Thief Review
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Thief Box Art
System: PS3, Xbox 360, PC*, PS4, Xbox One
Dev: Eidos Montreal
Pub: Square Enix
Release: February 25, 2014
Players: 1
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p Blood, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs, Violence
Stuck in the Shadows
by Becky Cunningham

Remember what playgrounds used to be like? The best of them featured huge wooden and metal structures filled with dodgy activities such as ring-swinging or ziplining. They encouraged risk-taking and escapades. We'd get hurt on them sometimes—I have a large scar on one knee from one such playground incident—but by blazes, they were fun.

Thanks to insurance companies and a couple decades of paranoid helicopter parents, playgrounds aren't much fun anymore. They're mostly plastic and never built too high. All the hot metal and sharp edges have been carefully removed, and one park playground pretty much looks like another. It's all safe, generic, and boring. Maybe today's kids don't know the difference, but I can't help but feel bad for them, remembering how it used to be.

That's the primary feeling I had when playing this Thief reboot, and I'm not even one of those classic gamers who worships at the altar of Looking Glass Studios. The main character Garrett is still a cynical thief, and his missions are still primarily about sneaking around, using his tools and abilities to aid his work, and stealing items for his clients. However, the City he inhabits is muted and generic, designed to lead him gently through his nocturnal misadventures, only allowing him to climb or use his arsenal of tools where the developers have deemed it appropriate.

The highly guided nature of Thief serves to constantly remind the player that they're in a game, and the designers are in charge. Want to climb? You'll have to find a surface helpfully marked with claw marks, out-of-place blue grates, or what I assume must be raven droppings (shades of Assassin's Creed pigeon poop). Want to get by that foot-long pressure plate trap? Well, you can't jump over it, who would think to do a thing like that? No, you'll have to find another (specifically designed) way around or find a control box and cut its wires. Want to take care of that pesky guard dog? Too bad, you can't. They've all been caged for their own protection... and to keep clever players from doing anything unintended to neutralize the threat.

Thief Screenshot

Thus, clambering around the labyrinthine City and traversing the game's main missions is largely a task of figuring out which choices the developers left open for the player to pursue. There are certainly some choices available, particularly within the missions themselves, but freedom is taken away from the player far too often. The game frequently boils down to a pixel hunt in order to figure out the single way to overcome a particular obstacle. It's not always consistent, either. The exact same kind of wood bridge might need to be dropped by shooting a pulley, pulling a lever, or finding a hidden switch. Using Garret's Focus ability, which highlights interactive elements in the scenery in glowing blue, feels like a cheap tactic that has been provided to work around this inconsistency. It's difficult to figure out exactly what you're allowed to do without using Focus, since the rules tend to change from puzzle to puzzle.

Is Thief a game that was simply designed for gamers who prefer being led by the hand through challenges, or is its restrictive gameplay a reflection of a troubled development period? It's difficult to tell, though I felt like the game's seams were showing on numerous occasions. The “open world” City is a nonsensical jumble, the mission areas feel better-designed but have large “dead” areas that feature little of interest and should have been pruned, and there are various game elements that seem borrowed from other titles with litter regard for how well they fit into this one.

Thief Screenshot

There were certainly concessions made to please old-school gamers who enjoyed the original Thief series. Most of the so-called modern interface elements—visible waypoints, the blinding glint that treasure emits, the mini-map—have been made optional. It's obvious that the game was designed around these helpful guides, however. You can try to play it like the old Thief, removing all those interface elements and refusing to use the Focus system, but why would you? The game is clearly designed around these elements, and eschewing them is largely an exercise in frustration rather than challenge.

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