This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Thief.
Publishers these days tend to treat gaming history like a great big party buffet full of lovely dishes; they randomly pick a sherry trifle with some nostalgia value and name recognition, do a great big squirty dump into it, and then they push it back into our face going "Look, now there's more trifle! Give us cash!"
Well, that opening remark probably gives away my opinion on Thief right off the bat, doesn't it? But it's not like you weren't expecting it, given my documented love of the previous Thief games and equally-documented hatred for shit in trifles. But if you are just joining us, Thief is a reboot of a series in which a bloke steals money from people with too much disposable income because he doesn't feel like putting any effort into working for a living, so it's good to see the creators of this new one taking that particular attitude on board, if nothing else.
I wondered if it might be better to assess it by its own merits rather than how it differs from the originals, but on the other hand, that's like wondering whether to use a fish slice or a butterfly net to get shit out of the trifle. So the first thing we do when we set out to slop together a drab, tick-the-boxes, committee-designed, work-the-name-recognition-'til-its-organs-of-generation-dry-up-and-blow-away-like-dandelion-seeds reboot is to isolate everything that gave the original its unique appeal, edge and soul, put on our big boots and stamp and stamp and stamp, until it can be posted through the letterbox of an ungrateful majority audience who'd be afraid of their own farts if they sounded one demitone higher than usual.
The Garrett I remember falling in love with was a straight-talking, unapologetic anti-hero who knew when things were serious, but was always ready to offer a bit of dry wit to camera upon finding a nobleman's private spanking saddle. He was not Batman, but that's what they've made him into! A broody misery-guts who communicates solely in growly macho soundbites that only make sense until you think about them.
If you asked Old Garrett why he stole, he'd answer, "'Cause I need to pay rent, and it's the only thing I'm good at, so shut up and let go of your wallet." New Garrett would (and indeed does) give the answer, "Because it's what I do." No, Garrett, it's what you are currently doing. "Hey, Yahtzee, why are you kicking New Garrett in the stomach?" 'Cause it's what I'm currently doing!
They're not "putting a new spin" on the guy, they're boiling down a complex and interesting character into a boring, easily-digestible archetype, i.e. Batman. And like Batman, he's suddenly having to be the dad figure to a teenage girl sidekick who, at various points, is the Rebel Action Girl, the Damsel in Distress and the Woman Scorned. She has to wear three archetype hats, because more than one female character might get dangerously diverse! Then there's the villain, the Thief-Taker General, whose only role in the plot is to occasionally show up and victimize Garrett in an operatically evil manner, like Dick Dastardly chasing the pigeon, perhaps having missed the point that "Thief-Taker General" refers to the whole profession of thieving and not just one specific guy.
Part of the identity of the Thief series was dry humour; a city of thick, drunken guards and blustering nobles. You, the wily outsider, come to take them down a peg! But there's no wit or poetic justice in this city, just miserable people being serious. "Ergh, the police are evil and everyone's got the plague, who will save us? What's that? Dishonored? Never heard of it." And no-one says "taff" anymore; they say "fuck". That's not fun; Errol Flynn swinging off a rope onto a pirate ship is fun, but if the enemy crew just tells him to fuck off, it'd completely kill the mood!
The other thing about the city in, say, Thief II, was that it apparently had laxer zoning laws and you were allowed to build houses larger than the average semi-detached suburban semi -- freely-explorable, where the guards take long circuitous patrols that might take you by surprise. Now the guards walk to a thing, stand with their back to the room muttering, "Gee, I hope no-one plays my skull like a bongo!", then walk to another thing six feet away like they forgot what they came in here for.
Of course, to suggest that the game be like Thief II is unhelpful, as you can't do those sprawling, open-ended levels Thief II had with the modern cutting-edge graphics that are apparently so fucking important. We learned that in Thief III, and this new Thief, which chooses not to call itself Thief 4 just to make my life difficult, looked at Thief III and thought, "Okay, we know the smaller levels were less fun, but maybe if we make them even smaller, it'll come full circle and be fun again! And we'll add points of no return every twenty fucking yards, in most cases without telling the player that they're points of no return! And the players who were just trying to explore can suck on a salty sausage!" You can finish the game in about twenty minutes by sprinting to the next point of no return, alerting every guard, cat and stationary object, none of which chase you past points of no return. A game with any balls at all would then say, "Get the fuck back in there and take this seriously! If you don't steal enough to pay a mortgage instalment, I'm keeping all these experience points for myself!"
Thief, on the other hand, goes "Well done for playing the game your way! Hell, who says a game called Thief has to be about stealing things (besides the dictionary)?", and then puts you back in the overworld. Thief III did the mission-connecting hub-world thing as well, and it provided just as pointless and boring a commute then. Except now that the average big game project has a minimum of fifteen to twenty individuals whose entire job seems to be to look busy, the hub world is absolutely plastered with useless doors, windows and ledges, that are differentiated from the doors, windows and ledges one can interact with only by whether or not a contextual button prompt comes up when you're close enough to kiss it.
This is like playing a bad text adventure!
- You see a door.
- >ENTER DOOR_
- You can't enter the door.
- >SEARCH ROOM_
- You find one door you can actually enter and several guards spinning in place 'cause their AI bollocked up.
Perhaps I should criticize something unrelated to previous Thief games. Okay, then. The sound engineering's fucked! I had to turn subtitles on, 'cause there was a cutscene where everyone spoke in such growly, serious voices, I couldn't understand a fucking word they were saying. Guards kept repeating their scripted conversations, in more than one case before they'd finished the previous run-through, and the volume of sounds didn't seem to have any relation to how many walls were between me and the source.
All in all, the kindest thing one can say about Thief is that it's just another soulless AAA game to add to the pile. Token nods to the originals broken up with Uncharted-style puzzles, climby bits and action escape sequences, lest we concentrate on one thing long enough to realize what a mess we've made. Where you can't even bop a guy across the bonce without feeling a hundred meddling pairs of hands adding irritating music stings and elaborate takedown animations, until you might as well be smashing their heads between a pair of cymbals for all the subtlety it has. By itself, it's merely tiresome; to the Thief series as a whole, it's about as welcome an entrant as an agave cactus at a double penetration!
- Currently stealing your free time: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Maybe I could blackjack people without alerting other nearby people if there wasn't that fucking string quartet following me around
- In some circles I am known as the Queef-Taker General