Thief was one of many first person action series that helped to popularise PC gaming throughout the late 90s. Although not quite as iconic as System Shock, DOOM, or Quake, Looking Glass Studios’ first entry – dubbed The Dark Project – was hailed by gamers for its defined gothic look and stealth based approach. Combining themes of magic and steampunk, Thief would become one of the most highly regarded PC titles of the decade, spawning a pair of similarly successful sequels.
After the 2004 release of Dark Shadows (Thief 3), this once-great franchise faded into the shadows as the games industry shifted and changed over the years that followed. Aside from leaping ahead two console generations, the entire first person genre has been given a firm shake with the advent of online shooters, especially those targeted at a mass audience. Even Thief’s publisher, Eidos, underwent a landmark transition, having been bought out by Square Enix in 2009.
Despite the publisher having built its empire on Japanese role playing games, the pairing seems to have worked. No doubt spurred on by the success of its Deus Ex reboot, Eidos Montreal took its next Thief game out of the concept stage and finally went to work. With Dark Shadows having launched almost a decade before, there would have been an overwhelming list of considerations to take into account. With transient gamer tastes and trends, Thief would need to feel fun and modern while also looking to please those hardcore fans who had been left waiting all this time.
Before playing the 2014 reboot, my experience with the franchise was limited, to say the least. It was a scorching summer afternoon in the mid-noughties that I sweatily trundled through GameStation and seized a copy of Thief II for the laughable sum of 99p. However, having been spoiled by modern action games, I simply couldn’t connect. While incredibly difficult, the game also felt a bit too reserved compared to console titles launching at the time.
Therefore, going into the reboot, I was relieved to see just how well Eidos Montreal had accommodated modern, console-bred gamers. What works best in Thief is how Garrett can traverse the environment in first person, scaling walls, crossing beams, and vaulting objects with the simple press of a button. It may have felt a tad reminiscent of the free-running in Assassin’s Creed, but it also felt like the perfect fit. There’s nothing worse than a stealth game with awkward, finicky character movement.
Sadly, everything else about Thief left me wanting, even as someone who didn’t have an affinity with the originals. Getting around The City and interacting with the environment may have felt smooth and, dare I say, intuitive but the rest of game plain stinks.
First off we have The City itself, a token of just how unimaginative the game’s writing is despite over a decade of lore building. Although there’s a traceable narrative arc, I had zero motivation in following it to see what was happening around me as I plundered my way from one chapter to the next.
Garrett’s delivery – as well as that of the characters around him – came across as flat, failing to recuperate even in later stretches of the game. Additionally, Thief’s mix of magical, steampunk, and gothic themes proved little more than a fancy backdrop for what is otherwise a by-the-numbers tale of greed, corruption, and meddling with the dark arts.
When it come to video games, I usually try and latch onto every scrap of lore thrown my way. That said, when playing Thief, I actually found myself skipping entire cutscenes without any care or remorse, knowing that whatever events transpired wouldn’t draw me any deeper into the game’s story.
No doubt I would cared a lot more if Thief’s various gameplay systems held together. Although movement felt fluid and responsive, the same could not be said of combat. With only a simple cudgel at your disposal, each enemy encounter felt like a sluggish ballet of weak blows and hasty counters.
Even with a bit of range between you and your target, Garrett felt incredibly underpowered. Despite a comprehensive spread of tools at his disposal, Thief never did a great job at explaining what these items were actually useful for. Even if you did manage to clock when and where to use a water arrow, for example, its use in-game never felt justified or empowering.
This was further hampered by some of the reboot’s open world foibles. Scouring through clumsy maps and menus just to find item vendors meant I’d often go into missions with nothing but a couple of health potions in my inventory.
While it felt modernised to a certain degree, Thief was far from being the well-rounded reboot fans were praying for. Eidos Montreal may have ticked plenty of boxes, but they failed to draw the lines between its various mechanics and systems. Instead of having a sturdy web binding everything together, players were left with a messy tangle.
Looking back at older games in series, one has to ask whether a direct sequel would have worked just as well. If Eidos had gone down the hardcore stealth route, would the end product have been as good or better than what we got?
Either way, I am eager to see where the series goes next. Despite the criticisms outlined in this column, Thief wasn’t universally slated when it released in 2014, sitting on an average review score of 65. There’s also no indication that the game was a commercial flop for publisher Square Enix either. That said, any attempt to expand the series from this stage on would potentially require yet another reboot or at least some distancing from the last game.