Developed by Eidos Montreal. Published by Square Enix. Released February 25, 2014. PS4 (reviewed), PS3, PC, Xbox One and Xbox 360.
The phrase "genre-defining" gets tossed around quite a bit. While a lot of that is just hot air, the original Thief: The Dark Project was something you could legitimately hang that on. It was one of the first to combine light and shadow stealth with a first person viewpoint. That, coupled with large multi-pathed open maps and AI-based NPCs combined to make one of the most engaging stealth games to date. It's been 10 years since the last Thief game and now the developers at Eidos Montreal, the same studio that recently rebooted Deus Ex with the excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is at the helm - though the internal teams are not necessarily the same. Sadly, whatever stars aligned for Deus Ex didn't quite repeat. Thief feels slapped together with only brief glimmers of brilliance shining through.
Thief is a complete narrative reboot from the previous games with only the main character, the master thief Garrett, and the setting of The City being the two remaining constants. Notably gone are the various factions from the previous games and how that works into the backstory of Garrett. This by itself isn't a bad thing really, but Thief suffers from a rather weakly told story overall. Most of the characters are not terribly interesting or well-developed, and the narrative pacing is poorly played out.
Thief opens with a classic "job gone wrong" scenario when your thievery interrupts a ritual, the events of which cause the death of Garrett's rebellious protégée, Erin, and Garrett to be missing from The City for a whole year. During this time The City gets infested with Gloom, a deadly disease, and the Watch under the Baron's control goes full on gestapo. As the player, and as Garrett, you're supposed to feel guilty about Erin, which becomes the driving thread through the plot, and see the impact of how The City has degraded over the course of a year, but this all falls flat because you are never given much of a chance to experience the contrast of what it was like before or know these characters. Some of the side missions have interesting little arcs or encounters, but most of them are little more than fetch quests.
It doesn't help matters that Thief also doesn't relay its story with much technical competence either. Cutscenes are plagued with some awful framerate issues, and the overall aesthetic is just bland and uninteresting. The lighting and shadows are at least great though and make the little actions like putting out a torch with a water arrow or snuffing out candles work well visually and as gameplay elements. However, the audiovisual design across the board is perhaps one of the worst in recent memory. Audio normalization is all over the map as music will drown out the sound effects in some cutscenes or some characters are inexplicably quieter than folks they are talking too. The NPC chatter will all continue to fire away during your conversations and cutscenes, often leading to multiple sources talking over each other. The game also doesn't seem to fade audio as you distance yourself from the source of noise, furthering the cacophony.
While Garrett's new voice actor isn't terrible, he just isn't Stephen Russell, and a number of his lines fall flat. Eidos justified the actor change by claiming it wanted motion capture from its voiceovers, but since we rarely see Garrett move and speak at the same time, the reasoning is dubious, and we're left without an iconic voice actor for no good cause.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom when it comes to Thief's latest outing. The core gameplay is solid. Garrett must make use of shadows and his tools, relying on cunning and wit to tackle problems rather than brawn. While a single guard is easy enough to tangle with should you be caught, alerting multiple opponents will usually send you back to the loading screen. This enforces your need to be stealthy rather than brazen. There are still some issues with first-person stealth, such as a liberal definition of what "hidden" means, but this feels more symptomatic of stealth games in general than Thief specifically. Weaseling your way through a particularly tricky pattern of patrols is still quite satisfying.
The levels themselves, some better than others, lean a little too much on predefined routes and paths, usually gated by having the right tool, but you're given some freedom in how you accomplish each mission and every method feels like it has checks and balances. Being a true master thief and avoiding everyone is certainly a worthy challenge, but it does leave a lot of guards wandering and patrolling the map. Whereas if you more aggressively take them out with arrows or stealth knockouts you're going to need to hide the bodies so they can't be found. Trying to accurately switch between your arrow types and equipment is a chore on the PS4 touch-pad though.
Exploring is properly incentivized through lots of shiny loot to burgle. It's almost a little silly how Garrett is limited to a certain number of arrows, but can somehow carry a dozen paintings and enough candlesticks and silverware to seat a grand ball room. It's still fun, and very thief-like, to find and break into some secret hidden vault and make off with the treasure after cracking the locks in a little mini-game or puzzle. Most of your loot is simply turned in for gold to purchase equipment and upgrades, though there are special selections, collectibles, which Garrett chooses to keep for himself and display in his hideout.
Many of these are found by exploring the city map, the open hub from which you travel from place to place. You'll need to travel along roof tops or dart around in darkened alleys to avoid the Watch on patrol as you move from mission to mission and for the most part I really enjoyed the open city map, though it's not without problems. If you're a particularly OCD explorer like I am you're going to visit many of the locations that the side missions send you right back to. The backtracking wouldn't be too much problem if it wasn't for how Thief transitions zones and areas. I assume it's hiding a loading screen, but you're going to get really sick of jamming the square button to jimmy open a window or push the same plank aside.
Thief also features an incredibly extensive array of difficulty options and play experience customizations. Nearly every element of the gameplay can be tweaked to your liking. Don't want Garrett to have bullet-time Focus? Disable it. Think the game's too easy? Turn on requirements to never take damage or that you can only kill armed guards attacking you. This is all tied into Thief's new leaderboard. Enabling various harder difficulty options and completing missions with certain requirements will contribute to a higher score. I'd rather replayability come more from the emergent gameplay than trying to cram a leaderboard drive into the experience, but the ability to tailor the game is still quite welcome and testament to the developers trying to deliver to fans of the older games.
Bottom line: Thief is a mess. It's disappointing that there's a genuinely good game hidden under a lot of mediocrity.
Recommendation: If you were hoping for a worthy successor to the Thief franchise this isn't it.