First things first: the 2014 release of Thief is actually the fourth instalment of the cult stealth series by the same name. Only, it’s a reboot of the original series, and while fans of the previous Thief games can expect to resurrect their gameplay as Garret, the slate has been wiped clean and he has a new back story.
The story opens with Garret the master thief with his apprentice/partner Erin in a prologue, which puts you right in the thick of the excitement. You are catapulted into a heist that is a sort of tutorial, teaching you how to control Garret, to make him run, jump, climb, sneak and, of course, steal. The major objective is learning how to stay hidden, use shadows and stay silent. By the end of the prologue, Garret has stolen Erin’s ‘claw’, an instrument that helps her scale high walls, while Erin herself falls through a glass roof right into the middle a strange ritual that is taking place, and she’s presumed dead.
The story unfolds as the chapters commence. Garret, having returned to The City after a period of time, finds that it is being terrorized by the evil Baron, while being in the throes of a deadly plague called the Gloom, which is killing off its less fortunate residents. A lockdown is in place, while a rebellion simmers. Garret’s hub is the Clock Tower, from where he starts his missions or sets out to explore The City. The gameplay progresses in the form of chapters, peppered with a number of side missions. While in the former you find out more about the Baron, the plague and what really happened to Erin, the side missions help you make some extra cash to purchase upgrades and weapons to keep yourself sharp. As for the main story, truth be told, it isn’t terribly exciting and I lost track of it after a point.
Thief is a brilliantly immersive environment. The City, with its alleys and backstreets, houses and shops, is a joy to explore—until, that is, you get sick of going up and down the same lanes and tunnels. Garret can not only sneak about at street level, but also climb on to roofs, walls and various other conveniently placed ledges and parapets, go through houses, and in some cases swing across using a rope arrow. The lighting effects are fantastic, the dark, gloomy atmosphere just perfect. There are places where the non-playing characters get stuck in a dialogue loop, repeating the same things ad nauseum, which is annoying, but you learn to ignore it.
The sneaking about is fantastic, even though in many places the more fancy stealth-work needs you to work with predetermined routes. For example, the rope arrows can only be used in specific places. Another example is Garret’s cat-like agility, but which comes into use in a few predetermined situations, where he nimbly shimmies up pipes and ledges, and more or less climbs up the side of a building or structure. Even getting on to rooftops and parapets is limited. It would have been great if it was a fully open-ended world, but perhaps that’s too much to ask for in terms of graphics. There is a map provided to aid in navigation, but the annoying part is that it is broken up into numerous locations, so you need to get used to load screens. There are times when getting from one part of the city to the other is a tad painful, having to endure all the map sections and numerous load screens.
Garret, apart from his bordering-on-the-superhuman agility, also possesses something called Focus power. It’s rather like Instinct in Hitman: Absolution, letting him intensify his senses. Focus helps Garret pick up on loot as well as places of interest, spot traps and slow down time. Focus also goes some way in helping pick locks faster, but I never needed to use it. You can run out of Focus pretty fast, so it helps to be prudent with it, at least in the beginning. The Swoop power lets Garret get from cover to cover in double-quick time, but for some reason it didn’t work for me.
I played at the ‘normal’ difficulty level, called Thief, in which the AI was alternately extremely stupid and incredibly challenging. Arguably the most difficult level was Chapter 5: The Forsaken, which takes you to the Moira Asylum in search of answers about what happened to Erin. Apart from being supremely creepy, this is also the level when your deal with non-human ‘enemies’—the Freaks. They are sensitive to sound, but can’t see you, so you can get past them if you are extremely quiet, which is difficult given the environment, which is strewn with glass shards that crunch under your feed. They are also deadly in a melee so engaging them in combat is foolhardy. Figuring out how to defeat them is part of the fun, but don’t play this chapter in the dead of the night when you’re alone in the house (I did, and regretted it).
If you’re looking for a game that features non-stop action, Thief is not going to be your cup of tea. Unlike various other stealth-based games, Hitman and Deus Ex come to mind, where stealth is just one of your strategies, here waiting, watching and creeping about is the whole point of the game. Combat is possible, but quite difficult, almost impossible with multiple attackers. Most of the time, you find yourself lurking in the shadows, waiting for exactly that right moment to slip past a couple of unsuspecting guards. Using the shadows is rather nifty, though aided to a great extent by the light ‘orb’ on the corner of your screen that lets you know if you’re visible to those around you. The exhilaration of crouching just inches away from a passing guard or sneaking up behind an unsuspecting quarry and silently picking their pocket is quite something else.
That said, the gameplay feels repetitive after a while and the story just isn’t exciting enough. I love stealth games and I loved Thief, but not enough to play it all the way through to the end. Will I go back to it some day? Yes, definitely!