Monday, April 7, 2014

Video Game Review: Thief (2014)

One thing is certain, Thief is pretty.

Thief is the sequel to the classic first person stealth games developed by the now defunct Looking Glass studios. This is a series frequently cited to be among the greatest games of all time, so the expectations for this new title, which is a reboot, are high. Like the Looking Glass games, you control Garrett, a master Thief who has the ability to disappear in darkness, and who disdains combat as a sign of amateurism. The game, however, still leaves you capable of dispatching your enemies with a variety of arrows, though combat is certainly discouraged. Sneaking up behind enemies and bopping them on the head with the blackjack to render them unconscious is a better idea, or just avoiding them all together. Though the previous games let the player use the blackjack, I wish the game would differentiate between knocking a guard out and killing them, since, in both cases, the end result is the same. Guards could wake up after about three minutes and resume their search, and if the player knocks them out again, it could be lethal. But alas, that might make a hard and unforgiving game, which Thief can be.
 Hey, a Keeper Library. But where are the Keepers?

For a game that wants the player to pay attention to its story, Thief's narrative sure is incomprehensible drivel. During the prologue, Garrett loses his protege, an unlikable noisy, murderous thief named Erin, when she falls to her apparent doom from a roof top into a mystic ceremony involving a magic MacGuffin called the Primal and the city's leader, a totalitarian old fart called the Baron. Garrett is knocked out, somehow for a year, and when he wakes up, he's got a piece of the Primal lodged in his eye, which is the game's explanation for his Focus ability, which lets you see traps and loot easier. Soon, he's involved with Orion, a populist leader who wants to recover the Primal for some reason that's never explained. Nothing gets explained with this game: the only character that isn't a half-written cliche is Garrett's fence Basso, who disappears before the game's third act. The narrative reeks of rewrites and stitches; I wonder how many times they tried to cobble this story together from disparate parts. The end result is an unsatisfactory tale. So what, you might say. This is a video game, not a novel. As long as the gameplay is good, who cares? Well, it matters because the original Thief games had excellent plots with well-developed characters, and it's a shame the reboot is such a mess, and, as I stated before, this game takes its plot seriously, and its discombobulated narrative affects gameplay. Their are plenty of cutscenes which take control away from the player, as well as odd free running sequences in which you aren't certain whether or not you are controlling Garrett. These sequences will be hard to tolerate if you're a fan of the Looking Glass games, for the previous titles emphasized player choice and agency. In the old Thief, Garrett usually had to find his way out after infiltrating a bank or castle; in new Thief, the game pushes you along during its missions, and back tracking is usually impossible. 
Hey, a Hammerite Cathedral. But where are the Hammers?

In-between missions, Thief places you in the City, which is intended to be a playground for Garrett, full of side missions and secrets. This doesn't work like the Assassin Creed games, however, because the City is divided into numerous loading zones, each represented by a glowing window or a pile of stacked debris. Navigating the City, which should be a blast, is therefore a tedious chore. You have to figure out which zone connects to which zone because it's not always apparent on your map. The original two games did large levels very well; Thief 2014 takes after Deadly Shadows, the third entry in the series, which featured a higher level of detail but shoe-box sized environments. I'm assuming this was a concession in order to fit the game on the last generation consoles. In any case, the City is a failure, although many of the side missions are fun and more reminiscent of the previous games' style. 

Hey, burricks. We haven't seen a live one since 1998.

Despite their numerous sins, the developers did get the essential feel of Thief right. The stealth systems work well; you have a light meter with three different settings, and you're only safe (relatively) in complete darkness. Garrett will be heard if he runs or if he steps over broken glass or alerts a caged bird. Guard AI is impressive, and on Master difficulty, challenging. They investigate opened doors and thrown objects, and with a couple slashes of their swords, take Garrett's life. Swoop, a new addition that allows Garrett to glide quickly with a push of the space bar, feels powerful and satisfying. Garrett always moved like a lumbering tap dancer in the previous games; here, he feels more like a master thief. Guards are pretty much your only enemies besides Freaks, supernatural monsters who are blind but have heightened hearing. They are also vulnerable to light, which is a cool reversal of usual gameplay. 

Basso, I wish the entire game was about you and Garrett's adventures. That would've been interesting.

Thief isn't a terrible game. It's a solid modern stealth game that you'll enjoy if you're able to look past its many faults. But we have to compare it to its excellent predecessors, and average doesn't quite cut it. It's a shame they got rid of the dark fantasy lore that was the series hallmark. The Hammerites, an industry-obsessed religious order, are no more, and the Pagans, a creepy bunch of woods people who worship the Trickster God, are never mentioned. There are no Ratmen or Haunts or zombies. Thief has been stripped of its outlandish elements, and what remains is gritty and grim-dark, but ultimately less interesting. 

Final rating: Red Delicious--tastes like cardboard, mushy texture, yet will do in a pinch.

An explanation of Pointless Venture's rating system: We use a five apple system here. A classic is Gold Rush, excellent is Honeycrisp, average is Golden Delicious, poor is Red Delicious, and awful is Winesap. Try the aforementioned apples and see if you don't come up with the same rating.

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