Continuing a classic game series after a significant absence is a minefield and Assassin’s Creed has lot to answer for. These days, it seems like you can’t have a stealth game without a protagonist that has an Advanced Level in parkour and supernatural abilities. Play it too safe and you may not attract new players to the series, but play fast and loose and you risk upsetting the old guard. Often described as a ‘first-person looter”, the original Thief series was renowned for introducing the use of light and sound as game mechanics for stealth gaming. It featured large levels ideally suited for emergent gameplay. Now it’s back and the community appear divided, much like the recent entries in the Splinter Cell series with which there are many parallels to be drawn. Like Splinter Cell, the game falls somewhere between sequel and reboot with returning characters and elements melded to updated visuals, mechanics and voice artists. The voice of Garrett for the first three games, Stephen Russell, has been replaced by Romano Orzari in the name of motion capture and diehard fans have complained that the levels are too small and linear, with Garrett’s new abilities appearing out of character. Needless to say, the addition of boss battles has caused several heads to explode too.
As a huge Splinter Cell fan, I can appreciate how jarring some of these changes can be; the loss of Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher really spoiled Blacklist for me, however it was a great game and the new and updated mechanics really enhanced the series as far as I’m concerned. Knowing that, I approached Thief with an open mind.
The game starts with a brief tutorial introducing Garrett and his new friend Erin along with a few of the basic game concepts. Before long you are picking the pockets of your companion in an attempt to stop her relying on a gadget which Garrett doesn’t seem to approve of, this backfires spectacularly as Erin and Garrett are caught up in a mysterious ritual that goes awry. “Robes, robes are always a bad sign” Garrett proclaims forebodingly… indeed. Time passes and Garrett, with retrograde amnesia, returns to the city that is now plagued by a mysterious disease called ‘Gloom’.
The game is clearly geared to played in a methodical, stealthy fashion and I found it very rewarding when played this way. The light gem from previous games makes a return of sorts, but it’s more black and white than shades of grey this time around with Garrett either in the shadows or the light, and clear visual cues when you transition between them. A nice touch on the PS4 is that the DualShock 4 controller light is a calming blue when Garrett is in the darkness, but glows bright white when he’s in the light. The guards in this world are not the most observant things, but they’ll soon spot you if they get too close and you aren’t in their peripheral vision. If you’re spotted, confrontation will quickly lead to game over for Garrett as the combat is punishing; your fighting skills can be upgraded though if you favour a more gung-ho approach, but it’s clear that snuffing candles, picking locks, disabling traps and avoiding confrontations are the keys to progress. The first time I picked a lock only inches from a sleeping guard was an exhilarating experience, knowing that making a mistake would create noise and wake the slumbering swordsman at my side. Sadly though the levels are sparsely populated and daring exploits like this are the exception, rather than the rule; most of the time you seem to be robbing empty houses in deserted streets.
The levels aren’t as large as some of the ones in the original series, but that doesn’t mean they are linear by any means. The hub levels have many thieving opportunities from them and it was exploring these that gave me a lot of enjoyment from the game. The environments are full of things that paint an excellent picture of the wider world; they are worth tracking down as they will often help you by providing clues to the locations of loot. Spy holes, overheard conversations and documents will all help you to locate special troves of treasure which can be purloined and pilfered as you pass through. A fine example is a side-quest where I performed a dwelling burglary in the house of a sleeping Miss Scarlett and her creepy father. By reading her diary I ascertained that the poor girl was being forced by her father to seduce a series of men, in order that he could keep the trinkets they gifted her; I also discovered where to find his safe combination and then knocked him the f*** out! The transition between map areas often involves jimmying open a window or lifting a beam out of the way, by means of a QTE that seems a bit out of place; on a few occasions during this event the game suffered a frame rate drop on the PS4, leaving me tapping square indefinitely and making me wonder if this is in fact a poorly disguised loading screen?
The game offers you many ways to approach most levels and it certainly doesn’t patronise the player too much or handhold, in fact it was after several chapters before I realised that I could buy resources, tools and upgrades from certain characters and I never felt limited or restricted to certain paths. Sure, it reduced my options a bit but the game really does feel open and I was honestly expecting a batman style measured titration of gadgets, goodies and backtracking for bounty. Head straight for the objective in any mission and you could miss a lot of additional loot, exposition and maybe even a better way to approach your goal!
Most of Garrett’s arsenal returns from the original series and a few new tricks have been added. He can select a wide variety of arrows, from water to armour piercing via flaming and exploding tips and bottles and flash bangs can be used to distract, lure or incapacitate enemies temporarily. The game features a selection wheel, or the touchpad can be used to select items from your inventory on the PS4. Swoop is a new ability which Garret can use to dash silently between shadows (except over noisy surfaces like glass which will still alert enemies to your presence), but the biggest and most contentious new addition is Focus Vision. This view highlights objects in the environment with which Garrett can interact, and can slow time to an extent for enhanced combat and lock picking. This ability can be upgraded throughout the game with Focus Points that can be bought or found. I have to admit that I didn’t find myself using Focus too often; there’s a trophy for not using it until the final chapter, so the game by no means forces people to use it, which should appease the fans of the original series.
Fans of the series may find some of the other new features that the game offers bittersweet. Whilst you can no longer change the difficulty when you start a level, there is now a custom difficulty setting when you start a new game; this allows you to score additional points by removing the reticule, disabling manual saves, checkpoints and Focus, whilst enabling the use of only speciality arrows (no more attacking ones) and stealth takedowns only. There is a forced switch between first and third person when performing certain actions which may detract from the sense of immersion. For me I liked the change in view when climbing, but the takedown animations need to disappear from games as far as I’m concerned. It’s also true that there is a boss battle, but I assure you there is a stealthy approach to be had, should you choose; it doesn’t stick out like Adam Jenson’s sore robo-thumb, as the boss battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution do. There is also a ranking system when you complete a chapter, which awards bonus money depending on the approach you take and allows you to ghost levels. This might lead to the most jarring aspect of Thief compared to previous games in the series; at one point Garrett, the Master Thief, exclaims “I’ve been a ghost all my life”, yet somehow he seems to get discovered in the cutscene at the end of almost every mission (cutscenes that are prone to frame rate drops and often look washed out compared to the actual game, which has some lovely lighting effects)! Ghosting the original Thief games was always an invention of the community and not the intention of the developer, but the level design allowed for it and this forced narrative just seems at odds with the spirit of those games.
In previous games in the series, without a mini map and Focus Vision, sound was a great indicator as to the location of guards; sadly in this game the audio is terrible. Firstly the dialogue repeats far too frequently, I heard “the Black Tops beg for mercy, can you believe it” four times in a row from one Graven guard and if I hear about Polly Adler, the nice smelling prostitute, once more I’m going to burn a guard dog with my fire arrows (that works… it’s not stealthy, but it works). Secondly there is no balance to the audio; we couldn’t ascertain the distance or direction of a sound using 5.1 audio, ambient audio would carry on over cutscenes at full volume so you can’t hear exposition and often conversations heard through cracks in the wall would continue at full volume long after you’d walked away. A few little glitches here and there would be forgivable, but the extent of these issues really detracts from the game.
The frame rate drops and audio issues really indicate a lack of finesse, which could be smoothed over if properly patched. The alterations and additions when compared to other games in the series will enhance the experience for those new to the series and a lot (other than some of the aesthetic aspects) can be switched of or ignored by the hard-core fans. All in all, played in a methodical, meticulous way, Thief really is highly enjoyable! In what other game would you be able to steal a desk bell from a drawer, whilst the prison around you burns?
A copy of Thief was provided via digital download for PS4 by the Square Enix PR team for the purpose of this review.