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Thief (2014) isn't as bad as you remember, but gosh, no, it's still not good enough

Dishonorable

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My agenda: I really wanted to return to 2014’s hated Thief and prove that it never deserved the vitriol it received. My reality: before the game even started I was bombarded by a barrage of pop-up windows informing me which new heists and levels were available to me as DLC, and I started to hate it a bit already.

So why this desire to defend it? Well, it’s partly because I remember reviewing it six years back, and finding qualified enjoyment – trying to recognise it for the game it is, rather than measuring it against the games it foolishly tried to link itself to. And partly because I wondered if Dishonored had been called Thief: Dishonored, would it too have been so harshly judged? Maybe in 2020 Thief could be, if not amazing, a decent game in its own rights? Maybe?

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

We’ve got some huge problems. Take the voice acting. From the first moment it is so, SO odd. While I wasn’t ever one of the people demanding that Stephen Russell be the only possible casting, it was just so utterly peculiar to replace him with such a nothing-voiced everyman. A sort of Nowhere, US voice that could be anyone. Especially given the justification for the change (beyond the completely barmy claim they needed the same person to do the voice that did the mocap stunts…) was that the voice no longer matched their super-moody goth-Garrett character design. Russell’s gravelly growl would have made far more sense for that!

Then it just rains. After an opening tutorial that involves Garrett’s berating of a young female thief, you’re forced to deliberately endanger her by stealing her climbing tool, then fail pathetically to rescue her in a cutscene as she falls through a skylight, not to her death but to her super-villain-conversion. Next: swearing! Effing and jeffing all over, because swearing’s cool! Remember before how the Thief games felt so trivial and immature because none of the NPC’s kept saying “fuck”? Phew, that’s put right straight away. And then My Chemical Garrett climbs to the top of the not-fallen-over clock tower to noncommittally brood about, presumably, the sheer extent Square Enix went to to annoy absolutely every previous Thief player on the planet.

It all feels so egregious! And I stress again, in both 2014 and in 2020, I was determined to give this game a fair shake. I’m not the sort to start writing green-inked letters of furious complaint because Garrett’s hair is parted one centimetre too far to the left, and I’d have been really happy for them to just reboot the series and start over in their own image. But instead Thi4f begins with an already-established Garrett, a long-time bandit of recognised repute, but seemingly holding a middle finger up to everything that came before to get him there. If you’re going to retcon, at least have the manners to create a new origin story. So much of how the game begins feels less like stamping their own identity onto the franchise, and more like working out what would most wind up anyone with a mind to care.

And Garrett’s such a prick! The claw that poor girl built, which he took while bleating on about how she was too dependent upon it? It immediately becomes an essential tool of his moving about the city. Moments later he comments, “The claw’s quiet when used right. Erin made it sound noisier than it is.” Good grief, Garrett!

Then you’re pressing E to squeeze through gaps, hammering E to open windows, and incessantly having the controls taken from you so you can be dragged nostril-wise to the next objective. Remember when you’d overhear conversations between NPCs because you had the nous to stick around and listen, then gained extra mini-missions? You’re no longer trusted to do that. You’re too stupid for that now. And of course, OF COURSE, there’s a brothel level. And golly gee whizz, there’s more of that maturity with all those ladies walking about with their boobies out.

OK, look, here’s the real truth: the game’s fine. In fact, when it comes to the physical act of sneaking about the city, it’s actually a lot better than Thief: Deadly Shadows, even if for some godforsaken reason the game only lets you jump when it decides you’re allowed to. The rooftop pathways, the little burglaries and break-ins to commit on the way, they’re all far better implemented. Even mid-mission, as you’re sneaking from shadow to shadow, grabbing every loose item of loot, it can really feel like a Thief game in the odd moments. The swoop move, that lets you whoosh from one patch of darkness to another, is really good! It’d have been ace if you could whoosh in the proper Thief games. And yet, absolutely every single moment of it, no matter how well realised, is set in a game world that’s so utterly completely banal.

It’s all a grotesque attempt at a Dishonored rip-off, far more than it’s trying to be a fourth Thief game. (A matter somewhat complicated by the sensible suggestion that Dishonored comes the closest to deserving recognition as a fourth Thief game.) The addition of “Focus” to let you magically see details around you, the dashing, the grates/door/rooftop route options, it’s all Arkane’s ideas. But like someone tracing a great painting, there’s no sense of artistic passion to be found. There’s no joy to its macabre, no life to its populated city. And having stripped The City of its Keepers, Pagans and Hammerites, replacing them all with the blandest bland of “Watchers”, they’ve put nothing else in to engender a meaning or direction to the story. I mean, look at this mission description:

“I stole the book from the House of Blossoms for a man named Orion – The so-called ‘voice of the people’. He thinks he can save this city. From some of the things I’ve seen, I’m not sure it’s worth saving. Regardless, the people regard Orion favourably, Basso included, and his followers, the Graven, are growing. Still, between the Baron, the gloom, and starvation, there’s not much choice.”

I think that so perfectly captures everything that’s wrong with Thiefour. It’s horribly written, grammatically gibberish (the Graven are growing? Are they turning into giants?), but most of all, so unutterably dull. It’s bored of itself. It’s lifeless, miserable, positively sulking.

Which, I suppose, certainly suits nu-Garrett, and his teenage rebellion outfit. He looks as though he were kidnapped in 2004, then cruelly tortured in a darkened cell where he was forced to watch The Crow over and over on a loop for ten years. He looks as though he listens to Christian gothic metal. I mean, he’s clearly every member of [Googles ‘Christian gothic metal’]… Saviour Machine. (Except maybe for David Harbour there on the right.)

This is the tale of ThIVf. A well-made game determined to spoil itself. Here’s a sequence where for no given reason you can’t use the arrows you’re holding. Here’s a gruesomely heavy-handed allusion to the Nazis. And worst, worst, worst of all, here’s yet another scene where you’re discovered in a cutscene, and then forced to run away from chasing pursuers.

That last one bothers me the most. It so whompingly demonstrates such a fundamental misunderstanding of the Thief games, a series where people delight in ghosting levels, where the higher the difficulty, the less harm you can cause, the more unseen you must be. And here, no matter how much you steer your play toward that, it just decides for you it’s now going to be a half-arsed action sequence where you press jump when it says to press jump while explosions detonate all around you.

I have entirely failed. I was going to judge it on its own merits! Not compare it to a series that finished a decade before this was released. But no, it’s simply not possible. Not when it’s like a tribute act that’s never really bothered listening to the albums by the band they’re imitating. It keeps shouting, “LOOK! I’M A THIEF GAME! IT’S GARRETT, SEE!” So what else can you do?

Judged on its own merits, it’s a quite annoying action game that had some promise. Every now and then it feels a bit like you’re playing Dishonored, and that’s a nice feeling. And then it goes and does something incomprehensibly stupid like trying to repeat The Cradle.

As ill-judged a decision as I could imagine, Thourth makes a display of supreme arrogance with its attempt to replicate, emulate, somethingicate Thief 3’s most famous and well-renowned level. But to add insult to injury, rather than setting it in the famed Shalebridge Cradle and thus perhaps even gaining some coattails to ride on, it chooses to have it be in… Moira’s island mansion. Yup, they pick the two best levels from Deadly Shadows, and conflate them into one awful one. Despite being the exact same external architecture, right down to battening up the basement hatch that had been an entrance in the previous game, Moira’s place is now, and apparently always has been, an asylum. And you’ll never guess what?! The doctors there were doing all sorts of terrible experiments on the patients, and turned them into monsters!

It’s just so galling! And pretty embarrassing. It offers none of the majestic sound effects, nor the tension-building slow reveals, but instead the utterly barmy inclusion of a giant invisible wibbly-wobbly monster stomping around one set of corridors with no explanation at all, and then a very tiresome sequence in which you must avoid the their-vision-is-based-on-sound patient-monsters. (Which is to say they were once patients. They show no signs of patience.) It even mimics the note-gathering of The Cradle, but with the finesse of a rhino in a tutu. It does have a couple of good jump scares! But having played the proper version of the level they were haplessly mimicking only a week ago, this is weak squash awfulness.

I’m pretty embarrassed by my original review, to be honest. I really can’t think of a single review I’ve written with which I so strongly disagree a few years later. I put it down to one thing: I hadn’t just finished playing Deadly Shadows when I reviewed this six years ago, and was actually in a far better place to appreciate it for what it offered, rather than what it mimicked. (Although that really doesn’t justify my going so easy on it for how blatantly it copied Dishonored.) Because, as I began this by saying, it’s fine! It’s pretty good in places! You get to do a whole bunch of sneaky-sneaky, and occasionally it does it very well. Before then finding another way to spoil it.

In the end, I note all the same positives and negatives both then and now, but seen through a very different frame. This time I’m out so much more annoyed by what it isn’t that I haven’t even found room to talk about how bloody beautiful The City is, how fantastic so much of the set design is, because this time out I’m far more overwhelmed by how achingly devoid of character it is despite it.

I think the lesson is, don’t watch Blade Runner 2049 immediately after Blade Runner. Or Ad Astra after 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or maybe just play the Thief trilogy and then all the Dishonoreds, and feel great about your life choices.

Can I still play Thief?

Yes. It’s only six years old, and seems to have been pretty heftily future-proofed. It runs in 1440p ultra-widescreen with no issues. Although the load times are still terrible.

Should I still play Thief?

You know, probably not. If for some reason you were court ordered to never play Dishonoreds 1 and 2, then this wouldn’t be a completely terrible option. But you haven’t been. That would be super weird.

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John Walker

Disposable

Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, they killed me out of jealousy. I now run buried-treasure.org

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