I’ve possibly mentioned it before, but Thief is one of favourite games. I played it to death before I even had a graphics card that could render it at more than 320 by 200 pixels. Thief 2: The Metal Age (T2) kept up the stealthy gameplay and the story of Garrett (such as it is) and kept me entertained for just as long. And despite its failings I also really enjoyed Thief 3: Deadly Shadows (T3) on the XBox.
Dishonoured, and to an extent Deus Ex: Human Revolutions both scratched my stealth ‘itch’ but I’ve always wanted the next Thief – whatever that might have been. Now, of course, I don’t need to wonder, a new Thief game is here, and I have it. From here on in I’m going to be talking about Thief as being the current, 2014 release, game. If I hark back to the very original, it’ll be T1. Now, one problem with loving a game is that there’s a mixture of hope, excitement and anxiety over a sequel. In this case, having played T3, I was already setting my bar a little lower than I would have had I just played T2. With all the usual rumours around the internet about what the new Thief would be like, I was having a roller-coaster of hope and despair.
The most obvious change for “original fans” is that Stephen Russell was no longer the voice of Garrett and has been replaced by Romano Orzari. The voice was an immediate disconnect for me, used to the many hours of Russell’s voice. I was won over very quickly, though, as Orzari does an excellent job. He makes Garrett his own, while still keeping the world weary cynicism.
Perhaps the reason for the new voice is the new Garrett model. He’s been described as “Emo Garrett”. I can see why people might say that, but I really don’t get that much of an Emo “vibe”.
The rest of the game? Well, let me say up front that I’ve had a lot of fun with this game and I’ve already sunk a lot of hours into it. So while I may moan and whine about some things, overall it’s worth it.
After Garrett’s new voice, the first thing I noticed was the atmosphere. They’ve got that pretty close to right. There’s an Steam-punk style atmosphere to the Thief world, and this version has it. The City is still caught between technologies, and in this case has a mix of ‘electrical’ lights and torches. There’s a history to the city and that’s reflected in the architecture.
The main interface is nice and clean and they’ve retained the most important part: the ‘light gem’. T1 had the idea of a light gem that would be dark if you were completely hidden in shadow and bright if you were fully exposed in light. That gave good feedback as to how visible you were, and let you make decisions about how exposed you ‘needed’ to be to accomplish something.
The interface that allows you to view new documents and other important things needs a little work. While you can press the ‘back’ button when you get a prompt to see the latest acquisition – and it takes you directly to that – you then have to go through a few screens to get back to the world. That’s a little clunky. Not impossible, but it does pull me out of the immersion of the game.
They’ve turned selecting weapons/tools into a ‘selection wheel’ which I’ve decided was a great idea. Once you’re used to it, you can grab the weapon you need very quickly.
In that vein, the controls are mostly smooth and easy to use. The one thing that often gets annoying, however, is that there is a context sensitive control for mantling, jumping, climbing ropes and leaping over obstacles. If there’s only one option available, Garret responds quickly and smoothly – just as you’d expect a Master Thief to. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the times that I meant to leap between one ledge and another, and instead leapt to the ground. Usually near a guard or to my death, of course. Occasionally this was in a place that made getting back to where I was very time consuming.
Garrett now has a body that does things. His hands actually reach out not only when using weapons or picking locks, but when grabbing loot – rather than the loot simply disappearing into thin air.. On the downside, Garrett is the most relaxed Thief ever when it comes to ‘collectables’ – special loot. He takes a moment or six to admire his new acquisition, which make trying to snatch and run a little tense. And can result in being caught.
Speaking of lockpicking, I really love the mechanic. It’s a little similar to the one in Skyrim. However it’s not just finding the right place for the lock pick, you then have to ‘set’ a pin. How hard it can be to find the right position for each pin, and how many pins, can make some situations quite tense and give you a sense of achievement if you make it. Interestingly, they’ve also gone down the ‘controller action matches the game action’ for valve wheels. Any time you have to turn a wheel, you have to rotate the left stick to make this happen.
The rope arrows are back, but in a rather neutered form. The original rope arrow could ‘cling’ to most wood surfaces, but in this version they can only embed themselves in some specially marked poles. However, for some vertical movement, they’ve introduced a new mechanic: “The Claw”. This allows Garrett to get to slightly-out-of-his-usual-reach places. It can only be used in appropriately marked areas, but it works well and allows a slightly different approach to some tasks.
I love Garrett’s new ‘swoop’ movement. It’s similar to Dishonoured’s “blink” teleport. Except you ‘swoop’ physically from one place to another – and you can be seen while doing it. It’s yet another mechanic that you can use to change how you attack things – but it’s no “get out of jail free” move.
One issue I had, however, was that it’s not always clear what parts you can mantle up, and what you can’t. There are some places that look like you should be able to – which are lower than places you were able to mantle to before – but simply won’t allow it. I think they really needed to make it visually clear which places you could mantle to. At first it does take you ‘out of the game’, but after a while it’s just another thing you accept in the world.
One thing I was really, really hoping for in a new Thief game was a ‘sandbox city’ where you can sneak and rob the place in between the main plot missions. They’ve half delivered in this version. The city is much larger and more sprawling than in T3, but there are still only a few doors and windows you can try – and there’s never anyone at home.
There is a bit more of what I want if you accept Basso’s (your fence) missions. In those, people are sometimes at home – but not always. Rarely do I come in a window and immediately have to go on the alert for anyone who might catch me.
As to how they’ve laid the city out, they’ve been quite clever. In some places they’ve made it less obvious that The City is split up into chunks the way they were in T3. The chunks are larger, for a start. However, if you take a shortcut through a room sitting between chunks, then on opening the window, you’ve now shifted to another chunk (almost) seamlessly. There’s also the mechanic of getting to a crowded alleyway and having to work your way between the mess to get to a new area. On the other hand, going through gates has a glowy orb that shows you this takes you to another chunk. It’s also the same ‘orb’ that they use to indicate where previous missions are, so you can replay them.
One part of all this moving around that’s more than a little silly is the Quick Time Event (QTE) like mechanic used to move obstacles out of your way in crowded alleys, or opening windows. You have to continually mash a button to achieve both of these things. At first I thought it was cute, and put you more into the world. However, now it’s just tiresome and I’m frankly wishing they’d never thought of it.
One area that is worthy of special mention is the sound. It’s often horribly, hilariously broken. The most obvious problem comes with the incidental chatter from people. They’ll often simply repeat the same thing over and over – sometimes before they’ve finished saying it the first time. It’s almost impossible to tell where someone is based on the volume of their speech or movements. In some cases, without subtitles, I wouldn’t have known some characters were talking. In other cases they’re as loud as if they are beside you, when they’re a room away and down a floor. Since this is one element of the Thief world that made it so playable, this is just … I really have no words. It’s stupid.
Also, the subtitles quite often get out of sync with the scene itself – most often in cut-scenes. If you want something to really pull you out of immersion, that will do it quite nicely.
There are many other things I could mention, but this is a reasonable summation, I think. So, on the whole, I’m really enjoying this game – but part of me chafes a the bits they either got wrong, or could have improved.