US: 25 Feb 2014
Thief feels like an old game. It’s single minded in what it allows you to do, which gives it a kind of confidence, but also leaves it feeling limited. That contradiction sums up Thief: Everything that’s good about it comes with a qualification.
You’re Garret, a thief. One night a heist goes wrong, and you wake up a year later with no memory of the intervening time. Your city is now battling an epidemic called the Gloom that’s killing off the poor and the rich alike. Strangely, Garret doesn’t seem all that bothered by his situation because he immediately picks up where he left off, taking heist jobs from his fence friend Basso.
Thief doesn’t have a good story, but its presentation of that mediocre story is downright atrocious. The game lurches from one scene to the next with little to no context. People show up and say things and they hardly register as important because you don’t know their role is in the plot. Even when the game tries to dump exposition on you, it does so through such halfhearted acting that you’ll likely just tune it out. Thief feels uninterested in its own story, which may be appropriate since Garret himself is bizarrely uninterested in it as well.
Garret is not Robin Hood. He doesn’t steal for any moral reason; he just steals. At one point a tower burns around him, and he decides to climb up higher in search of a fabled vault because: “It’s who I am.” In that moment, the game raises the interesting possibility that Garret literally can’t help himself, that he may be a kleptomaniac. The gameplay certainly reinforces this obsessive nature—to its detriment.
Most of the time you’re stealing without context, just grabbing loot off the street or hopping into an empty apartment and snatching up anything that shines. However, Basso often offers jobs that provide a bit of context to your thievery. That just means that there’s a paragraph explaining what you’re supposed to steal and why, but it’s still better than nothing.
Usually the places that you rob are empty and this is where Thief shines: when it’s just you puzzling through an environment. The game is often very clever about where to hide things. Even your Focus ability, which highlights every interactive object in the room, is secondary to good old fashioned investigation. These jobs get more fun when pressure plate traps start popping up, using your trained tunnel vision against you. Completing a job is always satisfying, like you’ve bested some invisible opponent who thought this puzzle would protect his loot.
But then there are the apartments that aren’t empty. On rare occasions, you’ll stumble into the middle of a little story that begs for intervention, but Garret can’t intervene. These moments cry out for more interaction—a moral choice or a conversation wheel, some way of communicating with the other characters—but all you can do is steal and run. The limitations of the game are suddenly, painfully obvious.
The same criticism applies to the level design as well. You’ll enter a large arena that looks like it can be tackled from multiple angles, but due to the movement of guards and the many light sources that can’t be doused by your water arrows, you’re actually funneled along a specific path. Between that, the discordant jobs, and the disjointed story, Thief feels like a game that’s been cut down from its original, more ambitious size.
Sadly, one can’t mention Thief and not also mention its sound design. Ambient conversations are unusually loud, sometimes overlapping and repeating each other as if the civilians and guards were singing their lines in harmony. In the weirdest moments, that incidental dialogue is even louder than the main characters during a cut scene.
The reason for this volume is obvious. That ambient dialogue from civilians can clue you in on thieving opportunities. These conversations are important, so the game wants to make sure you hear them. It’s a nice idea, but it’s awkward in practice because these clues always come from disembodied voices. In context, you’re supposed to be overhearing people talk from inside their homes, but they sound so clear it’s as if all the walls of the city are made of paper. These clue-givers also leave out the most important information: location. You’ll hear someone talk about how Jebadiah has a nice collection of rings, but no hint of where Jebadiah might live, so you can’t actually act on that hint.
What saves Thief and prevents it from being underwhelming is the smooth, well-animated first-person movement. It’s a joy to control Garret as he effortlessly slides and climbs around the city like it’s one big jungle gym. The city is a labyrinth at first, made more confusing by awkwardly placed loading screens, but you spend enough time running back and forth that you’ll become familiar with its nooks and crannies. There’s a special satisfaction in zipping through this maze that was once daunting. It starts to feel like your city.
Thief can also be profoundly spooky when it wants to. It’s good at creating tension when nothing is happening. One level in particular feels more like a survival-horror game, and it’s the best part of Thief, which is not really a good thing: The best level of this stealth game is the one in which you don’t have to hide from anything.
Thief is the kind of game that seems worse in retrospect. It has its issues, but the fluid movement and spooky tone are distractingly good during play. It’s only afterwards, when you’re no longer immersed in the effective atmosphere, that all the annoyances and oddities come to mind and stack up. Thief is competent but never excellent, often confusing but rarely frustrating, occasionally clever and strikingly dumb. It’s enjoyable but so easily forgettable.