It’s not often that I am forced to throw in the towel on a game, or that I even want to, but I came damn close with Thief, which is in an almost unplayable state for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s just me, maybe my PC setup just happens to be the one configuration that would bork the game. But if the game itself were worth playing I would press on and smile through gritted teeth through all the technical issues and continue to try and enjoy the game itself. But the bugs, crashes and hoops I had to jump through to get through the title screen only compounded the main problem with Thief; it’s not a great game. At all. I was not smiling.
That’s right, it’s going to be one of those kind of posts (also known as a blue post). Thief is supposed to be the grand return of one of gaming’s classic franchises to the arena. It’s been ten years since the previous entry into the series, Deadly Shadows, was unleashed on PC and Xbox, and in typing that out I am starting to realise that my carefree days of youth are behind me. In Thief you play as returning protagonist and Master Thief Garrett as he stalks the shadows of a fantasy/steampunk city which seems to be a mashup of the Middle Ages, the Victorian Era and the early Industrial Era. If you find yourself wondering if that sounds all over the place, well it is, and it’s not the only thing about Thief that’s all over the place. Actually the mashed up setting of the game is one of its better values.
First the technical issues, because these will be the things that form the very first part of your experience (it’s worth mentioning at this point that I played this game on PC, but after conferring with others, some of these issues I’m about to talk about are also present on Xbox One and PS4). Thief opens with a launcher, allowing you to customise your display settings, key bindings and preferences, among other things. And it’s a damn good thing that they do because if you try to open the game in fullscreen, or on any graphical presetting other than “Very Low” Thief will hang on a black screen immediately after starting up, your screen will flicker for about a minute and then it will crash. After consulting Google and finding a solution that let me into the main menu I encountered another problem fairly early on, as the game fucked up my save file. If Thief had merely corrupted it and caused me to start over again that would have been a blessing. But no, instead Thief found itself unable to save due to an unspecified error, and every time I walked past an autosave checkpoint the game kicked me back to the main menu.
These are the two major technical problems I’ve come across, but there are other, more minor ones that in isolation or a small amount can be overlooked, but which quickly add up when they keep happening. Audio cues are an absolute mess. At one point during a custscene the game was still playing dialogue for passing NPCs out on the street, despite the fact I was indoors, so half the dialogue in the custscene was being obscured by random shit I’d heard multiple times while sneaking around the city hub. On more than one occasion the background noise completely drowned out every other noise, making it goddam impossible to hear any other part of a fucking cutscene. Other times during gameplay sounds were just totally missing, which added an eerie ambience to the game that would have been cool were this a horror game and not a FUCKING STEALTH GAME, where sound is kind of important. I managed to clip my vision through doors, become completely unable to disembark from ropes I was climbing, the game has stuttered during cutscenes, a few of which are horrifically low-res…I could write this post entirely as a list of the problems I’ve slammed my head against during my playing time.
But I’m assuming that a lot of these problems will be dealt with in future patches, and hopefully the Xbox One and Playstation 4 versions of the game are slightly more stable, so this leads to the question; how is the actual game? I’m going to answer that one upfront. It’s not great. For a game called “Thief” any actual thievery is optional, confined to limited “open world” stealing or side quests that are so far out of the way of the main story that they should probably require a passport to play. These side quests are not marked on your map and, near as I could tell, there was no journal to keep track of them. The game is content to shepherd you along the main story with thousands of objective markers but will give you little to no hints as to where the hell you’re supposed to go to complete a side quest. The “open world” I refer to in quotation marks is the city hub where you’ll spend your time between missions, and it’s here that Thief is both at its best and worst. Essentially the city hub is a way to stretch out the games running time, forcing you to go from your clock tower home to your next quest giver and allow you to stop by a merchant to purchase equipment and the Queen of Beggars to pay a tithe to allow you to upgrade your special abilites.
These sections can sometimes add upwards of 30 unnecessary minutes of play time because thanks to a lockdown you are still forced to dodge the city watch. But it’s this tiny speck of freedom that provides Thief’s standout moments, and one of the few times where the game allows you to live up to its title. As you traverse the city you can move in and out of houses along your way, stealing everything in sight. Your loot is immediately turned into coin, which is a refreshing change of pace from having to juggle inventory space as you haul around useless trinkets to sell ala Skyrim etc. It was here that I was able to find some semblance of enjoyment from Thief and the only time I felt empowered by my abilities during the whole fucking time I spent with this game. This was the experience I had come to Thief for, but unfortunately this is not the experience that Thief offers.
Aside from being a broken game, Thief’s biggest crimes can be found in its main missions. The plot itself is fairly pointless and doesn’t leave any kind of impression, to the point where to give any kind of summary I would need to hunt down the plot on another site, and it’s truly not worth either my time or your time. Essentially there’s some kind of dark conspiracy involving the King/Mayor/Baron or whatever of the city you’re living in and some kind of plague is spreading, and it’s up to Garrett, a Master THIEF, to unravel it. This plot means that rather than being sent on missions to steal some awesome shit like, oh I don’t know, a thief maybe, you find yourself turning stealthy street detective. You go from one place to another trying to piece together the grand conspiracy and although there is plenty of phat loots to snag on your trip, you could easily not steal a goddam thing and still make it successfully to the end of each mission. That’s right, THIEVERY is completely unimportant in a game called THIEF. Go fucking figure.
The gameplay during these missions is horrific. Level design is claustrophobic and usually only offers you a single path through each small area that makes up each level. Exploration will reward you with a sword through your face and never with an alternate path to your intended destination. There are no multiple paths. Occasionally there are what look like alternate paths that only lead to dead end rooms that contain a piece of unique loot locked behind a safe of some kind. Once you’ve retrieved the loot you must backtrack to wherever it was you turned off so you can continue on in the correct direction. Corridors are extremely narrow which makes it an absolute pain to try and sneak past guards. Luckily you’ll get plenty of chances to do so as Thief is a pure grind of a game. You’ll be quick saving and quick loading so much during each mission that you’ll probably wear those two keys down. There’s never any point in “steering into the skid” if you get spotted because combat is completely non-existent aside from pressing V to dodge. Running away to hide is rendered almost pointless by the linearity of the levels as you’ll essentially be running down a corridor from enemies that move just as fucking fast as you do. There’s literally nowhere to run to, so where the shit are you going to go?
The AI is so utterly inept that you can actually sneak past them by skulking between crates IN FRONT OF THEM and if you’ve done so quickly enough they’ll think nothing of it. No matter if you’re standing in front of them or standing right behind them breathing heavily their alert meter will fill up at exactly the same rate. Whatever you do though, do not try and distract them by throwing bottles around as the game recommends. I tried this twice outside of the scripted tutorial level and both times any nearby guards, rather than go have a look and see what made the racket, looked directly at me and stabbed me in the face with a sword. At one point the game gave me blunt arrows for the first time, letting me know that I could use them to activate switches from a distance. Great idea, right? NO. I decided to try it out immediately by turning out some lights, thus allowing me passage past two guards in a hallway around a corner. I managed to turn the lights out and also attract the attention of both guards, and two other guards who I guess teleported into the room from the nth dimension, and they thrust their swords through my face, sword style.
The game does look very pretty and on its highest graphical settings it’s definitely a credit to the current generation, though Infamous: Second Son blows it out of the water in the graphics stakes. And to be quite honest Thief is a AAA game, and I’m not going to give it any points for high graphical fidelity. Although cutscenes are rendered extremely creepy by the fact that whenever a character talks, only their mouths, and very occasionally their eyes, move. It’s something I’m starting to notice more and more, and maybe I’m just being spoiled by the likes of Halo 4 and Second Son being mindblowingly good in the facial features department. I probably wouldn’t have even let it bother me, but fuck it, almost everything else in Thief got on my nerves so what’s one more thing to add to the list?
I was talking yesterday to a friend about my Infamous: Second Son post, worrying that I had been too negative towards a game that was essentially good, but with a few problems. Games like Thief are the reason I worry about stuff like that, because what we have here is the opposite. Thief has a couple of very, very minor redeeming features buried under a mountain of problems. Attempting to play Thief and actually playing Thief is torturous. It feels entirely like a game that was rushed to release to take advantage of the post-next generation console releases, where gamers are searching for any justification for the expensive procurement of their new machines. That’s the least cynical way I can put it. Another way I can put it is that Thief feels like a game that was rushed out of development so that Square Enix could take advantage of fans of the franchise who are hungry for a new game in the series after a prolonged, ten year wait. Either way Thief is not the answer. If you’re after a good next generation game go buy Titanfall or Infamous. If you’re looking for a spiritual successor to Thief (because the actual successor is horseshit) go pick up Dishonored. And if you’ve already played Dishonored then play it again. Shit I’d even recommend putting on a balaclava and going out to see how many of your neighbours you can burgle over playing this game (don’t do that).
Just don’t buy Thief.