When Eidos Montreal's Thief reboot was first revealed, it was hard not to notice that it looked a lot like Arkane Studios' steampunk stealth-action game, Dishonored. It's not because Eidos Montreal is a copycat. Thief and Dishonored share a complex, intertwining development history. Key developers involved with the original Thief trilogy were a part of the team that created Dishonored and have stated the games were one of its biggest influences, so it's no coincidence that the games look and feel similar. But the actual Thief brand has remained tucked away under Eidos' coat, so the question remains: Which of these two games better accomplishes the goals of their respective developers? Is it possible that Dishonored is a better stealth action game than Eidos Montreal's Thief reboot? Here are four high-level goals each game happens to pursue; which accomplished them better?
An Authentic World
Both Thief and Dishonored strive to create believable and convincing worlds for you to inhabit. The basis for their respective locales is one and the same: Victorian-era London. Thief takes a literal approach, attempting to re-create the smokey alleyways and grand landmarks of the time. Dishonored pushes its world further into the realm of the fantastical, with its buildings augmented by strange steampunk security devices and other mechanical contraptions. Despite these eccentric additions, Dishonored's world feels more authentic. It may not have the immediate graphical fidelity of Thief, but it makes up for it with an interesting and internally consistent art direction, along with large and atmospheric levels, that lend the game's city of Dunwall a strong sense of place.
Thief is unable to achieve this because of its technical shortcomings. The game's visual fidelity appears to come at the expense of an ability to render large levels. Exploring The City's hub world is less of an atmospheric stroll and more of a constant assault of loading screens. Even in missions, the game cannot render the entire location at once, so Garrett is forced through a linear progression of smaller locations. This destroys any true sense of place that Thief could potentially achieve. You can see the cracks in the world, because it is not stitched together seamlessly.
One of Eidos Montreal's goals with this Thief reboot was to introduce a greater element of player choice to the stealth gameplay. This doesn't mean the developer wanted to turn Garrett into a master swordsman; rather, it wanted to give you tools to push the boundaries of exploration and sneaking, whilst still keeping Garrett vulnerable enough to want to avoid direct combat. But the static nature of Thief's world means the developer hasn't achieved this. Interactive elements and aspects of the environment that provide opportunities, such as flammable puddles of oil and rope arrow anchors, appear in fixed, predetermined locations. Every solution or opportunity has been hand-placed by a designer. Unlike in previous Thief games, where you could throw oil flasks and ignite them anywhere, or shoot rope arrows into any wooden surface, you never feel as though you're designing your own solution in this reboot. Direct combat is more possible in this reboot than in previous Thief games, but it's a messy, cumbersome affair that hinges on the use of Garrett's focus powers rather than your skill alone.
The static and highly telegraphed nature of Thief's routes does not create the same sense of achievement as organically creating a new pathway in Dishonored does.
Dishonored upholds the core tenets of player choice and creativity with far greater success. This is partly because it is not exclusively a stealth game, and it fully supports actions which fall across the entire spectrum of stealth and combat. Additionally, its protagonist is imbued with supernatural power, so Dishonored's abilities do not need to be as reserved as those in Thief. But even when you adopt a stealth-focused playstyle, Dishonored's supernatural powers and first-person movement remain systemic and general purpose enough that they can be employed and combined in clever and creative ways. Though both games offer multiple routes through their levels, the static and highly telegraphed nature of Thief's routes does not create the same sense of achievement as organically creating a new pathway in Dishonored does. On the whole, the player choice available in Dishonored is more inventive and more rewarding than that in Thief.
A City in Chaos
The City of Thief and Dishonored's port city of Dunwall are both beset by hardships: plagues, tyranny, and dark, mystical forces working behind the scenes. Over the course of both games, each city changes and evolves as a part of the plot. In Thief, life is always going to go from bad to worse. But in Dishonored, the decline of Dunwall depends upon your playstyle. If you play stealthily, without killing too many people, the city won't appear to get much worse. However, when you adopt a violent, "high chaos" play style, it's possible to witness greater swarms of plague-carrying rats, and the resulting plague victims, appear in later levels. Should you choose to continue this approach, the final mission will exhibit a dark, apocalyptic aesthetic. The more people you kill, the worse off the city will appear, through a subtle, tonal evolution over the game's entire runtime.
Thief's plot implies The City's hardships will manifest in a more immediately perceptible manner. As the story unfolds, the oppressed underclasses turn to protest and, later, violence. Whipped into action by a fanatical leader, the poor take to the streets and ignite a revolution. At least, that's what the plot and concept art in Thief's loading screens suggest. In reality, this uprising is never realised. Eidos Montreal intended to show this revolution taking place over repeated visits to the hub world between missions. But there are so few non-player characters present that it's hard to get a sense of any civil unrest taking place. As far as the depiction of a city descending into chaos goes, Dishonored's violent players are treated to a decline which unfolds with greater tangibility and significance.
Thief and Dishonored share a common lineage in the immersive simulation subgenre--a design philosophy that began at the developer of the first Thief game, Looking Glass Studios. These games are usually played in first-person and focus on instilling a strong sense of self in the way you inhabit the body of the protagonist, along with believable interactions with that protagonist's consistent and immersive environment. For Thief, Eidos Montreal has opted to maintain full body awareness, going so far as to animate the hand motions associated with every swiping of loot, opening of a door, or climbing of a wall. At first glance, this is one of the most literal interpretations of body awareness the first-person genre has ever seen. But the developer accomplished this by prescribing points of interaction to very specific objects to ensure everything animates correctly. The result is a stilted and clunky first-person experience, exacerbated by the inability to jump, which leads to inconsistent traversal detection when using the sprint/climb button.
Dishonored allows you to jump and clamber over any surface that is logically within reach.
Dishonored takes a different approach. You won't see your legs if you look down, and your hands don't animate when you pick up items or interact with minor objects in the world. But the first-person experience is so much stronger than in Thief, because you are provided with a broad set of moves which can be employed consistently no matter where you are in the environment. Dishonored allows you to jump and clamber over any surface that is logically within reach, and its environments are designed to fully support that action. Where Thief attempts to create an immersive experience with a more literal interpretation of body awareness, Dishonored finds far greater success with its more abstract approach because your ability to move through and interact with the world is internally consistent.
Though Thief and Dishonored offer slightly different power fantasies, they still strive to create immersive first-person experiences within authentic worlds, whilst offering you creative choices through the use of their systems and toolsets. But it's Dishonored that accomplishes these goals with far greater confidence in itself and its players, ultimately proving that having the Thief name doesn't necessarily make for a great Thief game.