[one_third]After an extended development cycle, Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot has been released. How fares this new interpretation of the progenitor of the modern stealth genre? Our review illuminates all.[/one_third]
[message_box title=”For the sake of clarity”]In this review, Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot will be referred to as “Thief”, whilst titles in the previous Looking Glass Studios/Ion Storm trilogy will be referred to as “The Dark Project”, “The Metal Age”, and “Deadly Shadows” respectively. All four games as a whole will be referred to as “The Thief series”.[/message_box]
Thief is about waiting. But not waiting for a gap in patrols, or an opportunity to silently knock out a guard. It’s about waiting for the next three rooms of the level to stream into RAM, as you mash X to jimmy open a window. Waiting for the camera to fly back into Garrett’s head after it swooped down to street level to show you something was happening. Waiting for first-person animations to play out as Garrett slides open all five drawers of a table, one-by-one. Waiting for each cutscene to throw the story further into disarray with nonsense plot mechanics delivered through poorly written dialogue.
We’ve been waiting over five years for Eidos Montreal to deliver its reboot, but upon playing it we discovered we were just waiting for it to be over.
IT’S NOT MUCH, BUT IT’S HOME
Eidos Montreal’s take on The City is visually dense yet artistically flawed. It is a mess of grey, wooden surfaces; a kit-bashed Victorian sprawl. Every district of the hub is comprised of a single palette of colour, texture and geometry that lacks the unique character of the previous trilogy’s environs. The supposedly rich districts of Dayport look no different than the supposedly run-down streets of Old Quarter. It looks like the concept art is running in real-time, but the hub’s actual layout feels like a complex series of cramped alleyways and side streets that is all but impossible to navigate without the use of a map. There are so few visual reference points one alley from another, or one courtyard from another.
The hub is savaged by constant load screens
But it’s Thief’s technical limitations that kill the potential for any strong sense of place to arise. The hub is savaged by constant load screens; whether they be actual hard cuts to a piece of concept art and a loading bar, or repetitive animations that see Garrett shimmy through small nooks whereupon players must mash X to lift a plank. That Thief is incapable of keeping a level that even approaches something the size of even one half of Deadly Shadows’ infamously bisected mission locales in memory at any one time is damning.
This technical limitation destroys the chance for Eidos Montreal to design some truly Thief-like levels. At no point do you feel like you are infiltrating a whole and complete locale, because the game is simply unable to render one. Instead, missions follow a depressing linearity, in which Garrett regularly clambers over obstacles and drops down on the other side, only to discover that there is no way back up, so that the game can flush the previous locations from memory. This happens with such surprising regularity that, at best, Thief’s missions feel like a linear progression of smaller, non-linear interiors. At no point does Garrett sneak into a building, steal an object, and then leave the way he came; he always follows a linear path through an environment to be suddenly spat out at the other end. These paths feel claustrophobic, as most interiors conform to a series of narrow corridors or walkways.
At no point do you feel like you are infiltrating a whole and complete locale
Within a small selection of these sandboxes is the potential for some classic stealth gameplay. But occasional successes on the micro level do little to dispel consistent failures on the macro level to approach anything resembling the top-tier mission design of the original Thief trilogy and its slew of accomplished fan missions. Further harming the experience is a lack of opportunity for players to engage creativity with Garrett’s toolset. There are often multiple paths to your objective, but each exists as a defined route which requires the use of a tool to complete the pathway; for example, using a screwdriver to enter a ventilation shaft (yes, these return from Deus Ex: Human Revolution), or shooting a rope arrow into one of its static anchor points. Thief lacks even the barest illusion of progression through systemic creativity. We’d give all the loot in our clocktower hideout for a single box to stack.
Eidos Montreal’s concept of immersion is short-sighted. Every swipe of a piece of loot must be animated; every piece of incidental dialogue must be brought to your attention with “Hold the right stick to observe” prompts; every scripted event must be perfectly framed by swooping the camera out of Garrett’s head and down to the scene of action. Though an attempt to maintain full body and hand awareness at all times as admirable, looting animations quickly become tired and repetitive. The act of stealing becomes tedious. Peeking around corners with a sticky cover-like system becomes problematic, too, as the button to enter cover is the same button to swipe a piece of loot. We’ve lost count of the amount of times we’ve entered a cover stance on the corner of a table, instead of picking a silver goblet from the top of it.
Often, these first-person animations feel jarring. This is usually because there is a sudden jolt in the position of the first-person perspective as the camera aligns its pitch to begin the animation, or because the player’s position is physically moved slightly to that of where the animation needs to start. Strangely, this jarring motion makes Garrett’s hands momentarily leave the camera’s peripheral vision, then reappear to complete the animation. This feels like it defeats the purpose of having the hands on-screen at all times, as there is no smooth transition between their default on-screen state and their action during an animation.
Geometry that implies it should be climbable simply isn’t
Unfortunately, it’s the developer’s approach to navigation that is most problematic. By holding a sprint/traversal button, Garrett is able to climb up or over certain elements of geometry. But those elements which can be scaled are not clearly defined enough that they can be easily recognised in the middle of a tense pursuit. Often, geometry that implies it should be climbable through its position relative to Garrett simply isn’t, whilst geometry that can be scaled is not easily differentiated from the rest of the level. Some of this is alleviated with the use of Garrett’s Focus ability, especially in identifying the grate panels which allow him to use the grappling claw to scale extra high. But players should be able to parse the environment without Focus. They should be able to go where, within logic, their character is able to go. The visual complexity of the city is therefore something of a facade; actual paths through it feel like hotspots.
Eidos Montreal continues the Thief series’ tradition of including a horror-themed level in its campaign. Here, the developer has opted for an embarrassing retread of the key beats from Deadly Shadows’ infamously terrifying Shalebridge Cradle. Yes, we’re back to another insane asylum; one that attempts to play upon expectations by including no enemies in its first half until power is restored by switching a generator on. Thief simply doesn’t have the atmosphere required to accomplish what The Cradle did.
Thief simply doesn’t have the atmosphere required to accomplish what The Cradle did
This horror level introduces a new supernatural enemy; human experiments that have been corrupted through plot events to ultimately resemble pallid zombies. The way that these enemies function is perhaps the one element of Thief that we are unequivocally positive about. These freaks, as the game refers to them, suffer damage when they enter the light. This flips Thief’s stealth mechanics on their head; suddenly, light is Garrett’s friend, and the shadows are the enemy. Fire arrows become extremely useful; you’ll be searching for unlit torches to ignite with them in order to protect yourself from a pursuing abomination. Perhaps the coolest experience we had with this reboot was leading a group of freaks into a dark room, then shooting the light switch with a blunt arrow and watching them burn to death from the damaging light source. It’s a simple reversal, but an extremely effective one that requires you to rethink the uses of Garrett’s toolset.
Thief’s new swoop mechanic, which allows Garrett to quickly and silently glide a couple of metres, is a fun and interesting addition to the game’s first-person moveset. It is an effective, useful panic button that quickly avoids potential detection situations without violating the core tension of the game’s light and shadow interplay. Swooping into bright areas will still cause you to be seen, and swooping over broken glass will still make a noise. Unfortunately, there exists the potential for players to exploit this mechanic, as multiple swoops can be rapidly chained together to completely remove players from tension areas far too quickly and quietly. Because different surface types do not produce noises at different volumes, there is little need to pay attention to the environment when broken glass isn’t lying around.
The AI seems incapable of tracking players over short distances
Whether players are swooping or not, the AI seems incapable of tracking players over short distances. In more than one instance, we were being pursued by multiple guards who, after we rounded a dark corner and stood still, completely lost sight of us. Dropping to a lower platform or climbing to a slightly higher one than the AI causes them to believe you’ve run off entirely, as they are incapable of pursuing you across elevations that are not of their own. The multiple mezzanines of The City’s hub makes escaping a fight trivial – as long as the traversal detection works as intended. If you can’t escape, knocking out a single guard, front-on, is as simple as continually clonking him with the blackjack, after which the ability to perform a cinematic third-person takedown will appear with a button prompt. Multiple guards are trickier but still simple to take down in direct combat; dropping a flash bomb or firing a choke arrow will put the guards into a disabled state where they can then all be knocked out in a single hit from behind. Given the claustrophobic nature of most levels, pulling this off can sometimes be tricky. However, by and large, Thief adequately discourages direct combat, despite it being very much possible. That said, the AI also does not encourage a completely stealthy approach either; for example, guards will audibly react to doors being opened in front of them, but they will not stop and investigate. Put simply, Thief’s AI doesn’t provide a particularly tense or thrilling stealth experience.
Garrett’s new Focus vision is unwanted, yet actually necessary. Thief suffers from the same visual complexity as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which makes it difficult to differentiate elements of the environment which are interactive, from those which are simply static objects. The use of Focus highlights everything interactive in bright blue; doing so is often necessary to figure out where a switch is that you’re supposed to press. We often could not tell which doors we could interact with and which we could not without using Focus to see a blue handle highlighted. As we often ran out of Focus and Poppies to replenish it, we’d find ourselves scanning over a room and repeatedly tapping the Focus button, as doing so still highlights usable objects for a short period even when the Focus meter is at zero. In an attempt to alleviate this, Eidos Montreal has included an object highlighting feature, which illuminates interactive objects in a darker blue shader than the one seen with Focus. However, it only functions at short distances, thereby leaving players to scour the environment – not because they’re exploring, but because they simply cannot see what is actually interactive. This is the most useful Focus-related mechanic. Other upgrades, such as the ability to disable guards in a single hit during combat, or to see footsteps visualised through walls, actually detract from the stealth experience by gradually removing tension from threatening situations.
Thief suffers from the same visual complexity as Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Thief does introduce a couple of interesting takes on existing stealth mechanics. Failing to correctly set a pin during lockpicking creates an audible ‘clunk!’ that the AI will pick up on and investigate. This makes cracking a safe next to a sleeping guard extremely tense. In addition, Thief has rethought the context of stationary security devices, like cameras and alarms, with the use of caged birds or caged dogs. Moving too quickly or making too much noise near these caged animals causes them to cry out, bringing any nearby guards to the scene. It is a clever, thematically appropriate rework of a classic stealth obstacle.
BACK TO THE ARCHIVES
Eidos Montreal claims Thief’s more scripted and directed approach to mission design is due to a focus on the narrative. It’s a sacrifice made in vain, for the plot is weak, poorly written, and wrapped up with one of the most unsatisfying, non-sequitur conclusions that makes us wonder whether a couple of scenes are missing. Put simply, this is one of the worst stories delivered in years. We are thankful Garrett’s original voice actor, Stephen Russell, is nowhere to be found. Occasional references to the Keepers, the Trickster, and the Hammerites are less throwbacks for hardcore fans as they are reminders of how much better things used to be. The secondary antagonist continually shows up for no reason other than to growl at Garrett; these encounters culminate in a Deus Ex: Human Revolution-style boss fight which, as some small consolation, can be completed non-lethally and without being detected. We’d go so far as to say this doesn’t really make up for other cutscenes which result in Garrett being outwitted, or in a forced detection state in the gameplay that follows. Hitman: Absolution suffered from a similar loss of agency; both games are all the poorer for it.
Cutscenes result in Garrett being outwitted, or in a forced detection state
One of the major plot points is the conflict between the elite ruling class and the downtrodden underprivileged. Over the course of the game, The City undergoes a violent revolution, with the underclass rising up to usurp their rich rulers. Eidos Montreal’s intent was to convey this revolution through changes to the hub world over the course of subsequent visits. However, the same technical limitations that necessitate the hub’s constant load screens also prevent the developer from truly conveying a revolt. Players may see a couple of guard NPCs swapped out for a couple of members of the uprising, who wear ridiculous juggalo face paint. A vocal revolutionary will deliver a rousing speech at the top of his voice… to all of three observers. Concept art that accompanies the loading screen of a city in the throes of revolution shows crowds of people storming through the streets with torches – whilst the actual hub that follows is all but deserted. Eventually, Eidos Montreal sets a few buildings alight upon a later visit, but the civilian NPCs follow their normal, casual patrol paths, showing no signs of panic about the fact that everything around them is on fire. Not only is Thief incapable of rendering large areas, but it’s incapable of filling its smaller areas with enough NPCs to convey the primary thrust of its narrative.
MASTER OF NONE
Thief is a disaster the likes of which we could not fathom
Thief is a disaster the likes of which we could not fathom. There is no easy way to say it; we just did not think the game would be this bad. So we must ask: how did this happen? Is the game’s five years in development, with multiple restarts and lead creative churn, the key factor here? Is Eidos Montreal misguided in its attempt to focus on narrative when Thief’s story is this flimsy? Has the developer’s attempt to cater to as many players as possible resulted in mechanics that work against the core experience of the series? Does the developer possess a completely different concept of immersion to us – theirs one of regular cutscenes, full animation and high detail visuals, and ours the more abstract sense of place that arises from the creation of whole and consistent locations? Does Eidos Montreal simply not understand what made the original Thief trilogy the masterpieces that they are?
The answer, unfortunately, is all of the above.