Stealing is wrong. Whether you shoplift a candy bar from the corner store, nick a handful of quarters off your dad’s bureau, or download a pirated copy of a new video game, being a thief is not cool. And if you don’t believe me, just play Thief, a deeply flawed and ultimately dull first-person stealth action game for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC in which you make your living by stealing anything that isn’t nailed down.
Made by Eidos Montreal, and published by Square Enix, Thief casts you as Garrett, a master thief during the Victorian era. But after he and his less scrupulous gal pal interrupt some cultists’ ceremony, he wakes a year later to find his city isn’t exactly how he left it.
As the fourth in a series that basically set the standards for sneaky action games, Thief naturally has all the stealth mechanics you’d expect. You choke enemies out from behind, climb around the world like a spider monkey, even snuff out lights so you can move under cover of darkness. And they all work, in part, because the game’s controls are smooth and, for the most part, intuitive. (Though at this point in the history of game development, if you can’t make controls that are smooth and intuitive, you might as well just pack it in.)
Not surprisingly, Thief also has many mechanics found in other games, and not just stealth action ones that would count this series as an ancestor. You can toss bottles to distract people like Sam Fisher did in the first Splinter Cell game, hide in cabinets like Snake did in the second Metal Gear Solid, scavenge like you’re in the third Fallout or the fourth and fifth Elder Scrolls games, and pick locks using the same vibrating controller mechanic as, well, six or seven other games.
It even tells you whether you completed a level all sneaky like, or were relatively aggressive, much like Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Which is kind of odd since you kind of have to play this all sneaky-like. Sure, you can kill people when need be, but you can’t go in all guns blazin’ (and not just because you don’t have any guns). While you may be a master thief, you’re hardly a master fighter, and if you try to take on more than one guard at a time, you’ll get beat down faster than a punk kid trying to mug a bunch of old ladies armed with big, heavy purses.
Thief also owes a nod to Green Arrow, especially the ’70s and ’80s version of the DC super hero, in that you have a variety of helpful arrows that really wouldn’t be practical, or even possible, in the real world. Besides ones that carry water and fire so you can extinguish or ignite lights, respectfully, you also have arrows that, upon impact, releases a knockout gas. I half expected to find one with a boxing glove on the end of it.
All of which, you’d think, would add up to an interesting take on the stealth action genre. Especially since, unlike most, this isn’t rooted in modern espionage but is instead set in a Victorian-era city, and since you’re not playing as a terrorist-fighting military man but as an anti-hero who may try to be good, but is still a bad guy.
Unfortunately, for all its attempts to do something different, Thief is ultimately undermined by problems both serious and superficial.
The most obvious of these, though it has the least impact in how much fun this game is or isn’t, are the disappointing visuals. At one point — and no, I’m not kidding about this — I actually looked down to double check that I was actually holding an Xbox One controller and not an Xbox 360 one, just to confirm that I was playing an Xbox One game. And not a good looking one at that. Seriously. That’s how undetailed and unimpressive the graphics are in Thief. Granted, everything runs smoothly, which is far more important than how good it looks doing so, but when you have to check which system you’re playing a game on….
Sadly, this is not the only visual issue with Thief. While items worth stealing are indicated by a quick but repeating flashes of light, you’ll also sometimes see a flash where there isn’t anything to take.
There were also, on a couple occasions, when I would slip up and alert the guards, only to have them give up way too quickly. And it wasn’t like I ran around a corner and hid behind something or climbed up into the rafters where they’d never thing to look, they just…gave up. Which, in a stealth action game, is just inexcusable.
Thief also has some audio issues, though maybe they should be called “caption issues” since the issue is that the dialog doesn’t always sync up with the captions. Sure, sometimes they work right, but there’s also times when they’re a few seconds ahead or behind.
Then there’s game’s music, which kicks in when you’ve been discovered, but is so loud, relative to the sound effects, that it drowns them out. Even if you knock the score down by half, it’s still overbearing. And it’s not like the music is all that impressive to begin with.
Thief also has a problem so common in games these days that I now just cut and paste this paragraph into almost every game review I do: the type is too small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading the text that tells you where you are, or that it’s “five days later,” or what the different arrows do when you’re buying new ones off some guy in a back alley.
It’s also not hard to think that Thief might work better in third-person. Granted, I say that as someone who, in recent weeks, played both Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes — two third-person stealth action games that are quite good — but platforming elements have always been problematic in first-person games, and Thief does nothing to make me think otherwise. Especially when you get to some of the climbing parts that switch to third-person, and you realize how much better these bits feel than the rest of the game.
There are also times when Thief seems a bit behind the times when compared, ironically, to recent games that were influenced by earlier Thief games. Unlike in Metal Gear Solid 2, you can’t stuff an unconscious guard into a locker. Unlike in Tomb Raider, you can’t pick up your arrows and use them again. And unlike in the Splinter Cell series, the Batman: Arkham games, the Metal Gear Solid series, and tons of other games, the voice acting wasn’t done by someone who sounded like they actually gave a crap about what they were saying. Whoever they hired to do Garrett’s voice sounds so unenthused about voicing this character that you might think they accidentally included the temp track that was done by an intern as a placeholder.
But then, his unenthusiastic tone is kind of fitting, since the real problem with Thief is that it’s just…dull. There’s just this lack of urgency, a lack of energy, to the whole proceedings. It’s not that the game is easy; the guards usually do their job with due diligence and a willingness to kill. And it’s not like it’s broken (save for the aforementioned technical issues, which are hardly game breakers). It’s hard to really pinpoint exactly why, but after the first hour or so — once the novelty of sneaking around a Victorian city wore off — I didn’t feel like I wanted to play anymore. It just feels…lifeless. Blah. And as someone way more articulate than I once said, “being boring is the greatest sin of all.”