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In Defence of Thief

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Fan-bait and silly choices: why the Thief reboot is its own worst enemy

The Thief reboot is one of the most high-profile game releases of 2014. It isn’t because it’s a triple-A blockbuster backed by Square Enix and Eidos Montreal, but because since its announcement way back in 2009, Thief has been dogged with allegations of being an unfaithful cash-in of an old IP. It was immediately written off by fans and now, two weeks after release, sits at a paltry 5.7 user average – with almost 400 reviews coming in at 4/10 or lower.

You cannot find a discussion of the new Thief game without a chorus of ‘but it’s nothing like the first one’, and rightfully so – you can’t reboot a well-loved series and not expect it to be compared to the game that made the series popular in the first place. The problem is that in some cases, including Thief, fan feedback can be venomous. Admittedly, it’s not quite as extreme as the backlash against Capcom’s rejig of Devil May Cry – wherein fanatics went as far as begging the President of the United States to stop development – but Thief enthusiasts were still vocal enough to incur changes to any part of the game that they didn’t appreciate (like Quick Time Events or an XP system). But even after these omissions, super-fans remain dissatisfied and Thief will go down in history as a failure.

Then there’s me: someone who completely missed out on the originals, and someone who really, really likes it.

You see, this isn’t an attack on the vocal majority – their loud, abrasive input instilled in Eidos Montreal a fervent determination to satisfy everybody, which has led to one of the richest toolsets of customisation options I’ve ever seen. When you start a new game, Thief gives you complete control over dozens of gameplay nuances. You can strip yourself of any possible upgrades or make it so that you can’t even touch an enemy without a ‘game over’, just to name a couple. Whack on ‘iron man’ mode to add permadeath to the game, kicking you back to the main menu whenever you fail and forcing you to start from the very beginning. Thief is as easy or as hard as you make it.

Thief 1

In my game I turned on ‘no alerts’, I slowed down Garrett’s movement, disabled focus, got rid of the umpteen unnecessary mini-maps and location markers littering the screen and by god I found myself playing one of the hardest and most satisfying stealth games ever made.

With the right settings disabled, all I was given was an objective and an entire city to explore, with no help or indication on where to go. Then again, therein lies the kicker: ‘with the right settings disabled’. There really is a fantastic game to be enjoyed in Thief, but the developers certainly make you work to get it. You can disable the HUD and aiming marker, turn off the superhuman ‘focus’ ability, and go skulking around the city feeling like a proper, vulnerable cat burglar, but this isn’t the way most people will play it. If you just choose a difficulty level and get into it without fiddling with anything, Thief is undoubtedly an unremarkable experience. It’s wasted potential and a shame the developers didn’t make a couple of the best tweaks default.

No intrusive HUD or game-spoiling navigation markers, just Thief in all of its bleak and murky prettiness

But even when played optimally, Thief isn’t without its flaws. Technically, it’s a mess, and then there are a couple questionable gameplay decisions that seem so easy to remedy (the omission of ‘fast travel’ is an infuriating oversight). It could seriously do with a patch, but once that arrives and the distracting technical issues are gone, what you have left is one of the finest stealth titles released. I emphasise the stealth aspect in light of Thief’s second most prolific criticism – that it’s a poor man’s Dishonored.

With a bleak Victorian playground – complete with widespread plague and street gangs – the Dishonored vibes are laid on thick. However, where Bethesda’s game has you traipsing around the world as a supercharged assassin, Thief focusses its efforts purely on its namesake: theft. All throughout the game there are hundreds of glinting objects ready for plucking. Some of these items are fairly innocuous (what a Master Thief wants with a couple dozen ink bottles is beyond me) but as a simulator for actual thievery it goes unmatched. Frantically opening and closing drawers and closets looking for loot, not knowing when exactly that patrolling guard could come parading into the room, the adrenaline and thrill is still there a dozen hours in. Again, it’s just a shame that the default modes strip these moments of any tension with an abundance of help.

Ultimately, Thief is its own worst enemy. It hides some of its best gameplay choices and in choosing to resurrect a series so rabidly beloved it has opened itself up to blind criticism all throughout its development and release. My PC ignorance while growing up meant I didn’t play the original Thief games, which in this instance is actually a good thing, and my willingness to customise my game meant that it was tailored to me. But that is a unique scenario Eidos shouldn’t have banked on when they made their game. The story falls flat and the sound glitches and framerate drops are distractingly often, but when everything clicks, Thief is one of the best stealth games to be released in quite a long time. It’s a shame if you happen to miss it.

 

Images: imgur, Square Enix

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