The most recent entry in the Thief series was met with significant criticism prior to its launch for the changes made to what was perceived as a good existing formula. As someone who had not played the previous games, I entered this title with no preconceptions or high or low expectations. The result was a game significantly flawed – sometimes entertaining, with good ideas to be had, but mired by an uninspiring story, uneven design and frequent glitches that ruined the atmosphere and aesthetic.
On a mechanical level the game is functional, if uninspiring; it uses a simplistic stealth system of a gradual detection rating as seen in many current stealth games, yet the first-person perspective seems to create a clumsy experience that is less in-depth than that of the far earlier Metal Gear Solid titles. First-person stealth may be more immersive – in that the player is able to “lean” around cover items to see the world around them, or lean into peepholes to view secret rooms – but it is also clumsily executed and often feels uncontrollable. Games must balance immersion with mechanical elegance if turning encounters into puzzles – as Thief‘s reliance on scoring and challenges suggests – is the aim. A level of abstraction that a third-person view offers provides a greater sense of control and power to the player and there is no reason why there cannot be a strong aesthetic design tied to it. Third-person permits interesting camerawork rather than an eye-level fixed viewpoint, and also provides an empowered perspective which can be limited to create tension (by altering what camera angles are permitted) rather than forcing a very limited perspective on the world. First-person perspective also makes melee combat something to be avoided in its awkwardness; while resorting to combat in a stealth game is often something to be avoided for mechanical reasons (it creates a greater challenge as more enemies arrive) in Thief it is certain death simply because first-person melee combat is a case of flailing hitboxes and hard-to-judge ranges.
Perhaps the more irritating mechanical choice, however, is the imprecise nature of the climbing; most climbable surfaces are marked with white paint, or glow slightly blue, in a good example of providing visual cues to interactive items; however, an almost equal number of ledges which can be climbed are not so highlighted, which then creates unnecessary confusion. If no signposting took place, then the game would be consistent in its awkwardness – using the device unevenly creates frustration in a game based around precision which often requires exact timing. In fact, poor signposting of items – interactive objects, climbable walls and so on – is generally the main failing of the game on a design level. The very clear signposting applied unevenly emphasises the linearity and illusion of exploration that plagues some levels, while also making some points of no return (where scripted events make returning to an area) come as surprises. Similarly, there is very little highlighting of what objects work with what items, and again this seems inconsistent and encourages fruitless experimentation which in turn shows the limitations of the world design. In a game based around limited resources for each level, and careful use of items, inconsistent depiction of what items are interactive is counterproductive.
All in all the game is designed around the use of the “focus” mechanic; at its most basic level it highlights interactive items and collectibles, and can be upgraded to show secret passages, improve aiming and change the fundamentals of game elements such as combat. Yet with these aspects active, the game is so fundamentally different that the ability to disable them seems a false choice; Thief is simply put not balanced around not using focus. For all its customisable difficulty aspects from altering the scoring, changing checkpoint locations and removing HUD elements, the game’s core balance – the framework which determines how it plays – is heavily weighted towards one way of playing. Even disabling it does not change any key aspects; the tutorial still requires the player to press the button to activate it, items to replenish it still exist in the world and the player may still buy upgrades for it. This seems a lazy way of disabling a feature; all the supporting elements of it still exist as if to remind the player of what they are missing.
Thus Thief is a game of unevenly-applied mechanics; when all its parts do function together, when the aesthetic signposting does work and draw the player’s attention to new locations or ways of succeeding, it is a fun, if simplistic, stealth game. At times the limitations on abilities are thematic – electric lighting makes all the usual tricks of remaining unseen useless, for example, tying into the game’s largely underdeveloped industrial revolution aesthetic. The hub system, with levels divided around an open city, is a hair’s breadth from working well – it is dragged down by awkward checkpointing and zoning, with some shortcuts putting the player in almost unsolvable situations that can make even finding a level to enter difficult. Similarly, it is if anything too true to the mazelike design of historical cities; there are few useful landmarks to navigate without a map or waypoint, and the pervasive darkness and similar-looking buildings tend to blend together. Levels themselves tend to be a mixture of aggressively linear sections with little to do, and more open areas where the challenge is to take every item without detection. These latter tend to be more interesting, although some feel unfairly designed to force one play-style over others, with some methods of solving the room reliant on having specific items. While this does add incentive to return to past levels, both to try different solutions and find new secrets, there is almost an aspect of “grinding” added; at one point in order to stand a chance at a level I felt like there was no option but to replay old levels and gain more money.
In terms of story, the game is similarly unambitious; the industrial revolution and a backdrop of grim Victoriana offers fertile ground for a story of thievery and conspiracy, yet Thief‘s story never really escapes the trend towards supernatural tales of identity that could have come out of a Bioshock title. Perhaps more egregiously when it does engage with its pseudo-historical context it does so in lazy fashion; a workers’ revolution leads to, predictably, groups of thugs patrolling the streets just as trigger happy as the corrupt officials they replace, the evil Baron’s plan to industrialise is presented in leaden literal scenes and the city’s nobility are unsubtle moustache-twirling stereotypes. This is made most clear in the recurring antagonist of the Thief-Taker, a balding, limping pervert introduced as he abuses soldiers for being too respectful to the dead and then later as having a penchant for abusing young prostitutes in a particularly irritating and unsubtle depiction of a cod-oriental brothel. If anything it is that mission – from its cross-dressing pimp to the selection of utterly stereotypical perverted nobles the player is able to spy on – which epitomises the insincerity and tiredness of Thief‘s setting. In trying to accentuate the bleakness, with all the fantasy and science-fiction trappings and the Kitchener-esque posters of the Baron, it ends up underplaying the more interesting cruelties and tragedies that a less melodramatic depiction would have highlighted.
The most interesting parts of Thief are not when it puts the player in the midst of perversion and ridiculous cruelty, but when the player is – as a thief – breaking into the houses of the privileged and watching their outrage and lack of perspective. It does not need to demonise revolutionaries as religious thugs to tell an interesting story about its world’s equivalent of the Luddites, and it does not need to turn its villains into caricatures to make them threatening. This tonal irritation continues into the depiction of the protagonist; Garrett wisecracks and wryly breaks the fourth wall in an incessant internal monologue that signposts the player through levels and often lacks the wit needed to make such a garrulous character appealing. All this, in time, boils down to one observation; Thief shows, not tells, far more than it should. A little restraint, a little more chance for the player to observe the world and learn of it, and it would be a far better piece of storytelling. A level set in an abandoned sanatorium, which does give some breathing space at times, perfectly demonstrates both what could have been and what is; it veers between over-the-top supernatural elements which form the game’s A-plot, and a more subtle, chilling clinical side which evokes historical abuses levelled at the mentally ill; doctors’ notes about “experimental treatments” and abandoned laboratories filled with equipment are horror enough without the game’s other narrative choices.
While Thief walks a fine line of quality versus unoriginality, what ultimately tips it into being underwhelming are the atmosphere-ruining bugs. Seeing soldiers run on the spot, trapped on a physics object, or conversations repeat – or the stealth apparently not working at all as a soldier looks straight at the player with no response while another facing the wrong way discovers them – undermines everything that the game builds mechanically and aesthetically. This apparently poor quality control – for the bugs are often repeatable – is a more serious strike against a game which relies on precision and a strong atmosphere. Bugs which do not impact gameplay can be forgiven – when they work against the core aspects of the game, they are far more egregious.