Last week marked the revival of the Thief series. The newest title, Thief, is made by Eidos-Montreal and is published by Square Enix. It's been ten years since the last release; is this return to the shadows worth the wait?
In Thief, you play the main character Garrett as he attempts to solve all of his problems by stealing things. At the start of the game the problem being solved is the problem of not being rich enough. The mission doesn't go to plan, and when you next wake up a year has passed. The rest of the game is spent trying to figure out what happened while making rich people poor.
The overall plot is a bit lacklustre. It doesn't do anything overly atrocious, but it's rarely memorable or masterful either. What it does do quite well is act as a set up device for interesting level locations. There are a few levels, including my personal favourite, which would have been difficult to justify otherwise.
While the plot isn't anything special, the world narrative is for the most part excellent. The game does a good job showing the player information about what's happening rather than just telling them outright. For instance where and when the game is set compared to the previous games is never explicitly stated, however using visual cues throughout the world I estimate it to be set a few hundred years after the events of first trilogy. Alongside the visual narrative of the world, there is the information that can be gleaned by listening in to conversations between non player characters. A lot of the citizenry in the early sections of the game discuss their dissatisfaction at the state of affairs. So when later on there is a full blown revolution, the progression of events feels natural as they'd built up to it well. In fact, the dialogue in Thief is for the most part very good. Between the script and the high quality of voice acting, the inhabitants of the city feel like real people. All of this adds up to make a substantial contribution to the overall atmosphere.
The game plays similar to any other first person action game. If you've played Skyrim or something similar, you'll probably grasp most of the mechanics of Thief quite quickly. The only particularly odd control choice is the context sensitive space bar. Fortunately, this is reasonably sane and will behave as expected in nearly all situations. The most important addition to your set of normal actions is done with this button, this is your "swoop". In short, this allows you to move short distances quickly even while crouched. I'm not entirely sure why this couldn't have been accomplished with allowing the player to sprint while crouched, but it serves its purpose.
Of course, the most important mechanics of Thief are its stealth mechanics. If you're playing Thief, it is probably because you want to hide from guards while stealing every slightly shiny thing you can find. Fortunately, Thief performs well in this regard. The best way to not get spotted is to remain out of sight. To aid in this you can make use of and alter your environment. Thief provides the player with a wide array of methods to do this, which can be summed up into three main styles. The first is by using shortcuts and environment features to bypass guarded areas. There are plenty of small tunnels, rooftops, and other shortcuts that take some effort to find but are a lot safer than sticking to the main corridors and streets. The next main style is to distract guards. By making noise or general commotion you can convince the guards to leave their patrols to investigate. This can give the player enough time to get through the patrolled area in question, or to get inside the heavily guarded safe. The last option, and in my opinion most boring, is to incapacitate or kill the guards. Doing this does deal with the problem permanently, however the body may be discovered or you might be heard in the process. To actually accomplish anything you'll have to use a mix of these styles, and coming up with strategies for crossing a room is a lot of fun.
All of the above is superfluous if the behaviour of those trying to stop you isn't done right. If the guards are too smart or too stupid, the experience would be ruined. In my opinion, the guards possess about the right level of awareness given the needs of the game. For instance they will notice lights put out within a reasonable distance of them and attempt to relight them, but will otherwise leave them off. This means you can put out lights to provide more convenient shadows, or as a way to distract guards depending on your needs. Guards can spot you even in total darkness if they're close enough and looking directly at you, however if you stick to their periphery you will normaly be fine as long as it isn't too bright. One feature I found to be particularly nice is that if there is more than one guard in a patrol, they will usually only send one guard to search for you while the others remain where they were. This adds another layer of challenge, but without making the game impossible.
One major issue however is that how visible you are can seem arbitrary at times. In one instance you can be looking at a light a few meters away and be invisible, in another you'll be the other side of a structure to a light carrying guard and be completely lit up. I suspect this is related to the limitations of their impressive dynamic lighting, however it still disrupts the gameplay and takes the player out of the game. It also makes the light gem a necessary addition to the interface, as without it you have no idea how visible you are. Thus making playing the game without any heads up display pretty much impossible.
Speaking of the interface, it is entirely customisable along with the difficulty. This is a really nice feature, as it allows the player to pick what kind of experience they want to get out of the game. I personally turned off the ability to use focus, most of the visual indicators, and being allowed to kill civillians. The former I turned off because I didn't want to feel like I was playing as a super human character. The rest of the mechanics hit a good balance of allowing the player to do impressive things, without breaking the bounds of what can be achieved by a person. I personally prefer the game this way, and by not using focus I could keep it that way. The removal of most visual indicators served a similar purpose, I felt more immersed when interactable objects weren't glowing everywhere. The last one, not being able to kill civilians, was mostly to enforce a certain level of challenge. While those were my choices for my preferred game, another person may feel differently and get more out of the game with a different set of options. This allows them to cater the game to many more people then they could otherwise, without requiring much extra effort from the player.
Where Thief shines most for me is in its atmosphere. While certain narrative choices contribute to this, as mentioned briefly earlier, the main contributing factor is from the games aesthetics. The background music and effects are a huge contributer to this, and do a fantastic job of setting the scene. The background music can be a bit eager at times, throwing in loud discordant noises in the middle of empty streets, but always manages to contribute to the tension of the game rather than break it. The game also looks right, the world design is consistent and feels like somewhere the events of the game can happen. The main contributing factor to this is the impressive dynamic lighting they use. The lighting looks very natural, and this helps immerse the player in the world. It's also used to spectacular effect in some of the late game set pieces, which only work because the lighting is so good. This all works together excellently, and and culminates in the creation of my favourite level of the game. Without trying to give too much away, in the second half the game it decides to briefly become a horror game. Any fan of horror knows that the atmosphere is what can make or break it, and this mission definitely made it. It frequently left me in situations where I would staunchly refuse to let Garrett progress through the level, which is what should happen when I'm playing a horror game.
I've been holding off on discussing the level design so far, as I want to discuss it while talking about the experience of being the player in Thief. After the atmosphere, what Thief does best is make you feel like a master thief. However, it does a terrible job of making you feel like a thief. This makes the game as a whole a bit of a strange experience, and I think it's mostly down to the level design. The plot has you mostly stealing very specific items from specific people, which in itself is fine. However, when you're doing this there isn't much focus on stealing everything else at the same time. The only incentive to take all the shiny things is that they exist. You end up pulling off very impressive feats of thievery, but do very little actual stealing. This is particularly surprising considering how much there is to take in each level.
I think a lot of this is to do with how the levels are structured. Each area of a level can be tackled in multiple ways, however each area has to be tackled in a very strict order. You're rarely just let loose in a huge, explorable building to take everything you can find. Instead, there will be a series of large rooms or areas that you have to get past. This makes it feel like you're being driven constantly towards a particular objective. I think the game would benefit from a more free form structure, at the cost of some of the set pieces that it sets up for you. This would reduce the emphasis on reaching the main objective, which would hopefully make the player feel like they have the freedom to fully explore the level.
If the description of what I feel the levels should be like sounds familiar, you probably played the previous Thief games. For the most part, I've tried to not keep comparing it to its predecessors. However, doing so is pretty much inevitable. The main problem with this comparison, is that the latest Thief doesn't really feel like a Thief game. In previous games, you play a thief who gets pulled into a plot he never wanted to be part of. Each mission would have a quota of how much Garrett felt like he had to steal, partly to make rent and living costs and also as a measure of his ability as a thief. In the latest release, you play a master thief who either doesn't need to pay living costs, or fulfills that cost off screen. You only play the dramatic sections that make you feel like a master thief, one who only bothers to steal the most valuable or rare objects. I personally prefer the previous games, but that doesn't necessarily make the new Thief worse.
So, to summarise, I think Thief is a good game. It's probably the best stealth game of the last ten years for me, unfortunately that's quite a low bar. It has solid gameplay, and the atmosphere is very well done. If you enjoy stealth games I'd recommend playing it, although I'd probably wait for it to drop in price.