Thief: The art of the steal, or paint-by-numbers?

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Mar 17, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT (Updated)

The great irony of playing through the latest iteration of the Thief franchise is that, for every moment that feels heisted from more recent blockbusters, those triple-A titles were undoubtedly influenced by the Thief games before them. Thief set the stage for the stealth genre as we know it, introducing mechanics that have resonated across series such as Assassin's Creed, BioShock, Elder Scrolls and more.

The great success of 2012's Dishonored was based in no small part on the game's ability to both honor and evolve Thief's now legendary -- if aging -- legacy. So it's unfortunate that, after a decade in the shadows, Thief has proven unable to steal back its criminal crown. But of all the issues cited by critics, the biggest sin that Thief commits is failing to address the fundamentals that make larceny so damn satisfying.

The Story of the Steal

For the digital rogue, immersion is key. When you first enter any town in an Elder Scrolls adventure, there's an immediate sense of poverty and privilege that engages your moral compass. You can speak to the residents, rich and poor. You can follow them home to their hovel or mansion. In short, you can choose your victim based upon whatever criteria you wish.

Even in less populated cities like Dishonored's Dunwall, every location feels lived in, specifically designed, and unique to the characters who reside there, making every heist matter for having a real, relatable victim. Thief, however, throws you into a monochromatic underclass in which every apartment feels the same. And when you can hijack the rich, or rob an identifiable victim, it's the result of the narrative and not some calculation on your part.

Divvying up the Stash

There's also the matter of what you're stealing. In Thief, you'll spend roughly 15 hours pilfering goblets and coin purses only to raise the funds necessary to rob the next locale. You may expend a rope arrow to access some hidden attic window, but the take will likely only afford you a replacement rope arrow. There's simply no real use for -- or emotional connection to -- the items you're stealing.

In a game like Skyrim, however, there's an excellent chance that robbing from a silversmith might yield some extraordinary weapon. In BioShock, discovering the hidden compartment in an abandoned storefront might reveal a powerful plasmid. In those games, you stole because you benefitted elsewhere. In Thief, it's difficult to pinpoint why you're thieving in the first place.

The Word on the Street

Several times throughout Thief, I would overhear townsfolk discussing some valuable object: A marble bust hidden in somebody's basement, a priceless ring dropped down the sewer. Except, in a world brimming with houses and sewers, it's virtually impossible to apply any context to the rumor mill. Where other titles might update your quest log or add a marker to your map -- subtly rewarding you for listening from the darkness -- Thief has a tendency to make you feel directionless. It's all combination and no safe.

A Hasty Retreat

Few games, aside from Assassin's Creed and Mirror's Edge, have so fundamentally mastered the art of videogame free-running. Chases in those two titles are tense, pulse-pounding affairs, allowing you to clamber seamlessly through the environment. The running mechanics in Thief, however, prove frustratingly specific. If detected by guards, the pursuit back to the safety of the rooftops is a maddening scramble of running into walls and smashing against immovable barrels. And yet, climb 5 feet overhead or even attempt to open a window, and the guards below will go inexplicably blind, instantly calling off their search.

Cat-and-Mouse? Or Smash-and-Grab?

Lastly, Thief is determined to classify your play style. You'll fall into one of three categories -- Ghost, Opportunist or Predator -- depending upon the degree to which you exploit the environment, remain undetected or act. The issue here is the unintended consequence of feeling judged for being a badass. If you're savvy enough to discover some hidden passageway, you're told how much loot you missed in the rooms that you so cleverly bypassed. If you perform an undetected take-down from the shadows, you're classified as a predator. Chances are, if you're feeling like a half-way successful intruder, Thief will figure out a way to make you feel as if you've done something wrong.

Overall, Thief is a fun enough exercise in snooping, albeit with nothing to discover. With no real value to what you're stealing, and no sense of who you're stealing from, the experience feels, sadly, superficial.