Thief 2014 is "Except"ional

User Rating: 4 | Thief PC

It all started with the rope arrows. After Thief: Deadly Shadows' eschewing of them for the incredibly boring climbing gloves that were yet another sign of the downfall of the franchise, I was elated to see the rope arrows present in this game. That is, until I used them. Like so many other things in this game, you can only use the rope arrows in designated rope arrow spots. This is because modern game designers, when you compare them to those working in 1998, cannot design levels to encourage player freedom by giving them tools to navigate their environment in unpredictable ways.

Except for the part where I know they can; this is just lazy.

Speaking of lazy, think of a Master Thief. Do you picture an agile person who can move around a complex environment with ease, slipping around guards and leaping over obstacles? So do I.

Except, in Thief 2014, Garrett can't jump. Well, he can jump, but as with the rope arrows he can only jump in designated jumping places. This led to a rather frustrating situation when I tackled the Bank Heist job. In the safe there are trap panels that when you step on them, fire arrows into you or reset the vault's locks. Since I didn't have the wire cutter tool, I couldn't disable the traps. The trap panels, clearly visible in focus mode, were about a foot across. Garrett from previous games in the series would easily traverse the room by jumping over these panels. Hell, they're so small Garrett could probably just take a long stride and step over them. But no. You may as well be playing an over the shoulder shooter.

Between many loading zones (they are frequent, but not as long as I've heard some reviews complain), Garrett will either have to open a window by rapidly pressing E (on PC), or slip between a bunch of boxes and debris to get through to the next area. First of all, every time Garrett goes through a window, he lets it close behind him. What kind of Master Thief lets his escape route close? Is it that hard to prop it up? Every time he goes back to the window he has to sit there and struggle with it to open it. Second, every time Garrett slips through the boxes, he comes across a large beam resting in front of him, barring his path.

Except, there's clearly enough room for him and possibly another thief to pass shoulder to shoulder. Instead of go through this wide open space, he ducks down and strains to move the beam out of the way, requiring you to tap E. This happens every. Time. And every time it happens, you become even more aware of the fact that Garrett could easily be stepping around in the other direction.

Another problem is Garrett himself. As if the way he overcomes physical hurdles (I got through the trap panels by shooting a blunt arrow to trigger one and then walking over it before it reset, a solution that made me feel momentarily brilliant, but not any less disappointed with Garrett's cement legs) wasn't bad enough, he is hypocritical, flat, and undeservedly cocky. The old Garrett was coy, smooth, and his voice was like honey in your ears. The new Garrett's voice actor is fine, and honestly I can tell that he's doing his best to sound like the character we know, while providing his own spin on it. However, the context of the dialog is troublesome. Hearing this Garrett lose his temper, make quips about his skill after being caught like a common burglar, and argue with a sexy young female thief (because this game has to adhere to the tropes we've seen a million times before) about whether or not you should kill on the job just makes me annoyed at him. For the record, Garrett stands firmly on the side of not killing anyone.

Except, ten minutes later when two guards are standing under a bunch of beams suspended by a rope above their heads, and Garrett's focus mode is gleefully indicating that he should shoot the rope to have the beams fall on and and kill them. Garrett also steals “the claw” from this friend of his after chastising her about how reckless it's making her. He then proceeds to recklessly wield it for the rest of the game. None can resist the draw of the claw.

The new Garrett also seems to have very poor planning skills. In the previous games, players would be treated to a wonderfully drawn and partially animated cutscene at the beginning of each level. These featured narration by Garrett's previous voice actor (the inimitable Stephen Russell, recently of Skyrim fame). Garrett would tell the players what he knew of the situation, what his plans were, how he should prepare, what maps he had, and so on. In Thief 2014, there are no such briefings. Garret gets the job from some poorly written underworld character and scampers along to the location without a care in the world or a lick of preparation or forethought. I guess that's why I'm never surprised when after perfectly ghosting missions he's caught with his (admittedly gorgeous and well animated) hands in the proverbial cookie jar during the cutscenes at the end - cutscenes that look like they belong in yet another chunky action movie, but feel out of place in a game ostensibly about sneaking and subtlety. Are we to infer the video game industry has decided unanimously that every major title and franchise needs daring leaps to save dick-distraction damsels du jour, or explosions that would make Michael Bay blush? It would seem so.

Continuing with the theme of 2014 Garrett's un-sneakiness, let us consider how stupid he actually is in the game itself. I was hiding behind a desk with a guard on the other side unbeknownst to my presence. Great, I thought, I can steal from these drawers and sneak away again. Except Garrett decided it would be better to stand up while opening the drawer so that the guard could see him, instead of remaining crouched to do this. There are many problems like this. Trying to sneak up to a table and tapping the steal button invariably makes you snuggle up against the table, locking into cover mode. The games industry appears to be trending toward one big monogenre, because in previous Thief games, the designers knew that players weren't so stupid that they didn't realize a wall or desk gave them cover. Now Garrett, like the tire-necked protagonists of squad-based shooters, shares a loot button with his “attach yourself to cover” button, meaning you will do the wrong action countless times, costing you precious time and many reloads.

Garrett is lucky that the guards are so catastrophically hampered. The intriguing nuance of different surfaces creating different levels of noise from previous games is lost in Thief 2014. If you're crouched, you're crouched, and no one can hear you except for when you're walking over some of the broken glass spots that have been haphazardly placed around the game to provide the illusion of challenge and problem solving. Furthermore, I've had guards permanently stop their patrol routes impeding natural progression of the level (standing in front of doors or key loot items, never to move again), disappear from the map entirely, and even merge together into an eight-limbed guard-spider that was incapable of chasing Garrett.

In the whorehouse level that every game needs nowadays, full frontal sex scenes are tastelessly included. We're already in a brothel; the sex and perversion that is suggested, such as it was in Dishonored, is better than that which is clumsily shoved into the player's face. Do I really need to see a naked prostitute, bush and all, riding atop a man whose face and penis are obscured (because that wouldn't fit the demographic of hormonal teenager games are still being aimed at) as both moan continually? Even worse, an obnoxiously loud sadism scene repeats over and over even after you've left the hole in the wall you view it from. So while Garrett is uncovering the secret of the glyphs and very seriously opening an ancient door with a mysterious key, you can hear “Harder! Harder!” over and over again, drowning out the music and Garrett's own voice. I wonder how he keeps a straight face?

I will gladly concede that the graphics are nice. The City, though divorced in everything but name from The City Garrett inhabited in previous games, is beautifully textured and carefully rendered, with countless shadows and well implemented art assets. However, the gameplay, glitches, hackneyed dialog and plot make them difficult to enjoy. The Mona Lisa is beautiful, but if the Louvre is filled with a shitswamp you have to wade through to get to it, you're not going to enjoy looking at it. Oh, and I do hope you like looking at the city, because you're going to be lost in it. Did you find a collectible that requires you to advance the game and return with a new tool to retrieve it? Good luck finding it again; you can't annotate the map in any way, which is yet another thing the old games had that was technologically superior.

My only exposure so far (half way through the game) to major factions of the previous games are single words mentioned off hand. Thistleaid this, Trickster's gold teeth that. I don't think I've even heard someone say the word hammer, though. It took three levels of guards saying “shit” and “****” (ooh, I see you have made your game very edgy) to finally hear someone utter “taffer”, and I don't think I've heard it since. I wonder if, like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Thief 2014 was originally intended to be an entirely new franchise, and had a familiar title slapped on it at the last minute to garner more sales? What little relates to previous Thief canon certainly seems shoe-horned in.

Those of us who play video games have memories. We can remember ten or fifteen years back (or last night, for some of us) to when we first played Thief: The Dark Project and are baffled that a modern game could be so technologically lacking except in graphics. I didn't have much hope for this game after the third installment in the franchise, but even considering that I still feel let down. Is it that hard to write interesting dialogue? That hard to create sandbox levels that give players real freedom rather than simulated freedom that travels along a very narrow path?

I'm going to finish the game. In fact, despite all the flaws and glitches, I might even enjoy it, but only if I don't think of it as a Thief game. I'll just end up comparing it too much to the first two games in the franchise, and the new game will always lose in that comparison. Just like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, I think Thief might even be an okay game by itself, but these games are crippled by the pedigree they attached themselves to. These games are okay games if they're new properties, but they're pitiful franchise entries. This isn't blind and forgetful nostalgia talking; I frequently replay the old games and fan missions created in the same engines by the vibrantly active Thief community, so I'm readily able to remember the nuances of the Dark Engine compared to those that are present in the new game.

The old Garrett stole my heart in 1998. I don't think I want the new Garrett to steal anything; he'll just get caught with it.

(Completed up to Mission 4 on Master difficulty)