Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Thief (PlayStation 4)

Review by Matt S.

Thief clearly aspires to be the thinking man's FPS. It's a game that genuinely wants players to complete objectives using clever thinking rather than physical conflict, which is the precise opposite of what most AAA-games ask of their players. And then it's told through the eyes of a morally ambiguous hero with a politically-loaded narrative that wants to ask questions of its players. Whether it was successful at achieving its goals or not, I'm still not entirely sure, but credit where credit is due, at least the folks at Square Enix tried.

Given that modern game design seems to mandate linear progression and reward direct conflict, Thief does a remarkably good job of resisting the commercial pressures to deliver an experience that is very different from the Call of Duty clones, and even other AAA-games where stealth is a core mechanic, such as Assassin's Creed. In Thief most major objectives have a couple of alternate paths to get from A to B, with plenty of encouragement to investigate an area fully via the careful placement of loot. Direct conflict with guards is usually deadly, and instead players learn to make heavy use of the shadows in order to stay out of sight and alive.

The hero (or anti-hero, depending on your perspective), Garrett, has a wide range of tools available from him to help keep him safe from detection. From the primitive (throw a glass bottle to create a noise and cause the guards to walk away from their posts) to water arrows to douse flames, rope arrows to create a convenient way to bypass guards, and a blackjack to knock enemies out without killing them, Garrett really does feel like a master thief in the player's hands.

He's picked up a couple of new, modern abilities as well. The ability to dash from shadow to shadow allows him to bypass small sections of light in order to remain hidden by the shadows. A hook allows him to parkour around environments and clamber up onto roofs to use the thieves highway with ease.

These abilities help Garrett become the speedy, agile master thief that he should be, and in the hands of a skilled player there is a real thrill to ducking around, picking pockets and looting valuable vaults without getting caught. Unsurprisingly, the best loot is locked away under tight security. A lot of it can be avoided while still progressing the story, but these unique treasures are left on display in a trophy room, and gaps are a constant reminder that you, the player, could be a better thief. It's a clever way to give players the incentive to test themselves, without preventing a less skilled player from progressing through the main narrative.

Garrett is also an interesting character, as he isn't a hero in the traditional sense. Stealing is, after all, a criminal act and Garrett isn't exactly Robin Hood; he does what he does for purely selfish reasons. Despite that, he also has a strong code of honour and a moral streak that makes him likable. He's willing to risk danger to save a friend. He abhors killing unless absolutely necessary. He has a streak of compassion for the downtrodden. His character design is also a refreshing change from the gung-ho muscle men of most other AAA-games; Garrett has normal proportions, and a rather ugly face.

But to speak of the story itself; it's a dark one, even by the standards of its quite dark predecessors. Garrett finds himself operating within a time of severe civil unrest, as a baron with little thought to his people or their welfare exploits the resources of the city to further industrial expansion. At the same time a nasty plague called the gloom is striking down citizens left, right and centre. When wandering around the city Garrett constantly passes by destitute peasants on the street. Hangings are common. Soldiers patrol streets that are empty under strict curfew. The city itself is claustrophobic and unwelcoming with buildings closing in around tight, small streets. While the game takes place exclusively at night, were there any daylight, a lot of it would be lost on the streets.

This bleak setting follows through to the "levels" -environments that are every bit as bleak as the city itself. One early level has players investigate a crematorium where the bodies of the gloom-affected are strung up on meat hooks, used for target practice by the baron's soldiers, and then incinerated en masse; so much so that immediately outside the factory a gentle ash falls in perpetuity. Shortly thereafter, Garrett explores a brothel where the wealthy indulge in opium, women and alcohol in opulence.

This narrative, which thematically represents the conflict between fascism or modern conservatism and the downtrodden is a path that we've seen in many, many stories before. And while the imagery of Thief are certainly dark and carries impact, the narrative doesn't really push the criticism of progress for progress sake far enough; we're expected to simply accept that the baron is the boogeyman because he's doing mean things to the people. There's no sympathetic characters on the "other side," and so the game's narrative feels a little too much like a generic good vs. evil plotline at times. It's interesting that Garrett is himself more of an observer in what's going on than an active participant, but the characters around him that were actors in this morbid play were all too simple for their own good. In fact, there are moments where the narrative cliches become truly irritating. Why must the baron's right hand man be a sadistic cripple? That's not a quaint trope; it's just plain old fashioned.

Elsewhere there are signs that the developers really struggled to execute on their narrative vision at all. As long as Garrett is actively moving through the world then it feels like a dynamic one filled with intrigue and danger. But, the moment that he stops moving, so to does the game, and the loops that AI characters undertake range from the comic to the plain embarrassing. For the most common example; enemy soldiers patrol around looping the same "I'm hungry" snippets of dialogue over and over again. Meanwhile, the sun never rises over the city, no matter how long it takes for Garrett to move around.

Those are two examples of the silly; they break immersion somewhat but from a suspension of disbelief point of view they're ultimately forgivable. But then there are moments that truly ruin the game's theme. In one particular area within the brothel Garrett can peek in on the private rooms of the patrons, and unsurprisingly, in doing so he'll see people having sex (as a side note I am rather impressed that a developer of a major AAA-game would risk including explicit sex in the game). At first, this is good stuff in helping to build a memorable and engaging environment. It's edgy, provocative, and an intriguing bit of environmental design; I found myself wondering just why do these private rooms have peep holes... and I fully expected some kind of explanation later on in the level since all the private rooms had similar opportunities for a spot of voyeurism.

But as a test, I put my controller down, flicked the TV over to the Winter Olympics, and left the game running. Coming back an hour later, I discover that Garrett is still watching the rich man and the prostitute having the exact same sex in the exact same way, in the exact same position (that's some impressive lasting power). It went from being a somewhat transgressive and effective bit of scene setting to being something to laugh at, and in the process it trashed the game's carefully-constructed atmosphere. Of course no player is going to simply sit there and watch what's going on for an hour in any game, but this example highlights just how ill-fitting these kinds of loops are, and they don't do a game any great favours in creating a believable environment.

For a game like Call of Duty it doesn't matter if the AI behaves in silly, predictable loops until the players do something; the point of that game will be to shoot the AI characters anyway, so by simply sitting there they're fulfilling the role that they were created for in being a target. But in Thief the core gameplay is all about how the lead character interacts with people around him; how he avoids them, how he steals from them, how he escapes from the traps they create for him. In that context, looping NPC actions don't cut the mustard, and it becomes very apparent just how artificial the game is far quicker than it does in something like Call of Duty. It hurts the game more too; I don't care if the environments and enemies are artificial in Call of Duty, I do care when the experience in Thief feels plastic because this is a world that I actually wanted to be a part of.

I also never did find out why those peep holes were there in the brothel, meaning that their existence felt more like a contrivance to facilitate the gameplay (players need to peek through the hole to find a clue to a puzzle), then a clever part of the game's narrative design.

This brings me to the greatest flaws of Thief; the game has no way to account to player inaction, which breaks down immersion (seriously, the PS4 is a powerful console, AI can handle more than minute loops), and the game feels too constructed at times. The levels are all meticulously designed to enable and then reward stealth, but light switches, broken glass, and yes, peep holes, are all so carefully placed to facilitate gameplay solutions that they don't feel like natural design. Because they do feel so artificial, the game's atmosphere and narrative impact take a hit; at times I felt like I might as well be playing a Sokoban clone - you know, the puzzle game where you need to move the boxes in a precise order to clear out a level? In Thief most of the game involved using item A to cause enemies to respond in a certain way, so I could sneak past them to treasure B. Were the levels a touch more organic in design and AI behaviour a little more human, the whole experience would have felt that much less contrived.

As it is, Thief is an interesting puzzle game. And, in fact, thanks to the customisable difficulty settings, it can easily be a very challenging puzzle game. But while on the surface it looks like Square Enix has taken some risks with AAA design in creating levels that players can progress through on their own terms, and a steep de-emphasis on violence, inevitably Thief reveals itself to be a AAA-game that neatly packages the gameplay up so as to ensure that people don't get too stuck. Worse, if people don't play it at the pace the developer has specifically designed it to be played at, Thief starts to break down both thematically and as a piece of entertainment.

Garrett is a wonderful character, and the city and plot of Thief hold all kinds of potential, the game looks gorgeous on the PlayStation 4 and is mechanically very tight, but all of that potential is dampened by the developer's somewhat overzealous desire to dictate just how the game should be played.



- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld


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