Recently I’ve finally found the time to play through last year’s new instalment in the Thief series. This has been something of a priority; the first two were, for me, amongst the greatest PC games ever created. The experience of lurking in the shadows in that half medieval, half industrial city, sneaking past guards and exploring in search of treasure, has never really been matched. They were immersive on a level beyond almost anything else. Also, while it divided the fans, I thought the third entry was a rather solid 8/10. So I was keen to see how successful Eidos Montreal have been in revisiting the series, a full decade after Thief 3.


This game is a reboot, or a mostly a reboot with a touch of distant sequel, depending on how you look at it. It’s certainly welcome to have a Garrett back on our screens, even if it’s clear this isn’t the same guy that experienced the events of the first three games. He’s also voiced by a new actor; as much as I miss Stephen Russel, Romano Orzari does a great job in the role with his sardonic, slightly raspy delivery

The writing is consistent with Garrett of old – a man who robs from the rich, gives to himself, and would rather not kill anyone in the process. The aversion of violence could be either because he has a moral code, or that murder is a messy way to do business. Garrett remains a likeable protagonist because he’s driven to do the right thing when he really has to, and because for all his dark hoods and sitting in shadows, he’s too professional and pragmatic to go all dark and brooding on us.

There have definitely been changes to the un-named City in which he lives. The conflict between Hammers and Pagans, long central to the series, is gone and the factions barely mentioned. Also both the supernatural elements of the first game, and the crazy steampunk of the second, are heavily reduced. Magic is present, but only some forgettable shadow-monsters in a couple of levels make a change from human guards.

I know some gamers saw the fantasy side as a detraction, particularly all the zombies in T1, but I always enjoyed the variety and atmosphere it added. Creeping past undead horrors in the ruins of the Old Quarter was just as thrilling as breaking into a noble’s mansion. Not that stealth games need monsters to be appealing, but T4’s version of the setting does end up feeling a bit mundane.

The story this time is about a ruthless baron tying to harness a mystical power source, and unsurprisingly that goes badly. Meanwhile a rebellion of the poor, against his iron grip is orchestrated by a charismatic leader and driven by fear and anger due to a deadly plague. Amidst this all, Garrett trying to find a girl who used to be his protege. It’s not particularly well developed; being rather disjointed at times and with a disappointing rush job of an ending. That said, remember Thief 2? The story sucked then too. It does at least keep to the recurring theme of the self-serving, amoral thief who ends up saving the city from some major threat.

There are scattered hints that this is actually the same City as the first game, taking place several centuries later. That would make new Garret a recurrence of an old hero, a bit like a less chirpy version of Link over in zelda. The callbacks to old games are fairly minor in nature though, so we’re not far off a straight reboot here.

The graphics look great, at least on a technical level. Speaking as someone who doesn’t really keep up with gaming, I was pretty impressed with detailing, weather effects and characters. I had to turn the settings right down for my poor old Radeon 5770 to cope. Unfortunately though, it’s all rather drab and samey. An entire game of grey stone, brownish weathered wood, or grey metal pipes. I was pondering if this is to some extent simply due to T4 being less inclined to go off into fantastical territor. Still even when it does take us to some forgotten ruins, which in Thief 1 would have been awe-inspiring and mysteries, here it’s just more greyness. Also though I’m sure that just when, for example, roaming a Noble’s mansion, Thief 1 managed a more varied palette.

On a more positive note, the sneaky game play has transitioned quite well to this modern new engine. There’s the same emphasis on staying out of bright light, avoiding making noise, and paying attention to the activities and alertness levels of guards. You also get a bunch of the classic tools such as water arrows. There’s still that same satisfaction in manoeuvring watching a guard from a safe spot, timing your movements just right, scampering up then knocking him cold with the blackjack. Then building a big pile of unconscious guards in compromising positions and giggle childishly.

There are a few new nice touches as well – douse a torch right next to a guard with an arrow, and he’ll just relight the thing. Also, more than once despite moving slowly and quietly I inadvertently kicked and smashed a vase. Annoying for me, but, good attention to detail. Meanwhile if you climb out of sword reach but remain visible a guard will throw rocks rather than stand there uselessly. (could guards do that in Thief 3? definitely not in 1 and 2).

Level maps are satisfyingly large, and there also are a few sizable central hubs of city streets that you cross back and forth between levels (probably the single best idea Thief 3 brought to the formula). These present lots of chances for casual thieving, and also have a bunch of shops for restocking on supplies. Whether in the city or on a mission, exploration remains an important part of gameplay – you’ll be looking for alternate paths into buildings, or climbing onto rooftops to evade guards. Also there are stacks of hidden treasures and caches of loot for a thief who thoroughly searches through every location.



What has changed about navigating your way around obstacles, however, is the obvious signposting of climbing and jumping locations. If you see white scratches on a wall, you can scramble up there. Rope arrows (basically grappling hooks) can only be fired into a certain type of wooden beam. That has an impact on how we mentally approach the challenge of, say, finding the way to an open window high above. Rather than figure the way up for yourself, probably through a load of trial and error, it’s now about spotting the signposts. If there aren’t any, you immediately know not to bother. Welcome streamlining, or dumbing down, I guess depending on how you look at it.

On a related note, there are a bunch of visual aids also that show up on your display. Thievable loot has a shiny glint, for example. Markers point you right at the next waypoint, which would be utter heresy to veteran thief players. Further icons above enemy’s heads tell you their exact alert status – ie whether they’re vaguely suspicious or outright hunting you down – whereas before you had to listen and watch their actions. Then there’s focus mode – which throws everything into a kind of monochrome and then highlights useful items and features. Even more than they’re already signposted, that is.

However, apart from stuff built into the level geometry, this can all be switched off if you customise the difficult settings. Hell, if you’re really opposed to hand holding you can go further and switch off the aiming reticle for your bow. Or even the light gem, and that has been around since the very first game. So while the developers have incorporated a bunch of features that we might call hand-holding, it’s a sign that they do also recognise that some folks want a challenge.

There are eight main missions, which is less than in previous games. However there’s also stacks of side missions, handed out by a few shady figures. These quite nicely represent Garrett’s regular work, ie taking other people’s stuff for his own profit, outside of plot events. So it all adds up to a decently lengthy game if you’re want it. I’m sad to say, though, I wasn’t motivated enough to try all the side content.

It’s difficult to be totally fair and objective when considering this one in the light of its predecessors. Thief 1 and 2 had a unique atmosphere to them, an utterly captivating eerie tension. A sense of being unsettled, on edge, but compelled to explore and plunder every dark place, be it a lord’s castle or a haunted ruin, for every golden treasure you could find. This game doesn’t have that same compulsion. Maybe that’s something that can’t ever be exactly recreated. Maybe nostalgia makes me look fondly on the basic polygons and blurry textures, that added a touch of dreamlike surrealism. Maybe we just had more time back then to go piling up boxes to climb a wall the developers never intended us to.

I think I can detach from that and still suggest ways I’d have done this differently. I’ve mentioned a few times how the game as a whole seems a bit drab and unexciting – it could have done with less grey scenery, or more creative writing. Or maybe a better soundtrack, as the first couple of games were sublime in this regard. The hand-drawn cutscenes between levels added something too. The entire experience needs needs to feel more distinctive and atmospheric. Also, on gameplay terms, turn off the obvious climbing gratings and let me roam more freely. Even if that goes nowhere, it makes locations feel more convincing.

Apart from its predecessors, the game is also stuck with comparisons to Dishonored. Arkane’s game clearly uses Thief as inspiration. It also feels a bit more colourful, even if still a game of sneaky shadows, and plays up the steampunk side that’s always been present to a greater or lesser extent. Plus it tries to create some lasting consequences for your choices between being stealthy or murderous. Ultimately it comes across as being a more worthy successor to the Thief series.

So Thief is a solidly competent stealth game. I just can’t call it a great one. I still itch revisit the originals, I’d happily replay Dishonored which to me suggests I’m not totally mired in nostalgia. For this one though, a single play through was enough.