Thoughts on 2014’s Thief

I have a soft place in my heart for 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project. It was such a different experience from all the other games we were playing back then. I mean, the idea was to AVOID combat! Remarkable! So when we heard the franchise was being rebooted I got pretty excited, but last winter when the new game arrived I didn’t hear much good about it, so I never played it.

This month Sony gave Playstation Plus subscribers the PS3 version of Thief as a freebie so I finally got my chance to play. And y’know what? I liked it. Last night I finished it (my save game said it took about 20 hours but I’d estimate it was more like 25 given how frequently I died and lost a bit of progress).

Thief is broken up into two basic gameplay areas. First there is an open world (a single city) with side missions to do and random apartments and homes to break into for loot. You’ll be riffling through drawers, picking locks, disabling (or springing if you’re not careful) traps and looking for secret switches hidden on picture frames. Anything to get that loot! There’re a few merchants here and there to sell you the tools of your trade. You can buy different kinds of arrows as well as items that (for example) make you more resilient in combat or totally silent while firing a your bow.

You can play around in the open world as much or as little as you like, but to move the narrative forward you have to do Chapters. Each chapter takes place in a self-contained area, and this is what makes Thief so exciting. Since you can only carry a very limited amount of supplies you have to be judicious in how you use them. There were several times where I beat an encounter (basically I messed up, alerted the guards and had to fight them) but used up so many of my supplies that I reloaded because I was worried I wouldn’t have enough stuff to get through the chapter. You only have a single save slot to use in these chapters so you really have to be careful. While you can scrounge some supplies by searching the environment in chapters, these found resources are few and far between. Some of the longer chapters do have a vendor tucked away, as well.

Garret, the character you play, has a pseudo-magic ability called Focus that gives him special vision that highlights hidden items, and makes him more bad-ass in combat. You can also buy or earn Focus Points that let you beef up abilities like lockpicking or combat skills. Focus depletes as you use it but eating poppies (!?) replenishes it. Health goes down as well and you’ve got food to bring that level back up

So what’s good about Thief? Well the minute-to-minute gameplay still feels like a different experience from most of the games we play. Since you’re playing the titular thief, your strengths lie in sneaking around, not in combat. Each chapter is kind of like a giant puzzle or maze. You know where you have to go (the game always gives you an indicator) but not exactly how to get there. You need to figure out a route based on both architecture and guards. Architecturally there’s lots of climbing over walls and crawling through vents and tunnels. You can deal with the guards either by taking them out of avoiding them.

It’s pretty easy to kill an unsuspecting guard with an arrow through the head, but there are a lot more guards than you have arrows in any given chapter. You can sneak up behind them and take them out with a blackjack too, which is probably how you’ll deal with most of the guards, unless you’re patient and stealthy enough to avoid them altogether. Guards often travel in pairs or remain in the line of sight of other guards, and if a guard sees one of his comrades taken out he’ll immediately come after you, calling for anyone else in the area to come help. If you’re feeling really cocky you can pickpocket the guards and then sneak away.

The environment is awfully good too. The city sits on the precipice of modern times; some houses have electric lights but many places are still lit by torches and candles. You can pinch out candles and quench torches with water arrows to create the darkness you need to get your work done. The city is is bad shape; a disease called The Gloom is taking its toll and you get the feeling the infrastructure is collapsing. The city is ruled by The Baron and angry mobs are starting to form at the start of the game. And there is fog and mist everywhere. You should play Thief in a dark room because it’s very atmospheric.

I have to admit I’d get really pulled into this game when I was downstairs playing alone. Even though it’s not really a horror game I was really scared or creeped out a few times. If I was playing while Angela was in the room chatting with me it didn’t have quite the same hold on me. So yeah, turn out the lights, send the family to bed and let it draw you in. I’d also suggest avoiding marathon Thief sessions since it can start to feel kind of oppressive if you play for too long.

So what’s bad about Thief? Well it feels like it isn’t quite finished. There’re a lot of rough spots. For instance NPCs that roam the city are often heard talking or muttering something, but there’s not nearly enough lines of dialog for them, so you hear them say the same stuff over and over and over again. Sometimes a few of them will be reciting the same complaint about the same thing in chorus. There are non-interactive cut scenes that feel like they replaced some kind of interactive sequence at the last moment. They tend to feel very thrown-together and on the PS3 at least, stutter a lot. (There are other cut-scenes that are much more polished and that seem like they belong.) The sound doesn’t work very well. You should be able to locate someone by listening to their voice but sound seems to travel through walls just as easily as it travels through air.

But the worst thing about Thief is the ending, which I couldn’t make heads or tales of. The background lore of the city is pretty amazing but the actual story being told kind of unravels towards the end and after the closing credits rolled I just scratched my head in bewilderment. There are also big questions that are never answered. For instance near the start of the game Garret loses a year of his life. Where was he? It’s never really explained though there are clues if you search certain areas enough.

There’s also not enough game to support all the character development opportunities. For instance I mentioned you can purchase focus points. I never bothered with that and never felt a need to. Few of the upgrades felt like they were needed, in fact.

And on controversial point. I remember reading a lot of complaints about the behavior of the guards. If they spot you they’ll chase you, but if you find a hiding place they’ll give up and go back to patrolling, telling themselves they must have run you off. They’ll even do this if you just put an arrow through the head of one of their comrades. This certainly isn’t realistic but honestly I thought it was OK since this IS a game after all. If the guards were too determined in finding you most gamers would just load up a saved game when they were spotted. I find it’s actually more fun to find a cabinet or hidey-hole to duck into.

Bottom line, I thought Thief was a good, but certainly not a great, game. I’m glad I played through it. After you complete the story you can continue to play in the open world part, or even replay chapters to try to beat challenges the game sets out for you. I didn’t like it enough to do any of that. Definitely a one and done game for me. But I liked it enough that if they ever do a sequel I’ll give it a chance.

You can get Thief pretty cheap now. If we were back in the launch window and it was $60 I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you can catch it on sale for $20 or so I think it’s worth playing. And if you still have your PS3 and a PS+ subscription it’s DEFINITELY worth downloading and playing for free.