Eidos Montreal's Thief is the long-awaited resurrection of the series that many consider to be the grandaddy of first-person stealth. The original Thief by Looking Glass in 1998 broke FPS stereotypes in boldly going against the popular action established by titles such as Duke Nukem 3D and Quake II. When I heard that a new Thief was being made, I looked forward to taking a trip to the City to ground myself in its shadowy alleys and see what's changed.
This is a very different City and a different Garrett. Eidos Montreal's take pays little lip service to its predecessors. There's the occasional passing reference to places like Auldale and the Trickster, and there are stronger allusions later in the game, but Garrett doesn't go out of his way to reminisce about them. This can be off-putting to longtime fans.
Beginning a new game gives the player a lot of options. Difficulty is permanently set and can't be changed once the game starts, so I went in with Master, which raised resource expenses while making guards more attentive. Also, I couldn't knock out civilians, which would result in an instant fail, but I could still knock out guards — as long as I didn't kill them. Guards are also particularly dogged when they pursue you, if not in the streets of the City, then in the nearly claustrophobic mansions, watch offices, and homes you might find yourself in later.
Beyond this are custom options, which consist of more tweaks that can add points toward a leaderboard ranking. Players can eliminate use of the Focus power by creating a mode that restricts saves to the start of every chapter for missions. There are no manual saves, so get ready to restart that mission or chapter if you screw up.
The rather haphazard story starts off with Garrett doing what he does best: finding himself in a place where he's not invited while the owner quietly snoozes a few feet away. The prologue runs the player through the basics while introducing them to Erin, who apparently likes to kill first and ask questions later, going against Garrett's sensibilities. She's also his partner on the latest job to steal a magic stone from Baron Northcrest. Things go tragically — and explosively — wrong, and when things pick up again, Garrett discovers that a year has passed since he last saw Erin. He has no memory of what happened in that year. Before long, Garrett is drawn into a plot that eventually plunges him headfirst into the truth of what happened that night.
The City is still a miserable locale that's brimming with steampunk technology. The medieval Watch is more than happy to deal with anyone for looking at them the wrong way. It's also in the throes of a plague known only as "the Gloom," which might remind some of Dishonored, though Thief takes place exclusively at night, without as many people around.
Much like its original predecessor, fighting anyone is often a losing proposition. Garrett's no Corvo Attano or Ezio Auditore; he's a thief with a few fancy moves meant for leaping over rooftops and scaling walls. Thief's major focus has always been on stealth, and Eidos Montreal's reboot hasn't forgotten that.
The glowing gem, which was an indicator in past games of Garrett's status, has been replaced with a small moon. Black clouds obscure it when Garrett is entrenched in darkness, and it becomes a full moon when he's bathed in candle- or lamplight. Guards, if they're nearby, also react to lights switched off in their presence or torches being doused with a water arrow. They don't wonder too much about why a previously lit hallway is now dark, or whether their buddy on patrol might have disappeared. Many areas also provide excuses to avoid sticking to obvious avenues, such as vents, rafters, piping, or even a secret passage or two. There's a lot here for stealth fans to appreciate.
Garrett has a new trick, Focus, which has a power gauge that's replenished with poppy flowers. As long as there's Focus energy to burn, it highlights things that Garrett can interact with, immediately spots dangerous traps, or slows time to make it easier to pick locks or target enemies. It's a bit of magic that's new in the game, though it's entirely possible to play without using it.
Garrett's clock tower hideaway serves as the central hub from which players can explore the city, pick locks, reach places filled with loot, and empty people's pockets. Special collectibles are also on display at his hideaway. Though it takes the sandbox approach to roaming, some sections of the city aren't available until the story moves further along.
Glimmer Lane reeks of lost causes, bars are filled with drunkards, and homes are overrun with the clutter of lives spent in perpetual struggle. At the highest detail settings, the City has never looked better, and spending hours exploring its corners, vents and windows was one of my guilty pleasures. Luc St-Pierre's soundtrack also matches the decrepit beauty of the City. Unfortunately, not every area has as many thieving opportunities, even with this much detail.
Missions are divided into three types: main campaign, side missions from your fence (Basso), and client jobs from two NPCs. Basso's jobs mostly require search and retrieval, so Garrett must reach a specific location and find what he needs. Garrett only fills his pockets to buy black market goods, from arrows to trinkets that bestow passive bonuses. There's not much else that he spends his wealth on, but the variety of his extracurricular activities lies in the variety of the challenges that these jobs present to the player.
Client jobs are more involved and are treated like separate missions that require more creativity and puzzle-solving skills. Client jobs also tend to have better payouts, especially if you fulfill optional objectives, such as avoiding discovery, and they're worth taking on to see the degree of creativity worked into the open-ended approaches. One of the earliest client jobs requires finding a mechanical hand for a client, but the place is currently being shaken down by a gang. Whether you choose to swoop in like a ghost and back out, or take the time to blackjack everyone into unconsciousness after coming through the front door is in the player's hands. Another involved a house with moving walls. It's too bad there are only so many of these missions available.
Getting around Thief reminded me a lot of Splash Damage's Brink from 2011, and unfortunately, that's a bit too overprotective. It doesn't give the player much credit for being able to think for themselves when navigating the sumptuous environment. Everything's contextual, from mantling over surfaces to deciding when and where you can jump over which obstacles. After so many hours, I got tired of having to break out of cover every time the mechanics thought I wanted to stick myself behind a crate instead of picking up the random loot on top.
Garrett can't even step over many edges over a certain height to drop down to something below without some prodding from the spacebar. Other smaller things added up over the course of the game, whether it was forcing Garrett to gently lay down a body after knocking it out (instead of giving the player options) or being unable to hide the body inside a closet right next to him. After 20 hours of this, one feels the Master Thief's actions are attached to invisible training wheels.
Lock-picking was surprisingly bland and felt like a huge missed opportunity to do something special. Over the years since Deadly Shadows, a number of others utilized this mechanism, from Oblivion to fan-made Thief tribute, The Dark Mod. Even if you go back to SSI's Hillsfar from '89 with its cabaret of lockpicks, figuring out how to inject fun into teasing tumblers has had a long, colorful history. Thief adds little to that beyond almost screaming for a gamepad. After 10 hours of sweeping my mouse around and fiddling with my keyboard over this mechanic, I became bored and wanted to do something else.
A slew of technical issues also break the atmosphere into something of a fun park that's in need of maintenance. Spoken lines in the streets between NPCs occasionally came off as if they were in personal echo chambers. Triggering some of these conversations and then backing out across some invisible line sometimes resulted in the AI skipping its internal record, resulting in the NPC trying to talk over itself.
Sometimes, NPCs walk into walls and get stuck, miss a door by walking into the wall next to it, refuse to walk through certain doors, or simply stare at each other because the conversation that was supposed to occur didn't.
Providing a break from the main campaign are challenge modes that are set up around two maps: Northcrest Manor and the House of Blossoms. The third, Moira Asylum, is purchased separately.
Chain & Gain is a speedrun to collect as much loot as possible in a short amount of time to continue your scoring chain. This must be done while avoiding the guards and traps that are still set up around the map. Special Loot Hunt places a special piece of loot somewhere on the map, and players need to find within the time limit, though they can also snag smaller pieces of loot. Chain & Gain Limited places a hard time limit on your loot chain, so it becomes even more of a race to snag as many as possible.
The challenge modes also have leaderboard support. These were great distractions from the main campaign, though only having two maps available and a small number of modes is a little disappointing. Still, I had a lot of fun trying to find out how quickly I could pickpocket my way through the maps, improve my score, and challenge myself to do better.
Despite the severe blemishes on its hardened leather, Thief relishes in letting you sneak about, unravel puzzles to grab hard-to-find collectables, and exploring what's out there. The basics comprise most of the fun in this stealthy sandbox, especially for someone who enjoys taking their time in planning routes, figuring out clues, and lifting as much stuff as possible without being seen. The game says I clocked 12 hours of playtime, though it doesn't count all of the restarts and fails, which actually put me closer to 30 hours or so.
Stealth-wise, Thief pulls off a fantastic job, especially at a higher difficulty level and with many of the HUD options turned off. On the other hand, it's not quite as bold as the original was in breaking new ground, and it weighs down what it does well with padded mechanics and a slew of technical problems.
Longtime fans might find the new take on Garrett hard to swallow. Thief's thin story doesn't explain much in the end when it tops things off, but I enjoyed the time spent in the City. I wouldn't mind revisiting for another go in Garrett's shoes, but I hope that by then, some of the training wheels will have been removed.
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