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Thief Review: The new face of old stealth

24 February 2014

I went into Thief expecting a next-gen Dishonored, but my expectations were swiftly reset. I'm not ignorant of my gaming history--I know that 1998's Thief: The Dark Project is one of several progenitors of the stealth genre as we know it today, and that 2012's Dishonored was, in fact, largely inspired by the original Thief trilogy. Turns out, when it comes to modern-day stealth gameplay, Thief occupies an interesting space all its own. There's purity here that will please fans of older, more challenging stealth adventures: Face-to-face combat is often a death sentence. Carpet, tile, wood, and more all produce different sound levels. Motion is as crucial to detection as the more obvious light and shadow. You can toggle over a dozen HUD elements and difficulty parameters for nostalgic brutality. But Thief also borrows modern conventions, to varying success: the City, Thief's Victorian London-ish setting, is an open-world hub with several districts that, despite never being seen in daylight, manage to exude distinct character. Fluid, context-sensitive movement carries Garrett over rooftops and through city streets with aplomb. Tiered upgrades to stuff like bow aiming speed and combat endurance yield a moderate amount of now-standard customization.

Altogether, this mix of pure stealth gameplay and open-world exploration sets Thief apart in the market, but not as much as its most impressive element: the environment. Cramped alleys, brightly lit by torchlight, are almost invisible beneath a dense network of wooden rafters, rooftop bridges, shop signs, and atmospheric fog. Vent shafts behind dock crates connect with shop basements and third-story windows open to climbable ropes from ledges above. From the rooftops, Garrett's natural home, a veritable playground of verticality--like layers in a jungle canopy--awaits below. It's visually impressive, sure, but textures, lighting, and smoke aside, the sheer environmental detail of the City shifts the gameplay cadence we've come to expect from more horizontal stealth games while establishing an impressive sense of place. In the City, wealthy families hide heirlooms behind paintings, thieves cut the wires to floor traps, and guards steer clear of the dying sick huddled for warmth between crates, beneath torchlight.

With free-running, Garrett confidently glides through this network of side streets, apartment bedrooms, and chimneys. Holding L2 causes Garrett to sprint and use context-sensitive climbs, slides, and leaps. From jumping between rooftops to scaling ladders and shooting through windowsills, this parkour-like system is not only intelligent (it always seemed to know what exact leap I was going for, even in complicated spots), but empowering. As I started to learn the layout and construction of the City's districts, I was able to string together longer, more effective free-running sprints, incorporating subtle changes or new routes as I discovered them. Pressing L2 is even movement-sensitive; a crouching Garrett will carefully pull himself over a railing, but a sprinting Garrett will slide across, not giving an inch to the guards giving chase.

These guards, medieval-looking soldiers with swords or crossbows, serve Baron Northcrest, whose rather incompetent rule has brought food shortages and the 'Gloom,' a lethal plague, upon residents of the City. Garrett's role in all this, beyond ironic commentary, isn't just to take advantage of the chaos and pilfer all the goblets, golden candlesticks, and silver scissors he can find. In the game's opening, the City is still flourishing--it's a golden age for citizens and thieves alike. A job goes sour (it's spoiler territory to talk much about why), and Garrett wakes up one year later to plague-ridden streets, civil unrest, and city soldiers exerting dictatorial rule. It takes a bit before Garrett finds his uncomplicated life of thieving suddenly embroiled in the politics of it all, but before long, he's doing less robbing and more investigating. But even as the story picks up steam and Garrett uncovers revelations about the year he doesn't remember, his motivation and the game's primary conflict are fueled by poorly explained supernatural elements that feel shoehorned in to give Garrett something to do as the city falls apart around him. It's a mildly engaging yarn with a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, but narrative context sometimes introduces gameplay twists and atmosphere change-ups that I appreciated.

Of course, Thief's core gameplay is fun in its own right. Between story chapters, I spent hours exploring the city and nabbing treasures. Every loot item you find is immediately converted to money, no selling required. You'll find some items scattered on shelves and tables, but others lie behind cabinet doors, in desk drawers, or locked in chests and vaults. Reaching this loot requires some tricks--you might need Rope Arrows to reach a third-story window, or the wirecutter tool to disable a floor trap in front of a painting, or the wrench to get inside a locked room through its air vent. The effort is well-worth it, as every treasure found means more money for upgrades.

A host of pleasant touches pull the whole sneaking experience together with surprising realism: Candles can be blown out to minimize light sources. You can only pull back on your bowstring for so long; Garrett's arm tires after several seconds. A "Swoop" movement on the X button allows you to slink between shadows quickly and quietly, but too many Swoops or too much running will drain your stamina and demand a few seconds of recovery. Guards carrying torches will relight the ones you extinguish with Water Arrows. Overheard conversations throughout the city point the way to particularly well-hidden loot, while notes, books, and other documents build the world's lore and give clues to solving puzzles or cracking safes.

Welcome surprises, like elaborate puzzles and hidden passages, keep the sneaking fairly fresh, but gathering loot for upgrades can grow repetitive. Of course, in an ideal, no-nonsense playthrough, very little of these would be necessary. Some of Garrett's earliest musings communicate his unwillingness to kill unless absolutely necessary, and the game's deepest satisfaction comes from moving through these areas, pilfering items without detection. That's not very difficult in the overworld (guards and citizens rarely occupy the homes you break into), but in story chapters and optional client jobs, patrols will definitely challenge your ability to remain unseen.

When you do get caught, there's a neat dodge mechanic that uses the L1 button and left analog stick in tandem. The rhythm of combat is about waiting for your opponent to strike, swiftly dodging, and seizing the moment to whack them with the Blackjack, a small club. Early on, a few well-timed whacks will put your opponent on the ground, vulnerable to a non-lethal takedown. Without upgrades, later enemies require many more strikes before succumbing, and a gang of opponents won't wait their turn to attack you. One guard is manageable with practice. Two guards is a difficult, not impossible, confrontation. Three or more is pretty much suicide. Nearby guards are often alerted when a fight breaks out, so it's easy to get overwhelmed, and Garrett can only withstand three or four sword hits, tops. In short, an aggressive playstyle isn't particularly viable. It's frustrating at times, but never in a way that feels unfair. I may have died dozens of times by game's end, but every failure brought me closer to countering the game's logic with intelligence of my own. It's an old-school, fairly linear notion of stealth, to be sure, but satisfying in that I ultimately feel like I conquered something.


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