Late on in Thief’s campaign, we find ourselves escaping a burning, building-lined bridge. It’s a well-directed sequence that shows off both the game’s beautifully rendered world and its free-flowing Assassin’s Creed-style parkour. Halfway across, however, we must squeeze through a tight gap between fallen masonry, lifting a beam out of the way as we trace a gentle S-bend through the rubble. It’s there to mask the game loading the next area, of course, and it would be entirely inoffensive if it wasn’t for the fact that we’ve seen the QTE that powers it more than 20 times already.
This flagrant reuse of the same sequence over and over again to hide loading is indicative of a wider malaise permeating Thief’s shadowy world. While Eidos Montreal has achieved much with its reboot, moments such as this suggest it could have used still more development time, despite being years in the making.
More aggressive editing wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. The game’s thirdperson climbing sections, vestigial remnants of a prototyping stage clearly in thrall to Uncharted, disrupt your immersion while offering no clear justification for the forced change in perspective. Certainly none of them require any greater navigational awareness. The decision to leave them in, especially considering that the more challenging free-running moments never threaten an out-of-body experience, smacks of a job rushed towards the end. As do the regular NPC hiccups, which see some characters turning around 270 degrees to face the corner they’re attempting to negotiate, spinning on the spot, or striding confidently into the wall blocking their path. One poor soul is doomed to repeatedly try to smoke his hand in the absence of any cigarettes.
But despite a manifest lack of polish, Thief is nevertheless a striking-looking game and one that succeeds in capturing the spirit of its predecessors, with just one small caveat: you’ll need to disable Focus, Eidos Montreal’s headline feature. This highlights useful elements in your environment, be it ladders or ropes to climb, traps waiting to be sprung, or treasure left about the place by the careless denizens of The City. Augmented vision modes might be de rigueur, but in a game all about reading your environment, the ability to instantly see where everything is only undermines.
Thankfully, Eidos Montreal has made Thief highly customisable. Disable Focus and the game reveals itself to be worthy of the series’ name, but go further and play on the hardest difficulty, which makes civilian knockouts a failstate, and Thief becomes a moreish, slow-burning exercise in expertly delivered tension. Guards and civilians are alerted by all manner of things, including noise, unconscious comrades, extinguished flames or even something generally amiss, such as an open cupboard or safe door, making clearing out every room a self-contained puzzle. But you can use the environment to your advantage, too: naked flames can be extinguished with water arrows or your fingers, while some electric lights have switches nearby. Bottles and other items can be thrown to create a distraction, while carpets and grass provide a quieter surface across which to move quickly. It feels just how Thief should.
While Focus is overbearing, Eidos Montreal’s other additions are more welcome. The new Swoop move allows you to move rapidly and silently across a short distance – just so long as you’re not in water, on a bed of glass or near an easily disturbed caged dog or bird. It’s an empowering way of getting close to a mark in order to pickpocket them and then retreat, or to move from shadow to shadow efficiently.
The faithful Blackjack has received an upgrade, too, augmented with grapnel-like spikes that can be used to scale high walls. It still serves as a non-lethal way to incapacitate enemies, as well as a last line of defence against sword-wielding guards. It’s usually possible to run away if you do get spotted, but judicious use of the dodge and careful circling makes taking out one or two guards possible. Any more than that, however, and you’re definitely pushing your luck.
The main missions take in all manner of locations, from grubby meat-packing factories to plush brothels and grand houses. Trips to excavated ruins and an asylum also provide some supernatural encounters, the former introducing a vicious creature that’s afraid of the light, inverting every instinct you’ve learned up until that point. While there’s never a sequence as nerve-jangling as Thief: Deadly Shadows’ Shalebridge Cradle mission, Thief has its share of scary moments.
But Garrett’s extended tool- and moveset are best showcased in the urban hub that links the mission levels together. Split into several districts (gated by doorways, windows and a few more of those beam-lifting QTEs), it’s an environ as thickly laden with atmosphere as it is dirt. Twisting, torch-lit cobbled streets wind around rickety buildings, the roads populated with beggars, drunks, prostitutes and guards. Eavesdropping on people’s conversations might reveal the location of some valuable loot, and there are a number of characters here who will give you client missions, plus shady dealers who sell and upgrade equipment. While the main missions are enjoyable, the freedom to experiment, improvise and discover things for yourself proves even more alluring.
Thief is far from the disaster that many feared it would be, and fans who take the time to customise their settings ahead of their first playthrough will find a rewarding world here to pick clean. Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that, for all his dexterity, Garrett has stumbled in his attempt to gain access to a new generation.