Random Loot is a new series in which I get to focus on one particular game, movie or even comic, be it relatively old or quite new, and then ramble about it, often going off-course in the process or using it to make a point about something else entirely. This series is far less critical than my reviews. I’m less concerned with being entirely fair, and more with just presenting my personal views. You’ve been warned.
With no review code forthcoming for Thief I took to the magical realm known as “Teh Internetz” and managed to snag a copy on PC for a measly £18, and having played through a chunk of it, but certainly not all of it, I now feel arrogant enough to loudly proclaim my opinion, because that’s how it works. And my opinion today is that the reviews of Thief were wrong.
Alright, alright, that’s slightly too harsh, after all the game currently holds a solid Metacritic average. More accurately I feel that some, if not many, of the reviews were overly negative due to high expectations and the fabled Goggles of Nostalgia. Expectation is something I hold a reviewer should keep to a bare minimum, because it colours any critique given rather than giving the game as fair a chance as possible to stand on its own wobbly legs, while constantly attempting to compare this new iteration to memories of the old games was always bound to cause severe problems. Our memories are wonderful things, but they’re also easily corrupted as we tend to focus only on the better stuff, the good times.
But it does raise an interesting question about reboots and reviews: how much should any reboot really be held to the original game, and how much does one have to change before the finished product no longer adheres to the very tenants of the source material? Reboots tread a dangerous ground, and the vast majority either upset every fanboy around or don’t do enough to actually warrant a reboot. If you’re going to essentially just make the same game, which is what the majority of the fanboys seem to demand, then why bother classifying it as a reboot? In reality it’s little more than a sequel. But at the same time if you’re going to change the fundamental ideals that make a series or character what it is, then why bother using the name at all? At that point you’re better firing it up as a brand new IP. Clever marketing will let gamers know that this new game is inspired by X game from X year, allowing you to possibly launch with an interested fanbase in tow, while not having to worry about dangerous comparisons as much.
DmC: Devil May Cry and Tomb Raider are two prime examples of how reboots are dangerous territory, especially since the reaction to each surprised me. I absolutely loved the new Tomb Raider, and reviewed it as such, but thinking about it now I can’t really say I think it adheres very much to the Tomb Raider formula. Had I gone into the game with no knowledge that a Tomb Raider reboot was being made and no forewarning of what I was about to play then I probably would never have guessed that it was a reboot of the much loved series, though I suppose everyone saying “Lara Croft” would have been a dead give away. It didn’t seem to annoy fans too much, either, who accepted it gracefully with minimal backlash.
Yet at the opposite end of the spectrum lies DmC: Devil May Cry which sparked controversy so powerful that super villains took a careful step back. Again, I personally loved the reboot and had a great time playing it. But unlike Tomb Raider had I played it with no knowledge that it was a reboot then I would have nearly instantly recognized it as a Devil May Cry game, even with its myriad of tweaks. Sure, Dante was different and there was a new visual flair that the previous games were lacking in their environments, but the very essence of what Devil May Cry great was still very much there. Reviewing the game I felt that DmC: Devil May Cry got the reboot formula right; it still adhered to fundamental things that made people love the games in the first place, but changed enough breath fresh life into the series. The combat didn’t have the same level of depth as seen in Devil May Cry 3, but it was still incredibly fluid and fun, while the new visual style was eye-candy of the highest order. New Dante was a bit of a dick, but the old Dante was still their if you looked closely enough, allowing the writers to grow him into the cocky bastard we all knew and loved over time with a twist.
Or at least, he would have grown have the writers ever been given that chance. Fan backlash was immense and sales tanked, making a sequel seem unlikely at this point, all while I stood shaking my head, because I just couldn’t get it. Maybe it wasn’t the Devil May Cry you wanted, that I can certainly accept, but it wasn’t a bad game in its own damn right, yet many reviews and many more gamers ignored that. Reboots are for a new audience, too, one that Devil May Cry deserved, yet so many reviews seem to ignore that in favor of endless comparisons. Reboots are indeed dangerous territory, and sadly there’s no manual that tells reviewers how they should tackle them, which is why it’s wonderful that so many talented writers can voice their views on the Internet, providing a range of ways to look at a single game.
Let’s get things straight: Thief isn’t great, and it’s not entirely the game that long-time fans were wanting, but it’s still a solid release in its own right, a fact that I feel got heavily overlooked by a large majority of reviewers, and one that I feels does generally manage to stick close to the series ideals. It does quite a bit of stuff right, and yet there are numerous harsh, low-scoring reviews that seem to ignore these more positive aspects in favor of simply berating the game. These reviews do a fine job of letting long-time Thief fans know that they should perhaps steer clear, but they don’t do justice to the game for a modern audience who have never experienced the past titles. They don’t tell us if Thief is a good game in its own right.
There’s a lot wrong with the game, without a doubt. Perhaps one of the most frustrating being the City, which quickly reveals itself as a byzantine network of confusing areas glued together, one that lacks any sort of cohesion or flow that makes navigating the world a tricky and often frustrating process. The map is a near useless tool as it seems to delight in pointing you toward dead ends, while connections to other sections are often never marked as such, and so you might end up levering open a window with the intent on doing a bit of thievery, only to find yourself stuck in a loading screen that deposits you in another section of the city. This baffling layout also affects missions; you can replay any section of the game you want, but trying to find the starting point might just cause you to abandon that idea. Spend enough time wandering the streets and you’ll eventually commit the layout to memory, but that doesn’t negate how poorly designed it is in the first place.
And yet the City is a labyrinth of dark, brooding alleys that are almost quite literally oozing atmosphere from every crack in the pavement. Without a doubt Thief boast’s one of the most impressive lighting models ever seen in a game, which is certainly fitting given how important light should be in something like this, and it’s used to bring the streets to life. In fact, Thief is just plain beautiful all-round, sporting an impressive attention to detail and lovely textures. However, the PC version suffers from some seriously sub-part optimisation. The recent Mantle update helped me quite a bit, but it’s still not great.
The story is paper-thin nonsense, and even around 12-hours in I’m still not entirely sure what’s supposed to be going on, while Garrett has been reduced to a one-note moron, though at least the actor playing him does a good job. The Garrett of old was never the most complex character, but he did have some personality that shone through.
But while it does many things wrong the actual core stealth mechanics work pretty damn well, including the newly introduced Swoop trick which lends itself nicely to daring raids on passing guards coin purses, which I must stress is not a euphemism. Sneaking through the shadows and swiping every piece of valuable bling is immensely satisfying, largely in part to the sense of tactility Thief is imbued with.
As befits a master thief Garret has the nimblest fingers ever seen in a videogame thanks to beautiful animations. He swipes cups, cuts pictures and picks locks with a deftness that borders on being artistry, and that creates a strangely tactile sensation when you’re playing. It might sound strange but the way Garett interacts with his world using his hand bumps up the immersion factor greatly, and also serves to make the act of theft even more enjoyable. There’s an addictive quality to quietly sliding through an open window and scouring the room for valuables, your graceful fingers snatching gilded frames and expensive wine cups from drawers, safes and chests. It’s a pleasure only topped by stealing from guarded areas, and even from the belts of guards themselves. Sneaking behind a guard and cracking a safe as he stands mere feet away is tense and exciting stuff.
But of course the act of larceny can become far too repetitive for it’s on good, mostly thanks to the developers cramming areas with a myriad of small yet relatively worthless items rather than a couple of more valuable ones. Thus you’ll steal way too many wine glasses and fancy pens, often finding a massive chest containing just two little items that add a few measly coins to your tally. While these lashing of many objects is more realistic, it takes away from the simple enjoyment of the act itself, and from the wonderful animations. It can become hard to appreciate the way Garrett slides open a drawer and snatches a pair of earings when I’ve seen it so many times before.
Still, the joy of robbing random people blind is a concept that clicks with me personally, and thus I found myself thoroughly absorbed, taking a perverse sense of pleasure from pickpocketing guards and robbing people blind. But I believe my criticisms about theft in the game are justified – for most people the act will become repetitive, and thus there’s a chance they may just find themselves only grabbing the most obvious items and not bothering with the rest.
Levels don’t always feel as open or multi-faceted as I might have liked, but they still have a generally pleasing amount of room to play around. Likewise in comparison to something like Dishonored the toolset you have at your disposal feels limited, but again there’s enough to enjoy. What sells it for me is a deep sense of immersion that stems from the first person viewpoint, the wonderful graphics and the subtle details, like how Garrett’s hands gently grasp the edge of a wall when peeking around it. Through this immersion and some pretty decent AI hiding in the shadows always felt tense and fun. It’s not the most accomplished game in its mechanics and design, but if it can get my heart beating just a little faster when I’m crouched in some shadows, desperately hoping the guard won’t take one more step, then it has to be doing something right.
Viewed on its own Thief is not an outstanding title, but it’s a solid one. Viewed through the lens of a long-time Thief fan, though, and it’s a disappointment. The new Thief game might not be your personal cup of tea, nor may it replicate piece for piece the original titles, yet I see nothing that makes it deserving of the many harsh words and extremely low scores that it received. Indeed, I see nothing but a solid, well-crafted game that, while not spectacular, is certainly deserving of decent scores and reviewers capable of taking off their nostalgia glasses for just a minute. Rant and declare it an embarrassment to the Thief name all you want, but don’t try to say it’s a bad game, because in its own rights it’s clearly not.
As for the topic of how one should go around reviewing a reboot, I have no magical answers to give, but I do feel like the myriad of reviews giving Thief low scores and harsh words are indicative of wider problems within the industry. For me, when reviewing a reboot, especially if I’m intimately familiar with the original material, it’s important to remember that the game is being targeted at two audiences; the original fans, and potential new fans. Ultimately I’ll always put forth my final opinion and score based upon how the game stands on it’s on, while obviously chatting about whether it does its inspiration justice throughout the review. That way I can strike the balance that I feel the game needs to be judged fairly.
Eh, what was I saying again? Oh yeah, Thief is actually pretty good, and if you see it on sale don’t hesitate to grab it. While it does slip up quite often, there’s a lot of fun to be had skulking through the shadows.
Oh, and to any reviewer who criticised the game for not being able to get through the missions purely through violence and swordfighting, you’re a fucking idiot. Yes, game’s like Dishonored are brilliant because they give you that option and let you play how you want, but it’s called Thief for a reason. There’s something to be said about focus, and placing you in a specific role. Thief works because you can’t fight your way through everything.
As always, thanks for reading.
Categories: Opinion Piece