“I Think I’ve Got the Gloom…”
At least, that’s how I felt when playing through Thief, the first-person stealth game by Eidos Montreal. Set in a dreary, Gothic/Victorian metropolis indifferently referred to as “the City,” players assume the role of Garrett, the notorious master thief/vampire fashion designer. The game has some good things going for it, but all too often those elements get bogged down by awkward controls, confusing level design, and an entirely forgettable campaign.
I’m a big fan of stealth games. I enjoy their meticulous nature, forcing players to be patient and plan every step, rather than allowing them to just blast their way through each level. I find a special kind of satisfaction in mapping out each guard’s patrol pattern, in discovering those well-hidden secret routes, and in getting through a whole level with nary an NPC aware of my presence. Thief offers all of those thrills, and can often deliver them even more effectively than other games thanks to its first-person perspective. The big problem here is that those moments are way too few and far between.
My biggest issue with Thief is in its control scheme. The controls feel like a combination of all the frustrating elements of Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed. The developers crammed both climbing and sprinting into the same trigger, but the two actions don’t interact with each other at all. For instance, you can leap across gaps and jump up walls without needing a running start, and free sprinting can often result in you unintentionally running straight off a rooftop. You can only perform certain actions on very specific objects or surfaces, making the parkour-esque gameplay feel restrictive rather than intuitive. Some of the game’s features do actually work well, such as the Swoop and cover system, and it’s satisfyingly quick and easy to pocket loot, but all in all they can’t wholly redeem an otherwise frustrating experience.
The annoying controls are only further hampered by some seriously hit-or-miss level design. The missions (Campaign Chapters and Client Jobs) are usually crafted well enough, providing multiple pathways and rewarding the more exploratory thieves. When not on a mission, however, players are forced to navigate through the open-world environment of the City. There’s usually only one way to move between the City’s districts, and with the City on lock down because of “the Gloom,” those paths can be frustratingly difficult to find. I once spent 10 minutes just trying to get to the next chapter start. On top of that, there are so many loading sequences that it honestly felt like I was playing a last-gen version.
The story in Thief is no saving grace, either. The plot revolves around something supernatural called “the Primal.” Apparently it’s locked inside a rock which Garrett is tasked with stealing, only to have things go awry. Your protege Erin apparently falls to her death/explodes, while you get knocked out and wake up a year later with one seriously expensive-looking glass eye. You then proceed to go right back to stealing things (because apparently that’s the best way to follow up being exploded by ethereal energy), only to find out some deadly plague is spreading throughout the City. Through the rest of the game, you help some revolutionary guy, you steal some more things, get weird visions, visit an insane asylum, get shot in the hand by Daniel Day-Lewis, wind up stealing more things, and then you win the game.
Or, at least, something like that; I honestly couldn’t have cared less about what was happening. The plot was so poorly executed that I had no idea what the next chapter held for me, and not because of clever storytelling. Each chapter felt so disassociated with one another that trying to decipher any semblance of continuity was as complicated as trying to navigate your way through the City. It also has some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard since Perfect Dark Zero, as well as some of the most painfully generic and repetitive NPC dialogue ever. Apparently, about 4/5 of the City’s inhabitants have a tooth coming loose.
To be fair, Thief does have its moments. Oddly enough, I found that the less important the activity I was doing, the more fun I was having. The campaign missions can feel really long, and while certain levels stand out (Northcrest Manor and the House of Blossoms come to mind), the rest are mostly forgettable. However, there are three supplementary characters that you can acquire jobs from. Two provide a sort of streamlined campaign mission; they’re shorter and less complex, but can still offer a decent challenge.
The third mission provider is Basso, and he provides you with spots all throughout the City that have specific loot to be obtained. This is where I had the most fun with Thief. After finally mastering the controls and getting used to the layout of the City, scampering over rooftops and sneaking into peoples’ bedrooms to steal random valuables was pretty entertaining. It was here that I felt like a true thief, moving silently to and from different houses, taking everything that isn’t nailed down. It’s just a shame I didn’t have the same experience when playing the game’s primary content.
For every one thing that Thief gets right, it feels like it gets three more wrong. The controls can be fluid, but they leave pretty much no room for improvisation. The level design is often layered and complex, but winds up feeling claustrophobic and is often more confusing than clever. The shadow system works well, and the City has a cool, moody atmosphere to it, but there’s a good amount of tearing and texture popping, as well as long load times. You’re supposed to be a “master thief,” but you spend most of your time swiping spoons and candlesticks. There were a lot of good ideas behind the game, but it still manages to fall short in nearly every category.
I had some fun with Thief, but ultimately my feelings can be summarized by something I once heard from one of the game’s NPCs:
“There is hope for the City, sister!” he shouted, as the City was literally on fire all around him.