All games are power fantasies to one degree or another. Shooters make you feel destructive, RPGs make you feel adventurous, and Monopoly makes you feel like a property magnate or an earthquake, depending on your attitude. In stealth games, the power fantasy lies in outwitting enemies, nimbly slithering from shadow to shadow. As the original Thief: The Dark Project taught us in 1998, stealth games need good controls, reliable environmental cues, and challenging levels and enemies. Many games have imitated its mechanics, but Thief, the first new entry in the official series in a decade, has come along to steal back its crown.
To live the stealth lyfe, it’s important to be in control. Thief’s single best movement dynamic is the Swoop. I’m not sure how Garrett does it, but it’s an enormously effective silent glide across short distances, open to subtle levels of control. Apart from Swoop, Thief is a two-button game - one for running, jumping and climbing, and another for interaction. Occasionally this results in unintended movements, but the Assassin’s Creed style controls soon become second nature. Garrett’s hands and feet are ever-visible, giving his fetish-leathered body a tactile presence in the world. Walk to a railing and you’ll peer over. Creep up to a curtain and you’ll brush it aside. Run around corners and your view tilts. When the movement works, it really works.
Those controls mean nothing without environments to traverse, though, and Thief isn’t as open as it first appears. Only certain walls or ledges can be climbed, meaning you’ll spend a lot of time running stupidly at walls trying to scale them. Even on ground level, you’ll get nicked trying to hide in a doorway or under a table that’s protected by invisible walls as well as actual guards.
One thing Thief does exceptionally well is player weakness. Garrett is no immortal pincushion for the Watch’s arrows, which makes it imperative to stay hidden and silent. Unfortunately, Thief’s performance in this area is mixed. The interplay of light and shadow - and your visibility in them - is well-executed, but it’s too easy to escape suspicious enemies by hiding in a shadowy corner. Worse, the sound design is abominable. People talking through walls sound clearer than guards three feet away; reverb is applied inconsistently; ambient sound clumsily snaps from one area to another; and it’s never clear how loud your footsteps are, despite loading-screen text harping on about them.
Thief’s story wavers between banal and incomprehensible. It’s set against the dual backdrops of generic underclass revolt and the oft-discussed, never-seen plague, the Gloom. Neither the changing balance of power or the Gloom have any effect on gameplay. Fittingly, Garrett’s role in all this is similarly generic: he’s the reluctant saviour of a dying city. We’ve seen it all before. The insane A-plot, however, revolves around a magic force even dumber and more confusing than Dishonored’s Outsider. I couldn’t tell you what it’s all about, but there sure are some cool Weeping Angel-style statues in there. It’s all told via poorly-directed cutscenes and terrible voice acting - not unenthusiastic or flat, but littered with objectively incorrect line readings.
Luckily, it’s possible to skip those cutscenes and get on with the missions, which are pretty good, if derivative. You’ll play through a mass crematorium (with a bodies-on-hooks sequence a la Half-Life 2), an opium-scented brothel, a possibly-haunted asylum, mines filled with the Gollumy guys from The Descent, and two burning-building escape sequences. The designers clearly had a boner for bleakness. These missions have objectives to fulfill, but you choose your own path to get there through the open-plan sandbox levels. Mostly you’ll just be stealing valuables, but sometimes you solve light puzzles, or in one mission become a leather-clad peeping tom, watching sordid scenes of BDSM and humiliation play. It’s unexpected and kinda hot, if you’re into that.
If you’re really into that, Thief invites you to replay missions - any mission, anytime - to try out different play styles, defined as Ghost (slipping by unseen), Opportunist (exploiting environmental features), and Predator (bludgeoning people to death). Regardless of your methodology, the overall throughline is thievery, a strange and uninspiring motive.
Similarly, sidequests range from “steal this thing” errands to more involved client jobs for the two interesting people in the City, a stage magician and an automaton manufacturer. These client missions represent Thief’s precious few moments of levity. It’s just a shame the useless in-game map makes the required legwork through the City a chore.
Thief makes a big deal of its setting, in theory a Victorian steampunk sprawl with edge. In practice, the City is a samey, grey labyrinth with no landmarks and nothing to promote exploration save for completionism. The population is also mysteriously absent. Voices ring out through walls, yet every house in the city is empty. What people you do see ignore you, except to stab you or sell you things. Where are the ordinary people? Are they down at the pub? On holiday? Searching for the valuables they’ve inexplicably left on rooftops? Is Thief secretly a ghost story?
The Thief name has a significant legacy in the stealth genre, and Thief, confusing title and all, is clearly straining to live up to it, with its inclusion of water arrows, "taffer" references and more. It’s even sort of successful. Even with concessions to 2014 game design - the optional Focus vision mode, the linear escape sequences that might as well be quick-time events or cutscenes - the core stealth still works. But the weakness of everything around it made me wish I was playing Dishonored.
Which funnily enough, makes the cycle of imitation complete.