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Thief Review

Thief Review

This is a series that has been on hiatus for too long. Like many other long fans who have held their breath since the mixed bag but IMHO overly hated Dark Shadows, the news of a new Thief game was at first met with jubilation and then as media and details came forth a sense of caution and concerns on certain details. Some of these concerns were well warranted as we have ourselves another mixed bag of a Thief game.

I think there’s some hate out there that is extremely overblown. I have seen some reviews that also go to another extreme of absolutely gushing although they are in the minority and I regretfully join in on said gushing as much as I wish I could.

From wikipedia:

“Most reviewers have been praising its stealth gameplay, level design, graphics, and replay value, but criticizing its map layout, technical issues, and story.”

That is my review summed up in a nutshell as well. Exactly right and I will be no exception. You can see the slew of mixed reviews out there and taken all in its totality you can get the picture.

Thief Screenshot 01

GRAPHICS:

Unreal Engine 3.  In the year 2014. Why are we still seeing this dinosaur? It’s amazing how much mileage it’s gotten and what developer can get out of it, but still. Where’s Id Tech 4? Where’s Frostbite? Time to move on, folks!

I continue to be pleasantly surprised and amazed at just how much some developers have been able to squeeze out of this old gal and this game is no exception.  It’s a high textured Dishonored at first glance although the art deco retro look is gone and the rule of thumb is lots of grim darkness and really good looking shadows.  This is not a Dishonored clone. Lots of shadows are a nice artistic cheat and it works. With the eye candy turned up there’s plenty of nice high-resolution detail to be seen on loot, furniture, signs, and other structures in the world.

The key word for this game’s look is: Oppressive. Grim. Dark. The game excels at putting the player in a grim and oppressive place that’s loaded with sickness and despair and it works in spades. It gets under your skin.

Here is a far more in-depth breakdown of PC graphics options and performance for this game. I would recommend keeping an eye on this link and also keeping a look out for any follow-up articles.:

The Victorian, goth, and steampunk influences are very clear and distinct. It’s a good-looking game for such a grim and oppressive environment. Lighting and shadows are particularly impressive.

Thief Screenshot 02

PERFORMANCE:

It’s an Unreal Engine 3 game (I can’t believe we’re still seeing this) so PC gamers should know by now all the old .ini file tricks for any number of Unreal 3 based games in the past. Try your tricks again here. Try these: http://forums.thedarkmod.com/topic/16001-thief-4-tweaks-fixes/     Any stray issues people have will be solved by the suggestions in that link.

PC is the only place to be able to play at 60fps for this title which I find surprising given the hardware that the XB1 and especially PS4 have.  If you look around you’ll see the console versions are all capped at 30fps and some other nonsense like that. For a game like this it isn’t as big of a deal as it would be for a fast paced FPS but it’s still an issue worth mentioning. The game scales wonderfully and runs smooth as butter.

People with a myriad of hardware configurations up and down the ladder should have no problems getting this game to play nice and look nice. The biggest graphics hog is SSAA.  That’s an easy law of diminishing returns setting you can pull back on if you have to and still run high on just about everything else.  An Unreal 3 engine game is not going to break anyone’s back in 2014.

Thief Screenshot 03

 AUDIO:

Excellent sound design potentially that is presently plagued by some glitches. Inconsistent NPC voice placement and volume being the primary culprit. Sometimes there will be dialog overrunning other dialog although let’s face it: That happens in real life sometimes when people talk over other people. The NPC volume can be inconsistent. Sometimes an NPC can be two rooms away and the voice will sound like it’s right next to you. NPC audio can tend to loop as well.

That’s a shame because if they fix those glitches the overall sound design can be excellent. Sound is absolutely critical in a game like this and as of this writing these unfortunate glitches have yet to be fully fixed so I’m forced to mark my review down accordingly on such a critical element of a stealth game being compromised thusly.

The music is functional and has some moments that stand out depending on the situation. It’s an excellent companion to the dark, grim, and oppressive visuals. There was enough to the music that I liked that I’m glad the Master Thief version came with some sample tracks and I may consider popping $10 for the full soundtrack at some point down the road.

The voice acting was largely forgettable but functional. Flat. If I had to sum it up in one word I would call it “decent.”

Thief Screenshot 04

 STORY:

Garret returns home to “The City” to find it overrun by a cruel Baron and riddled with plague. The few rich live in protected isolation and the poor are becoming a growing unsettled populace. This is the backdrop for the plot of the game. The summary of the plot mostly spoiler free from Wikipedia is as follows:

 “The story begins when Garrett is paired with his former apprentice, Erin, who both ended up accepting the same job from Basso, a man who has many connections within The City’s underworld and is one of Garrett’s only friends. When Erin kills one of the guards that could have easily been knocked out, Garrett scolds her for killing, stating that they only kill when they have to. Erin responds by telling Garrett that he and she have different rules that they follow and that she no longer needs his help. Garrett then steals Erin’s claw, which she frequently uses to climb to places not normally reachable, without her noticing, thinking that she has been relying on it too much. They arrive at their job’s location, the manor, and find a ritual taking place. As they are watching the ritual from the roof, Garrett gets a bad feeling and says that the job is over, Erin disagrees and continues on anyway. As she is about to sneak into the manor, suddenly the glass cracks from the ritual and her weight and she falls, managing to only hang on to Garrett’s arm as he tries to save her. Erin, noticing that her claw is missing, panics and tells Garrett to give her the claw so that she can save herself from falling. As Garrett tries to reach for the claw to save her, further shaking causes him to drop Erin who falls into the center of the ritual, which was nearing its completion. Erin stops and floats in mid-air as she is surrounded by the ritual’s energy, killing her. Garrett, while looking down at the light, has part of the stone that was used for the ritual embedded in his eye which then begins to glow. Soon after, he passes out and wakes up a year later with amnesia.

The story is set several hundreds of years after the events of the original series in the same universe (clues to the backstory are hidden among documents, plaques, and letters). The original master thief Garrett’s (known as the legendary master Sneak Thief) iconic Mechanical Eye is one of the hidden Unique Loots in the game (and can be found inside of a prison complex he apparently failed to escape).[15][16] Other iconic factions such as the Keepers[17] and Hammerites[18] and other old gods have been outlawed, and now lie in ruins throughout the city and beneath. [19][20]”

This several hundred years later concept is one that I had honestly forgotten until I started playing the game. For some reason I just assumed Garrett was Garrett and that was it. The best way to describe this is a soft reboot. That gap in time gave the developers some latitude (excuses?) on narrative choices or lack thereof depending on what you are looking at.

Like others I feel the narrative could have been much stronger and more compelling and the fairly clichéd supernatural element tossed on top of things doesn’t help it, either. I’d say the story execution is fairly bland but serviceable. It’s not the end of the world because ultimately it’s just an excuse to have you in this world playing a pretty darned good stealth game.

The narrative is inconsistent and largely forgettable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say incoherent but the Thief games typically have strong and more cohesive narrative than what this game has so this is an area where the game falls short of the series legacy. The story is largely a glorified backdrop and excuse to throw you back “into the game” as it were and get to thieving, looting, and stealthing and that was just fine by me.

Thief Screenshot 05

GAMEPLAY:

Comparisons to the excellent game Dishonored are unavoidable. Make no mistake: Dishonored is a considerably superior game to this in every single respect.  The only thing this game has over Dishonored would arguably be graphics and higher resolution textures.  The other game that has been mentioned in passing has been Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Please. It’s not even close. DX:HR easily eclipses this game across the boards.

I can’t stress enough that people need to hit this menu and dial in things the way they want them to be to get the most out of this game. A lot of the complaints I’ve seen can be addressed to some degree or another right here. Granted the game has some inherent weaknesses and flaws that can’t be overcome by menus but this goes some ways.

It may seem like a crutch and probably is to a point but at least for the first playthrough: Use Focus. It’ll save you a nice amount of needless time on searching and potential tedium.

Central map can be confusing and leaves something to be desired. Characters are flat for the most part.

The AI is not Einstein but at higher difficulties it starts showing you an edge. It’s respectable. My first playthrough has been on normal difficulty and I thought it was nice challenge.

For people who play on Master with everything flipped to hardest settings? You will earn serious bragging rights because that’s TOUGH. Frankly it’s a setup for tedium and frustration.  Make no mistake about it. Gameplay length is highly variable and there is a very nice replay value which helps this game immensely.

A weird glitch here and there may happen where a guard can stock near a wall but overall they react the way they should.  I am happy with the AI in this game.

When you get the timing down, swoop is great. Swoop is basically Garrett’s bad ass ninja ability. You can dash quickly for about 15 feet invisibly.

Unfortunate inconsistencies in level design and ability exist. Sometimes you see areas that you really should be able to jump or traverse and you simply can’t. Sometimes you can drop off a ledge…sometimes you have to press a button… bizarre and occasional inconsistencies like that.

Thief Screenshot 06

I’m going to address some of the typical complaint and hater talking points here and hopefully it will be useful to folks. At least it will make for a little different kind of reading if nothing else.

“Just finished the game. I played on the Master level.”

I would not recommend this for the initial playthrough for anyone including the most awesome of Thief veterans. Why? It isn’t about your skill. It’s about dealing with this game’s personality.

I recommend everyone set the game to Custom and tweak things more specifically to their liking per the link at the beginning of this segment of the review. I highly recommend having Focus enabled for at least the initial playthrough to simply have certain capabilities that will spare you a lot of needless wasted time on searching and other tedium.

“A single sneaky Thief level. One of the levels early in the game (I won’t say which) was VERY Thiefy, and actually had me hoping the rest of the game would turn out like it.”

I have no idea what this person was talking about here. I hate to employ a cliché like this but: Maybe they were playing it wrong.  Again, that’s not a remark against a person’s gaming ability but it is a remark against the game’s strengths and weaknesses and not fully understanding them.

Understand that this game excels at one thing: Stealth. You do not want to go action platformer or wannabe Assassin’s Creed in this game for any reason at any time. It stinks and it’s discouraged immensely. Truth be told that has always been the case in this series. That’s the point. You are a thief, not a virtually unstoppable assassin and mass killer like you are in the Assassin’s Creed games.

 “Game mechanics are just HORRENDOUS.”

I disagree. You can remap every key and button or use a controller if you must. It really is pretty standard WASD fare when you get down to it.

“ No jumping (except where the game wants you to).”

This game isn’t a platformer. You really don’t need to jump most of the time in this game. You just don’t. Again, Garrett is not some master assassin super beast athlete on two feet like you are in the Assassin’s Creed games.

“You can’t open this door. Or that window.”

This isn’t Skyrim. Yes, the game world has limitations like most other video games including every previous Thief game. You never had unlimited access in any Thief game or frankly just about any other video game for that matter.

“No combat.”

This should say “poor combat” and I would agree with it and it goes to my earlier remarks about going action platformer in this game. You can’t do it and you don’t want to do it.

The melee and dodge is subpar. It is simply there to get you to where you can run away as fast you can back to the shadows where you belong.

I can’t overemphasize this to avoid needless frustration: This is a full fledged stealth game and you want to avoid direct engagement as much as possible.  If you want a first person Assassin’s Creed game look elsewhere.  You are ultimately a Master Thief not Master Assassin.

“ Windows and doors you can open close behind you, forcing you into complete linearity.”

Every game is linear. There is no such thing as a truly nonlinear game. Even open world games. Some games disguise it better than others but yes, this game has structure and some limitations. In some situations you break into a place and the window is shut behind you. It takes you a whole whopping five seconds to reopen it and leave. There are plenty of places where the door open and stays open or you can close it. Nitpick much?

“Button mashing (consolitis) is absurd to the nth degree, especially the ever-present leaning plank when going through the 2901097599329 loading screens”

Button mashing is lazy. QTEs are even lazier. I don’t care what gaming platform or method of controller is employed, either. Thankfully there were no QTEs in this game and the button mashing is within tolerable limits albeit disappointing to see.

Thief Screenshot 07

The biggest issue for myself and a lot of other people is: The loading screens. It’s a damned shame that sections of the central city that you are in are broken up in such a fashion. It wrecks immersion. Not everyone is running pretty high end i7 PC’s like I am where the load screens go by in a few seconds. For a lot of people this is going to be 10-20 seconds a pop. I hear it’s even worse on the consoles. We simply shouldn’t be seeing this in the year 2014 on any gaming platform.

Some of the button mashing transitions can be avoided via alternate routs that you can use if you upgrade Garrett’s inventory with certain tools but unfortunately it is what it is.

On the other hand, I’m very happy with the mechanics for lockpicking or turning a wheel or finding secret switches. These controls are sublime, intuitive, and easy to use.  Repetition of these tasks will certainly lend itself to tedium for many players which is why I encourage using focus for the initial playthrough. Building focus up gives you the ability to streamline and speed up these abilities considerably. Clearly the priorities were put on any thieving and stealth aspects of gameplay and I’m grateful for that.

On that note I want to emphasize this: This is not a game you want to hurry through. You will regret doing so because you need all the  loot you can get and experience possible. Pick up side jobs with Basso as soon as you can and start doing them. When you hit the wall on those then it’s time to do another chapter in the main story. That’s been how I have approached this game and it’s worked well for me. Take your time to explore the city as much as you can also. There are plenty of places to break in and get more loot and plenty of hidden areas as well that you can only access with tools and upgrades that you have to buy.  You want to be able to build Garrett up and be able to buy certain tools and upgrades to get into otherwise inaccessible areas and get some really great hard to find loot. Make money and get yourself kitted up and built up as soon as you can. You will thank yourself later and especially further into the main story. Being to disable traps, for example, is worth its weight in gold. Building up your lockpick and focus abilities is amazing and saves you tons of time and helps avoid potential tedium otherwise. The game excels at the thieving, sneaking, hiding, and getting loot. In the few situations where you can to go outside of this parameter it becomes more hit and miss to be sure. The game isn’t a platformer and there are a few times where it flirts with platforming conventions and falls short.

“Level design is equally as bad. The levels you actually play in are extremely tiny. It feels like they could have made entire levels into a single load, but decided not to due to consolitis.”

Anyone that’s played Chapter 3, the brothel, knows this is simply not true universally although there are some parts of the game I would have to agree with this. I’m still impressed enough with the game’s overall art direction and design that I am going to be purchasing the art book for it. The central map itself may be my biggest layout quibble and especially with the load screen transitions.  Once again this is where I have to mention using Focus on the initial playthrough. Look around for areas to use rope arrows and other means of that nature.  There is always a way but you have to be patient and thorough.

Thief Screenshot 09

Special mention has to go to the Master Thief DLC level. As described by Square Enix:

“As the Master Thief, infiltrate the City’s most secure location, Stonemarket First Bank, to retrieve a coveted heirloom. To this day, the heavily guarded and treacherous place remains impregnable, but that’s about to change…”

This may be the best level in the entire game in terms of layout and execution. This is a masterpiece of a level that salutes the almighty Thief 2. It’s that well done. Everything was done just right for this level. I wish the biggest hater of this game would play this level. They would probably agree with me that the entire game needed a lot more where this came from if nothing else. If it had been I can guarantee you that you would not be seeing the mixed bag of reviews and anywhere remotely near the leve of hate you’re seeing from some corners out there.

My message to the developers of this game is: If you want to milk this game for a long time to come, make lots of money off of people like me, and start helping to ease the mixed to sour taste in people’s mouths? Put out worthwhile DLC installments along the lines of this Bank level. Given the mixed reception of your game, I recommend a sweetheart deal of sorts on said DLC to get people to bite. Give us more Stonemarket Bank type content!

“Stupid forced boss fights. I think there are three of them. Be prepared to reload a thousand times.”

I did not have this problem. There is always another way.

The cutscenes are used to further the story. Cutscenes have been a fact of life in videogames for a long time and they are not going away. I did not find them to be excessive or obtrusive. You always have the option of skipping cutscenes anyways. It’s a non-issue.

“Bottom line: WAIT for this game to hit the bargain bin. Period. It’s that bad. I am highly disappointed. This game is so bad it makes Thief 3 look awesome.”

The hate on Thief 3 has always been overstated in my eyes. I enjoyed the hell out of that game lumps and all. I thought Shalebridge was downright brilliant.  At present I would state that Thief 3 is a superior game in at least some respects. If this game gets good post release support that might change.

As for the price situation?  On the PC, GMG had preorders going for $34 after coupons on the loaded Master Thief edition which is what I purchased.  I felt confident about that purchase going in and I still feel good about it.

I will concede that I’m glad I did not pay full price for the game nor would I recommend anyone do so. On the PC if you shop smart you should never be paying full price for any game.

That being said, I have made far worse purchases at full price over the years than I would have if I had gone full price on this. As of this writing people are finding plenty of legit options for $25 on this game. It’s a no-brainer at that price for stealth fans. At that kind of price it’s clearly in “why the the hell not?” territory for me.  $25 for Master Thief Edition is a piece of cake for stealth fans.

Thief Screenshot 08

CONCLUSION:

It’s a shame this game falls well short in a few areas and didn’t have to. I’m reminded of the reception and feeling I had when Hitman Absolution hit. Broadly speaking this game reminds me of Absolution.   The high pedigree of a long running beloved series, the long hiatus, the yearning…and then the mixed bag end result that could have and should have been a lot more.  It’s frustrating to have moments of brilliance show themselves and then you run across needless and confounding blundering and technical issues that simply didn’t need to be.

There is a lot to like here just like on Absolution despite the qualms. There are some needless annoyances and contrivances to be sure. I share some of the annoyance and pain of certain points expressed by long time Thief veterans as well but I will say this: As someone who has been frequently guilty of this myself, there’s a lot of beloved older games we look back on with rosy colored hindsight 20-20 glasses and I think there’s a bit of an element of that at play as well with some of the more overblown whining and hate I’ve seen out there in regards to this game. Again I sympathize with the angst of waiting this long and then getting a mixed bag but let’s bring it down to Earth, please?

I think it can become more forgivable at least on the PC that you can buy the game legitimately for so cheap already. That’s the beauty of the PC platform. The software prices have a lot more flexibility and tend to drop a lot faster than the console counterparts. At $34 on down I have no problems whatsoever recommending this game to stealth fans and Thief fans although Thief fans? Just understand what some of the weaknesses are and you’ll be ok.

In conclusion: Good to very good stealth game. At times (note that qualifier) it can be a good Thief game. I wish they had worked on this game for another six months or so and released it Fall of 2014. That much more time really could have put it over the top. Just my two cents. Hopefully the game gets shown some love post release because it needs it. There’s plenty to work with here and plenty to like.

If patches come through and post release love comes through I can easily revisit this review with addendum’s and score adjustments as needed all hopefully upwards. I hope it happens.

One more parting thought and message to the developers:  Modding would be huge for the PC version of this game. It would guarantee unlimited replay value and it would really go a long ways to reconciling with the vocal haters of your game because they could go ahead and do what they want with it to a point. Please consider making this happen.

Thief gets a three out of five: GOOD.

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2 Comments on Thief Review

  1. The Monkey // March 13, 2014 at 5:28 PM // Reply

    Awesome write-up as always. Sounds like it’d be worth my time to check out down the road once the price drops a little.

    Like

    • Thanks! For me this game hit at just the right time and the right way. I’ve really been enjoying it despite the caveats. Do keep it in mind. :)

      Like

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