I’m going to start this review by totally discrediting myself as a gamer. Prior to the newest iteration of Thief (Xbox One), I had never played a game in the series. A mark of shame? Maybe, but it helps me look at the game in a way many reviewers apparently can’t.
If you check out the critic/fan opinions on Metacritic you’ll see why I say this. A lot of people don’t like it because it apparently isn’t as good as its namesake.
I don’t know if that’s true – any time an old-school franchise reboots itself, some OG players are going to complain – but I do know the new Thief offers a fun, if flawed, gameplay experience as a standalone piece of software, and that’s coming from someone who usually can’t stand stealth-based games.
Fun, fast stealth gameplay
As a horribly impatient person, stealth games usually aren’t for me. I only enjoy a handful of titles in the genre, mostly because I hate sitting around and waiting on guards to move to their next post, reloading 30,000 times trying to totally avoid detection, etc.
In other words, I’m not very good at them.
Thief is a lot different in that respect. By the time the tutorial finished, I felt competent behind the gloves of “master thief” Garrett, thanks in large part to the excellent gameplay design.
Even with the huge amount of tools and tricks at Garrett’s disposal, the amount of info the game throws at you is never overwhelming, and the control scheme almost never gets in the way.
That’s important because, unlike many other games with a first person perspective (FPS), Thief more often than not discourages direct confrontation.
While you could (mostly) go through the game with a typical FPS mindset, bashing your enemies with clubs and piercing them with arrows, you’d be missing the point – not to mention all the awesome rewards you get for taking the sneaky route.
That means more in-game goods and more content, given the insane number of side routes developer Eidos Montreal has included for stealth-minded players.
Let’s look at a typical (and hypothetical) in-game scenario to illustrate my point.
You need to enter a building, but guards flank the entry: Two at the door, another patrolling the courtyard, and a crossbow sniper in a tower above you. When you try to sneak around back, you find the area covered by another guard and a few caged dogs who’ll bark the second you move too close.
What do you do? What do you do?
Melodrama aside, there are several solutions to your burglarising woes. You might, for instance, knock the dogs out with a gas arrow and concuss the guard with a well-placed club to the back of his skull.
You could shoot water arrows at the torches up front, confusing the guards and giving you all kinds of cover to run to the front. There might even be a hidden vent shaft or a wall so low you can scurry up its face.
With all those options (and more) at your disposal, it’d be silly to fight everyone head-on, even if you have a chance of surviving the encounter.
Graphically, I suspect the game will date a little faster than most of the early current-gen titles we’re seeing. Non-player character animations can be… clunky, and character models are repetitive and bland on top of that.
Things are also ridiculously dark, which is – to some degree – necessary for stealth games, but overdone in this instance. In fact, it’s so dark I couldn’t film my TV screen without significant blur/distortion/general ugliness.
Most everywhere else, the game does a great job. If you’ve ever played Mirror’s Edge – and if you haven’t, you should – imagine free-running through a dark city set in a cyberpunk/medieval universe and you’ll see much of the visual charm.
Backgrounds are richly detailed, with unique environments that stick well to the overall theme.
Other aspects of gameplay aren’t directly related to the graphics but still visual in nature. For instance, I very much enjoyed the head-bobbing effect that comes with running and the frequent use of Garrett’s hands in gameplay animations, two subtle touches that help build a rich sense of immersion.
A grinder’s dream
Gold does it all in the Thief universe. Everything you steal is directly converted to the currency, which can then be used to purchase supplies, upgrade gear and buy skill points.
Again, we see the game offering alternatives to direct violence: Whether you kill a guard to steal his money or just pick his pockets, you get the same amount of ‘experience’.
A lot of the game’s challenge comes from sneaking into hard-to-reach places to further fatten your wallet. Giving experience for killing guards would only up the incentive to murder them, especially in more difficult sneaking situations. Instead, you’re given extra stuff based on how well you play – whether your play style leans towards skulking in the shadows, split-second timing or killing everything that moves.
The bad stuff
The game’s load times stink. Because of that, I really hate how the overworld is split into sections. It breaks some of the immersion I was talking about earlier and can be super, super annoying when you have to travel between areas to accomplish a goal or buy supplies/upgrades.
If the screens were shorter, it wouldn’t be a big issue. As it sits, they’re frequent and long enough to be irritating nearly every time they appear.
A lot of reviews slam the game’s level design. I personally loved all but a handful of the environments (once they’d loaded), but did note how claustrophobic things could get, a common complaint among bad reviews.
A little more open space would have been nice. So would more entrances/exits to critical areas, like the alley the first black market dealer appears in early in the game.
Forcing players to walk all the way around an area to reach one remote, one-way entry point is a World of Warcraft-era tactic that needs to die.
Worth your time
Is Thief as good as the games that spawned the series? I don’t know, because I haven’t played them. I can, however, say the Xbox One version is pretty darn good as a standalone title.
Square Enix has done some good things with their acquisition of Eidos and their properties – this game, in my opinion, is almost as good as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, another classic from the dev/publisher combo.
If you like newer Eidos titles, give Thief a go. If you’re a big fan of the overall series, give it a go… but rent it somewhere first if you can. In a new console cycle dominated by military shooters, it’s nice to get behind the eyes of someone who would rather avoid killing if he could. Fortunately, the gameplay here is good enough to back up the concept.
Lead image via Xbox One