Well, it took the better part of a year, but I finally finished my first full playthrough of 2014’s Thief game. The fourth game in the Thief series, Thief 4 is officially a reboot, but unofficially, it picks up Garrett’s story about 10 years after the end of Thief: Deadly Shadows. Since it’s supposed to be a reboot of the franchise, it dances around events & factions from the other games without actually mentioning them. First, a little history on the game and the Thief franchise itself.
To start with, I’ll refer to this game as Thief 4, even though its proper name is just “Thief”. Unlike the third game – Deadly Shadows – Thief 4 was made by an almost entirely new team. For those who don’t know the history, Looking Glass Studios – the company that gave us such classics as System Shock 1 & 2, Thief: The Dark Project, and Thief: The Metal Age – tragically went out of business in 2000. The future of the Thief franchise seemed bleak, but many of the people who worked on the original two Thief games ended up at Ion Storm and as a result we got Thief: Deadly Shadows in 2004. A year later, Ion Storm closed its doors as well. After that, it seemed like the franchise was over. However, in 2009, to much acclaim, Eidos announced that they were finally developing a new game in the series, originally to be titled Thi4f (yea, I know). Over the next 4.5 years, that concept evolved into what we got – Thief. Enough history, though. Let’s cut to what I thought of the game as a long-time Thief fan. (The short answer is “Meh.”)
Thief 4 is kind of a weird critter. It tries to emulate the playing style of the original games, yet also seeks to inject more action into the environment. Whereas outright combat was a last resort in the other games (especially the first two), here it is a perfectly viable alternative… which is a little strange. It comes across as kind of a love-child of Deadly Shadows & Dishonored. For the most part, it works.
Most of the classic weapons loadout is present – broadhead arrows, water arrows, rope arrows, etc. There are a few new choices, and a couple of old stand-bys have disappeared. The game attempts to be more realistic than its predecessors, so potions and anything magical are out. Instead we have food that we pick up just like loot. A major new feature is Focus, which is very similar to the “Dark Vision” ability in Dishonored or the “Detective Vision” feature of the Arkham Asylum games. In-game, focus is supposed to be a visual representation of Garrett’s experience as a master thief – thus allowing him to notice details about the environment around him. To renew focus, you have to find & eat (smoke?) poppy flowers.
The environment is far more interactive than before, allowing Garrett to set off traps or distract opponents using objects in the world. For instance, instead of sneaking up behind a guard & knocking him out, you can shoot a rope that holds the crate above his patrol area. The crate will then fall down and crush him. Or maybe you can turn a valve that will cause flammable gas to shoot out near a torch, thus engulfing the guard in a fireball of death. You get the picture.
Stealth is more or less the same, at least in concept. Water arrows, long considered your best friend in a Thief game, now only work on small flame sources like a torch… and there aren’t as many torches as you’d think. Gas arrows no longer knock anyone out, but instead temporarily blind/distract them. Oh, and gas is now used to put out the more common flame sources such as bonfires, fireplaces, and sconces. Unfortunately, a lot of the light sources you’ll run into are electric and have to be either turned off (via switch, usually) or avoided. Perhaps to compensate for the additional lighting in Thief 4, we have a new ability called “swooping” that effectively equates to you quickly sliding from one shadow to the next – rushing across a patch of light and hoping no one notices.
A huge part of what made the previous Thief games so successful (and FUN!!!) was the environment & ambiance of the world you’re playing in. The series takes place in “The City”, which is a large, sprawling metropolis caught between the days of magic & the days of technology. The result was a steam-punky kind of world where mechanical automatons were brought to life using magical spells, or where an Old God of chaos could invade with an army of monsters. The various arrows – such as the water arrow or gas arrow – were actually elemental crystals affixed to an arrow shaft, and Garrett himself had been trained in the art of stealth by a quasi-mystical cult known as The Keepers. Part of what made Garrett so appealing as a protagonist was that he was a man with a foot in both worlds, yet he desperately tried to avoid stepping in either one. Despite his enormous skill & potential, he was a man simply trying to survive the chaos of the world around him.
In Thief 4, the ambiance of The City has changed quite a bit. Gone are nearly any references to magic or monsters. Instead we find ourselves in a world that’s somewhere between Renaissance-era Prague and Victorian-era London. Although several easter eggs point to previous events in the series (more on that later), almost none of the previous fantasy elements are seen in Thief 4. The main exception to this is the macguffin that drives the plot – a crystal called the Primal Stone.
Much of what made the world unique, such as these fantasy elements, or the slang used by people in The City, the various factions that controlled/lived in The City – none of these factor into Thief 4 at all. No mention is made of the Hammerites, the Pagans, the Mechanists, or the Keepers. Gone are monster opponents like burricks, zombies, fire elementals, wizards, giant spiders, etc. The closest we come are Primal Humans – people who were exposed to the energy of the Primal Stone and have become twisted Gollum-like creatures as a result. This makes it all the more disappointing when we hear the game acknowledge those missing elements through some easter egg or random mention. Which leads us to the next discussion – is this thing meant to be a reboot or an actual sequel?
Reboot or Sequel
Officially, Thief is a reboot of the series continuity. This basically means that the developers weren’t beholden to any of the events of the first three games, and none of those events or characters is ever really mentioned. However, the game also seems to subtly acknowledge its place as a sequel by injecting numerous references to the other games.
For example, we never hear about the Pagans or Hammerites – the two main factions that sought to control The City in past games. We also never hear about The Trickster (the antagonist of the first game) or his antithesis The Builder (the deity worshiped by the Hammerites) – instead we simply hear how the people used to worship “the Old Gods” but increasingly don’t these days. However, we do hear a guard swear at one point by exclaiming “Trickster’s Balls!”. Also, in the next-to-last mission we find ourselves in an old ruined cathedral that has Hammerite paraphernalia that we’ve seen before, such as stained-glass windows & banners. At one point we infiltrate an old set of ruins under The City which is obviously an old Keeper compound. It’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, puzzle locks, and stained-glass windows featuring a keyhole & crossed keys – the Keeper logo. At no point, however, does Garrett mention the Keepers by name or show any familiarity with the ruins and/or Keeper insignia.
No actual monsters show up, but in one of the side missions we do see a stuffed Burrick head mounted on someone’s wall. One man’s diary (or notes, can’t remember) mentions the possibility of reanimating the dead, but it never happens. One alchemist mentions both spider venom & the gas of a fire elemental in his notes, but that’s about it. Perhaps the saddest of all, we never hear the word “Taffer”… not even once.
I think some of this may have been due to legal reasons, since it appears that the developers actually wanted to use some of it but didn’t for whatever reason. For instance, each of the previous games had you encounter a perpetually-drunk guard named Benny. It was a running gag – you just knew that at some point you would encounter Benny, and that Benny would be a total screw-up at whatever he was doing. Sometimes, you would encounter him more than once – in Deadly Shadows (IIRC) he was fired as a City Watch guard due to your actions early on, and showed up later working as someone’s private guard. Still drunk as could be, though. In Thief 4, we have a side mission where we must follow a drunk named “Lenny” and witness his bumbling attempts to interact with people. Especially considering the reboot nature of the game, there would be no reason whatsoever NOT to call this guy “Benny”. I read somewhere that Benny was an affectionate jab at someone on the original Thief: Dark Project team, so the only thing I can think of is that they couldn’t use the name for legal reasons.
Lastly, a major plot point of the game has Garrett searching for his apprentice Erin. In the game, Erin appears to be in the 18-22 years-old range, which matches up age-wise with the orphan who tried to pick Garrett’s pocket at the end of Thief: Deadly Shadows. Yet another nod to the previous games, however no mention of Garrett leading the Keepers while he raised the girl.
In the end, I found Thief 4 to be a nice distraction. It’s got the Thief vibe, barely, but it seems like they stripped away a lot of the things that made the first games unique. They even changed Garrett’s voice actor and made the character less snarky. As a result, we end up with what could easily just be a generic Thief-like game. In fact, Dishonored feels like more of a Thief game than Thief 4 does, which says a lot.
If you’re a fan of the Thief series, you should pick up the game and play through it at least once. Maybe wait for a bargain bin price, though. If you’re new to the Thief series, you won’t notice the difference and might actually love the game. For the true Thief experience, though, I would recommend going back and playing Thief: Dark Project and Thief: Metal Age. Even with the heavily dated graphics, those games are so immersive it’s insane. Plus both games are now available in Steam, which helps to eliminate compatibility or aging issues.