Gold Standard #1: Thief (Xbox One, 15DEC – 15JAN)

I had high hopes and perhaps too-specific expectations for Thief as I booted it up. The Xbox Store’s synopsis of the game describes a “treacherous place ruled by a tyrannical Baron and his brutal Watch” and goes onto tease “darker secrets” and “bloody revolution” in a place known only as “the City.” Based on this, it would be safe to assume that the game would feature massive twists-and-turns and a heavy dose of political intrigue, wouldn’t you say? I would agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.
The opening screen reinforces this presumption with a dark and dystopic city-scene, complete with suspenseful music, lightning strikes, thunder, wafting fog, dim lights, and a street populated only by wandering members of the “brutal Watch.” As all evidence  thus far was  pointing to a society controlled by an intrusive and over-inflated government, I could hardly wait to dive into the story.

I waited anyway, because I review video games now and being thorough is important. So instead of diving into the story, I dove into the settings menus. There were a few options which caught my attention, first and foremost being the “voice detection” setting, which allows the player to speak/make random noises into a headset microphone (or a Kinect, if you’re fancy) and attract the attention of Watch members. Similar to this option was the “body control” setting, which, if you’re fancy and have a Kinect, allows you to lean Garrett, the game’s protagonist, and peak around corners. I could not test this because I am Kinect-less, but I don’t believe it would be a frequently-used feature.

Other settings, of course, included the difficulty options, but alongside these were an assortment of “realism” settings, primarily HUD adjustments. I was far more excited about these than I should have been. Don’t judge me.

Selecting “Thief” (basically “Normal”) difficulty, I jumped into the game’s prologue. I was immediately sort-of impressed by the setting and sort-of immediately disappointed by the game itself. Graphically it looks like a later-life Xbox 360 title, but the sense of immersion from the sound effects was spectacular – the far-off festival music, the gentle creaking as I walked over the wooden floor, and the just-loud-enough-to-make-me-think-he-might-wake-up snoring from the passed-out-plastered gent on the bed all worked to put me into the mind and shoes of the character. Ironically, though, it was that same feckless fellow on the bed that sullied the scene’s suspense – after initially sneaking past him, I sprinted around the room, jumped on the tables, even ran circles around the bed just to see if he would react at all. There was no response. This inaugural foray into virtual thievery serves more as what in the world of academia we would call a “teachable moment” – the lesson being “don’t drink or Garrett will steal all of your things, including your scissors” – than it does as an introduction to stealth gameplay. As I progressed through the prologue, other moments put a damper on the whole experience – the game blatantly prevents you from falling from precarious perches, makes platforming too easy by assigning it all to one button, and punishes openly aggressive behavior with instant failure. The latter is removed after the prologue, but the other two are not.

The prologue’s end is where the game completely jumps the political-intrigue shark – instead of discovering a governmental ploy or an overarching conspiracy, you discover a room filled by mysterious people wearing robes and conducting some unknown supernatural ritual, while the cloak-clad Garrett muses about how “robes are always a bad sign.” I would take this moment to remind Garrett that “cloak” and “robe” are synonyms. Unless we’re talking bathrobes – now THAT is a game I would play: Master Thief Garrett foils corrupt government’s oppressive schemes wearing only a bathrobe, hiding by taking frequent showers in the houses he steals from.

But I digress.

The fact is that this sudden replacement of political intrigue with supernatural plots was just too sharp of a turnaround for my taste, which is unfortunate because Thief is a strong game mechanically. The stealth is challenging in all the right ways and after the first chapter the world is non-linear and fairly immersive. I say “fairly” because the vast majority of the immersion comes from the gameplay and the exploration, while it is heinously hampered by the absolute lack of interaction with neutral NPC’s, which don’t look at you, talk to you, or even notice you unless you actively try to murder them (or someone in their general vicinity; basically the only thing they notice is murder). However, the game earns major plusses for having side quests with their own stories and intrigues – I found myself more entertained by and immersed in those than with the main story line. These side quests allowed for a deeper look into life in the City, for people who were victimized by the Watch and people who were just trying to mind their own. Basically, the side quests are what the main quest should have been.

I do have to nitpick some parts of the gameplay, though. Money is gained by pilfering anything and everything in sight, and to achieve total completion you really do have to steal everything during story missions. This is a preposterously daunting task, as many of the hidden items are tiny trinkets and miniscule moneys. Attempting to accomplish this harshly distracts from the game’s narrative, which has already shot itself in the foot enough. Additionally, each mission provides the player with certain goals, no set of which can be completed in a single play-through. No matter how strong of a gamer you are, there is no way to remain undetected, not hurt anyone, be detected, and headshot the people who have detected you all during the same go.

From a mechanical standpoint, as good as the stealth systems are, Thief is not without its flaws. There are segments in the game that require climbing along ledges and windowsills, and the game automatically switches to third-person, needlessly and abruptly shattering all of the immersion that came with the first-person point-of-view, especially if you are playing with a limited HUD. The game also switches point of view with aerial takedowns – flashy knockout moves performed by pressing the “takedown” button while spying on enemies below. With all the platforming mechanics mapped to holding down the left trigger, there is also no way to know if you will jump to an adjacent rooftop or if Garrett will just casually walk off the ledge and fall clumsily to his death. The game has some bugs, as well: most notably that NPC’s will lock up if you reload a checkpoint, which is infuriating when you are trying to play without being spotted or without killing anyone and you have to go through a doorway where two NPC’s are now just standing indefinitely, when before reloading the checkpoint they would have conversed and walked away.

In the end, Thief is a game that you will enjoy if you find pleasure in playing patiently, but it is not a fantastic title. It is an alright game to have in the back pocket of your “Ready to download” inventory, though, so while it is not something I see myself coming back to while I have other games to play, it is something I will tool around in when I have a healthy amount of free time.

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