduced to an exercise in technical woes.
Thief's also falls flat when it comes to the story. While it starts as something intriguing and interesting enough, it continues down a rabbit hole that I didn't want to see it go; spiraling to a conclusion that I found both non-sensical and downright bizarre. While I sadly have never had the chance to experience the original, well-regarded Thief, and I understand that supernatural elements are a part of the series lore, I was hoping for a more grounded affair during my time with this newest iteration. The mystical elements become more and more pronounced as the story moves along, but I never connected with this aspect of the story. There are elements of an interesting setting and premise, but by game's end, I had lost all interest in the main story. It doesn't help that several of the game's, in my mind, more interesting sub-plots, such as the plague-like "Gloom" decimating The City and Garrett's whereabouts during his one year absence from society, fail to receive any kind of meaningful development or resolution by the time the credits are rolling.
"Thief is a perplexing concoction of potential greatness squandered by a severe Jekyll and Hyde complex."
Thankfully, Thief mostly redeems itself in the gameplay department. Sticking to the shadows, swooping between light sources, and picking every unsuspecting guard's pocket all work well. The gameplay is surprisingly fun to execute and master, and I had a great time entering an area for the first time, scanning my surroundings, and plotting the best course of action to steal all of the loot without being seen. The game encourages a variety of play styles, whether you like to be a ghost never to be seen by your enemies or a brazen thief boldly confronting any who stand in your way, and there are optional thieving challenges based on these different ways to play that keep the game fresh and engaging on repeated chapter playthroughs. The various arrows at your disposal are a blast to experiment with, in both combat and exploration, and face-to-face confrontations with your enemies are strategic and skillful encounters that require precise dodging and parrying to make it out alive. This game also has a great run mechanic. It's not often you can say a game has a great run (The Last of Us springs to mind), but the run in Thief gives a great sense of speed and movement. I actually wish there were more free running sections; they were few and far between during the campaign and these portions of the game definitely had a Mirror's Edge feel to them. Also in need of some fine tuning are the platforming mechanics. While light platforming is only occasionally required, the few times it was necessary I found myself struggling to make precise jumps and properly control where I wanted Garrett to go.
In the end, I'm left wanting more. Not in terms of the content itself, as Thief is actually quite a meaty title that I have put 22 hours into so far, but in terms of what this game could have ultimately become. For every great idea or gameplay aspect Thief has to offer, there is an equally bad one waiting in the wings. It's always one step forward, one (occasionally giant) step backwards. Thief is a perplexing concoction of potential greatness squandered by a severe Jekyll and Hyde complex.
- Engaging gameplay
- Element of choice
- Robust content
- Technical issues abound
- Bizarre story
- Focus ability detracts from gameplay