Thief: Reboot Can’t Knock Original’s Hustle

[For this installment of Cinematheque, we cede the floor to avid gamer Jon Gold, who discusses the recent remake of Thief: The Dark Project.]

The Thief series is a massive favorite of mine. The second game, Thief II: The Metal Age, may be the single best PC title, IMO. Sadly, Eidos Montreal’s newly released reboot is incredibly frustrating. It was clearly made in the same spirit as its predecessors, but it consistently – almost conscientiously – zigs where the earlier games zagged.

One of the core issues is player movement and freedom of action. Your protagonist, Garrett – a pale shadow of the original games’ hero –  still gets around relatively well. He’s actually faster afoot than I remember his predecessor being in the older games, and the “swoop” action is a strong addition. But the game depends so completely on pre-scripted animations that the experience is acres worse.

Almost every movement other than simply walking around has some sort of little pre-programmed animation, where we get to see Garrett’s hands interact with the game world. It makes for a huge number of tiny little moments where you’re not actually in control, and they make it impossible to feel genuinely immersed in the setting.

It gets worse from there. Certain actions, like opening chests and picking locks, make Garrett slide into the one position from which the animation of his arms doing whatever you told them to do makes sense. It might not sound like much, but it means that you can be stopped cold by a blindingly obvious booby-trap on a cabinet, because the animation of Garrett opening the cabinet requires him to stand directly in the trap’s line of fire. There’s no way to simply open it from a different angle, while standing well out of harm’s way, because the animation won’t let you. And because that’s not the way Eidos wants you to foil this particular trap.

There’s the rub – the game’s developers, not you, are completely in charge here. You can’t shoot a rope arrow there and climb up to that balcony, because there’s no designated rope arrow spot on the wooden beam that would easily support your weight. You can’t try to jump and mantle your way up this wall full of apparent handholds, because it’s not a designated climbable wall. You can’t even jump, period, unless the game decides you’re in a designated jumping spot.

What this does, in effect, is turn the game into a theme park ride, instead of a simulation. There are occasionally multiple paths to objectives, and relatively subtle methods of accomplishing those tasks, but they simply don’t feel meaningful. Just because I feel a little heat from the pyrotechnics doesn’t mean I’m completely immersed in the experience. It’s sad that a game with this much well-crafted art and sprawling levels feels so limited and unengaging. Oh, and there’s a load screen seemingly every 50 feet or so on the main city map.

It’s particularly infuriating to see this in Thief, because games like Assassin’s Creed show that context-dependent movement doesn’t have to be a frustrating mess. The free-flowing parkour in those titles is one of the very best parts, never mind the actual assassinating.

The contrast with Dishonored – a 2012 game noticeably influenced by earlier Thief titles – is also telling. In that game, you have a limited teleport power, several different modes of movement and the ability to actually jump whenever the hell you please. It was a fucking blast.

Dishonored, in turn, has clearly been a strong influence on the new Thief, and by “strong influence” I mean “Thief absolutely and totally rips off Dishonored in really important ways.” The brand-new setting – which, let’s remember, was created despite three games’ worth of fluff and lore poured into the original one – is a crumbling Victorian metropolis riven by political intrigue, controlled by evil elites, and dying from a pandemic. Yeah.

As I said, I’m less than halfway through, but I’ll be willing to bet that Thief will attempt to look morally complex by throwing in a twist that make the good guys look not-so-good right around two-thirds of the way through. (Side note: Having almost all your characters be shitty people does not mean you have created a nuanced story. It could well mean that you’re boring and kind of a shitty person yourself. Looking at you, George R.R. Martin. [75 percent kidding.])

I’d talk more about the character development, but I’ve only been playing for 10 hours and I haven’t seen any, so fuck me for expecting any of that so early, right? Garrett, at this point in the story, is a lone wolf who plays by his own rules and doesn’t care about anything except this one girl, and presumably he’s hoping I’m bad at this game so he can die and stop being such a crappy, mass-produced substitute for a protagonist.

The girl I don’t know much about yet, except for the fact that she fell into a creepy magic ritual about 20 minutes into the game and everyone’s acting like she’s dead, so I estimate the chances of her returning in some kind of altered form to be about 99.9999 percent.

The characters may be where the remake suffers most in comparison to the originals. Yes, original Garrett was a lone-wolf, ultra-professional master thief as well, but he had a sense of humor about it, dispensing gravelly little witticisms from the shadows and having approximately 4,973 times more personality than his latest iteration, who talks in a monotone and generally sucks. Even the guards in the original games, often characterized by only a few random lines of dialogue or a poorly whistled tune, have more definition than this Garrett.

Speaking of which, guard dialogue is another place where Thief rips off Dishonored and looks idiotic for its troubles. You remember all those weird little procedurally generated lines that guards in Dishonored would periodically say? “Shall we gather for whiskey and cigars,” and so forth? Picture that, but with a third of the possible lines and twice the frequency. Essentially, every guard you see that doesn’t have a scripted line is dropping one of the same five lines every 10 seconds or so.

So it’s kind of a gong show, all in all, but it’s instructive to think about why that’s the case. I’m pretty sure that there wasn’t any unified authorial vision for the whole project at any point – possibly due to the aforementioned issues of staff turnover and an understandable but misguided desire to put more of Eidos Montreal’s own stamp on the game. Much was made, in the pre-release hype period, of the development team’s attempts to respect the source material while simultaneously treating the game as a new intellectual property.

But it’s not a new fucking IP, gang, it’s Thief! In a world where there have already been at least two completely new games created by fans of the originals, who had to fiddle with the setting enough to avoid infringing on the original Thief IP, it’s bizarre to see the actual rights-holders setting it on fire and lighting their cigars with it.

However, the reboot isn’t totally without charms. An extensive lineup of side jobs scattered around the city free Thief from its mega-studio straitjacket and offer glimpses of what might have been. These mini-missions, which tend to center on straightforward larceny, are the one place the game really feels like its predecessors.

They’re integrated into the gameplay in just the right way, as well. Deadly Shadows was the only other Thief title to let you wander the overmap of the City as you would, but most of the casual burglary you could accomplish there was a simple matter of sneaking in somebody’s window and stealing the one or two pieces of minor loot sitting out on a table. There’s plenty of that in the reboot’s main city map as well, but the inclusion of more in-depth side jobs provides an excellent middle ground between the restrictive bombast of the main missions and the miles-wide, inch-deep overmap.

All told, the new Thief is a bad game with some pleasant upsides. On its own, it would just be your average high-gloss major studio title, with nice art and a prodigious amount of stuff to do obscuring a lack of original ideas, an idiotic storyline/characters and uninspired gameplay. Standing next to its illustrious forebears, or even their flawed but gripping latter-day stylistic successors, it’s a goddamn train wreck – but it’s one I’m going to see through until the end, nevertheless.

[In Jon’s own words, “If you really want to waste your time trying to contact me, you can do so here.”]

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