Thief, the grandfather of the modern stealth genre and a classic series originally crafted by Looking Glass Studios in 1998 (yes, GR has been around for that long), just might be the most audacious video game for Eidos Montreal to reboot. It carries the lofty weight of expectation from retro gamers and critics who recall the innovation Thief brought to action adventures, as well as the accepted weight of today's triple-A standards in game production and design. Somewhere in its secret hideaway, Eidos Montreal concocted a workable mixture of the two, making compromises where it could and sacrifices where it couldn't. The result should moderately satisfy both old-school and new-school gamers, but suffers from lackluster presentation and several mechanical mishaps.
Garrett returns as the titular character, the sneaky, laconic figure that townsfolk call "Master Thief" out of reputation and fear. In the prologue, he reunites with his apprentice, Erin, a brash pickpocket who doesn't share Garrett's disdain for killing enemies, a point which pulled them apart years ago. Joining together on a mission to swipe the Primal Stone from Baron Northcrest, Garrett and Erin let their disagreements fester, making the focal point of the argument on Erin's makeshift claw, which allows her to scale ladders and grated strips along the wall faster than the normal thief.
However, Garrett believes that she's acting too high and mighty off the power of the claw (not far from an analogy to drug use), and he pilfers it from her expecting to teach her a lesson, but ultimately dooms her at the end of the mission. Garrett himself is knocked into a coma for nearly a year until he arrives back in Stonemarket in a cart, wondering what the hell happened and why he seems to have supernatural focus abilities. Meanwhile, Baron Northcrest's pursuit for industrial progress has oppressed the people, who are already suffering due to the gloom sickness and food shortages.
Based primarily on his classic model, Garrett's personality is frequently at odds with the story. He doesn't get political, doesn't choose sides, and doesn't feel particularly guilty about losing Erin—anything that would distract him from accepting a challenging job is shoved under the rug. The main reason, if not the only reason, Garrett does anything is for the sake of being a thief. Being a cold, emotionless badass who makes wry wisecracks is typical for a roguish hero and can carry a story well, but his indifference and lack of reactions counteract the game's cut-scenes that sometimes attempt to have emotional depth. Since Garrett now uses Erin's claw for his own purposes, does that symbolize guilt? So am I supposed to care about her, or am I not? Even though he chastises Erin for killing guards, he doesn't show remorse if he does exactly that (though it will fail a mission if you've selected the Master difficulty).
On that note, Thief features an innovative custom difficulty reminiscent of the skulls in Halo and the assist toggling in Forza Motorsport. Of course, you can also select one of the classic default settings—Rogue, Thief, and Master—but if you wish for an even deeper challenge, you can set various challenges like No Focus, No Reticle, and Speciality Arrows Only. Or if you're truly a master thief, you can try for the hardcore Iron Man challenge where dying or failing a mission will erase your entire game and force you to start over. The total point value of all challenges will go onto the online leaderboard once the game has been completed, contributing to long-term competition between hardcore Thief players. In the short term, the three challenge modes, which ask you to steal as much loot as possible in a limited amount of time, will do the trick.
As you might suspect, the stealth system focuses on light and shadow as indicated by the ever-present light gem, situated in the bottom-left corner of the screen. It feels strange to have guards walk four feet in front of you and pass you by without making so much as a blink if you're in the dark, but at least it contributes to that "hide in shadows" fantasy. Other times, the point is to avoid eye contact with guards at all costs. Taken together, it's all about shooting torches with water arrows, swooping from shadow to shadow, throwing bottles as distractions, avoiding birds and hounds, dragging bodies into places where the City Watch won't notice, and climbing ropes when they're looking away.
My general plan of attack fits the predator and opportunist playstyles the game presents as bonus objectives for extra gold at the end of a mission, as I tend to wait for a guard to turn around and then swoop in for a strike with the blackjack. Only after I knock out everyone in the room do I feel safe to loot their unconscious bodies and the environment. But as a criticism, the transition from a takedown to dragging a body could have been much smoother, and the amount of time Garrett takes to perform a takedown takes much too long.
For Thief, slow and steady wins the race, and careful exploration is rewarded with extra collectibles and will have Garrett not be caught off-guard by traps. Most levels, though usually linear as a whole, have one or two paths off the beaten path, like a secret set of stairs inside a greenhouse or a brothel with a boiler room that can be used to knock out all of its inhabitants. Using focus vision for just a brief second helps too, since it reveals important objects in the area, just like Detective Mode in the Batman: Arkham series.
Though loot is no longer a requirement in completing a mission, obtaining upgrades and focus points that improve stealth, lockpicking, marksmanship, and more requires as much gold as possible. Specifically, the combat perks help most as they can get you out of a sticky situation if you're surrounded by alerted guards and have no escape route (which happens often even if you're cautious). Thus, it's difficult to achieve the ghost playstyle, which asks you to remain undetected, and still collect enough loot; still, it's not impossible.
Once Garrett reaches the central hub of Stonemarket, he can display collectibles and store some supplies at the clock tower in the central square (surprising that the City Watch doesn't search for him there at all). But the true value of the hub is that Garrett can accept odd jobs from Basso, explore the alleyways and rooftops, purchase resources and tools, and earn new abilities and upgrades before heading off into the other districts for core missions and side quests. Even more hub areas open up as the story progresses through the eight chapters, which along with the other missions amounts to about 10-25 hours depending on how much you explore.
Having such an expansive hub, however, leads to an excessive amount of backtracking. Traversing the map without a fast travel system is tiring, since City Watch guards respawn and the same-old loading times bog down the action. Even if you get accustomed to the labyrinthine city streets, it gets irritating going through the same areas by the later chapters.
Polishing is the most noticeable issue with Thief, particularly the quality of the graphics and audio. Thief isn't the first title to copy and paste character models throughout the world, but sometimes more than several models can be seen populating the same tavern, though with just different outfits. The lip-syncing and the facial animations feel stiff, and the textures don't have the highest resolution. NPC dialogue repeats itself often, sometimes in immediate succession, and its volume tends to be high no matter whether Garrett dashes in a busy street, crouches in a vent, or hides in an enclosed room with shuttered windows that need a crowbar to open. Consequently, the audio can get disorienting.
This contributes to the game world not feeling thorough and finished off. Thief fans will be disappointed that the cultist, supernaturally eerie aesthetic has dissipated by much, with no or little mention of the Keepers, Hammerites, Mechanists, and pagans. Those quotes written like scripture in the original Thief are nowhere to be seen, and interaction with some of the more interesting characters like the Queen of Beggars would have brought some much-needed depth. The blue-grayish streets are oddly unpopulated, rooms are mysteriously unoccupied, and most NPCs stare blankly into space. Perhaps Garrett is a thief out of sheer boredom.
The comparison of Thief to its contemporaries like Dishonored is a natural one, and Thief's more deliberate, more stealth-based combat is darkly refreshing. Hiding in the shadows and taking out each opponent like a ninja, albeit a non-lethal one, is satisfying. But Thief shows one too many unrefined edges, occasionally catching itself unable to resolve the issue combining classic design with modern production. That said, although it won't steal the spotlight, it should do enough to steal your attention.