I remember back in the 90's when I was at Electronics Boutique and saw that triangle-shaped box on the shelf. "Thief: The Dark Project" the box said in a bizarre scrawl across the front, with a stylistic depiction of a thief drawing his bow. The ten year old me begged my mom to let me get it. I had just gotten a new IBM Aptiva with Windows 95 that could actually run games, and this looked like the coolest game around. It was one of the first CD-ROM games I had besides Quake and a few adventure games. And it was one of the coolest games ever. It was the first game I had ever played that used real-time shadow and sound stealth mechanics. It had full voice-acting, awesome graphics, and it was punishingly hard. I got hooked. Then, a few years down the road, I got the sequel (The Metal Age), which took every mechanic and joy offered by the first game and expanded on them, offering nonlinear levels, tons of side challenges, great voice acting, and updated graphics. A few years later, the third game in the series came out. I got it for the original Xbox, because I didn't have a PC at the time, and I fell in love all over again. The graphics were stellar, the gameplay had been significantly tightened up, and the story was solid and well-written. Plus, it had that mission. You know... THAT mission. One of the greatest stealth missions in history: The Shalebridge Cradle. Thief III didn't have the groundbreaking impact of the first games, as games like Splinter Cell had begun their dominance by that time, but it was so nice to revisit the universe and the main character of Garrett. The best thing about stealth games in the Thief series is that they sought to tell you a story that you had to be willing to endure punishment to see. The games didn't hold your hand. There were limitations, and they worked within them beautifully.
Fast-forward over a decade. Word about a follow-up (or possibly reboot) to the Thief series had been swirling for some time. Eidos had just come off the smash-success of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Then Eidos Montreal, the same studio responsible for the amazing rebirth of Deus Ex, announces that they are rebooting the thief series. I'm willing to bet stealth fans collectively fist-pumped the air at the news. But then we started to hear some troubling things. Development was shifting constantly. Reports that the game was being overmanaged and underdeveloped began to surface. Developer diaries took wildly different tones. Marketing material was inconsistent. The game was to be simultaneously developed for next-gen consoles and last-gen. People started to worry. I held my breath, hoping for another Deus Ex smash hit.
Well, now it's here and no, it's not the reinvention we wanted. Relax. It's good. Great even, in some regards. But this is a game that suffers from a lot of things, notably the obvious micromanagement by the developer, and the pressure to release the game on multiple platforms. Add to that the balancing act of attempting to please die-hard fans of a series that could only work a decade ago and the lofty expectations brought on by the success of Deus Ex, and you have a recipe for expectations that weren't likely to be met, regardless of the quality of the final product.
And suffice to say that the quality of the final product is remarkably good. The graphics are solid most of the time, and game is quite well-optimized. There are quite a few bugs and glitches that take you out of the experience, but I'll get into those later. The core experience is solid, and the sneaking and thievery that the series is known for has largely survived the transition to next-gen relatively intact. I played the game on a relatively well-fitted rig, and the game performed very well at mostly maxed-out settings. Nixxes did a great job with the PC port, living up to their reputation from the Human Revolution PC port.
The marketing material for the game repeatedly said that the new game was a "re-imagining," rather than a reboot, and I honestly agree with that. If this were a reboot, the story would (to some degree) stay largely faithful to the original concept, but it doesn't. The game does take a lot of risks in the story department, but not in ways that work. The story opens with Garrett meeting up with Erin, a fellow thief who is brash, defensive, and immature. They clearly have some kind of history, and they have been paired up for a job together. During the mission, she accidentally falls through a roof into a room where a bizarre ritual is taking place, and Garrett loses consciousness, returning to the city one year later with total amnesia (groan). The rest of the game sees Garrett get back into his life of thieving while also trying to find out what happened to Erin and himself. There are a few problems I have with this story setup. First of all, it was established that he didn't really like Erin, and the relationship that is shown to the player during the prologue mission actually shows that he has every reason to hate and resent her. She was psychotic, dangerous, and wholly unlikable as a character. Second, I think that amnesia is a story crutch that too many games use, but very few games do correctly. I can say that the new game is clearly a labor of love, but the new direction the game took feels like a story that was storyboarded by committee, and lacks focus. The missions are all very good, but the story elements shoehorned into them feel forced and nonsensical, where the previous games' narratives felt significantly more organic, like events were unfolding naturally around you.
The world which serves as the backdrop for this adventure is The City. The nameless metropolis of steampunk and gothic architecture is very well-modeled, and acts as a hub for the missions. On rainy nights, the city glimmers with reflected light off the cobblestone streets, and the weather and lighting effects are on full display. It's really something to see. When not actively on a mission, you can roam as you please, breaking into random houses to steal loot and complete optional objectives. This is where the game channels the old games exceptionally well, where you can go off the beaten path and observe, skulk in the shadows, and make off with all the silverware in the land. In order to start a new mission, you have to traverse from your base at the clock tower down the dark streets of The City to find your next objective, all while dodging guards and finding the easiest route. That sounds like an awesome idea, and most of the time it's a very cool place to explore. There are a few issues to it though. The city is quite vast and expansive, but a lot of it begins to meld together, so it's very hard to get your bearings by sight alone. Thief III did this amazingly well, all while utilizing a map system that forced you to use landmarks to get your bearings, because there was no marker on the map for your location. In this game, you have a precise map, but the multi-tiered roofs and streets are a labyrinthine mess that makes it hard to know how exactly you get from one place to another. As the game goes on, you'll learn the areas around the clock tower quite well, but going to new areas for the first time can be arduous and you may get lost from time to time, all while having to dodge guards, which can be frustrating. Another thing that is quite realistic but frustrating is that the areas where you go to start new missions aren't exactly obvious if you opt to play with the waypoints off. The second mission involved going to a place called the Black Alley. It was the most unassuming doorway in the most unassuming place, which is very realistic, but incredibly hard to find. Add to that the fact that you can break into a number of random houses to loot them, and finding where to go without help is a chore, while exploring the city at your leisure can be an absolute blast.
And what a blast the game is from a fundamental gameplay standpoint. The game takes place entirely from the first person, with Garrett's hands and feet modeled into the world. The act of clubbing a guard or taking a shiny goblet from the table has a tactile feel to it, because you are always aware of the character's body, and the way it moves is, at the very least, believable and direct. You play the game primarily using shadow/sound stealth mechanics. You want to avoid being caught in the light or making too much noise. A bolt of lightning or broken glass on the floor can quickly betray your position, so being aware of your surroundings is key to survive. The game uses the classic light gem to tell you how exposed in light you are, and you have a nifty new "swoop" to quickly and silently cover ground from darkness to darkness, or quickly round a corner out of enemy view. It's a good new addition, and it makes you feel pretty badass. This time around, you only have the blackjack club, and you're still no good in a fight. If you're looking for Assassin's Creed-style fights, you're not finding them here. You can maybe take one guard in a fight. Not two or more. And running isn't easy either. To assist your ability to run and hide, you now have the claw, a fancy pick that lets you climb up to new areas on rooftops to escape notice. It adds a sense of verticality to the encounters, and opens up a lot of opportunities for exploration. The wonderful equipment the series is known for also returns, with water arrows for putting out torches, blunt arrows for activating switches, the returning rope arrows for accessing hard-to-reach places, and so on. The gear in the game is mostly tailored for distraction rather than offense, although there are offensive options for those who want more action. The game plays with a rhythm. You leave the hideout and find the quest start, then you go to the quest location and navigate a compartmentalized area to find a specific item and get out as stealthily as possible. Along the way, you steal anything that's not nailed down, and try and find as much flavor text and points of interest as possible. It's a good formula, and there's a lot of stuff to find. Lastly there's the "focus" view, and I'm on the fence about it. It basically allows Garrett to instantly see all objects with which he can interact, which I don't like. But there are also other uses for it, such as slowing down time and allowing him to see the tumblers inside a lock while he's picking it, which seems very Thief-y. Ultimately, each player will have a different relationship with focus, and I think that's fine. You can also turn it off if you hate it.
Lastly I need to make a point of the audio. I think that Wwise is one of the best Audio software programs in the gaming industry, and in many ways it was expertly implemented, but there are some issues. Some sounds (such as rain coming from an open window) will simply cut out when you get a certain distance from them instead of reducing volume. Some NPC's will repeat dialogue loops. Some conversations weren't normalized, so one participant will have significantly quieter volume than another, and it's almost impossible to hear conversations over the music in the game. Despite these technical quibbles, the audio is well done, and the voicework is also quite good. The sounds Garrett makes while moving are very well-implemented, and I think the audio does an admirable job of grounding the experience. Play this one with headphones if you can. I used Astro A50's, and it sounded marvelous.
Now we need to talk about some of the issues. I've already touched on the story, which was already worth subtracting a point, but there are way too many technical issues in the game. I have seen guards spin in place or without heads. I have been seen through solid walls. The game had to be built to run across a spectrum of consoles, so loading screens are plenty, and they crop up in seemingly random places. The audio can cut out at random times. There are some glitches and bugs in here, and that's a shame, because so many aspects of the game show great care and polish, but from a technical perspective, the game needs some patching.
In all, I have enjoyed my time with Thief thoroughly. Yes, there are issues, and the story isn't exactly up to par, but the experience of being a master thief was captured expertly. Taken on its own merits, this is a fine stealth game, and there are a lot of custom options to tailor the experience to your liking. While this isn't necessarily the Thief we know, this new iteration is a fine example of how a few bad ideas can ruin a fantastic experience, and how a few great ideas elevated a potentially abhorrent one. I'm giving credit where it's due, and I think this game deserves some credit for updating a classic and giving us a great experience. The game suffers from some missteps in the narrative, and the technical aspects can be improved, but what you have here is a game that- at the very least- understands what made the core of Thief great, and does a good job updating it to be enjoyed by a new generation. No, this game isn't perfect, but there are aspects that come close. I have loved my time with the game, and it feels like the stealth game I really wanted this whole time. It's just not the story I wanted in that experience. If this game had a different narrative, I would have been kinder to it, but the story is very bad, and the characters just don't interest me. The game itself is the star of this show, and if you go into it expecting a great game, that's what you'll get. Just try not to wrap your head around the narrative.