Review: Thief (2014)

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The reboot of Thief has had a long, rough development, and it shows: Playing through the game, it’s clear that the seed of a legitimately good time lies within. But that game never manifests. Instead, we’re left with wasted potential in a game that commits the worst possible sin: Thief is fucking boring.

At its core, the Thief series has always been about mostly avoiding combat while shuffling around medieval environments to steal everything that isn’t nailed down. There is the usual kind of prophecy-conspiracy hook thrown in to make the player feel important, but the actual motions of playing the game primarily focus on being, well, a thief. This new title doesn’t exactly trade stealth for combat, but it is more linear, poorly written, and way less interesting to play than its predecessors. In all respects, the 2014 reboot feels like a severely watered down version of previous installments. Production values are janky: the art style is bland and uninspired even by typical AAA title standards, with rough edges everywhere. The story is bargain-basement garbage that basically does away with Thief’s rich lore, borrowing only a few character names. Embarrassing technical glitches abound, and one that immediately stands out is an early area with a single linear path to my next story objective. This path required the player character to climb a series of glowing blue pipes. When I climbed the first pipe, the game would not let me hook onto the second one. I had to reset the game to get it to load correctly.

And those climbing sequences? They’re the only part of the game that is third person, infrequent, and jarringly out of place. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a game like Uncharted; except while Uncharted sets its platforming in lavish, magnificently crafted vistas, Thief places its brief climbing sections in sewers, shafts, and the like. Instead of a falling train or mountainside, you are always going to find yourself scaling pipes attached to some variation of brick wall. Given the turbulent development process of the game, it is all but certain that these sections were intended to be cut, but remained in the shipped product because there was no time, money, or enthusiasm left for this project.

This lingering feeling of “fuck it, get the game out the door” extends to all areas. Every now and again, you will come across some exciting play mechanic or mission segment that leaves you having something approaching fun, only to find yourself wishing there was more of it in the game. In a better title with levels meticulously designed to highlight its strengths, sneaking around and clubbing people over the head would be excellent. The few times Thief actually sets you up to take out guards from afar by launching a fire arrow into oil? Legit fun, but rare. Most disheartening is the swoop move, which amounts to a split-second of invisibility you can use to slip by guards. It’s a great move, but it’s wasted by developers with no interest in building interesting encounters to show it off.

And this, really, is the overall problem: Despite some good points in its mechanic set, Thief doesn’t have the consistency or focus in level design that can be found in games like Deus Ex, Dishonored, and its own predecessors. Rather, Thief 2014 is a poorly joined patchwork of systems and mechanics, endlessly retooled until management likely brought down the hammer with a final ultimatum to ship or else. As a result, nothing comes together to make playing this game an enjoyable, rewarding experience. It’s not fun to traverse the main hub city, because the game hits you with incredibly frequent load screens for areas that contain precious little to do. During missions, there’s nothing to encourage the player to experiment or seek out alternative paths, because the levels are extremely linear affairs where all usable items are immediately revealed by using the goddamn X-ray vision that’s been in style since Rocksteady’s Batman game did it in 2010.

Indeed, it cannot be overstated just how little the developers of Thief trust the player to figure out things on his own, even in the confines of the game’s tight spaces. They went so far as to remove the jump button, for Christ’s sake. It’s been replaced with a contextual action button, which almost always translates to “climb some boxes and shoot a rope arrow.” Taking on short, optional side missions to seek out more loot does nothing to thrill, as the upgrades you can purchase with your spoils are some of the most underwhelming I’ve ever seen in a game. Likewise, this narrative is so terrible that you won’t actually want to find the countless story documents littered around the world.

Overall, this is a complete misfire that, given the proclivities of modern game publishers, all but ensures we won’t see another game in this franchise for the same 10-year gap that followed 2004’s Thief: Deadly Shadows. There are a few promising mechanics, but the player is never given much to do with them. Even worse, this game comes out a year and change too late: even if Thief’s game design were mildly competent, it’s already been outclassed in every possible way by Arkane Studios’ Dishonored; a title that perfectly updates Thief/Deus Ex style game design for modern sensibilities. It’s cheap now, about $20-30 for a copy with all the downloadable content. Go buy/replay that instead: this one’s a dud.

Day One, Buy Cheap, Rent, or Pass?: Pass

Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Playstation 4 (reviewed), Playstation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC

Thief quotes image credit: XKCD

About George

George holds the world record for having pissed off the most game journos in a single post. You can read more of his insane ramblings about digital playthings at www.subtleblend.com or follow him on Twitter.