Thief in 2014 reboots a much loved gaming franchise that was born over 15 years ago. It’s been ten long years since the last title in the series, and in the time since there are inevitably great swathes of punters who either don't know or, perhaps, care about an ancient stealth game. Is it the year for Thief to drive the genre back into the minds of modern-day gamers?
It says something about the transient nature of game development that if you install Thief II on PC and click on "Find Updates" you are whisked to a page containing links to what can politely be termed adult friend finder sites. It’s a cheeky bit of opportunism, but hardly a fitting tribute to the revered Looking Glass Studios, developer of the original Thief franchise, which is still talked about in hushed tones by gamers of a certain beard.
How times change. Enter Eidos Montreal, the company where old games go to be reborn. Having made a decent fist of rebooting Deus Ex, the in-house Canadian team has again been charged with breathing life into a title of similar vintage. Does Thief feel like a vintage stealth game as a result?
At The Edge
With this kind of reinvention, there’s a fine line to tread between irking the purists and alienating modern day gamers. As for the former, well it’s called Thief and the lead character is again called Garrett, replete with a quiver full of magic arrows. So far so good.
Whereas the Garrett of the last century stood around in the dark getting hit in the face by a door, Thief 2014's protagonist is a wholly more dynamic character, able to scale walls, straddle tall buildings and skim across rooftops like the bloke out of Assassin’s Creed. Y'know, that bloke that he so resembles, give or take an American accent. But that's all for the better.
The new Thief has an almost Mirror’s Edge approach to free running - you simply hold down one button, point him at the obstacle and let him do the rest - be it jumping, climbing, or occasionally falling. And while it’s a reasonably elegant way of getting around, the "gaming language" isn’t always evident, in so much as you’re not entirely sure where you can and can’t go. This is where the Batman mode - sorry, the Focus mode - comes in handy, highlighting exactly which parts of the environment you can interact with, presuming you can negotiate the extensive suite of controls.
Through The Looking Glass
It was once said that U2 make music for people who don’t like music, and it could be argued that Thief is a stealth game for people who don’t like stealth. Described as "Action-Stealth" by the marketing department, it just about hangs together, and you can relive that 90s dream by dousing a flaming torch with a "water arrow", waiting for a guard to investigate, and then coshing him on the back of the head and lifting his wallet.
In general it’s best to avoid combat, not just in the spirit of the genre, but because it’s a frantic, haphazard business that frequently sees you having to run away and hide in a cupboard.
As for the tone, whereas the old games were a bit hey-nonny-nonny and a barrel of mead, Thief 2014 announces its adult-oriented slant in frankly shocking fashion. Some low-level cursing is rapidly followed by an f-bomb, but this is nothing compared to a mission set in a brothel that sees you spying on actual topless intercourse. It’s somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the game.
Saying that the eight key missions are disparate affairs, with one asylum-set episode drifting deep into survival horror territory. With each mission clocking in at the best part of an hour, it’s a long form approach, and you can also pick up jobs in between, as well as visit a pub to stock up on weapons.
There's plenty enough to keep you going, but then there needs to be as there's no online mode, bar for some challenge-based leaderboards, in a defiantly old skool single player approach with a slice of RPG-lite thrown in for good measure.
Story-wise, there’s more than a nod to Soylent Green - again, new-wave gamers are unlikely to have seen this 70s movie classic - before the game drifts into various inconsequential directions, with a large slice of supernatural guff thrown in for good measure.
The tale is largely relayed through ambient chat, with the word on the street guiding the narrative. Much of it is entirely inaudible, however, making subtitles a must. It certainly conjures up a picture of medieval squalor through its visuals, as the world of Thief is one of relentless misery: there's starvation, disease and despair enlivened only by the occasional street hanging.
Without a primary colour to be seen, the wretchedness is reflected in the graphical style, and the game is one long stretch of perennial gloom that is unlikely to buck you out of your winter fug. Sonic The Hedgehog, it ain’t.
On the PlayStation 3 version that we worked through for this review it does look undeniably moody and, indeed, great. On the next-gen platforms that we played earlier preview builds of the game there's extra resolution, effects, enhanced textures and all that next-gen stuff that looks, well, even moodier and greater. It doesn't make the game any different, though, just adds some extra graphical polish.
Thief is an occasionally tense, sometimes frustrating, weirdly depressing slice of modern gaming.
On the medium difficulty level all you’re really doing is following instructions as the story unfolds around you. It is hugely customisable though, and you can tweak almost every aspect in order to give yourself that authentic - and difficult - stealth experience if required. Add to that fiddly core mechanics, no proper online mode, and drawn-out admin in-between missions and it's a game that lacks the finesse of something like Dishonored. And for all Thief's fun and clever gadgets, you can often get by without ever using them.
However, Thief's atmosphere does suck you in, proving immersive and sometimes even downright terrifying. With lengthy, involving missions, you do start to inhabit the character's headspace, stepping into the soft shoes of a borderline psychotic who lives in a clock tower and goes out on the rob. It delivers on the title promise, that's for sure.
Thief is an enjoyable enough dash of gaming fun, but in today's big bad world of gaming it just doesn't quite deliver that something special, despite looking the part.
Thief is available from Friday 28 February 2014 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.