Thief Review: For the Hoard

Thief certainly lives up to its name, having borrowed and filed it down from 1998's eye-opening classic, Thief: The Dark Project. Eidos Montreal's take strays from pure stealth in its contemporary design, but earns success from one crucial perspective: that of a man who sees glittering objects everywhere.

Though it's too dark to classify as comedy, Thief made me laugh at myself as I inhabited the role of Garrett, master thief and perpetual pincher of private items. Between the closeness of the game's first-person perspective and the oppressive gloom cast by its cobbled, medieval architecture, Thief effectively imparts the ideal mindset to match Garrett's quiet and crouched movements. That mindset, I learned while running from guards and stupidly stopping to unscrew a shiny plaque on the city's wall, is tinged with insanity and distraction. I just couldn't help myself.
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Thief (2/24/2014)

The path of kleptomania is a drunken line through grimy alleys, open windows, formerly locked doors and any distraction fit to pocket. By the time Garrett gets to his mission objective his clothes must bulge like there's a sumo wrestler inside, jangling loudly with coins, gilded goblets, bracelets and velvet purses. The local newspaper will question both the sudden dearth and initial excess of exquisite letter openers.

Garret's foggy realm is a distant steampunk cousin to Gotham City, acting both as hub for missions and a vertical playground of opportunities. The anemic story tries its best to suggest a path, but Thief excels in the dark periphery – in the beckoning desk drawers, the glinting knick-knacks spied through a keyhole, and the collection of paintings that are so hideous you just know they cost a fortune. Every acquisition is conveniently converted into cash, and the rare ones get a display case in Garrett's clock tower hideout.

This version of Thief covets the satisfaction of an object well stolen, and brings its trim hero to life in a way that the original games never quite touched on. This Garret extends his fingers in anticipation, grips the corners that help obscure him, and caresses a shelf of dusty books, feeling out the mark of a secret passage. He pinches his lock-picks with finesse, wiggling them ever so slightly when the placement is right (this is why I recommend disabling the game's other on-screen help). You're seeing – in first-person – the well-mannered hands of a master, and before long they trick you into playing like one.

Moments of tension spring up organically around your robberies, so take heed if you're halfway through a lock and hear creepy whispers – they indicate suspicion rising in a nearby patrol. Ye olde security goons aren't the smartest, but they're governed by a few sensible thoughts that lead to investigation: Was that the sound of glass underfoot? Was this door open before? Was it the wind that doused this flame? Did someone leave a body in the kitchen again? Is there ... is there someone in my personal space right now, at 'bout kneecap height? Must have been a rat?

Unless it started with a broad-head arrow to the head or a swift knock-out blow from Garrett's blackjack, I never won a fight against these guys. Multiple opponents don't play well with your simplistic offense, and this is hardly the type of game you'd want to spend banging on helmets anyway. Thief excels as a lean stealth game, even if you ignore Garrett's fancy arrows and strip it down to just the essentials of hiding, plotting a quiet path and swooping through the light. In the open city – tragically segmented by loading breaks – you set your own goals and feel rewarded by your own cunning.

The game's rewards are balanced with the risks you initiate in what eventually becomes an impulsive desire to steal everything. Mechanical traps will catch you off guard, caged birds become loudly alarmed if you startle them, and a guard might turn to find your startled face at crotch level, moments before you could pick his back pocket. A calm pace and concentrated observation almost never fails, but then – ooh, shiny!

Thief's balance isn't entirely successful in this regard, however, because the economy (at least at the normal difficulty setting) is too giving. I was flush with cash after just a few side quests and some obsessive pilfering in the initial story missions. I bought most of what I needed and never used the storage chest in Garrett's hideout. To its credit, Thief isn't catering just to those who pretend to be ghosts – special items can be worn to enhance Garrett's abilities, and his right eye holds a supernatural trick. At a blink it can help him pick locks faster, empty multiple pockets at once, or reveal secret traps, and I did find it useful in bursts as an expendable safety buffer. It can also be ignored altogether, save for its role in Garrett's encounter with a mysterious stone and political unrest in the city.

The level design, both in the cordoned-off story missions and the city itself, lures you into exploration with loot and various methods of traversal. A wrench tool unlocks vents, a special arrow will attach a climbing rope to special wooden beams overhead (though physics-defying inertia prevents the rope from swinging), and if all else fails some over-sharing type will have left a note about a secret pathway into the baron's mansion.

Thief occasionally dabbles with collapsing pathways as well, with some missions triggering an escape sequence meant as spectacular climax to your concentrated sneaking. These all feel staged and out of place, though, and poorly aligned with the hushed tone of the game. This is the ugly side of Thief's modernization, welded to a less charismatic, bland Garrett and a story that opens with a botched robbery, adds a dash of amnesia and then fizzles out in a misjudged boss fight of sorts. Thief's trajectory should have taken Garrett to the untouchable item, the uncrackable safe, the perfect crime – to end up at anything resembling a boss fight feels like a jarring compromise, all for the sake of labeling this an "adventure."

Thief is best when it sticks to the involving, slow-paced stealth that made its ancestor such a tense affair. In its subtle moments, Eidos Montreal gives your creeping a sense of closeness and texture, in a game where you almost always have your nose pressed against things. Much like Garrett, Thief succeeds when it's quiet, fingers reaching out and almost – almost – touching an irresistible spread of glittering prizes.

This review is based on a PC download of Thief, provided by Square Enix. The Xbox One version was also tested. Images: Square Enix.

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