Few games are more mediocre than “Thief,” the highly-anticipated reboot of the legendary franchise from Eidos and Square-Enix. It is never an “awful game” like “Alien: Colonial Marines” or “Duke Nukem Forever.” In fact, even this week’s “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2” had more moments in which I was ready to throw my controller through my television set. “Thief” is a straight line, a bland gray where you want colors, a game that’s never truly aggravating and yet not what anyone would really call fun. It’s repetitive, boring, and never clicks in a way that I have to believe its developers discovered at some point in the process but it was too late to salvage the experience. Can you imagine working as hard on something as “Thief” and knowing in your heart that it just wasn’t working? These are the kinds of thoughts one has while playing “Thief,” a title that we hoped would be the first truly-immersive new-gen title but misses that standard by a wide margin. Most people will have forgotten it exists by the time they pick up “Infamous: Second Son,” our new next-gen hope for the PS4’s first essential game, which hits on 3/21.
Where do I start? As is SO often the case, one can sense that something is wrong in the world of “Thief” from the first fifteen minutes. People often write about games “turning around” at the five hour mark or some such ridiculous point and I kept hoping this title would do that but the fact is that “Thief” proves that most gamers know if something is going to work or not relatively early. The incredible prologue of “The Last of Us,” the gorgeous visuals of “Bioshock Infinite,” even just the credits of “Borderlands 2”—there’s a feeling you get from a great game that is commonly there in minute one. It’s not there in minute 301 of “Thief.”
Back to the game. It’s easy to lose focus with a title like this. 1998’s “Thief: The Dark Project” and 2000’s “Thief II: The Metal Age” helped define what we expect from stealth-based games. Rebooting them in an era in which “Assassin’s Creed” and “Metal Gear Solid” have helped RE-define the genre seemed like such a great idea. We’ll launch the new system with a classic game told through a new generation’s understanding of the medium. Perfect. So what went wrong?
In “Thief,” you play Garrett from a first-person perspective. In the prologue, you’re stealing items in a dark room in which a man is sleeping. You climb through a window and the narrative of the game gets underway. And is almost immediately clunky. Rather than just present you with a world to explore—a first-person stealth game like “Thief” needs to give the player a sense of total authorship to work—the narrative gets muddled in frustrating ways. The story revolves around your relationship with a thief named Erin, who confronts Garrett in that prologue as some sort of supernatural rite is happening in the space below them. Ugh. Already, “Thief” is genre-jumping in ways that just don’t work. And they start piling up. There is a sickness in The City, the game’s major hub. There are dream-like fantasy sequences involving Erin. By the 5th chapter, you’re on an island with a haunted asylum, wondering, much like the writers were at this point, where the heck this story went wrong.
So, the story doesn’t engage. At least the gameplay is fun, right? Yes and no. The world of a game like “Thief” needs to be its strongest asset, especially given how beautifully it’s been rendered on the Unreal Engine with PS4 capabilities. When I first was dropped into The City after that prologue, I was excited. Creeping through the shadows, knocking guards out from behind, climbing walls, sneaking in windows—this should be fun. So why isn’t it? Part of the problem is that the main setting of the game is just horrendously designed. People underestimate the importance of map design to all games, but especially one that takes place entirely in darkness and requires atmosphere that draws you in. The world of The City is constantly fighting the concept of enjoyment. Leaping through windows to find loot to steal is fun. Spending fifteen minutes trying to get to a point on a map through windows that you have to pry open and entryways that are horrendously defined is NOT fun. I began to hate the world of The City, especially in the manner in which it breaks up the gameplay. Open window, load time. Go through door, load time. “Thief” has more load times, as brief as they are, than most recent PS3 games. We’re in an era when seamless gameplay from cut scene to action to another level is the norm.
As for action gameplay, “Thief” is poorly designed there as well. Garrett is not exactly a superhero and so the developers encourage stealth, keeping you in the shadows as you complete your missions. However, there are sections of “Thief” that feel predetermined in their structure. What I mean by that is that the ONLY way to complete a mission without raising a guard’s attention is to hit this specific shadow, climb this specific wall, etc. It drains the authorship and fun from the piece if the whole game is built around finding the right path from point A to point B that has been chosen for you. I got so bored with the stealth components, I got aggressive, attacking guards more than I typically would just to stay entertained. Guards in “Thief” can take a bizarre number of arrows to the head.
When the screenshots for “Thief” were first released, this really felt like it could be the first essential PS4 game. What Square-Enix did with 2013’s brilliant “Tomb Raider” (which, inexplicably, shares a writer here) could have been replicated with this next-gen system and another reboot. Sadly, this “Thief” gets stuck in the shadows, never to make much of an impact on video game history.