Saturday, September 6, 2014

Thief (2014) - Thoughts

Sometimes, it's easy to bungle your own playthrough of a game. I had the clever idea while starting Eidos Montreal's Thief that I'd intentionally make it harder for myself by turning off the focus mode, arrow reticule, hints and waypoint markers in order to have a more authentic thieving experience. I haven't played any entries in the Thief franchise before and after hearing some unfortunate comments directed at the newest title, I decided that going with all these optional challenges would be the best way to make the game feel more "classic". Unfortunately, this meant getting lost... constantly. Looking back, I'm unsure how much of it is due to the obscure game design or my own general ineptitude while traversing the levels.

This confusion was confounded by what may be ironically the best aspect about Thief—the wealth of customizable gameplay options. I previously stated what changes I made but you can go further than that, like making it impossible to incapacitate enemies if they spot you and having only a single chapter checkpoint as your save. Additionally, in the options you can turn off a wide range of interface elements, like the minimap, loot glint, lock-picking assistance, alertness of guards and more. The extent to which your can affect your gameplay is fantastic (the HUD options can be switched on/off at any time) and it's a shame more games don't allow players this much variability... even if it did add some detrimental factors to my playthrough.

Thief is at its best when it provides the player room, letting you sneak around, spot routes, and steal goodies right under naive noses. Conversely it plays worse the more restrictive it gets, with certain linear paths standing out as the worst offenders; the only thing you're left to play around with is inferring the "correct" way out. Eidos Montreal's attempt to rope in non-stealth gamers is visibly apparent when you're funneled through Assassin's Creed-like sections, climbing around the terrain in 3rd person or recklessly fleeing from urgent scripted sequences. I think it's odd that the game forgoes stealth in so many sections, placing the player into more bombastic roles in order to rouse excitement out of them. The lack of focus mode certainly didn't help me in any of these constrictive situations, as at certain points I would be surrounded by enemies after a cutscene and unsure of where to go (like the end of chapter 4). Thief danced between frustration and relief quite often during my experience.

Since the large open playgrounds are the most gratifying component of this stealth title, it may be surprising to learn that the town's hub doesn't hit the mark in this regard. It certainly looks expansive on the map but so many houses and alleys require a loading time QTE to access (you'll do around a hundred times before the journey's end) that you'll eventually be deterred from exploring unless your side-quests demand it. And the paths that don't require mashing "E" to open a window are often narrow and long, lacking shortcuts to other parts of the city. Every time I wanted to go see Basso I'd have to pass through the same alley each time from the same direction, and it became an unfortunate chore by the end of the game.

If the gameplay tweaks don't excite you, the visuals hopefully will—textures are rich, dark and gothic, with certain vistas and rooms worth a repeated gander. Thief is a caliginous beauty but the story suffers from some abhorrently subpar writing & direction. The central antagonist is cartoonishly evil and your tutorial companion is cartoonishly arrogant, the dialogue from both coming across as painstakingly cliche in any scene that they're featured. While the locales are excellent (the insane asylum is my favorite) there was such little reason to care for the town or the characters without diving into the optional text that I felt isolated from the place, largely concerned with upgrading my gear more than whether Orion's revolution would work against the local guard. It's a dreary, atmospheric town but I had little reason to care about it other than for the money.

When you're lurking in the shadows, a hair's breadth behind a guard and you snatch his wallet successfully, turning around and scampering silently back up to the rooftops, Thief works beautifully. But when you're stuck in a small underground passage way, looking for the tiny glowing object you're supposed to interact with as you hear the same ambient noises loop over and over, Thief reminds you that it's still a video game, subject to questionable design. It's largely left to the player to determine which side they'll find themselves partaking in more, but it's not unconscionable to suggest that the fourth entry in the Thief series is certainly marred by its errors, and quite possibly a disappointment considering its legacy... I guess I'll have to delve into the older games to make that decision for myself some day.

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