|Hunger Games: S&M Edition
“I like the game is chode-like in that it’s thicker than it is long.”
– Paul Meekin
While playing “Thief” on my Xbox One, I was baffled – I loved this thing – it was studious and deliberate, challenging but fair, and pretty as all get out. Yet, the word on the street pre-release was not good nor has it improved since. The development history was moderately infamous, especially when the working title of “Thi4f” was announced, but I didn’t get it.
Then it dawned on me. The virgin effect. From noted video game personalities like Yahtzee at “Zero Punctuation” to the Idle Thumbs podcast, to the folks on “Youtube” and “Penny Arcade” – the people I looked toward for intelligent gaming discourse, played the “well it’s not as good as…” card. It’s not as good as “Dishonored”. It’s not as good as the first one. Its world is not as open, its characters have all changed, its different from what “Thief” should be.
These people, so passionate about games, so touched by the world of interactive media that they’ve been able to get full time jobs either talking or writing about them, let the idea of what something should be, affect their idea of what this “Thief” actually is, which is pretty damn great.
The setup finds you in the shoes of long-time protagonist Batman. I mean Garrett. Yes. Garrett. After a mission goes awry and your quasi-ward, Erin, falls into an otherworldly explosion, Garrett is knocked out cold and wakes up a year later with absolutely zero memory, save for who he is, who his friends are, and that some crazy ish went down the night of the explosion.
It’s decently acted and does a good job immersing you in this dystopian “Hey I should see Les Mis, again” world, with a secondary “I’m not a hero,” theme happily clicheing its way along, too. The supporting cast includes a jovial black-market merchant Basso, the altruistic-but-possibly nefarious Orion, and the aforementioned Erin, your now missing, possibly undead, cohort. The game’s antagonist “The Thief Taker General” is a real bastard you love to hate, with a delightfully outlandish and curlable mustache, and a bald patch on the top of his head signifying the insecurity he takes out on underlings, prostitutes, and ultimately anyone who crosses him.
While there’s nothing unique or investable about it, Garrett’s story succeeds in the places a game like “Tomb Raider” failed, specifically in the characterization. “Thief” allows characters room to breath, injecting personality and levity into the proceedings. Basso is the closest thing Garrett has to a friend, and takes turns alternatively worrying about, and bemoaning, Garrett’s oft-nebulous where-a-bouts. Orion is as ‘Jesus’-y as it gets, but you can’t help but question his holier-than-thou motives – this kind in this world is suspicious, and Garrett suspects him. Unlike “Tomb Raider” where the characters mostly exist as macguffins – “Save her, find him, get the X for that guy,” here the characters feel like…somewhat real people who have something resembling personalities and lives outside of a given cut-scene. None of this is groundbreaking, but a little nuance and character differentiation go a long way.
“Thief” plays a little differently than what you’re used to, too. While stealth games currently come in 52 different flavors, the most popular are predatory ones like “Far Cry 3” The Batman “Arkham” series, “Crysis 3”, “Assassin’s Creed”, and the good parts of “Tomb Raider”- all making the player feel like John Rambo, the alien from “Predator”, and / or Batman with regularity. The predatory element common amongst them also allows gamers to play how they want. Yes, the idea is to sneak up on a base and silently take out the guards quietly as possible in “Far Cry 3”, but if you’re impatient or not into that kind of thing, a guns-blazing approach can work just as well. You get all kinds of offensive gadgets and tactical advantages in the “Arkham” games, and even the most recent “Splinter Cell” offered rewards and points for playing the game as a one-man CIA killing machine.
“Thief”, is not a predatory stealth game. You’re given the shadows, a limited amount of resources, non-regenerating health, an objective, guards, lights, glass, things to avoid, and that’s about it. Combat will likely get you killed. Taking down a guard in the presence of another guard will probably get you killed. Attacking people you shouldn’t…will get you killed. The game takes points away for takedowns, detections, and kills – you want to cause as little of a commotion as possible. Playing on the “master” difficulty, it becomes an almost masterclass in what true stealth games can accomplish – namely making the player feel like a genius through thought and action.
Rest assured, there are a serviceable number of doodads to tinker with and ability upgrades, but none result in making combat the optimal play style. This forces you to think your way through a given objective. Unlike seemingly every other stealth game, distracting guards via thrown bottles, and freaking them out by hitting light switches or extinguishing flames are viable tactics and encouraged throughout the duration of the game, not just until you find a gun or ranged weapon, or run into a thrusted-upon-you action set piece.
“Thief” is so secure in its quasi-pacifist design that the the bow featured so predominantly in the promotional material is more of a utility than a weapon. You stock it with blunt arrows, water arrows, and fire arrows, and while you *can* attack guards with these, you’ll probably just annoy them or cause minor damage. They’re better served hitting light switches, extinguishing flames, and igniting flammable materials as a distraction. The whole idea is to use these tools on the environment to get around guards, cover your tracks, and progress to the objective as silently as possible, but a whisper in the shadows.
The limited resources thing also plays into the upgrade and shop systems – money is scarce in “Thief” and a lot of the upgrades cost quite a lot of dinero – you can either buy a pair of trap disabling wire cutters…or stock up on arrows and other tools to make taking advantage of the environment a little easier. It’s a tricky balance that encourages you to scour your surrounding area for all the loot you can find, and to then spend that loot wisely. You’ll occasionally come across a side mission that requires a rope arrow or a tool you don’t have, and while frustrating, it ultimately makes you eager to nick everything that isn’t locked down you can go back and buy what you need.
And getting “back” to where you buy stuff is hassle and bone of contention among many. There is no fast travel in “Thief”. The city you inhabit is a twisting labyrinth of interconnected roads, roofs, apartments, and sewers. It’s dizzying at first, and since the streets are always populated with guards on the look out for you, simple navigation becomes a harrowing experience – almost like the “Dark Souls” of pathfinding, especially since the locations and types of guards on the overworld change as the you progress through the game. The only shortcuts are the ones you create or discover.
The other complaint regarding the overall design has been it’s not as open as prior “Thief” games. I have not played the other “Thief” titles, but generally speaking, crafting a wide-open world on the level of which the original had would be prohibitively expensive development wise, and likely dilute the overall experience into a “Skyrim” kind of situation. The truly interesting parts would be few and far between, trapped in an interconnecting series of samey rooms, roads, and paths – like a PB&J sandwich your Grandma made that featured the “J” in name only. Then again, lots of people like Skyrim and its thin coating of J across a massive landscape.
What Eidos Montreal has done, and what I think is the optimal approach, is deliver a hearty but not massive PB&J snackable treat, meaning what it lacks in scope is delivers in density.
From the start “Thief”’s world is teeming with mystery and out-of-reach shiny things you know you’ll be coming back for later. There are ledges you can’t yet reach, doors you can’t yet open, and ropes you can’t yet climb, all piled on top and beside each other throughout the city’s labyrinthian landscape. There’s a great ‘nooks-and-crannies’ vibe, with a good sense of verticality, alleys to poke around in, and distinct landmarks like a very pesky, well lit, guard tower that always seems to be on the way to the next major objective. There’s a good chunk of side missions of varying quality, some simply requiring a tool, and others requiring your brain to figure out a code or decipher the location of a particular piece of loot.
It’s all about the loot actually, and there hasn’t been a mission or moment that’s felt out of place or annoying outside of a puzzle involving rotating staircases. I haven’t been forced into combat sections, nor has remaining undetected been a cakewalk. I feel my options are many and creative, including a mid-game mission where I overloaded an opium dispenser and knocked out the entirety of a brothel. As a bonus, difficulty is nicely augmented by just how badly you want every piece of loot, which is often stashed in hard to reach areas, locked safes, or on guards and enemies themselves.
This all controls pretty well after a bit of a learning curve. Navigating the menus can be kind of irksome, there’s iffy takedown mechanics, and the parkour elements feel a little tacky considering it borrows the “Tomb Raider” thing of coloring stuff you can jump on or use white, and there are a couple of areas where you think you can make a jump and can’t. While we’re at it – selecting an item requires a couple of extra button presses than it should.
On the flip side, holding “X” to steal coins from enemies as you sneak behind them just to release in the nick of time, or quickly picking a lock while someone’s back is turned all control well, and you’ll rarely curse the controls as the reason you died or failed an objective. Beyond that you’re always aware of if you’re visible or about to be spotted, a handy focus vision highlights interactive objects, and you never feel confused, unfairly challenged, or cheated.
It’s tense. It’s a special kind of tense, too. If the internet personality “Super Bunnyhop” is to be believed, when Hideo Kojima pitched his vision for “Metal Gear” to Konami over two decades ago, the powers that be initially balked – refusing to believe that a videogame where you avoided combat could be popular – and it wasn’t at first, hence “Metal Gear”’s ‘cult classic’ moniker. Kojima’s “Metal Gear” threequel “Metal Gear Solid” made that idea viable. Sneaking past guards, disabling cameras, spotlights, and creating noise to distract potential threats delivered a whole new type of tension to the masses. When you’re hidden and an enemy walks past, It’s almost a second cousin to the “Don’t go in there…don’t go in there!” goosebumps you get watching a good horror movie.
While the settings, locations, characters, and monsters “in there” change, that tension remains the same exhilarating sensation. A good stealth game gets this tension right. When a game gets it wrong, it’s often because developers are worried the players will get frustrated, feel pigeon-holed, or not have enough tools to do what they want to do or grow impatient. You’ll notice “Metal Gear Solid” evolved into more of an action game as time went on, with stealth elements saddling up awkwardly to the shooting, and it seems in general developers have made stealth either a forced-upon mission type (Looking at you, “Assassin’s Creed”), or an element of a power fantasy like in “Far Cry 3”. Not that “Thief” isn’t a power fantasy, but here the power comes from a much different place. It taps into the part of our soul that loves the last three moves of Jenga, pulling off an insane trade in Monopoly, or getting “Final Jeopardy” right a week in a row. It empowers your super-genius fantasies, not your superhero ones.
Thus, when it comes to why I love this game and seemingly no one else does, I’m reminded of “The Karate Kid” reboot. It took the basic ideas – namely a kid learns karate from an old, wise, eccentric guru to change his life for the better – and jumbled everything else. The setting was changed, character traits were changed, the scope was changed, “Wax on, Wax off” became “Jacket on, jacket off”, and The guru’s demons were a little more personal. I *loved* it. It was fun, silly, sweet, conveyed a positive theme, and was pure entertainment. So of course three or four people forced me into seeing the old one because ‘it was the best’, and I thought it was a little slow – more an iconic film than an enduringly watchable classic.
My experience with “Thief” is much the same. I like that the map is hard to traverse, I like that guards have a half dozen alert statuses, I like that fighting is an absolute last resort, I like that money is hard to come by and equipment is rare – and hell, I like the game is chode-like in that it’s thicker than it is long. It isn’t so massive that if I put it down or a day or two I come back completely lost, but there’s enough girth there to warrant grabbing ahold of the game with both hands.
So, yes, “Thief” is a game I know manufactured on the shoulders of creative giants, but if you never met, or spoke with, or even put eyes upon those giants, “Thief” stands mighty tall all on its own.
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