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EGM Review: Thief

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Posted on February 24, 2014 AT 06:00am

A criminal offense

Thief is a hot mess.

On the one hand, I want to applaud Square Enix for having such enormous balls. It’s rare in this day and age that we see a heavily anticipated, aggressively advertised triple-A game shoved out the door in such a sorry state. There’s a spectacle in a failure of this scope, something to be admired in being unashamed to do something so wildly different—even when different means bad.

On the other hand, there’s no part of me that can recommend you go out and buy Thief—not even if you’ve got a fetish for watching train wrecks unfold. I’ve played my fair share of terrible games in this line of work, but few have proven so thoroughly unenjoyable from moment to moment.

I can’t comment on whether the rumors of development hell at Eidos Montreal were true or not, but I can say this much: From start to finish, Thief plays like a game that had an exceptionally painful birth. To be perfectly blunt, it feels like three different games that were stapled together in a fat hurry, as a last-ditch effort to stop the game from being canceled outright. It’s one part stealth, one part heavily scripted action-platformer (read: amateurish Uncharted knockoff), and one part survival-horror game. That’s not necessarily a blend destined for disjointed failure, but here, there are palpable mood swings, moments where you can see the stitching that separates one creative vision from the next. Thief constantly oscillates, never making up its mind about what, exactly, it should be.

It certainly doesn’t help that, from a technical standpoint, the game runs about as well as a drunken toddler. I can’t decide whether the developer’s recent promise of “30 frames per second” was hopeless optimism or a bald-faced lie, but it’s certainly quite far from the truth. Perhaps they expected no one to notice or care that the game chugs to around half that, if not lower. And, more embarrassing still, the pre-rendered cutscenes manage to be even choppier than the gameplay. How is that even possible?

Presumably, those engine troubles are the reason why the city the game is set in feels so oddly claustrophobic, with no sense of flow and convoluted, indirect routes to get from A to B. Eidos Montreal put in painfully slow animations for opening windows and crawling through narrow gaps to disguise load times, but it doesn’t always work. Every so often, the game will fail to get the job done, and you’ll be interrupted by a completely unexpected loading screen. It’s all shamefully unoptimized, and the gameplay suffers for it. In Assassin’s Creed and Saints Row IV, freerunning in a sandbox environment feels brilliantly liberating. Here, it feels like fun’s death sentence, forcing you to awkwardly clamber along one very specific path to get a secluded window that will take you to the next area. Walking up to a door, it seems, is passé.

The story is similarly disappointing, a flaccid blancmange of a thing that strips the classic Thief universe and its characters of any endearing charm. Once dry-witted leading man Garrett now spouts groan-inducing one-liners that would feel out of place in even the worst ’80s action movies. The plot ticks many of the boxes you’d expect from classic Thief, but it gets mired in the exercise and never hits its stride. The whole endeavor leans much too heavily on an assumed sympathy for Erin, the young thieftress who looks up to Garret. It flops, because she’s written as one of the most petulant, unlikable characters in the history of fiction.

Speaking of all-time lows, Thief also features the single worst melee combat system I’ve ever seen in a big-budget game. You have one attack and one dodge, and the optimal strategy for every encounter essentially boils down to brain-dead button-mashing. Even bothering to dodge seems like a bit of waste, since enemy swords are capable of drawing blood even when you’re a solid three feet away from the apex of their swing. Maybe they didn’t expect anyone to use combat, but if that’s the case, why include the option at all?

And the stealth, it must be said, is far from strong enough to make a sneaky playthrough any better. The enemy AI is hilariously inconsistent. Though it tends to skew more toward competent, guards will sometimes seem to forget what they’re doing and stand paralyzed while their compatriots are killed in front of them. In spite of their multiple paths, environments seem to always offer two real strategic options: stupidly wading through a thick crowd of enemies or discovering an alternate, out-of-the-way path that’s practically empty.

Even the basic act of stealing is a chore. While Garrett’s animations for interacting with the world—opening containers, picking up loot, and so on—are some of the most impressive and immersive I’ve ever seen, they’re just a shallow coat of polish on an otherwise boring, repetitive exercise. And the context-sensitive controls you have to rely on end up like some sort of randomized minigame. Try to open a drawer, and Garrett might instead grab the corner of the dresser for cover. It’s mildly amusing the first time. When it happens four times in a row, less so. Trying to pick the coin pouches off of unconscious guards—something that should be absurdly simple—can be a 10- to 15-second endeavor, forcing you to wiggle the right stick around, crouch, and circle-strafe until the game finally cooperates.

Of course, anything this clunky and half-finished wouldn’t be complete without bugs, and Thief offered me plenty. Civilians cheered about the death of a major character before it actually happened. On several occasions, Garrett decided to stop lockpicking and instead shot away from the door for no apparent reason. Once, a guard loaded into the game with no functioning AI whatsoever. He just stood there in the default animation pose, arms outstretched at his sides, looking like he was about to be raptured up to NPC Heaven. To finish off the show, the game crashed out and permanently corrupted my save file after I’d put in 15 hours, forcing me to start over again from the beginning.

Even if future patches smooth out some of the glitches and technical wrinkles (I can confirm that the Day One update doesn’t—not by a long shot), there’s just not enough promise here to make waiting around worthwhile. As both a diehard fan of stealth games and someone who recently played through the original Thief games for the first time, it breaks my heart to say that this reboot does far more harm than if we’d gotten no new Thief at all. In a way, it all feels a little Frankenstein-ian, not just because Eidos Montreal seemingly stitched the game together from so many disparate parts, but also because both works shares the same lesson: Be careful about bringing something long dead back to life, lest you create an abomination.

Developer: Eidos Montreal • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.25.2014
3.5

Actively unpleasant to play, embarrassingly buggy, and wholly devoid of any personality, Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot certainly isn’t the worthy continuation fans waited almost a decade for.

The Good Garrett’s interactions with objects in the world are convincing in a way no other game has pulled off to date.
The Bad Falling apart from a technical and game-design standpoint.
The Ugly There’s a good chance this will kill the Thief franchise for good.
Thief is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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