Published on March 13th, 2014 | by Tony Odett1
Summary: Excellent stealth marred by pretty much everything else.
Caught Red Handed
The Xbox One cupboard was bare until the day Thief came out. I had played the games that appealed to me- Ryse, Zoo Tycoon, NBA 2K14, Battlefield 4, Call of Duty- but it had been some time since a new title had come along. Thief came with a warning, of course- that weak Metacritic score caused by the title being panned by a number of reviewers. But I jumped in, anyway, in my desire to experience something different and new. Thief wasn’t good, I had been told, and as I hopped on to play, my expectations were lower than low. So I was surprised that, despite the game’s many warts, the gameplay was well-designed and fun. You have to ignore quite a large number of unfortunate things about the game in order to experience this. But for those who love stealth, and are willing to look past its flaws, Thief will provide an entertaining ride.
Thief’s stealth system is outstanding. The game’s light meter tracks Garrett as he moves from light to shadow and back again. Standing in the light will almost certainly get you spotted, while in darkness, Garrett will have much more freedom of movement (though enemies will see you if they are too close). Environments tend to be cluttered in shadow, and areas of light can be removed (via light switches, torch-soaking water arrows, or Garrett’s deft, candle-extinguishing fingers). Patrolling enemies will, of course, notice if you turn off a light in front of them, and seek to re-ignite the torch or turn the light back on. Even these situations can be used to your advantage.
And that is what the game is about- using the dark and your bag of tricks to gain an advantage. Thief gives you so many options it’s difficult to name them all. At different times I was able to use a fire arrow to draw attention away from a door I wanted to use, set off a barking dog to get a guard to move away from an entrance, turn off a light with a blunt arrow so that I could hit a swordsman over the head when he tried to turn it back on, and, when all else failed, used an explosive arrow to kill everyone in the room. You need that whole litany of options, too, as Garrett is completely inept at combat. Get spotted by one person and you’re in for a fight for your life. Two guards after you and you might as well restart at the next save point right now.
If you’re not a stealth person, there’s not a whole lot else here. In fact, even if you are, the fact that there is nothing else to break up the monotony will probably cause your eyes to start to glaze over after a while.The game does include some light puzzle solving, and stealing things is a lot of fun, but mostly you’re going to be running from place to place, trying not to be spotted. There’s a storyline, which gets more and more contrived (while simultaneously getting more and more convoluted) as it goes on. The further I got along, the more I wished that there was no central narrative, as the game’s devotion to driving it to completion and the narrative’s growing ineptitude dug into the side of the gameplay. The dialogue is weak at best, and the sound is poorly implemented. More than once, as the camera panned away from the characters, their voices became softer to the point that you couldn’t hear what they were saying. And the cutscenes, many of which are cutoff roughly, seem to all transition (with that weak cutoff) directly into a loading screen.
That’s Thief’s biggest issue: while the stealth gameplay is well-conceived and well-executed, the game’s presentation tends to ultimately let it down. The game’s map (which can only be accessed from the pause menu) is nearly useless, and I constantly bemoaned the lack of a fast-travel system. Guards walk about, spouting off the same lines repeatedly, sometimes to each other only half a beat apart. This occurs so often as to be commonplace. I didn’t notice any real bugs in the gameplay, but the sound issues were so frequent, I was left wondering why Thief refused to get out of its own way.
I really wanted to give Thief a chance. In a sea of mediocre expectations, I endeavored to seek out the good core of the title, and there is indeed a wealth of value at the game’s very center. But the innards are covered with a thick coating of badly-edited cutscenes, atrocious storytelling, and generally weak presentation. Thief consistently gets in its own way, distracting from its successful substance with its stylistic failure.