Since the release of Thief: The Dark Project in 1998, the Thief franchise has been known as the grandfather of the stealth genre. It's mastery of simple, yet elegant stealth mechanics, sound design and environments have been a benchmark ever since. Now Eidos Montreal have taken the development reins for the fourth installment and reboot of the franchise, in the aptly named Thief.
Set in a Victorian steampunk world, the player once again takes control of Garrett; A master thief whose only goal is to steal as much as he possibly can. After a simple heist goes badly wrong, Garret wakes up one year later suffering from amnesia, with no memory of the events. Desperate to learn what happened that night, Garrett sets out on his quest for truth which soon spirals in to a web of the supernatural, conspiracies, political and social commentary. What sounds like the making of a decent supernatural gothic thriller soon falls flat on its face after the first hour of main story, nothing but exposition trying to explain how Garrett's been gone for a year and he's now got a green eye. Normally we wouldn't mind plenty of exposition, it helps flesh out the world and narrative, but Thief gets caught in the amnesia trap.
The problem you find of when amnesia is used as a plot device is, too much explaining and not enough reflection. In Thief's case, you are given information, but rarely see or hear what Garret think about it. The best you get is a line of dialogue when moving to the next objective after completing the previous one. When Garret wakes up after the opening heist goes wrong and his friend may have died, the first thing Garrett says is "Best get back to the clock tower, clear my head." Instead of questioning what happened in any way, he gives you an objective, then within seconds of getting back to the tower we start the next mission. This repeats many times throughout the game, but once in a while you are treated to a bit of emotion and a logical response to an event. When we started Thief we weren't expecting pages of dialogue like you would find in Metal Gear Solid, but at least give us something to relate to and understand what Garret is going through. It doesn't help that Garrett for the most part is pretty dull and unlikeable as well. Since Garrett's constant aim is to steal anything not nailed down, you need a Robin Hood-esque personality to counterbalance it. A sense of fun or charm to help disguise the fact that he's just stolen the new brides wedding ring and her mothers pen wouldn't go amiss.
Luckily, Thief isn't really about the story. Garrett may have the personality of a potato, but he has the skills of a wild cat. Sneaking around guards through the shadows, then stealing the money right off their belts is very satisfying. The stealth system brings back everything that made original games good, while looking to modern games like Mirror's Edge and Dishonored for inspiration on updating things like environment traversal. To help you sneak, you have a quick dash ability called "swoop," which works in a similar way to the "blink" ability in Dishonored, allowing you to quickly move from shadow to shadow. Moving around enemies like a ghost does play on a power fantasy, but the AI isn't all that special and in most cases, not a threat. On the normal difficulty a skilled stealth player will easily get around threats or sneak up and steal their purse. You might be able to get close enough to a guard to smell his breath, but with high reward comes high risk and if you get spotted, be ready for trouble. Taking on one guard in open combat is easy, but getting outnumbered will lead to a quick death, with every sword strike delivering high damage. In addition to abilities like swoop, you have an assortment of items and arrow types to aid you, adding a layer of tactical gameplay and strategy. It's a good idea keep a good stock of arrows and try not to waste them because you'll learn quickly that you never know when you might need them. There will be a point where you have used up all the rope arrows, then you find you need one to complete a side mission. This is a problem as you can find normal or blunt arrows around the world, but specialist arrows - like roped ones - will require you to have to travel to a vendor in The City to buy (and they aren't cheap.) Vendors also sell weapon upgrades and perk-based items, so you end up trying to manage what to buy and if you only collect minimum loot it'll take a while to get some of the more useful items and upgrades. So, just like a real thief its ideal to spend time in The City raiding houses for stuff.
The City is the main hub world of Thief, from here you can travel through multiple districts to raid house, complete side missions and progress through the main story. As fun as it may sound and look, don't be fooled, as it is the most disappointing thing about the game. You would think it would be an open world in the vein of Assassin's Creed or Batman: Arkham City, but it is a honeycomb of repetitive linear routes. Don't get us wrong, The City map looks beautiful just like the rest of the game - the atmosphere's great - but it is nothing but the illusion of freedom. You will always come cross a gap you want to jump, a wall you want to climb and a window you want to enter, but you are stopped dead in your tracks. If Eidos decided to take more of an RPG approach with an emphasis on open-world exploration, we have a feeling Thief would be a much more joyful experience.
If there's one redeeming quality for stealth enthusiasts however, it would be the custom difficulty. As we all know, the majority of games have an easy, normal and hard difficulty setting, Thief takes it to the next level and allows you to create your own setting with an assortment of options and provisos. If you want to only take out guards using stealth or set a fail state on missions if you get spotted for example, you can. There is even an "Iron Man" option, which results in a determinant death and full game restart if you die. We really must praise Edios for the option to craft difficult as we think it's something more developers should look into, resulting in extra replayability for even some of the most linear titles out there.
Thief is far from the grand return to the franchise fan were hoping for, but the stealthy heart of Thief: The Dark Project is still there. The majority of fans might not be completely happy with it, but a new audience will undoubtedly get a good taste of the classic franchise. You can't help but praise Eidos for the work they have done with the stealth systems and lighting as on the trusty Xbox 360 it looks good, but you always feel there could be more. So, if you can look past the weak story, dull characters and repetitive hub map to just loot everything in sight on a custom difficulty, then we would recommend picking up a used copy and giving it a blast over a weekend.