Lurking in the shadows, protagonist Garrett stoops down and opens the bottom drawer of a dresser cupboard. A pair of scissors is inside, and Garrett happily takes them to add to his collection of stuff. Then he turns around to examine the rest of the room, finding a plate, a cup and a letter opener. Again he adds them to his other findings before climbing out the nearest open window. If this sounds like a tedious exercise then you might want to avoid Thief, because there's going to be a lot of stuff sitting there waiting to be stolen.
Of course, what else would you expect from a game titled Thief? The reboot of the classic PC series needs to remain true to its subject matter. But it's in these scenarios where you don't feel any sense of urgency at all, you're just searching empty rooms for valuables that give you a bit more gold to buy resources with, such as new arrows. Garrett is working towards a bigger cause, but too often you find yourself bogged down with petty theft just because it's there for the taking.
It also slightly contradicts the narrative that Eidos Montreal is trying to create. Set in a Victorian-style world simply called the City, it's a place where sick, homeless people inhabit the back alleys in fear of the Watch, a brutal unit of guards with too much power. But how are we supposed to empathise with beggars on the streets when there are gold coins and cups lying just a few feet away that they could trade in for a few hot meals?
That's the gameplay between big missions, when Garrett can explore the city in his own time and search every nook and cranny to his heart's content. It's quite a nice location, and you can tell a lot of love has been put into making it feel genuinely desolate and gloomy. Trouble is, the city is broken up into different districts, and moving from each one requires a loading time of ten seconds or more. I'm not a huge critic of loading times, but when you have to get from one end of the city to another and you face three different loading times in the space of a couple minutes, that's when things start to get messy. It's certainly not how I imagined next-generation gaming to be.
Things pick up when he's given a tough task - usually involving the infiltration of a heavily guarded area and getting away with a valuable item - and you have to plan your actions carefully. Which way do you want to enter this building? That window up there, which you have to climb up to? Maybe you can go underneath it by crawling through a grate somewhere? Or would you prefer to walk through the front door, and risk being seen by anybody who happens to be on duty?
That's one of the strengths of Thief, you are given plenty of choice in how you want to achieve your goals and you never feel like you have to do anything a certain way. However there are definitely more effective ways to do things, and finding this out is often a case of trial and error instead of strategic planning. You'll often find yourself being seen and chased away a few times before you stumble upon success, and depending on what type of player you are this can either be interesting or infuriating.
Thief does seem to be tailored for the hardcore player, but those who need a helping hand can simply tap the Focus button which highlights areas of significance. For instance, a wall to climb or a draw to open turns bright blue, making things much simpler. This can take the challenge away, but we understand it's there as a last resort if you're in a rush or simply too frustrated with searching around. There's a Focus meter too so it's not an unlimited power, but the developers have still been very generous with how much help you're given.
There are also moments of linearity that go against what Thief is all about. One of the early big tasks involves you having to get inside a big foundry, but unfortunately there's only one way in and it involves scaling the pipes on the outside wall. The camera switches to a third-person view so you can see Garrett doing his thing, and the route that you should take is highlighted in blue so even a monkey could find his way through. The scenario was like Assassin's Creed without the challenge of finding the climbing path yourself, and you wonder why it was even included at all.
Once inside things get a bit more familiar, and there's a lot of watching and waiting as you try to time your moves just right so that guards don't catch sight of you. A swoop feature allows you to cover short distances quicker and can be very useful once you learn how to use it. Being a master thief, Garrett also comes with the handy ability to pick locks on doors or safes. It's nice to know that any safe can be opened with your skills but it becomes slightly monotonous after a while as it's just a case of twirling the analogue sticks to the correct positions. You can also pick the pockets of unsuspecting guards and peak around walls to see what's around the corner without revealing yourself, adding to the idea of you being a bandit in the shadows, but that can grow old too.
And that's the biggest problem with Thief: after a while everything just becomes a bit too boring. There's not much variety to sneaking into a room, stealing something and then sneaking out again. You're encouraged to do things stealthily and take your time, but the consequences for doing the exact opposite are hardly severe. You can kill guards pretty easily one-on-one, they're only a problem if they gang up on you. As such it can be tempting to forget you're a thief at all and smash your way to the end of a level.
There are also a few technical issues, especially with the cut scenes. Audio doesn't seem to be at the right levels and some voices come across a lot louder than others, breaking you out of your zone and back to reality immediately.There are also some NPCs who have dialogue that overlaps a cutscene, confusing you as to what you should be listening to.
Thief has the potential to be fun and there are certainly some enjoyable moments, but overall it comes across as far too bland. An unexciting story in a stealth game that doesn't give you much margin for error as you progress is tough to recommend. Unfortunately for Eidos Montreal, Dishonored arrived a few years ago and it remains a far more enjoyable experience than Thief can muster up.