We’re surprised to find that the very first action committed in Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot is the felonious act of larceny itself. Frankly, we expected an opening with a few more frills attached. Why else would the title have suffered the ignominy of a protracted development period if not to reinvigorate the franchise with all the trimmings that have come to define the modern action-adventure game? Where are the guns? The explosive setpieces? What about the awkwardly incongruous boss battles?
What few of these systems appear present in the final design are restrained: free-running that seemingly snags on every jutting plank, a ‘Focus’ mode that reveals the secrets of your surroundings and the so-hot-right-now bow clasped inside the brooding protagonist’s left fist. From a superficial perspective it at least looks the part. But purists will be pleased to hear that such popular mechanics have been pushed into the background in favour of its lineage’s staunch stealth approach; everyone else will lament a reboot clinging too closely to the antiquated ideals of its origin.
Set in the putrefying streets of The City, returning not-quite-a-gaming icon Garrett abruptly awakens a year after a tragic incident endowed with a suite of supernatural powers thanks to an ethereal force known as The Primal. Determined to discover the truth behind the calamitous event Garrett must delve deeper into the lives of the native aristocracy who hold the answers he seeks – a convenient trail that has plenty of loot to be plundered en route. This makes Garrett the worst kind of conflicted anti-hero. Perennially haunted by visions of his past and doggedly in pursuit of the men behind his treachery, the urgency to resolve his internal
struggle is undermined by his willingness to half-inch every gleaming artefact within the vicinity, not to mention his unwavering, almost pacifistic moral code.
It’s less of a problem for those that eagerly anticipated a return to hardline stealth gameplay as much as it is for people who have grown to appreciate delicately crafted narratives and deft characterisation. Thief is a title featuring a story destined to be off- handily dismissed as being ‘gamey’; the worse kind of convoluted and self-important drivel that at best is bearable and at worst draws attention away from its merits. Furthermore, it struggles to make its narrative feel even remotely tangible. The City itself is a lifeless husk, scarcely populated – its residences almost always completely vacant – a problem compounded by the fact that there’s barely a notable landmark outside of the clock tower to differentiate each district from one another.
We’re told that there’s a plague-like disease known as ‘The Gloom’ affecting the population in the background of a political upheaval primed to spark a civil rebellion. We witness a hanging, hear the murmurings of a few locals, but you rarely get the sense that this is a world descending into ruin. You rarely get the sense that this is a world at all. It’s perhaps telling that eidos Montreal held back so often from declaring Thief an open- world game. The City is a hub, one that is awkwardly divided into several areas that can be reached (and then loaded) by various means. While not a hugely sprawling setting, it’s big enough to become disorientating and the lack of an accessible waypoint system is a frustration when you’re trying to track down the shopkeeper to restock supplies.
Unsurprisingly, this is a bit of an issue when the process of upgrading and replenishing your arsenal is the fundamental purpose of pilfering items for cash value. even stranger is that this progression system hinges so much on combat enhancements when the game hostilely discourages this approach to gameplay. You have an attack button (swinging the non-lethal Blackjack) but it’s ineffective outside of straight one-on-one brawls and you’re limited supply of arrows makes it impossible to neutralise threats from afar without alerting other guards on watch. Without the notion of combat as a feasible alternative to stealth, it soon begins to pull apart Thief ’s central conceit.
There’s a transparent illusion of freedom at work that lacks a careful design to fully convince. While this is fairly obvious and somewhat forgivable in the layout of The City hub – the parkour-style free running is disappointingly and often fatally limited to very specific pathways – the lack of autonomy in the missions themselves is less excusable.
Most of the eight chapters start the same. You’re placed somewhere along the boundaries of an estate with a dishonourable goal to trespass and pinch a specific item. A few routes are available at this juncture, but the true path feels linear – the rest just detours for more plundering, or to provide a distraction to patrolling guards. The best example is during the ransacking of a brothel, eavesdropping on a conversation revealed that the nearby opium supplies could be tampered with and therefore cause mass syncopy.
It worked too, furtively exploring the surroundings for a vent that lead through to the control panel that, with a snip from Garrett’s wire cutters, causes the opium to permeate and poison the entire establishment (except for Garrett, for some reason). But this is a rare glimpse into a more emergent and ambitious experience that Thief fails to fully commit itself to.
It’s a problem that it seems more preoccupied in disciplining players into the ‘correct’ way to play Thief rather than adapting to an individual’s playstyle, or even widening its design document to encompass more variation and diversity in how to approach each new chapter. After the likes of Dishonored and even Hitman Absolution demonstrated to varying degrees of success a balancing act between stealth and action in a malleable game world, Thief defiantly shucks progressiveness in favour of a wiry reinterpretation of the original trilogy’s achievements.
At least in that regard Thief excels. The mechanics that serve as the basis for Garrett’s stealth antics have been given due attention and you soon learn that speed, sound and touch each contribute to whether or not you can successfully evade detection in each mission. With what is in truth a limited array of abilities at your disposal, stealth is a case of sticking to the shadows, creeping along corridors and studying the surroundings for opportunities to slowly progress. With so few systems at play, it doesn’t take long to get to grips with the essence of Thief and there’s certainly a compulsiveness to searching every last linen closet and bedside table for misplaced trinkets to add to your expanding gold reserve.
More tempting is the stash of collectable items located in both The City itself and concealed behind revolving bookcases and veiled safes – often part of a more elaborate puzzle to solve. Much like Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex reboot, many of the more interesting story elements come from incidental notes left around the environment and these serve to both flesh out supporting characters as well as scatter breadcrumbs towards a greater prize usually hidden behind a revolving bookcase or beneath an ornate painting. And there’s certainly a greater satisfaction in discovering a shopkeeper has been hawking fake jewellery out his shop window while storing away the real deal in a concealed safe downstairs.
And that almost encompasses why Thief is at its best when it’s doing exactly what it says on the tin. It can’t hide the repetitiveness of its template but in the simple act of silently snooping and investigating every corner of the world, while circumventing every enemy, there’s a brilliantly tense, gratifying experience that Eidos Montreal sadly struggles to sustain over the eight hours of gameplay – resorting to cheap enemy types and crushing linearity.
A success then for fans of a game made a decade ago, but Thief’s reach exceeds its grasp by some margin and an opportunity to revive a beloved property with renewed relevance has been sorely missed. If it had a few more ideas (or even stolen a few) then this could’ve been less of an uninspired remake and something truly worth getting your hands on.