Released 1998, the original Thief forever changed the FPS genre. It demonstrated that the perspective could thrive outside of the run and gun dynamic with which it had become synonymous. Looking Glass Studios injected new ideas, and core mechanics that have since become staples of the stealth genre. Its innovative use of light and shadow as well as requiring an acute awareness of audio cues forever changed how stealth games were made.
After successfully rebooting Tomb Raider and Deus Ex, Square Enix clearly hopes lightning can strike a third time as Garrett steps out of the shadows after a decade long absence.
But the Master Thief's proposed return to The City has been fraught with trials. Everything from fan backlash over excised gameplay dynamics, to internal strife at the studio and word of total design overhauls all threatened to kill the reboot even before it had completed development.
Foremost was the fear among long-time fans that the core Thief experience would be watered down for the sake of greater accessibility and broader appeal, and that this new entry would be emptier than a wall safe cracked by the titular protagonist. Fans should be relieved to learn that these fears are largely unwarranted.
Thief opens with Garrett and his young, over-eager protégé Erin attempting to steal an artefact used in a dark ritual. Erin falls to her doom when the two accidentally interrupt the arcane ceremony and the artefact explodes with magical energy.
When Garrett reawakens, he's in a cart pulled by two strangers, unaware of where he is, or the events of the past year. The City is in the grasp of a deadly plague known as the ‘The Gloom’ and Garrett must piece together the mystery of what happened to him even as he unwillingly gets caught up in nefarious political machinations and rebellion.
The storytelling here is for the most pedestrian, and lacks some of the stylistic magic of the earlier games. A bit cast of NPCs ranges from passable to excellent, and the only real disappointment is the overwrought villain, who is presented as the vilest human ever to stalk the crooked alleys of The City. It's a paper-thin, one-dimensional caricature that can't be taken seriously, as if he were lifted from a cartoon or a B horror flick. It’s not all bad, but the narrative suffers from an almost schizophrenic lack of consistency, as if the game and story were pieced together from disparate parts. It’s no game breaker, but it is disappointing.
Fortunately the setting bleeds pure atmosphere so the narrative shortcomings in some way mitigated. The City is gloriously decrepit and dank. This reboot has dropped some of the fantastical steampunk aesthetic in favour of a more grim, grimier Dickensian dystopia characterised by ramshackle clutter and urban squalor.
It is quite easily one of the most visually arresting Unreal Engine games ever made. Deep shadows, and the ever present sickly fog cling to every dank corner. Gaslight and lamplight do their best to cut through the gloom, but there is always a shadowy pocket for Garrett to secret himself in, and it’s all a joy to look at. Visually, Thief is very hard to fault. From the fluidity of the animation to the wonderful lighting, the whole package comes together brilliantly.
Mechanically there are a few issues, and the attempts to bring in new players has led to a little hobbling of Garrett's prodigious abilities. Jumping is now contextual, meaning that Garrett can mantle certain objects, but others that are seemingly accessible will be inextricably out of reach. His quiver of task-specific arrows returns, but some have been neutered by that same insistence on contextual requirement. Rope Arrows now only work on certain overhanging posts, and Water Arrows have lost some of their utility thanks to covered electric lights and street lamps. Everything is here as fans might expect it, but it's somehow shallower and lesser than it once was.
The PC controls have been gimped to accommodate the fewer inputs available on controllers. Gone are the lean keys as they are replaced with another context sensitive button that unfortunately shares a space with the interact button, which can lead to all sorts of erratic behaviour. Rather than opening a drawer to loot a precious trinket Garrett might inexplicably stealth hug the dresser and dare to take a surreptitious peek at the wall. Hardly a masterly thieving manoeuvre, but at least he can be certain the wallpaper didn’t spot him. Then again not many things will.
The AI of the game's population is utterly dim-witted. While the guards themselves are alert and provide a genuine threat, the citizenry will ignore Garrett entirely. These issues tend to occur primarily in The City hub that Garrett is free to “explore” between missions. As beautiful as it is, it is confined and woefully devoid of anything interesting to do. The freedom to rummage around in various houses and shops soon becomes tired as these little excursions are for the most part rinse and repeat. Gone is the urban sprawl of the first two games, as the limitations of the old-gen consoles causes this “open” map to be fraction of the immensity that had been first shown some 15 years ago.
All is not lost, however. The missions themselves are a delight to play. And going the pure stealth route provides an experience as rewarding and challenging as any that has come before.
After turning off most of the UI options, Garrett starts to feel like his old self. No longer seeing random text pop up every time something is able to interacted with, or having any important object glow a faint blue, or even the inexplicable nature of precious loot to glint in complete darkness makes for a far more rewarding and immersive experience where care and an awareness of surroundings is vital.
The stealth elements in Thief are near perfect, and apart from the context sensitive nature of some of the interactions it is a true to return to form. Guards are alert, but can be tricked or distracted. They are by no means braindead, trying to distract them too often or too clumsily will alert them. They will search for Garrett for a good long while, and will hunt in dark corners and the more obvious hiding spots. They pose a real threat too, as discovery will lead to confrontation and Garrett is not an accomplished fighter. Anything more than a one on one will cause his untimely death.
Sound again plays an important role in the stealth mechanics. Hard uncovered floors require slower movement to avoid detection, brushing too close to a side table could bump it, or knock over a glass giving away your position. Broken glass or detritus must be crept over lest it too alert a nearby guard or one of the few residents who isn't catatonic.
The missions themselves are varied and all offer a genuine challenge - especially to the player seeking to ghost the level leaving the location as he or she left it, with no-one the wiser he was ever there. There are fewer avenue to success compared with earlier instalments in the series, and far too many doors that simply cannot be opened. These are particularly disappointing, as discovery of alternate routes is usually limited to only a few choices.
Thief is a success despite its various shortcomings. It is a game that presents both the best and worst that the franchise and the stealth genre have to offer, and it's set in a rich and beautifully decrepit city of promising riches and reward. If only it were a little more reliable at delivering both.