The first Thief game, released in 1998, set a lot of benchmarks. Along with Metal Gear Solid it was one of the original sneak-em-ups, the grandfather of Deus Ex and Hitman and Splinter Cell and Dishonored.
It and its two sequels had weapons that could be used as tools, multiple paths you could follow to your objective, and the choice of whether to go in guns blazing - not normally a wise choice - or create a distraction and slip past when the guards were looking the other way. The new game is a series reboot, the first Thief game in ten years. It’s been developed by Eidos Montreal, the same studio (although not actually the same team) that developed the excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. As in the previous Thief games you play a hooded, shadow-dwelling cutpurse called Garrett, and as in the previous games, your main objective is to nick other people’s things.
The gameplay’s good
In a lot of ways, Thief sticks to its winning original formula. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a jewel that becomes lighter the more visible you are, and this naturally persuades you to keep to the shadows at all times. Your main weapon/tool is the bow and arrow, and while you can use this to shoot people, it isn’t Far Cry 3. Most of the arrows you collect are non-lethal and used for putting out torches (to reduce visibility), creating distractions or releasing switches. There’s a ‘choke’ arrow that knocks people unconscious with a cloud of gas, but mainly the idea is to get past without any combat.
Movement is faster and more parkour-influenced than the original series, with climbable wall sections, vaults and the occasional slide. There’s some nice level design and Garrett’s ‘Focus’ vision highlights the scramble-ready parts of your environment to help you find different paths. As in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there are hubs from which a lot of different side quests branch off, but in Thief all the levels are replayable, so you can go back and redo a mission with new equipment. This should make it good value in the hours-played-per-pound stakes, and if you pine for the difficulty of the original game, you can have it thanks to some Classic Thief Mod options in the settings.
The writing’s awful
While Dishonored certainly owes a lot to the original Thief games, it was also a highly original game in its own right. The people who made Dunwall did months of research and location scouting, and they built a place that has its own clever aesthetic. Like the worlds in the Bioshock series, it’s obviously a fantasy world, but one that makes sense.
Thief’s city - called The City - and its inhabitants do not make sense. There is no style that defines it, other than that it’s sort of olde-worlde. This is not a problem in itself, but the writing and voice acting are atrocious. Most of the NPCs speak in a dialect that goes for Mockney but veers off through Ireland, Australia and possibly Boston for sentences at a time before returning to cod-Victorian. Which, again would fine, except Garrett and most of the other main characters speak in modern American accents, which gives the impression that they’re tourists who have wandered into a historical theme park full of drunk, out-of-work actors. There’s an evil fascist Baron (you know, like the Lord Regent in Dishonored) and a mysterious plague (you know, like in Dishonored), and people are called things like Cornelius Greaves. At one point there was a mention of opium, and ale. While our two-hour preview wasn’t enough to get really get into what could be a much deeper game, what we saw didn’t feel particularly imaginative.
Will this be enough to put us off Thief? Not necessarily. There are plenty of great games with awful writing and acting, but that doesn’t stop them being brilliant fun. Stay tuned for a full review when it’s released on February 28th.