Thief Review: The new face of old stealth
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There's tense, creative stealth action to be had in Thief's fun-but-flawed triumph over technical flubs, wasted narrative potential, and cringeworthy dialogue.
- Lots of stealth options and items
- Dense, atmospheric environment
- Fun, fluid movement
- Forced narrative with poorly explained supernatural elements
- Repeat dialogue, lazy voice-acting
- A few ugly animations and NPCs
What's great about this focus on stealth is that, without other dependable alternatives, the differing playstyles inherent to stealth take center-stage. Will you keep to ground, slinking between shadows and choosing upgrades that better mask your footsteps and out-of-shadow visibility? Are you all about using Rope Arrows and free-running to avoid encountering guards altogether? Will you use Water Arrows to create shadows, shoot Choke Arrows to incapacitate guards with noxious gas, or whistle at the PlayStation Camera to grab the attention of a group before firing an explosive Blast Arrow into their midst?
That last bit is actually a nifty feature, and Thief is the first game to really make great, functional use out of PS4's unique features. You can talk or shout at the PlayStation Camera or a headset microphone to attract nearby guards, flick the controller for a motion-activated swoop between shadows, aim your bow using SixAxis, and check the light bar color to see whether you're hidden in shadow or exposed by light. Obviously, the light bar itself, being out of sight, isn't particularly useful for communicating this information. But when playing in the dark, I could safely turn off the HUD element for exposure and rely on the faint light cast against my living room walls by my controller. All these features are optional and can be toggled via settings, but I loved the voice recognition for an easy way to lure guards to shadows and advantageous spots. Best of all is the touchpad, which finally comes into its own as your access to inventory. Upon touching the pad, time slows and the inventory appears as a six-by-six grid that corresponds to the touchpad itself. Move your thumb across the touchpad, and appropriate items are highlighted in the grid. Swipe to what you want, press the touchpad down, and the item gets equipped or used. It's an incredibly fast and intuitive way of accessing things normally buried in menus or a weapon wheel.
For these reasons, PS4 is a great place to play Thief, and 1080p resolution doesn't hurt. The framerate, while decent, consistently dips when action fills the screen, but the same action is often quite smooth and puts on a graphical show worth sharing. Texture detail is seriously impressive, and natural lighting casts long, impressive shadows from logical light sources. Atmospheric fog can soften the glow, making moonlight a thing of beauty. Seeing Garrett's creeping silhouette towering over a fire-lit room made me feel like a frightening force of master thievery. Stiff NPC animation and lip-synching definitely hurt the visual package a bit, and not every texture is created equal, but by-and-large, Thief is among the best-looking games of this very young generation.
With music, conversely, there's not much to speak to. You'll only hear music during combat and fleeing, in cutscenes, and during particular story sections; in the city hub, it's a quiet, creeping existence. The sound of silence actually fits the bill; the dank streets and your thieving are all the more eerie for it. A few different action tunes would have been nice, but what's here is suitably intense when the moment calls for it.
A sobering amount of glitches and poor design wear away some of the visual veneer, however. It's not uncommon to hear NPC conversations repeat two or three times, in succession, because they're triggered to play as you cross a certain threshold. Less frequently, audio overlap happens when two or more conversations can be heard at equal volume despite being well away from at least one of them. Most citizens perform very strict, unimpressive animations--a couple sex workers, in particular, stare straight ahead and lifelessly pat their hair unless a commotion with guards breaks out. Speaking of sex workers, parts of the game's brothel level (totally inferior to Dishonored's House of Blossoms, by the way) are questionable inclusions. I acknowledge this kind of seedy setting has a place and narrative purpose in Thief's dark world, but peepholes into rooms with bare-breasted sex and sadomasochism strike me as tacky or being "adult" for lazy novelty's sake. There's no commentary or world-building here, just boobs because, 'What's an M-rated game without them?'
Dialogue is often similarly lazy or even cringeworthy. Cutscenes and main characters are fine, and even Garrett's gravelly sarcasm has a fun charm to it. But guards are godawful offenders. There are no discernible accents and very little performance--guards pretty much sound like pissed off Midwesterners. It's not uncommon to hear jarring words like "friggin'" in idle conversation, and one particularly awful joke about a penis ring actually made me bury my face in my hands.
The gameplay variety and atmospheric detail of Thief are tarnished by poor performances, questionable content, and audio glitches. But campaign scoring and challenge maps with leaderboards offer replayability on an adventure that took me about 17 hours to finish, with very few side quests left undone. It's a fun-but-flawed journey that doesn't overstay its welcome, and if you're looking for well-designed, creative stealth through impressively dense environments, that's exactly what I found in Thief. It falls well short of the narrative and polish benchmarks set by first-person stealth hits of the last few years, but Thief successfully dresses old-school notions of sneaking in modern garb, thus revealing and filling a satisfying gameplay niche.----
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