Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Thief 2014 a.k.a. Thief 4

This is my review of the PC game Thief that developer Eidos-Montreal released in 2014. It's been a long time since I've written a review for anything, hasn't it? So brace yourself for a really long post the likes of which you haven't seen around here since 2013! I've mentioned the Thief video game franchise in passing twice before. I'll reiterate: I consider the first two entries to be masterpieces of the stealth video game genre. The third one was a'ight. Therefore, of course I have a lot to say about this latest addition to the franchise.

First impression: Not total garbage.
I'm surprised! You and I both expected me to flat-out dislike this game because I'm a long-time fan of the franchise, didn't we? But it really is not total crap.

GAMEPLAY

Movement: Much *cleaner* than Deadly Shadows, almost back on par with The Dark Project and The Metal Age. This game returns to FPS-only mode and the "body" physics have been fixed. No more turning radius and awkward bumping with objects in the environment. Although you can no longer jump whenever you want I have found that I am not hindered by the contextual nature of the jump function. I've been able to jump/mantle whenever I'm of a mind to jump/mantle something. I haven't run into any moments of "what the hell, why can't I jump over this?"
Note: Actually, there is one place in the Bank Heist DLC where you *could have* bypassed some floor traps by jumping over them but honestly I wasn't perturbed. I accepted it in the spirit of the puzzle. Sure, you could have jumped those traps if you could have jumped those traps but... you can't ... and therefore that's not part of the accepted solution for that puzzle. Simple as that.

My biggest complaint about the gameplay in general is that it doesn't allow you to do things outside of what the developers specifically intended.
[Exhibit A]: Rope arrows have degenerated into Unlock This Area tokens. You can only shoot them into designated wooden beams placed around the map. For all the illusion of "free-roaming" and a "semi-open world" all paths in this game come in one flavour: beaten. Why even have a 15 capacity ammo limit? I never came close to running out, and even if you did, it's a trivial matter to stop at a merchant to reload. It's pointless, it's tedious.
[Exhibit B]: In Thief 1/2 dropping a flash bomb stunned people and hitting them with a blackjack in this state knocked them out, even if they had already detected you and become hostile. Some might say this made the game too easy and I don't disagree but the point is that the game gave you parameters and within those parameters you could do anything you could imagine so long as you followed the "rules". In this game however, you can only do what *the developers* imagined you would do. Case in point: I see two patrolling guards. I shoot one with a choke arrow to debilitate him while I quickly Takedown his partner. Normally, a choke arrow's effect lasts for a few seconds. In theory there should be enough time to Takedown the other before he recovers. Instead, what happens is I hit Guard#1 with the Choke arrow but once I move in on #2 and begin the Takedown animation #1 changes to an Alert state, cancelling the remaining Choke effect duration and recovering instantly, and attacks while Garrett is still stuck letting the body down gently.
[Exhibit C]: The jumping/mantling mechanic. You can only jump/climb where they specifically want you to jump/climb. I know I already said I don't mind this one but it's still indicative of the limitations.

There are loading zones everywhere but most of them are cleverly disguised inside transitioning animations like climbing through windows and shimmying through tight spaces. Furthermore, all other static loading screen times are only a few seconds long, much shorter than the ones in Thief 3.. Suffice it to say, I complained about Thief 3's loading times but I do not have this gripe for Thief 4. It's still annoying and makes me want to strike a finger-wagging "naughty, naughty" pose towards the game designers but I'll let them slide this time.

Speaking of annoyances, there is now a character animation everytime you interact with anything, e.g. picking up loot, picking pockets, opening/closing doors, opening/closing drawers, pushing light switches, etc. And there are a lot of loot items, pockets, doors, drawers, and light switches in this game. It gets *tedious* really fast and dangerous at times because Garrett will only open drawers while standing directly in front of them. You can't be sneaky about it, reaching around the corner of a desk or anything, he'll step around and check inside, never mind the guy standing over the table. He also has a frustrating need to admire Collectible loot items for several seconds when you pick them up, during which you cannot Interact with anything (although you can still move). At first I thought this was unacceptable but actually you can prompt Garrett to stop that and pocket the item right away by hitting the Cancel Action key, default binding: right-click. Thereafter, I don't mind so much anymore. Honestly, I salute the developers for somehow finding ways to juuuuust dodge my criticisms, haha.

The lock picking mechanic is better than it's ever been, even better and more engaging than from 1 and 2. It's not as mindless as 1 and 2, and you can't bull through it like in 3. You actually have to finesse it like you're really picking a lock.

Story: I think the consensus on this is about unanimous, even among people who like the gameplay: the writing sucks. Pretty badly, I must say. It's just bad, no bones about it. I'm not just saying that just because it discards the original plot. This is a *reboot* not a *remake*. I hold no grudges for the absence of the Hammers and the Pagans. After what Thief 3 did to the Pagans, I'm glad, actually. But the fact remains: It's bad.
As far as I'm concerned, all references to "classic Thief" elements such as the Hammerite symbol, the Keeper statuette, Garrett's mechanical eye, guards mentioning the word "taffer, etc., they are all just nods and easter eggs paying homage to the original trilogy. There are some clumsy attempts to dovetail the rebooted universe with the old but it's too nonsensical to take seriously. P.S. Why use the name Basso for new-Garrett's fence? Why not use Cutty? Old-Basso was just a boxman (expert lockpicker/safecracker).

The voice acting is innocuously decent... except for Garrett's. He reads most of his lines in a listless monotone but, worse yet, when he injects emotion it's almost painful to hear. Listen to him at the end cutscene of Chapter 6. Everyone else does a mostly good job, unfortunately all the lines written for them to say are poor. I can't fault them for that though, their job is just to deliver the lines, not make them.

The characters are all bland. The Thief-Taker General (as stupid a title as Renesmee is for a name) is just short of being moustache-twirlingly evil. Everything he does can be predicted by asking a ten year old child, "What would a bad guy do here, sweety?" "He would hit her!" "Ooh ooh, he would shoot that guy!" Whenever he shows up, regardless of what's happening in the vicinity, he speaks with the same taunting tone of voice like he's a cat playing with a mouse. Building on fire around him? Evil monologue. Ceiling collapsing? Evil monologue. Ironically, every single time you meet in the game Garrett soundly trounces him within 30 seconds of contact and goes on his merry way.

Sound design: Shoddy. Sometimes NPCs will sound like they are right next to you even when they are down street and vice versa. The overheard conversations are even worse. Sometimes they don't cue properly so they loop the dialogue over and over, at times overlapping themselves. I resorted to turning subtitles on so I could catch everything properly.

The city hub makes a return in Thief 4. I know some people who didn't mind it in Thief 3, but I know *nobody* who LIKED it. Its reuse here only served to pad gameplay time with tedious walking back and forth. There's that word again: tedious. Thief 2's "Life Of the Party" mission had Garrett traversing the city rooftops from his home all the way to Angelwatch. In that single mission alone, the world-building achieved by the things you witness and the conversations you overhear on the way to the actual mission area gave that Thief-universe more heart and soul than this entire game did for its own universe. I'll never forget the pejorative 'taffer' or the battle between the guards of Lady van Vernon's house and Master Willey's castle. A few weeks from now all I'll remember about Thief 4 is "sloop" and "Garrett, I'm slipping!"

Analogy time: This game is about as classic Thief as the movie "World War Z" was a faithful adaptation of the book, i.e. not even a little bit. Now, now, this is a reboot, sure, sure. I'm already accounting for that and I'm still making this statement! The thing they've created here does not inherit enough Thief-y essence to rightfully call itself a reimagination of the original intellectual property. This game and that movie should have no right to affiliate themselves with those respective IPs. The only reason they have each done so is because their creators did not have faith in their products to stand alone on their own merits. By plugging into existing fanbases they hedged their bets to get at least a few hapless fans to give up their money.

Conclusion: I found the game (and that movie) entertaining. As Captain Reynolds would say, "That ain't nothin'." Do not take the ability to entertain for granted. My first impression also weathered the utterly unfulfilling ending. This game is not garbage, but that ending undoubtedly was. How's that for a back-handed compliment? The secret to how I was able to keep from hating this game in its entirety? I discarded any and all preconceived notions that this would be a Thief game as I had known them. I went into this game doing my best to look at it like what it should have been: an original stealth-genre video game that just happened to have a few familiarly named characters. With that in mind: It's a'ight.