The existence of 2012's Dishonored could very well be the worst thing to happen to Eidos Montreal's upcoming—and oft-delayed—reboot of Thief. And while the studio can't be happy with the constant comparisons between these two games, their similarities are many and glaring.
Both Thief and Dishonored have their roots in the beloved PC developer Looking Glass Studios, and feature first-person stealth action spread across several missions within a dreary, plague-ridden city. There's no foul play at work here, of course, but digesting Dishonored last fall informed me of what the ideal first-person stealth experience should be: tense-but-forgiving, and most importantly, confident enough in its own mechanics to let players make their own fun and take drastically different approaches.
Where Dishonored was sure of itself, especially with a style of game that could go oh-so-wrong, Thief feels timid and insecure, almost as if the idea of stealth is so alienating that unnecessary accommodations must be made at every turn. And you don't necessarily have to be a Dishonored fan to understand the frustrations of patronizing game design. With its troubled history and move to next-gen systems, it shouldn't be considered a massive leap in logic to assume Thief needs to pull in as many people as possible to make up for five years of tumultuous development. And while I only spent three hours with the game, even as the tutorial-heavy bits made way for more choices and experimentation, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that Thief didn't want to leave me to my own devices.
To its credit, Thief makes first-person skulking approachable. While main character Garrett can remain undetected by staying out of sight or in the shadows, Thief employs an Assassin's Creed-style movement system for the sake of cheesing it when things get hairy; by holding in the L2 button, he'll vault past anything in his path. Obviously, Garrett works better outside the context of flight-or-fight maneuvers, and Thief makes him highly versatile when in close quarters with enemies. He can stick to and peer around cover, leap from shadow to shadow, and throw any variety of objects to distract his opponents—perfect for sneaking up and bopping heads. Garrett's distaste for violence—made clear early in the game—might seem to limit players' options, but at the end of every mission, Thief uses three categories to evaluate your play style: Ghost, Opportunist, and Predator, the meanings of which should be self-evident. And as with most stealth games, the true challenge lies in finishing a mission without registering the slightest blip on your enemies' radar.
First-person stealth can be incredibly tricky to pull off, but Thief provides plenty of visual information to keep players aware of their visibility. An ever-present light meter indicates whether Garrett is cloaked in darkness or bathed in light (which the PS4 controller reinforces with a distractingly powerful white glare), and enemies' awareness of his presence is indicated by a slowly opening eye icon above their heads. To provide further assistance, some of the items Garrett can interact with are given a blue glow, which brightens and extends to more objects and collectables when he enters the resource-dependent "Focus" mode—which also lets him see in the dark.
These tools proved useful for my brief time with Thief, but the game also throws in one unwanted addition: Constant commentary by Garrett himself. Now, in terms of mainstream video game characters, he's about as common as they come: gruff, badass, and always with a Hollywood-style one-liner on the tip of his tongue. This could be forgiven if his dialogue was limited to communicating with other characters, but throughout my session with Thief, Garrett couldn't help but seem like a backseat driver. Before I could leap from a window to continue with my mission, for example, he made sure to let me know "There's no going back from here." This constantly running internal monologue hit a crescendo when Garrett talked himself through a puzzle before I even had the chance to fully explore the room surrounding it. If Garrett grew up in a much different era, he could give up the thieving game entirely and make an honest living as a Nintendo Power Game Counselor.
Thief's sense of insecurity extends to its story as well, which it chooses to tell with purely "cinematic" means. While the majority of the game (outside of some third-person climbing sequences) takes place in the first-person perspective, Thief isn't shy about dragging you outside of Garrett's head early and often for the sake of telling its story in the most uninspired way possible. The plot isn't necessarily bad, but I couldn't help but think how powerful some scenes could be if played out within the context of the game itself. After a brief prologue, Thief begins with two working stiffs pulling Garrett's body into town while having a conversation about how much things have changed in the year since he'd been gone. This scene would have seemed like less of an exposition dump it played out from Garrett's perspective and allowed players to steal furtive glimpses of the surrounding cruelties through the cart's cracked, wooden boards. It'd be another riff on the constantly copied Half-Life tram sequence, but still way more entertaining than watching two characters yammer on.
If I seem unfair with my assessment of Thief, it's only because the world has given us two similar "thinking man's" FPSes that share a lot of the same DNA: Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These games certainly make more concessions to players than the original Deus Ex and Thief did over a decade ago, but they still manage to feel flexible and daring in a way the Thief reboot does not. It offers plenty of ways to tailor the experience to suit your needs, but only in terms of artificial restrictions and limitations; having Garrett fail a mission if he's seen or takes damage might make for a much more difficult experience, but not a more freeing one. If the irritating insecurities of big-budget games don't bother you as much as me, they could be worth tolerating for the sake of engaging in Thief's solid stealth mechanics. But if you've played any number of the similar games since System Shock taught us FPSes can be more than blasting demons and grabbing keycards, you'd know Thief can—and should—be much more than it is.