I mustn’t think about the Thief games from the Nineties, I kept telling myself as I played through Eidos’s reboot of the classic sneak-and-steal series. No popular game since those masterpieces has managed to replicate the strange mixtures of control and disempowerment, precision and paranoia that they shared with the Deus Ex and System Shock series, and attempts to transplant their principles from the cramped screens of millennial PC gaming to the more social space of living-room entertainment have traditionally met with little success. Besides, anyone desperate for the new Thief to be like the old Thief will already have drawn their own conclusions from the tide of disappointed impressions seeping through the seals of Square Enix’s ironclad pre-release embargoes, and moved swiftly over to playing the excellent free Thiefalike The Dark Mod at home.
Instead, the plot is a derisory digest of trends in contemporary stealth gaming, from Human Revolution to Splinter Cell to Dishonored: amnesiac protagonist, reluctant hero, city-wide plague, mysterious energy, lockpicking, sneaking around in air vents and all.
The very basic ideas — navigate a faux-medieval city, blackjacking guards, picking locks and stealing loot — are still here. But even the roster of slideable difficulty options can’t conceal the fact that this game has been designed for a very low denominator indeed. Fiddling with the options, you can and should turn off the omnipresent minimap, the barrage of commands and waypoints and a highlighting that limns every moveable object in mysterious fire, but you will still find yourself bumping up against flaws of design more radical than any flip-switch can cure. Where its predecessors aspired to be ‘immersive sims’, forcing you to read large open environments and experiment to proceed, the new game boasts a cramped sequence of discrete levels, punctuated by long loading screens, where the player is assailed by a kind of omnipresent visual nagging: walk here, crawl here, jump here, sneak here. Options to go off-piste are grimly limited.
Here’s what it’s like to play Thief in 2014. Early in the game, a side quest has you trying to break into a pawnshop at midnight on a deserted street. You can’t break the front window. The door looks like a door, but you can’t interact with it. The surrounding buildings bristle with attractive-looking parapets and outcrops, but Garrett the Master Thief, sadly, can only climb or jump where someone has obligingly left a trail of spilt white paint. Your promising-looking rope arrows, which in previous Thief games hoisted you skyward to unguarded windows and balconies, are no good: they can only be used on the beams that boast little coils of rope for you to attach to. There is one single solution to this conundrum, and it’s the one that the developers have designed specifically for you and pointed you sedulously towards. You look around the superficially impressive, Ankh-Morporkish environments wondering not “How can I solve this problem?” but “How have they decided I should solve it?”
Infuriating and half-hearted as Thief is, it’ll still sell better than it should during the current drought of next-gen console games, as well as to the obsessive brigade for whom any games with a percentage of hidden collectibles act as compulsive tidying-up simulators. But it filled me, as few things in this hobby do, with a peculiar longing for the freedom of real life, where even basic sneaking, jumping and climbing can be carried out untrammelled by invisible obstacles and tedious signposting. I had more fun making my way up to bed in the dark after playing Thief than I did at any point during its benighted trudge across The City. If you come across someone else with a copy, it might be a kindness to steal it.”