Thief hands-on: the absent atmosphere of Garrett's return
Written by Rich Wordsworth.
In 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, protagonist Adam Jensen's apartment told a sad story. After the biotech corporation he works for lopped all his limbs off and replaced them with mechanical prostheses, evidence of Jensen's private struggle to come to terms with his new body is hidden in plain view. There's a set of dumbbells piled up in the corner. Empty boxes of booze in the kitchen. A pile of old get well cards. The smashed mirror in the bathroom.
In this as in so many other ways, Eidos Montreal's new Thief reboot feels like a step backwards. Garrett, our titular thief, lives in a gothic clocktower in the centre of a city steeped in poverty, corruption, violence and plague. But the tower tells no story. There's a bed, and some candles, and display cases for the trinkets Garrett pilfers on his exploits. But there's nothing of the man. It feels shallow, two-dimensional, and sadly for a series with a history as long and storied as Thief's, in the four hours I spent with the game that feeling never really went away.
Each chapter I played of Garrett's new journey revolved around stealing a particular closely-guarded object and getting it back to the clocktower. But on the way to each heist, you have the option of stopping off around the city for a bit of off-the-clock thievery to line your own pockets.
The inhabitants of Garrett's City don't go in much for security, frequently leaving windows ajar and their family heirlooms glinting proudly on the mantelpiece. It should be a tense experience, jimmying open a window with Garrett's crowbar, stealing into the room, snuffing the candles and liberating coins, candlesticks and pocket watches from drawers and dressers. But after the first few snapped latches, an uncomfortable realisation sets in: no-one's coming to get you. No outraged citizen ever barges to find Garrett with his gloved fingers in the cutlery drawer, no sleepy child ever wanders up to bed to find the masked villain upending his piggy bank into a sack. These things you're stealing don't belong to anyone; they're just interchangeable loot objects, their only purpose to add coppers to Garrett's purse.
In stark contrast to Human Revolution, Thief's City is nearly empty. I stalked the rooftops and prowled the alleyways and only rarely came across an NPC who wasn't a patrolling guard or a crouching beggar. I did once find a man and a woman out for an evening stroll. Perhaps they were a couple - it was hard to tell, as they weren't talking and were walking about three feet apart. Eager for some human contact that didn't end with Garrett gurgling on the end of a sword, I bounded up to them. Perhaps, as in Jensen's Detroit, they'd have some colourful conspiracy theory to share with me about the City or the plague - or maybe even a sidequest for me to complete. Perhaps the man would have a business rival in possession of some secret documents that needed 'redistributing', or maybe the woman was embroiled in some torrid affair that I could expose to the husband for a reward and follow-up assassination contract.
The man walked straight into me without a word, staring unblinking through Garrett with glassy eyes. Then he wandered off, his mute maybe-wife following robotically tow.
A few hours later, I was in a brothel. Strictly business, of course - I was there to, er, rob it's library, officer. The House of Blossoms is - like its counterpart in Dishonored, The Golden Cat - a plush, vaguely oriental-looking establishment where the City's elite come to get their rocks off away from prying eyes. Also like Dishonored, you're supposed to feel that everyone inside - working girls aside - is probably a bit of a bastard, and therefore fair game for a spot of purse-snatching.
But I didn't feel that. Like each other outing Garrett made in my demo, all this segment made me feel was that this world and the people in it were lifeless set dressing on an obstacle course I had to complete to progress.
Here's what happened: After a couple of fumbled attempts at stealthing my way through the House, I gave up on my softly-softly approach and pelted headlong through the corridors, leading a battalion of furious guards past the half naked girls and punters strewn about the furniture. Closing on my objective, I ducked furtively into one of the curtained salons and found myself rudely interrupting a private transaction between a customer and his courtesan. Lacking both any sense of brothel etiquette and a good place to hide, I crouched down on the bed beside them and trained an arrow on the entrance, ready to drop the first guard witless enough to blunder into the room in chase.
None came. I could hear my pursuers milling about outside, shouting and cursing, but none of them thinking to check the one room I might have escaped into. Worse, the couple on the bed brazenly continued their heavy petting, totally unfazed by the armed maniac who'd made himself their bedfellow. The message was clear: I wasn't supposed to play this way. One gentle nudge and the AI had cracked like Jensen's mirror.
It made me think back to Corvo's own expedition to The Golden Cat, where I skulked about in the sin and Blinked my way from cover to cover. Perched comfortably out of sight, I eavesdropped on one of Dishonored's guards discussing his plans to free a prostitute he'd fallen for and the life they were going to make together. And while Thief draws many uncomfortable comparisons with Dishonored (it's relative linearity, awkward free-running movement and clunky combat in particular), the ommission of these human moments - or the sense that the characters are anything more than pre-programmed bundles of scripts and animations designed specifically as foils to a creeping thief - are what really drained the game of its atmosphere.
The guards are blank, thuggish enemies. Their superior, whom I met once in a cutscene, is a cartoon villain who shoots a henchman in the face with a crossbow for no reason other than to show off what a thoroughly bad guy he is. The city's civilian populace, your main source of income, are soulless coin dispensers - when you can find them at all. And Garrett, well, Garrett is a thief. That's it. Sometimes he robs stately homes, sometimes he robs brothels, sometimes he stays home and just gazes proudly at all the things he's robbed in the past. But we're never told why - there was no motivation for his nighttime escapades that anyone raised in my time with the game. He's a larcenous automaton, stealing to buy upgrades so that he can steal things more easily, like the unhappy office worker who needs his job to pay for the car he drives to work in.
Thief's story cast me as a murderer, a cutpurse and - in story twist close to the demo's end - an unlikely hero of the city's downtrodden. It could have made me feel like a bastard or a superhero, or both. But sadly, critically, only made me feel like I was playing a video game.