Sometimes, Thief makes you feel...well, like a thief. The stars align, you've gathered some courage, and you swoop in to snatch a patrolling guard's coin purse unseen, and then swipe a goblet from under his nose. You sneak away, grin, and silently congratulate yourself for your unquestionable skill. Emphasis on the "silently" part, of course; any good thief knows it's best not to trumpet your accomplishments.
Other times, the illusion is shattered. You hide in the shadows while watching an alerted guard walk continuously in place against a pillar, or staring as he pirouettes with several of his comrades. You trigger loading screens so frequently you could be forgiven for thinking you weren't exploring an entire city as much as you were crisscrossing a series of walk-in closets. And so you growl your disapproval without caring who might hear you. You are no longer a thief; you're just playing one in a clumsy video game.
Such is the turbulent nature of Thief, a clunky, intriguing, slapdash, atmospheric stealth game that leashes you to its inconsistencies and gives you no choice but to submit to its whims. The resulting suffocation is at the very least an appropriate circumstance given the heavy aura of The City. This is indeed not just any city, but "The City," and while you play as Garrett, the master thief who starred in the previous Thief games, The City is the game's central character. It's an imposing and claustrophobic community, perpetually cloaked in darkness, from which gothic clock towers and grand cathedrals rise. As you navigate its narrow streets and scramble onto rooftops, you pass vagrants huddled around fires for warmth, and overhear couples express their fear of the sickness that has wafted into their city.
This is a place where the rich plunder and the poor seek refuge, so it's no wonder that a populist named Orion has come forth to champion the meek who suffer under the baron's rule. This sickness--chillingly called "the gloom"--does not distinguish between the wealthy and the destitute, and Thief occasionally dabbles in the class warfare themes that naturally result from this scenario. Unfortunately, the socioeconomic conflict is relegated to window-dressing status in favor of the mystical occurrences that drive the game's second half.
That's a shame, because Thief's main story ultimately goes nowhere. The game kicks off with an introductory chapter that shows Garrett's protégé, Erin, inadvertently falling to her doom at the hands of a cult in the midst of a magical ritual. As you push closer to the truth over the game's eight story chapters, the narrative loses all focus, the mystical mumbo jumbo takes over, and you're left with no real sense of closure. It doesn't help that the final, irritating, wrongheaded boss fight transitions into a final cutscene that offers no emotional payoff.
Thief is about where, and not about what. As you pursue side missions and main story objectives, you crouch and skim through the shadows, letting The City swallow you, and avoiding the eyes of the city watch. Everywhere you go, you see trinkets on barrels, coins on banisters, and locked boxes likely to contain wondrous jewels within. The objects you snatch are immediately converted to currency, and there's something deliciously nefarious about grabbing everything you can that isn't nailed down. When you first take a hairbrush from a nightstand or a ring lying on the pavement next to a corpse, you sense that this is an item of real value, both financial and emotional. Eventually, the very act of stealing becomes second nature, and in that sense, Thief does an excellent job of immersing you in Garrett's selfish indifference. He steals from the rich, from the dead, and from the downtrodden to give to...himself.
As you navigate its narrow streets and scramble onto rooftops, you pass vagrants huddled around fires for warmth, and overhear couples express their fear of the sickness that has wafted into their city.
Taking in the sights of The City is rewarding; moving around in it is not. The first time I emerged from the clock tower that serves as Garrett's home base, I looked upon the industrial tableau and imagined all of the adventure waiting for me there. Exploratory freedom, however, is not Thief's style. Sure, you do find hidey-holes to investigate, and missions often feature carefully structured architecture that provides you multiple routes of infiltration. But going about your business in the hub world has you hitting one loading screen after another when you transition into a new area, often without warning. You might simply sneak into an abode when you force a window open--or you might have to endure a loading screen first. Squeezing between some fallen lumber might reveal a hidden nook, or it might initiate--you guessed it--a loading screen. Thief is frustratingly segmented in unintuitive ways, and it keeps The City from being fun to navigate. Even the limited wall-climbing afforded by your new claw gadget can't free the game from its self-imposed claustrophobia.
The goal, of course, is to navigate The City as quietly as you can; if you're busted, you're not much of a thief. Many of the stealth mechanics have a great feel to them, starting with the quick dash known as the swoop. Swooping may not be part of the series' legacy, but there's no doubting its appeal: you rush forward a few feet with a gratifying "whoosh," gliding over broken glass that would raise a nearby guard's suspicions if you trod upon it, or quickly snuffing out a candle so you can slink away in protective darkness. Pressing against cover and peeking from behind isn't a typical Thief series mechanic (and unlike in Thief: Deadly Shadows, you don't flatten your back against walls), but has a nice tactile quality to it. This is due in no small part to how you see Garrett's hands grasp the sides of the crate you're hiding behind, so that the peeking move feels more like a human motion and less like an unnatural tilt.
Actually putting these moves to good use reveals Thief's oft-ridiculous AI flaws. Unrealistic enemy behavior is hardly new to the series, or to stealth games in general, but given how seriously Thief takes itself, the silly AI becomes a distraction. A guard might get stuck running in place against a scaffold, or several guards will chase you into a corner, only to let you off scot-free because they can't navigate around each other. At times, it doesn't feel as though you are outwitting your foes as much as you are exploiting their inability to climb; sometimes you can just drop down from a ledge and your pursuer will give up simply because he can't see you or follow you.
As you push closer to the truth over the game's eight story chapters, the narrative loses all focus, the mystical mumbo jumbo takes over, and you're left with no real sense of closure.
There are some lovely touches, such as the way guards notice that a door has opened, and the ribald conversations they have with each other when they aren't alerted to your presence. But these details are hardly new to stealth games--or to other genres for that matter--and so their impact is significantly lessened given Thief's AI glitches and endlessly repeated ambient dialogue. In turn, the tension so important to successful stealthing is diminished. In the best sneaking games, making your way to your objective while maximizing your effectiveness feels like maneuvering through a giant deadly trap. Thief rarely captures the right sense of risk, however, which in turn reduces the sense of reward. There are all sorts of ways to make the game more (or less) difficult; if you're inclined to pooh-pooh Thief for not being hardcore enough for you, you can tailor the heads-up display to your liking, turning options on and off as you see fit. Yet making the game harder isn't a magic solution to the aberrant AI.
The game is at its best when you minimize or fully remove the effects of its most obvious nod to modern game design: focus. Focus is a catchall mechanic that changes its effects based on context. If you're just wandering around, activating focus reveals interactive objects like loot to snatch and locks to pick. If you're in trouble and need to beat down a persistent guard, it slows down time and lets you target the guard for maximum damage. Focus is the kind of mechanic that gets old-school Thief series enthusiasts in a tizzy, though again, you can simply turn focus off if you don't like it. The problem with focus isn't that it makes the game too easy. The problem is that it does so by dulling the world around you rather than making you feel like a more effective, more knowledgeable thief.
It's nice, for instance, that you can get the additional help when you're forced into melee combat against a sword-wielding guard. But it doesn't make the combat enjoyable or even unlock cool new fighting animations: you still just swing the blackjack with the aplomb of a three-year-old flailing a stick. Sometimes having the additional time to pick locks that focus affords you is welcome, but picking locks doesn't suddenly become more entertaining as a result--you just finish faster. You can upgrade these skills by spending some money or by stumbling across upgrade shards during your travels, but I quickly found that applying those upgrades never made me feel more agile or more effective--they just sapped the tension from missions. I soon relegated focus to a single use: illuminating interactive objects around me. My funds instead went toward tools like the socket wrench and wire cutters--tools that actually made me feel like a potent Thief by giving me access to new areas and allowing me to disarm deadly traps.
In spite of focus's questionable value, some of the tricks Garrett holds up his tight-fitting sleeves are a blast to pull off, and a bow might be the most vital tool he carries. You can loose water arrows at flaming sconces to spread the darkness, attach rope arrows to prescribed grapple points and climb to new areas, and launch sawtooth arrows into pesky guards' skulls. The fire arrow is another standout, in no small part because of how you can use one to set alight a standing puddle of oil. Enemies standing in such an oil puddle are burned to a crisp, and you can only cackle at their fiery misfortune. This method of extermination is put to particularly good use in Thief's requisite asylum level (didn't we just do this in Deadly Shadows?), where you encounter blind subhuman foes that burn up real good.
The asylum mission is one of Thief's better ones, in part because it heightens the ambient anxiety and dabbles in horror elements. However, this atmospheric terror is not matched by a sense of real danger; until the mission's later moments, there's little to be afraid of. My favorite mission, however, was an optional one in which you lead a drunkard through the level by clearing away the obstacles that inhibit his progress. It's a cheekily wicked process with a few dark laughs in store. Most side missions are quickly accomplished and forgotten, however, with the story missions providing most of the intrigue. While the iffy enemy behavior often tempers the fun, stumbling upon a previously unnoticed avenue of entry brings a nice feeling of accomplishment along with it.
As Thief seesawed up and down, my enjoyment of it followed suit. Each time I thought I might fall in love, the game doused my passions with a new annoyance. There was the bug that had me swimming in place on top of some boards I'd leapt to. (Thank goodness for reloadable checkpoints!) There were the times I scratched my head wondering why I couldn't take cover behind one crate but could behind an identical one. (The rules of locomotion are never absolutely clear.) But then the love affair was rekindled the moment I pinched out a candle's flame and yanked a dowager's earrings from her lobes unnoticed. (Unrealistic, certainly, but joyful nonetheless.) Whether you are new to the series or cut your teeth on Thief's particular brand of stealth when it was still novel, I'd wager your feelings will waver as often as mine did. The Thief-franchise-inspired Dishonored waves the stealth flag far more confidently than this reboot does. Garrett is not yet on his way out, but he's been shown the door.