Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Not-So-Smooth Criminal

Thief did not get off to a good start for me. I was barely through the opening tutorial mission - where Garrett squabbled with his old partner/protege Erin and then she fell through a skylight into the middle of a magic ritual and Things Went Wrong - and went into the inventory screen for a moment. Suddenly the screen looked like a kaleidoscope. Going back to the main screen didn't help. If I was looking at any sort of light source, the screen was basically unintelligible. I ended up having to quit playing for the night. That only happened one more time as I played through, though there was also a stretch where the sound stopped working, but it's not encouraging a game that's been out for over a year - is it two years now? - can still have a serious bug like that.

The story is that Garrett's been MIA for a year since that ritual, but has no clue where he was. The City is worse off than ever, and Erin is nowhere to be found and presumed dead. But he's still going to take jobs stealing things and, as usual, he ends up stealing something that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands, and then presenting it to said wrong hands. Then he has to try and steal everything back, or otherwise stop the plans. I think this is the basic plot of all Thief games. Garrett should probably just stop stealing anything that has even a whiff of mysticism around it. Or else steal it and give it to someone else.

They went back to first-person perspective, which is traditional for the games, but I've only played Thief: Deadly Shadows, which went with 3rd-person perspective, and I prefer that. I felt like I got surprised a lot. The fact the dialogue of characters around you is limited, and will repeat a lot doesn't help. Frequently a character would start saying something and then, somehow, their voice would start again with the same statement, while the first one was still going. Like a chorus of clones. Which made it a little hard to try using sound to judge where threats were, since I was busy trying not to be driven nuts by it. Not that it seemed to matter. Almost without fail, if I decided to knock someone unconscious, another person would come into view just then. If I watched a guard walk by, then waited, waited, waited for them to return, the moment I opted to break from cover, they'd come back around the corner and spot me. I started to suspect the game was just screwing with me.

I don't know what it is about these stealth games, but between this and Deus Ex, they really like making you ride in elevators. Spent a lot of time in those between these two games. Which is kind of lousy in a stealth game, because you're typically lit up like a Christmas tree, while trapped in a small box, with no idea what the game plans to have waiting for you at the bottom. Neither game was so cheap as to have well-armed guards just standing staring at the doors when you emerged, but I never felt I could rule out the possibility they would.

There are a few spots in Thief where you're encouraged to run. Like a brief scene where you just have to make a break for it with people chasing you and hope for the best. I guess it's supposed to be a change of pace, but the end result was I started to think of that as more of a viable strategy. I didn't feel like I had a good grasp on just how aware of their surroundings most of the people in the game were, I didn't trust I could knock out a guard without being spotted, or sneak through the shadows without someone conveniently passing by as I dashed through some light, so screw it, just run and hope it works out.

It usually didn't work out. Except that one time in the lowest level of the asylum. But that doesn't really seem like how I'm supposed to be playing it. I guess I needed to try throwing things to make noise to lure people away more often.

It would help if I had more faith in the controls. The left trigger is sort of a catchall action button. It makes Garrett run, or climb ledges if those are nearby, or use this claw tool he has to gain purchase on any number of convenient grates scattered around town for no apparent reason to reach higher ground. Except I would frequently scramble up to one of those, trying to make it to the roof before some guard turned around, hit the left trigger and. . . nothing would happen. Garrett stood their like a dope, me tapping the button frantically trying to get him to do what I wanted. More thought put into the control scheme wouldn't have hurt. I'd also have appreciated it if you could have more than one manual save at a time. Deadly Shadows let you save whenever you liked, as often as you liked, and you could keep all of them. So if it turned out your most recent save was in a bad spot, you could load an earlier one and try a different path. Here, the best you can hope for is there's a checkpoint save you can load instead.

Speaking of characters just conveniently popping up at the worst moments, the Thief Taker General. He's the chief of Watch, and he's a complete ass with a limp, a wrist crossbow, and an unfortunate hairstyle (big circular bald spot right on top). And he keeps popping up when you least want it to happen, when it doesn't seem as though he should. I could sort of see him being there when I try to rob the Great Safe, although, with a full-scale riot pulling down the tower we're in, shouldn't he have bigger concerns? And I'd only been back in town for a week, after a year absence, did he sit there every night waiting to see if I showed up? Then he's somehow in Baron Northcrest's basement lab, again, during a full-scale riot, and again one more time near the end of the story. Each time I'm wondering how this gimpy, loud, arrogant, very obviously part of the establishment asshole has made it this far without being killed by the crazy rioters who hate the establishment.

So I didn't really care much about the main story. The whole mess with the Primal, and Garrett trying to help Erin, maybe to make up for earlier mistakes. None of that really worked for me. I did enjoy the side jobs I could do for Basso, or just roaming the City stealing stuff. The level design allows for a fair amount of finding my own way, although some of the options require spending money to purchase wire cutters or a wrench. When possible, I tried to take the high road, since I figured there would be less guards up high. It didn't always work out, but sometimes it did.

One point in the game's favor, unlike Deus Ex, when Thief presents you with a boss fights, it does give the option to continue to play as I had up to then. When you face the Thief-Taker General the final time, it gives a choice to fight him, or just get around him and continue on your way. I opted to kill him, in part because I didn't figure I could stealthily avoid him, but also I was done with his shit. Plus, it was the same basic conclusion I came to in one of my early Dishonored playthroughs: If I was willing to kill some poor, nameless guard who just happened to be in the way and I couldn't render them unconscious without risking myself, why would I suddenly get merciful with this actual scumbag who abuses his power to make an entire city suffer?

I knew going in Thief had generally not gotten a good critical response from reviewers. I distinctly remember one review calling it a shambling mediocrity, so my expectations weren't high going in. But I've played games that were certainly mediocre before that I still enjoyed, so I had hope. And I did enjoy parts of this, but on the whole, I still felt let down.

No comments: