I just finished Thief (2014) or Thief 4, or Thi4f – however you feel like noting it. I have to wonder – how do games this mediocre get greenlit? How is there so little or so poor oversight that such disjointed storytelling makes it to market?
Ugh. Full, spoilery review after the cut.
I had some trepidation about the game when it was announced. The original Thief games are still in my top 10, and that series ended well, with the plot coming full-circle. Then I saw some trailers and some gameplay footage, and thought maybe they had managed to pull this reboot off. But I can admit when I’m wrong.
It’s worth pointing out that I watched Yahtzee’s Review of the game before writing this post. He pretty much nails my problems with it, but there’s room for expanding on both the good and bad bits.
Atmosphere and Environment
The game is wonderfully atmospheric. Between the fog, lighting, and level design the world feels like some dark fantasy novel brought to life. The persistent airborne ash in “Dust to Dust” gave me real hope for things, as it was a simple way of showing of what The City’s inhabitants had to do to survive the plague. Topping it all off was quite the creepy score, although much like Fallout 3’s limited radio playlist, after a while the tracks became repetitive and lost some of their punch.
So we’ve got this Gloom going around, but aside from Dust to Dust and vague revelations late in the game you hear almost nothing about it. Oh sure – people cough and mutter that they hope they’re not coming down with the Gloom, but there’s not much other evidence for it being a tangible force in The City. A smattering of beggars, but no one in advanced stages of infection. No mention of its effects. No effort to make it seem like something Garrett should really fear. Ok, so this isn’t Dishonored and the Gloom’s not a zombie plague. But for such a major plot device, little time is given to make it real.
The City didn’t feel populated enough, but as a coder I understand it’s likely simple memory and GPU limitations at play. And if you take into account the fact that all of Garrett’s excursions are likely around midnight, the sparse streets make more sense.
On the side of good level design, there’s Moira Asylum. It was no Shalebridge Cradle, but at least until you head down to the treatment wing, it was delightfully creepy.
And then there’s Clockwise’s flat, which started out eerie, ramped up to spine tingling when it sounds like there’s some Cthulhu shit going on in his sub-basement, then fell flat as we find the endgame is a floor puzzle.
We don’t get much depth from Garrett. Perhaps that’s by design – more of a blank slate for the player to project upon. But then why the voice overs? If your narrator is also a character in the story, you’ve got to give them some complexity. They’re going to have opinions and biases, and these should come out, even subtly, in their dialogue. Upon reaching the inner sanctum of a minor nobleman in the original Thief, Garrett chuckles and remarks, “Its a throne room. How pretentious can you get?” Later on in that same game as you peer over a ledge to a deadly drop he comments with no lack of worry, “It’s a long way down…” Simple bits of character, that’s all that’s needed. Imagination can fill in the rest.
This Garrett seems to actively eschew any real development. He doesn’t ask questions, and when he does he doesn’t pursue the answers, which means he just doesn’t care. Why was he asleep for a year? The Primal, apparently. How did it do that? Who knows! Hell he doesn’t even quiz Basso on just what the Gloom is after the prologue. A couple lines could’ve made for a smooth transition. Say Garrett gets what he can out of Basso about the state of The City, and when Basso gets into too much detail, Garrett just shakes his head and says, “I need time to let this sink in. You got a quick job I can do?”
On this point, the game really shines. The level design gives at least a couple entry points into most places. Swoop and corner-peek actions make for some great gameplay. And the AI is actually observant. Granted, an early patch turned the AI from eagle-eyed to merely vigilant, but playing on Master difficulty was still a challenge.
And despite the challenge, I actually found it a lot of fun to try and sneak my way past everything, avoiding knockouts where possible. This contrasts with my usual play style in the original series – knock everyone out to avoid complications and arrange the bodies in compromising positions. It was a thrill in this reboot to swoop up to a pair of patrolling guards, swipe their coinpurses, then swoop back into shadow.
Eventually though, sneaking by the same areas of The City, and even in the levels themselves, became a chore. I got bored. After Moria Asylum – chapter 5 – I’d had enough. It all felt quite similar, and I started knocking people out just to save time. Sadly, the plot wasn’t shaping up enough to hold my interest. Speaking of which –
It started out on the wrong foot by fridging Erin. I can cope with that, but it was an eye roll moment. However the rest of the game doesn’t give us the sense that Garrett cared too much for Erin. He’s partially responsible for her fate by stealing her claw in the prologue. But her brash nature and carelessness are equally at fault. If Garrett felt anything more for her than a disappointed teacher might toward a stubborn star pupil, it wasn’t apparent – even in the comic. So his actions once he finds out she’s alive are pretty inexplicable, and he doesn’t do much in the voice-overs or even the loading screens to elaborate. Why does he care what happens to her? Remorse? Lust? The ability to say, “You owe me one” over drinks, years on? No idea.
Corollary to the above – why does Garrett care at all what happens to The City? Revolution on the way? Get the hell out of Dodge. At least one in-game document mentioned several other large settlements a thief of his abilities and acumen could make a decent living. We get no justification for why he sticks around.
Overall, the plot is fragmented. We get snippets, and most times it feels like the real action is happening elsewhere. Orion and Northcrest plotting, occasionally against each other. The Graven storming the Watch towers. It’s all off-screen.
Then, there’s the Thief-Taker General, who’s more bogeyman than villain. He always shows up just when Garrett is in a bind. Hell when I crept into Northcrest’s lab to get the piece of the Primal, I stopped for a sec and thought, “That balding asshole is going to show up before this is all over.” And oh look – here he is. And he’s gloating about how he knew Garrett would come down here eventually. Really? Seriously? Then why aren’t there a dozen archers hidden around the room, seeing who can embed a bolt the deepest into our protagonist’s hide? Because that would end the game and worse – make sense. So not only is the TTG too single-minded to track down Orion and stop the Graven, you’ve revealed him to be incompetent. Don’t get me started on his boss fight. No rope points. No ledges. Just a lot bunch of boxes that provide little cover from the man with grenades for crossbow bolts.
And then – the ending. What. The. Hell. Erin goes nuts and kills Orion. So now we have to sneak up on her to help? Does giving the angry psychic in the fetal position a fright seem like a bright idea? Her boss fight was completely phoned-in. At least the Thief-Taker General’s made some sense. So the Primal breaks out of her – I’ll concede maybe she can’t completely control it yet – allowing us to snatch the pieces. Ok. But what a shitty “fight”. Being seen by Erin didn’t seem to do anything special. You simply had to be in the dark when she goes nova. What a joke. It screams “management picked a deadline and this was all we could think of/do”. Finally the end cutscene is a heapin’ helping of deus ex machina, with Garrett putting Orion’s stolen ring onto the tome from the Library. Again, it smacks of management dicking around with things. But after Metroid Other M’s cesspool of a plot, I can’t say that everything we saw wasn’t as intended.
How did Orion know about the book he asks Garrett to retrieve? Well we know that – he’s in league with Northcrest. But he tells Garrett the book is in the House of Blossoms, when really it’s deep inside the Keeper Library under the brothel. Garrett doesn’t remark on Orion’s knowledge of the book’s location at all.
Speaking of the Library – what the hell was that fast-moving thing Garrett notices while solving the stairs puzzle? Looks a bit like a Freak, but doesn’t move like them. It shows up again in Moira and in the underground Graven city. Each time it’s nothing more than something to try and spook the player. Cut content, perhaps? If so, just fucking cut it all out – you can’t dangle something like that in front of us multiple times and never go anywhere with it.
While in Moira – before heading down to the treatment wing – something attacked me. Something that looked invisible but for a shimmer in the air like a mirage. It made clanking and groaning noises, and while I thought it was across the hall, I was mistaken. But when it attacked I was picking a lock. I saw the red flashes indicating damage, the screen faded to black, then Garrett picked himself up from the floor, right where I left off. No need to load a save. It cause me to lose my “take no damage” bonus. Perhaps a glitch due to picking the lock?
Where are all the machines people mention when you overhear conversations about the Baron? Between that and no one seeing him in ages, I expected him to have used the Primal to merge himself with his steampunk-esque contraptions. Figured his estate would be a Victorian mansion overgrown inside by pipes and mechanisms that look just organic enough to be unsettling.
The Queen of Beggars may have been Northcrest’s missing wife. At least one of his letters mentioned her disappearance, and she’s roughly the same age as him. Whether that’s due to the Primal is anyone’s guess.
Speaking of letters – too much of the details of the plot were buried in documents. Seeing as not everyone’s OCD about collectibles, that’s a shitty way to convey your story. It’s fine to include extra details there, but you’ve got to put the main pieces where they’ll be tripped over by most people.
Rope arrow targets made the process of finding your way around The City and missions way too simple. Oh there’s another target – must be something special up there. It also made things more restrictive. One of the fun things about previous Thief games was clever application (and re-use!) of rope arrows.
The map was unforgivably bad. Hopped into a one-room apartment to figure out your next move to avoid pursuing guards? Better remember the city layout, because your map sure as hell won’t help.
A few collectibles were hidden in vases you had to smash, with no indication of their special nature. The only exception that I know of is the Bank Job, where a note somewhere tells you there’s loot in the red vase in the vault. So apparently like Link in some poor schmuck’s house, I’m supposed to smash every pot and vase I see, because they might have Aunt Bertha’s cigarette money inside. Nevermind the fact I’m playing a thief, and smashing pottery makes noise.
This is probably stating the obvious, but Thief was a huge disappointment. The plot was something I’d expect from an early teen who read Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy and decided (s)he could do better. The characters never gave me a reason to care about them, or even enjoy watching them live through the events of the game. The few nods to the previous games didn’t even rise to the level of bad fan service. Not even the ambiance, sneaking mechanics, and level design could make up for everything else.