Posts Tagged ‘ review ’

THIEF (2014) – My Opinion

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                                        The rather conspicuous home of the Master Thief

So I have been playing the latest Thief game for a little while now and I feel compelled to write about it, as I find myself thinking about certain aspects of the game as I play through its story for the third time. So here is my pretend journalist review/opinion of the game.

I had absolutely no intention of playing the latest version, having grown up with the offerings from Looking Glass studios during that rather brief but excellent golden age in PC gaming before the turn of the Millennium. This new Thief had poor early previews, which only served to compound my existing bias against a lot of these cross-platform remakes we’re seeing cropping up of late. I expected my beloved Garrett to be torn apart in a frenzy of console combat and click to be cool mechanics, but having been gifted the game by my brother I had to play it, he would be full of questions about my experience so some actual hands on was required. The answers I found in this new Thief were frustratingly more complex than I had anticipated. My worst fears were never realized, but what followed was an uneven grab at greatness that fell short of the prize.

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 The excellent implementation of first person perspective slots you into the eyes of Garrett

Now first person perspective is nothing new, but rarely is it done well. Most of the time we get a floating camera that levitates its way through the world without much feel. Even the mighty Half-Life 2 is guilty of this, and that’s a game that gets very little wrong design wise. Thief is among those FPS games that goes the extra mile to make you feel like you’re in the shoes of your character, quite literally. If you look down you’ll see your leather clad feet and when sneaking Garrett holds his hands out in that sinister lurking strangler like fashion. You can watch his careful steps across narrow beams and broken glass, climbing ropes, sprinting across rooftops, you have a body and it has limitations. Jump from a large height and hit the ground with a hard slap as your body compresses under the impact beneath you, jump a rail at speed and watch your legs dart out ahead of you, it all has a weight to it, I can feel Garrett as I move him around the world. With all of the HUD disabled it’s a very organic experience, I forget myself as I inhabit the role of this creature of the night, this is one of the games great strengths. If you’re in any way familiar with FPS games go ahead and disable the HUD, you don’t need it. Garrett himself will inform you of everything you need to know. An alternating white and dark shroud inhabits the very edges of your vision whenever you dip in and out of light, letting you know when you’re in danger of being seen. Finding the right tumbler when picking locks is done by watching the movement of his fingers, small twitches indicating when you’ve found the sweet spot, drawers and loot grasped with an actual hand, it all works well without distracting from that sense of inhabiting the flesh of your character. The extra HUD overlay just feels like it doesn’t belong, but the option is there for those that feel more comfortable with it.

The playground for the game is a delightfully dilapidated city seen mostly at night. Old brick and wood houses tightly compressed into narrow badly lit streets. It’s paradise for a sneak thief, especially the handy upper walkways and rooftops that litter every part of it. The city has two levels, street level and thief level. Street level is where you will find all of the guards, along with the few mute and disease stricken citizens that lay coughing in various alleyways. Thief level is where you should be spending most of your time, it’s yours and yours alone, looking down on all like a predator, watching patrol habits, looking out for opportunities. The city itself opens up as you progress through chapters, another word for missions, with early chapters serving to train you in the use of tools and various game mechanics. Side jobs are also available from your fence, Basso, which can be carried out between chapters as you explore the ever expanding city, so there is always something to see and do. But this exploration is always strictly controlled. Thief never lets you off the leash, it can become very broad and feel unrestricted at times, but your freedom is a carefully crafted maze of tunnels, only ever expanded when the developers want it to, piece by piece. It works, and it works well, but I get this nagging feeling that at the start of this games development they had other ideas. Even at its most expansive it still feels restricted, but you are left with a sense that with a little more creative daring, the developers could have made something truly free form. The massive clock tower which serves as your home is all but useless, unless you like to stare at the unique trinkets collected along the way, there is no point in storing any of your ammo or other items in the provided storage, you’ll always be using them and buying more. Your base is a safe refuge adrift of a proper context within the world they have built, It feels like they originally planned a proper open world but ran from the idea at some point in development.

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                                                   The city through the eyes of a Thief

As briefly mentioned above, there are no shortage of tools for the Master Thief to employ against whatever obstacle that stands in his way. The bow returns, albeit in a far more lethal looking form, snapping to life in a flurry of strings and wheels when pulled from his shoulder, coupled with a wide array of arrows for various situations, much like the previous games. You have arrows to deal with torches and the bothersome light they cast, various arrows to kill, arrows to activate switches, choke arrows that knockout foes, explodey arrows, it’s a feast of choices and all work well. Even the rope arrows makes a welcome return, but like the city itself, in a strictly controlled fashion, allowing you to fasten them to designated posts only, becoming yet another way for the developers to facilitate the control of your exploration, rather than as a tool to create your own. Flash bombs to stun and health packs to heal are also present, along with poppy flowers, which refill your focus meter.

Focus is something I refused to use when playing and I made sure to disable it, though I did use it enough to see what it was about. It’s essentially a handy cheat system, Showing you every secret, piece of loot and object of interaction in any given area, robbing you of the satisfaction of exploring and finding these things yourself. You simply press a key/button and all becomes clear, a blue nimbus surrounding everything of use. It’s a cheap way for the developers to lead me through the game and to all of the delightful content they have in store. I found the game much more satisfying without it though, I may have missed some things along the way, but the feeling of actually having to use my own wits to spot traps/secrets made the experience of playing the Master Thief far more rewarding than had I used the focus system. Granted it has other useful features, you can ‘buy’ Focus upgrades with donations to an NPC character that improve Garrett in one way or another but they’re still shackled to that all seeing glowing eye that robs me of all mystery. The effect this feature has on gameplay is symptomatic of the problems with the story holding it all together, convenient magic that eviscerates depth or the possibility of depth. It’s a feature that should have been left on the cutting room floor as far as I am concerned.

The Gameplay itself offers just enough variety to remain compelling. Though a lot of the side jobs you pick up along the way are very samey. You break into a house/property and take something, which may or may not be hidden, the property will almost always be empty of living threats, so once you realize this the tension of breaking and entering dissolves away and it becomes just another routine to be carried out, an exercise in loot gathering. Exploration is fun though, tightly controlled as it is. You’ll often be rewarded for being catlike in your curiousity, and finding these secret places is always satisfying, especially when done without the aid of the magical Focus ability. Staying hidden is essential, as guards and opponents are all better at fighting than you, facing more than one is almost always certain death, you’re forced to use the element of surprise to pick off your foes one at a time and without causing a scene, which just adds to that feeling of being a cat like predator in the dark. You can also completely shun combat in favour of being a ghost, drifting through levels as if you were never there, leaving no trace, which while the most difficult way to approach the game, also offers the most satisfaction in terms of sneaking goodness. The difficulty is never overbearing but it does gradually increase as you move toward the end game, though not enough for my liking, once you figure out certain things about guards and how they patrol and react to you, you’ll find yourself abusing their poor vision to sometimes laughable extremes. The main chapters in the game are all varied enough in location and objective to keep your interest, until you come to the end of the game and it all starts to unravel somewhat, which brings us to the Story that holds it all together and ultimately defines the game as a whole. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

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                             The doe-eyed Erin is central to your journey through the game

The entire plot of the game hinges around a job gone bad, which serves as the prologue and introduction to the world for the players. Garrett teams up with another Thief, the slender, carefree Erin, to steal a gem known as the Primal Stone from the ruler of the city, known as the Baron. Erin seems to be the polar opposite to our player character in both personality and how she operates as a thief. She’s loud, proud and seemingly overconfident in her abilities, getting high on the thrill of the work and its dangers, leading Garrett through the opening phase of our story, doing her utmost to impress him with her bravado and ability. However, It becomes obvious as they progress to their objective that she is unstable emotionally, we don’t know why or to what extent but something seems off. Before we get a chance to dig deeper into her personality disaster happens, Erin is apparently killed and Garrett wakes up a year later with no memory of anything that happened in between. The city has changed while he slumbered, a new disease called the Gloom has ravaged whole parts of the city and is even spreading to the wealthier districts, a tyranny has descended and the Baron has seemingly gone mad with power, a new force rising up to oppose him in the form of the Graven, led by a mysterious character known only as Orion. It’s from this point the game begins to flower into the carefully crafted adventure the developers have created for us, how does it hold up as it blooms?

A lot of this games eggs are in the story basket, at first we’re left with a great big mystery. Garrett is confused and so are we. As the chapters progress we’ll come to understand the nature of this mystery more and more. A plot involving the primal stone you were sent to steal in the beginning, the shattered pieces of which you begin to amass as you make progress. Early chapters are strongest, having Garrett do what Garrett does best, be a thief, moving from location to location and stealing various items for interested parties, unwittingly setting up the final act in the process. Special mention must be made of a chapter set in a mental asylum, with clever use of sound and visual misdirection to create an atmosphere of ever increasing fear and paranoia as you explore.  But back to the ending, which is where it really falls down. What we’re treated to is a supernatural blow out that leaves the player feeling disconnected from everything the developers laboured so hard to build. All of your sneaking, thieving, intelligence gathering… It all boils down to a final confrontation in which you grab chunks of glowing green stone to extract primal energy from Erin, who it turns out was never dead, but held captive the entire time, a chunk of the magical primal stone lodged within her. She is revealed to be the cause of the cities problems, the disease and increasing violent madness of its population, what felt like an interesting and layered character at the beginning of the game turns out to be the big save the world reveal, and glimpses we get of Erin and her dark past along the way are left by the wayside, she is in the end, another damsel in distress. So that’s it, you save the girl and the threat to the city is averted, the game abruptly ends. (Though you can still roam the city and replay old chapters).

The entire story is problematic for me, the full extent of these problems only coming to the fore once you start getting answers toward the end of the game, you feel less and less a Thief as you move forward through chapters. The role of saviour is jarring, you’re given no choice in the matter too, no option to throw a spanner in the works, this is a linear tale that only ends one way. You’re part of a grand magical plot orchestrated by characters that feel like they’re not fully developed. The Baron and his brother Orion, the beggar queen, their personalities are never fully fleshed out through any other means between rare sightings, save for a few scraps of paper, a few lines of dialogue that are repeated far too often, their motivations are vague, everything about them is vague, just like the story itself, it tries to be subtle but fails. In the end I don’t really care, it’s just an overly dramatic climax designed to awe, but because the story refuses to play to its strengths, I am left feeling disconnected from it all, I go through the motions and save the city, huzzah. The magical elements of the story are boring and predictable, the game would have been much better served as a straight up thriller, with the supernatural elements used in a more supporting role, glimpsed and teased but not as the primary focus. A story that by the time it ends, leaves me feeling like the worlds greatest Thief and not like a confused errand boy hero. It’s a missed opportunity and one I fear we’ll be seeing compounded with the inevitable expansions that will be tacked on to the rather abrupt and open ending.  Erin, the supporting character that teased me with a past in the prologue, ends up being an almost omnipotent tool used to propel my Thief forward, what interesting things we do learn about her along the way end up meaning little to nothing come the end, she is not the troubled thief we see at the beginning, just a magic fairy lady whispering to us in glowing darkness every now and then, one that must be saved. I stopped caring. That’s the real shame of this story, it made me stop caring by the time the credits rolled. It should have kept things grounded, explored and expanded its base of characters, with a story that lends itself to the very name of the game, a story about thieves, mixed with the complexity of people and power. There was much potential glimpsed within the writing, but it took the easy way out in the end. Magic. END SPOILERS.

On the technical side of things, the game looks beautiful, even if I had to turn texture settings down to a paltry low. Though the difference between low and high is not actually that much texture wise, all other settings I could crank up without issue. The lighting is all well and good, shadows are shadowy, the feel of the world itself is excellent. Sound design is poor, really poor. NPC’s will often repeat a single line of dialogue again and again and again, without any fade in relation to their distance from you. I have no idea if this is just a problem for me or the game itself, but as someone with a top of the range sound set up, who never has issues with sound in anything else I play, I am going to blame it on the game. Sometimes sounds will cut out for no apparent reason and you’re left listening to just a single string of sound, like rain. It can really disconnect you from the experience at times, which is a shame, because they went to so much trouble to fit you into the skin of Garrett visually. The music is mostly uninspired and sometimes overbearing, nothing to write home about. You’ll want a system with plenty of Ram, at least 4gb. Any decent mid-range GPU/CPU combo should carry the game off nicely.

All in all it’s a very enjoyable game, when it’s busy being a game about a Thief it really feels alive and you’ll feel incredibly connected to your character, with excellent gameplay to keep you entertained, once it deviates from its strengths though, you’ll find it a weaker experience, the story that holds it all together is just not up to the task.

Oh, and Jebediah Chokes is a right prick.

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