Monday, 10 March 2014

Thief in Brief

I finished Thief on the day it came out, and I’ve been trying to write a review ever since. It currently stands at around 11,000 words – far too long, even for a blog as self-indulgent and meandering as this one,1 and so instead putting out one massive review, I’m going to write a series of posts covering various aspects of the game such as level design, stealth, etc., and my thoughts about those aspects of games in general. For now, though, a review in miniature.

  • Options menu (turning off loot-glint etc.) allows for a large range of play-styles, accommodating newcomers to the franchise as well as veteran players. Same applies to custom difficulty settings. Graphics are superb; aesthetics are muddled and frequently dull. 
  • Excellent optimisation (my now-fairly-old-PC ran everything on ‘High’ without breaking a sweat).2 
  • Story is both idiotic and badly told. Contrast this with T1, T2 and T:DS, which were merely idiotic. 
    • That said, I enjoyed Garrett’s characterisation in the tutorial level, in which he is cast as the veteran Thief player against the girl’s CODBLOPS mentality. Shame that didn’t last more than five minutes. 
  • As the game goes on the story gets worse and the levels get better. At least, until the last level-and-a-bit, when the two join hands and jump off a cliff. 
  • Most of the loot stolen is low-grade tat like inkwells (2G, approximately 4% of the cost of an arrow) and the City’s equivalent of blue plaques, which Garrett just hoards for no appreciable reason. This change from master thief to petty vandal is jarring. 
  • Replacing free-jumping with context-sensitive ‘swooping’ is not an inherently bad decision, but combines with the extremely limiting environments to exacerbate feelings of linearity and hand-holding (you can only jump on areas splashed with white paint, of which there are far too few). The effect is far more than a ‘video-gamey necessity to not let a grown-ass man jump a couple of feet in the air’. More on this in a later post. 
  • Guards in combat can now be bludgeoned into unconsciousness with the blackjack, which to my mind is a pleasant alternative to the flight-or-kill dichotomy presented by previous games. 
    • Similarly, the combat, while basic (attack; if theyblocked then dodge; else attack;), is definitely on a par with the sword-play of the first two titles, and may well be better. 
  • The City doesn’t work as a hub or a cogent location. Again, more on that in a later post. 
  • Lots of reviews have tried to balance themselves by going ‘well a lot of it is rubbish, but the levels are really good’, without really explaining what they mean by ‘good’.3 Unfortunately, neither can I. All the levels I played were either completely linear (in one case quite literally on rails), or ended after about fifteen minutes. 
    • Let me elaborate on that last point. One of the early missions is set in a brothel, which you spend quite a bit of time locating and sneaking into. Once you’re in, it’s obvious that this is one of those large levels with lots of room for exploration etc., and I got very excited. Unfortunately, I found the secret passage in the study (that’s not a spoiler because the game tells you where it is) right at the beginning of my explorations, and once you’ve entered that passage you’re stuck and can’t go back and explore any more. So maybe the brothel’s great, but I couldn’t tell you about it. A similar thing happens a level or so later, when you have to break into an architect’s house. ‘This house was built by the architect himself!’ I heard a guard say. ‘It’s full of traps and secret passages!’. ‘Excellent!’ I thought. ‘It’s Casing the Joint all over again!’. But then I found the secret passage into the study in the first 30 seconds, and then the level ended. So, yeah, maybe it’s great. I couldn’t possibly comment. 
    • I also tried some of the sub missions. They mostly consisted of me running around and around the same building trying to find the one pre-determined spot where I could fire a rope-arrow to climb up to the only entry-point to the mission. 
    • One level really was good, though, and that’s the Shalebridge Cradle knock-off (I can’t remember what it’s called). It has a terrible ending but the first half-hour or so was genuinely atmospheric and tense and when my cat jumped up for cuddles I nearly killed her by accident. 
Ok, so that wasn’t as brief as I’d hoped. Next up, Thief and Plausible Level Design.


1. I quite like the idea of a meandering blog, carving ever-increasing curves into the receiving earth until eventually the curve becomes separated from the main flow and becomes an ox-blog lake. Come to think of it, that’s what Adam Roberts does, and it seems to work for him. 
2. I realise that talking about the technical side of games – graphics, optimisation, and the like – is the kind of thing that we’re supposed to mock now, as though games were some kind of rarefied art form injected directly into our brains without any intervening medium, but Thief has some of the best graphics I think I’ve ever seen, especially in areas of lighting and shadows, and to accomplish that as well as the aforementioned optimisation in the weird gap between console generations is worthy of comment. 
3. John Walker, at RPS: ‘[The story is] utter, utter bilge, horribly written […] fortunately, it matters very little, since it’s only there as an excuse to link epic, intricate and hugely enjoyable levels together.
Jerry Holkins, at PA: ‘The city hub is a haphazard labyrinth, and not the good kind […] But, oh, once you get there. Places! Real places, clever places, solid places that I believe in and inhabit.’
Fabio Bortolotti, at IGN Italia: ‘The story and setting could seem tedious or uninspired, but the quality of the design and the abundance of content pardons any imperfections’ (badly trans. from Italian, sorry).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I look forward to your subsequent posts about Thief.