Over the past few days, I’ve stolen countless pens, a few priceless works of art, 6 signs off the side of buildings and more gold coins than I can count. I’ve confused guards, misled them, clubbed a few over the back of the head, and even shot one in the eye with an arrow for being particularly nosey. I’ve done everything I was hoping to do when I sat down to review Thief, and I can look back on the highlights as some of the most fun I’ve had all year. I just can’t figure out why I still feel like the game has fallen a bit short.
In Thief, you play as Garrett, a Master Thief for hire. After a botched mission results in the loss of your partner, you’re tasked with putting together the pieces of just what exactly went wrong and trying to make things right in the middle of a city on the absolute brink of civil war.
One of the reoccurring themes in Thief is “choices,” as in being able to make your own choice on how to address issues. Each level, while linear in nature, offers multiple paths to make your way through as well as setting up certain play styles for success in areas. My personal preference was to take a completely silent approach, never letting anyone know I was there until after I was long gone. I stuck to the shadows, crept by patrols, and never laid a hand on anyone.
Handing the controller over to a buddy, I was curious to see how he’d approach the same level. He quickly took to the rafters using all of Garrett’s tools before slipping behind enemies and clubbing them over the back of the head. His psychotic formula of throwing their unconscious bodies down a flight of stairs at any given chance aside, it was amazing to see how easily he was able to approach the game in a way that was completely foreign to my play style.
Following a mission, your performance is ranked based on how much loot you picked up, how stealthy you were and how efficient you were. You’ll also be graded based on what play style you seemed to approach the mission from. I was often shooting for Ghost as I was hoping to get through the entire game without being seen once, but I often settled for simply being an Opportunist. My buddy obviously preferred the Predator approach, but now that I’m examining the data, he may be a bit of a sociopath.
As you skulk the streets of the city or continue on the main story, you’ll find an awful lot of nice things just laying around for you to take. While cheaper items will be lying out in the open for you, you’ll have to use a bit more cunning to get your hands on the nicer items involved. Safes will need to be cracked, hidden passageways uncovered and more.
This is honestly where the game shined the brightest. Everything from the brief lock picking mini-game to scouring for letters containing safe passages felt like an absolute blast. There’s a certain charm to be found in the assorted books, letters and notes you’ll find hinting at hidden loot locations, and trying to pull off that grand heist in the middle of a mission adds just that much more excitement. From this perspective, this is everything I had hoped Dishonored would have been, and that’s a fairly massive compliment.
With your newly stolen loot, you can buy equipment such as arrows and gear upgrades, or you can donate your gold to the Queen of Beggars to unlock points used in upgrading your focus abilities. These upgrades allow you to do more with your focus skill, including seeing the tumblers in a lock for faster picking or being able to have visual cues to enemy footprints. These quickly become invaluable, especially if you’re attempting to make it through the game without being sighted, as the later levels are absolutely littered with guards.
Outside of the main story chapters, there are quite a few individual contracts that you can take on to help fill your pockets by emptying those of the folks around you. While they’re not as deep as the main story, they do offer a nice bit of variety and are very welcome distractions at points.
A large portion of the game is presented in audio cues as you play through. While trudging through the city, you’ll quite often overhear the townspeople talk to their neighbors about their trials and tribulations. While this is pretty great just from an immersion perspective, they also offer invaluable insight on where to pick up some easy loot. Between them hinting at their neighbor’s new acquisition of a valuable painting to admitting that someone had hidden their wedding ring near the chimney, just paying attention to the world around me made for an easy way to get quick loot.
Luckily, the audio quality in Thief is absolutely stunning. While playing the game through our TV speakers, everything sounded pretty solid, but once we hooked up our SteelSeries H Wireless set, the game absolutely sang back to us. Footsteps could be pinpointed with absolute precision, eavesdropping on conversations was crystal clear and the pitter patter of the rain created an incredibly immersive experience.
Unfortunately, for all of the praise I can heap on for everything Thief does right, there are some issues that quickly pile up, including some fairly horrible stuttering in all of the major cut scenes. It seems the guys at Eidos Montreal are aware of this since there was already one patch released which did help the issue, but it’s still present. Everything seems to be in slow motion at the best of times, creating a disjointed and, quite frankly, uncomfortable experience. This is a true shame since the story of the game did get fairly engrossing, but it became a chore to sit through it by the end.
If you can look past the myriad of issues, Thief is a very pretty game. The characters models in cut scenes look incredibly lifelike, and it’s really a great example of what the next generation of consoles are capable of doing. During actual gameplay things are a bit more subdued, and considering you’re going to spend 99% of the game hidden away in darkness or peeking around a box, there’s really not much to talk about. I would have liked to see more variety in the character models used for the guards, by the third chapter it had felt like I had seen everything that was going to be shown to me.
Adding on to the audio issues, quite often townsfolk and guards would repeat conversations on a loop. Occasionally, they would even stop their conversations half-way in order to start over. This is a minor complaint for the most part, but there were a few instances where it became a bit grating. As noted earlier, eavesdropping on the conversations of townspeople is the easiest way to find some of the more exquisite loot, so it can be a bit of an annoyance waiting for them to loop through. Other than that, the only time this proved to be problematic was when I was listening in on a girl of the evening with her John enjoying a particularly intense BDSM session while attempting to solve a puzzle. This conversation decided to loop, allowing me to enjoy a repeat of their intense 45 seconds of passion for roughly 7 or 8 minutes, and eventually lead to my girlfriend asking if I could at least turn down the adult entertainment.
Thief also has a tendency to reuse some set pieces. While it was great the first time I tried to squeeze through a tight passage and had to manually move a beam out of the way by mashing the square button, the thrill very quickly wore thin when I realized that every single time I would be in this situation it would be precisely the same thing. Near the end of the game, they threw me a curveball by reversing the direction, but it had already become a chore. Opening windows suffered from this same issue of adding a few seconds of animation in an effort to build up immersion, but it grew old fairly quickly.
The last of the major issues I encountered was what felt like an abnormally long load time. While it wasn’t horrendous and really wouldn’t be noteworthy if it were once per chapter, it became a fairly consistent nuisance. Moving between areas or loading a save point would incur the same load, and in a game that lends itself to save abuse this can add up quickly. Of course, for some players this will prove to be a non-issue, but it happened often enough for me to really take notice. PC players may not have these same issues if they’re loading from a SSD, but we were unable to test that for our review.
In terms of replay value, Thief absolutely knocks it out of the park. With customized settings available, you’re able to really fine tune your game. Broken into three modifier groups (Classic, Legendary and Ultimate Thief), you can make the game much more difficult in return for heightened reward bonuses. Everything from removing the quick save option to increasing the price of upgrades (or even removing them all together), and ultimately offering an iron man mode which ends the game if you die, is on the table. At the end of the game, your final bonus is calculated and thrown up on the leaderboards, so fans looking to make a name for themselves have plenty of opportunities to do so. This ability to add customization to the game should really make things interesting for players looking for a new challenge, or simply wanting to be rewarded with a nice bonus based on their usual play style.
There are also a few challenge maps available, which throw you into a level with a set time period and a goal of simply getting out with the most loot in your pockets. While I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my time playing through these, it’s more of a diversion than adding anything really new to the equation. All the same, I’m fairly competitive, so being able to go back and attempt to beat my buddies’ scores should bring me back to the game a few more times.
Thief is a very hard game to review. If we were to focus only on what it had done right, it’s an absolutely fantastic stealth game and easily one of the best from recent memory. However, there are just so many small issues that build up throughout the course of a play through that it becomes impossible to ignore. Having the ending crescendo of the game almost completely ruined thanks to the micro stuttering and audio lag really became the final nail in the coffin as far as we were concerned. Once these issues are addressed, Thief will become a game that everyone will benefit from checking out, but as it stands right now, only hardcore fans of the series or the genre should make the investment.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
The makings of an absolutely fantastic game are evident here, and fans of the genre will love what's being offered. However, there are just too many flaws at launch to really recommend Thief to a wider audience.