Saturday, April 19, 2014

REVIEW - Thief.

Thief is a first-person stealth exercise credited to Eidos Montreal, who gave us the lovely Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  It serves as a reboot for the franchise, which launched on PCs in 1998 with Thief: The Dark Project.  The Dark Project is a legendary title, among gamers, with wide-open, exploration-heavy levels, total player freedom, tactile gameplay, rich player agency and the sort of thick, atmospheric narrative-building that first-person shooters have been aping for the past decade.  It set a lot of standards, for far more than the stealth genre.

Thief has some big shoes to fill.

Garrett's only prepared to get to work after donning an appropriate ensemble of fetish gear.

It doesn't.  Not very well, at least.  In the playing, Thief feels far more like a sort-of-sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution than the Thief franchise.  There are no wide-open areas to explore here - no huge swaths of cobbled streets like in Thief II, no hours-long single levels that see you navigating one gigantic building or a huge underground city without a load screen - incredible, architecturally-intuitive worlds to explore and memorise. Instead, it's a series of smallish, semi-open segments that rarely make any sense in how they're put together.  You'll rifle through a writer's manuscript in his study as he and his wife chat on the other side of a wall, for example - but the fact that there's no door to actually access the living quarters of his house from his study is...

...pretty stupid.  And the entire city is constructed in such a counter-intuitive fashion.  Houses built of sealed room make no sense - it lacks the grounded believability of that old game, and so, the player is consistently, numbly aware that what they're playing is just a game.  That this room and the letter opener identical to the last fifty you found was made just for you to rifle through and get a few extra coins.

It's not a writer's study.  That writer doesn't exist.  He's a voice behind a wall, whom you can never meet.

The game lacks most of the the legendary immersion of its namesake.

Pickpocketing is now a sort-of minigame in which you need to hover your cursor over a target's back and hold down square until Garrett snatches the item.

Thief reportedly went through several redesigns before becoming what it is - and you can see, here and there, what's left over from the past.  There are third-person climbing sequences in which Garrett will clamber up some pipes, and the camera zooms out to a third-person perspective when you perform knockouts on guards (drawn-out, loud and showy animations that aren't nearly as cool as what we got in Human Revolution).

One can perceive how the team at Eidos Montreal thought these were good ideas.  When you go to open a drawer, the camera immediately shifts to an ideal angle as Garrett's hands shoot out to open it (reaching in to grab whatever's in there before the drawer's even open) and close it just as quickly - but all these beautiful, well-presented moments are moments that control is wrested from the player.

The game is packed with them, and - like the world design - it ends up reducing the player's immersion instead of enhancing it.

In Thief, if you're presented with two guards near each other, and one turns their back for a moment, you may be tempted to knock the other out.  But beware!  Thief obliges you to enjoy its overlong, over-loud knockout animation, and you must then observe the body falling and hitting the ground before you can move forward, highlight the body and enjoy the overlong animation for picking the guard up.

Basso offers side-jobs which demand you explore the city hub - easily the best part of the game.

2012's Dishonored, from Arkane studios, actually managed far more accomplished first-person stealth immersion by strictly adhering to the principles of freedom and speed Thief pioneered fifteen years ago - allowing the player to do what they wanted to do, instead of removing control and showing it to them - instant pickpockets, knockouts that can move directly in to holding the body up before it hits the ground to be dragged out of sight... it's a lovely game.

I still remember - the first thing I did in Dishonored was turn to a nearby eight-foot piece of wall and see if I could mantle it.  I could.  I pulled myself up to the top and stood on the edge of the thin wall.  Perfect.  Total player agency.  I could run and jump and climb all over everything.

In Thief, there is no jump button.  You'll come across a beam popping six inches out of the ground and find yourself unable to step over it because the developers decided you don't need to get over it.  There's only a "parkour" button, a'la Assassin's Creed, which sees you deftly swoop up walls and over obstacles if the developers have deemed it necessary.

Again, there are a lot of perches I would have liked to have checked out, or fences I would like to have stood on - but Garrett will swoop over them instead of standing on them - or simply refuse to climb objects shorter than walls he's easily scrambled up, because they weren't programmed to be climbable.  I've spent fifteen, twenty minutes pacing back and forth around a building with an open, lit window on the second floor, desperately trying to figure out the single, obscure rout the designers intended me to utilize to access it - it's often the precise opposite of fun.

Oh well.

There are still water arrows, thank goodness.
Rope arrows are weird, this time around.   A'la Tomb Raider, they can only be fired into beams wrapped with white rope - limiting their utility - and the ropes that drop from them have arbitrary lengths, sometimes causing quite a headache.

Enemy AI is simple, but it gets the job done.  The awareness indicators that hover over their heads when they begin to perceive you come across as a bit heavy-handed, but it's a welcome taste of transparency in a game where their reactions and behaviours are otherwise terribly difficult to anticipate.  Putting a blunt arrow into nearby wall will cause one guard to move to investigate the sound, another to do nothing, and a third will immediately pull out its sword.

It's weird.  As such, the game feels less a series of cleverly-overcome scenarios and more like a linear gauntlet of more-or-less scripted events.   Imagine Hitman: Absolution with smaller sections of levels.

In order to get in to the manor of some noble or another to steal a precious item, you must make your way past X, for example.  In previous Thief titles (or Dishonored or classic Hitman), X is optional.  You could deal with X, or you could go in a completely different direction and deal with Y or Z or any number of other potential options.

In Thief, you need to get past X.  Your "choice" is limited to what unique arrows or tools you're prepared to expend in the process.  It's a suffocatingly linear experience, when compared to its ancestry.

The game's repeated missteps aren't the only story here, fortunately.  Every game has its pleasures, and Thief regularly overcomes its inelegance by retaining some of the raw joys its genre is heir to - slipping past unknowing guards, or landing a sweet headshot with a bow from fifty yards.

There's an early sequence in which you need to get to the end of a street, and the only way to do so is through the jeweller's shop - again, terribly prescribed - but once you're in the jeweller's shop, one promptly gets down to the business of taking every single thing that isn't nailed down.  There's a satisfaction to slipping out of an upstairs window (the only way to get to the end of the street), knowing you've scoured a shop and the living quarters above clean of all items - but perhaps this sequence stands out because it's one of only three fully-realized, self-contained buildings in the game.

The other two are, again, fully-explorable, intuitively-constructed dwellings that are only found if you accept side jobs from NPCs.

The side jobs are, undeniably, the highlight of the game.

They rely entirely on the game's hub - which is, actually, a half-dozen small sections of (totally-incomprehensible, byzantine) city streets.  The hub is a hassle and a half to get around, at first.

There's little immersion to the city - no sense that this is a real place, populated by actual people who could go on about their lives here - but over time, one gets used to its incomprehensible, Escher-like structure and begins to understand how to get from point A to point B.

Getting from point A to point B and pilfering everything you can find at one of the glowing markers on your map, I've found, is the high point of my time with Thief.  It is only here that the joys of its heritage are felt in any meaningful sense - of exploring, feeling one's way around and enjoying a-ha moments when something clicks into place and you fire a blunt arrow through some security bars to activate a switch that will let you in to a single room rife with goodies.

Most of the game's side missions open up towards the latter half.  When I was two story missions away from the end, I stopped by Basso's and picked up nearly twenty of them, attending to a few as I made my way towards the game's ending.

By that point, though, I found myself more interested in just getting Thief done than enjoying what minor pleasures it had to offer.

Two things I loved:
(1) Garrett's hands while lockpicking, and how he puts the picks away in the lacing of his gloves.
(2) Picking this lock before the fire got to me.   It's like, priorities, people. 

Thief indeed has its pleasures, and it's a graphically-good game at this tender time in the PS4's life cycle, but it's not a beautiful title in any sense of the word.  Its environments are almost uniformly forgettable, its art direction drab and emotionally gray.  One feels like the devs at Eidos Montreal were simply going through the motions, on this one, and not actually interested in building an experience that they or their audience would find fun, or a game that advances the stealth genre in any capacity.

It ticks most of the boxes, but fumbles the details.  It's a game that wants to think it's giving you something remarkable, with huge, linear action-set pieces with big explosions and such - but in forcing the player through so much and rarely asking them to express themselves, it renders itself largely forgettable.

Oh, and the story sucks.

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