Dayport: a plague city, where the poor creep and mourn, the candles tremble and snuff, and where, in the tallest clock tower, arch-thief Garrett dusts his jewellery display cases and plots his next job. Absent for years in a dreamless sleep, Garrett has awoken to find his city - and the game in which it features - has changed a great deal since 1998, when Looking Glass defined first-person stealth with Thief: The Dark Project. Video games of this kind of breadth and ambition cost a great deal more to make these days, for one thing. It's a financial pressure that has brought the original game's designs into closer alignment with current fashions.
So the cobbled, rat-piss-stained streets of The City act as a hub from which Garrett heads out into chaptered missions; these carefully funnel him down corridors of gameplay which offer little capacity for diverse approaches. Each mission has a number of high-value unique items to steal (around six per stage) but aside from these ingeniously hidden secrets, you head in a straight line towards the scooting mission marker as it leads you on towards the next objective. Often a mission builds to a crescendo in which you flee a collapsing building or try to outsprint wildfire in a Call of Duty-esque, summer-blockbuster choreographed sprint. Thief's familiar props are present - rope arrows that can be fired to create routes to new areas; glimmering gold wall plaques put up by the council that can be unscrewed and lifted; glow-eyed zombies with dripping fingers - but they're joined by a raft of new imports designed to broaden the game's appeal.
While it's possible to play Thief on the offensive, knocking out security guards by dropping chandeliers onto their heads with a well-aimed arrow or choking them from behind, this is a game that rewards uncompromising stealth. You learn guards' patrol patterns and dart from shadow to shadow, ensuring you're downwind of any guard dog's twitching nose and taking care not to knock over the farcical amount of pots and crockery left lying about. Perhaps you clamber onto a nearby wall in order to gain better vantage point.
So far, so Tactical Espionage Action - but unlike Metal Gear Solid, there's no range of options for a player to take when plotting a route forward. Nor is there anything like Dishonored's suite of skills to facilitate stylish, expressive play. Instead, you can slide forwards a few feet in silence, crouch in the shadows or throw breakables to distract guards. Other than that, there's little to do but cower and collect.
"The sheer number of valuables to harvest soon wearies... You more often feel more like a diligent cleaner than a master thief"
Collecting stolen objects is, understandably, what you spend a great deal of your time doing. The City has a far more negligent and forgetful populace than before. Despite the abject poverty of this take on Victorian London, the streets are lined with discarded gold: watches, goblets, coins and trinkets, glittering as they wait for Garrett to scoop them up from the puddles into his bottomless pockets. Seemingly every room is filled with a dresser, a desk, a safe and a wardrobe housing something to plunder. Some require a 20-second lock-picking interaction (in which you mindlessly rotate the left analogue stick on the controller and press a button when it clicks into place); others are just left open. The sheer number of valuables to harvest soon wearies - only finding the secret items offers a true challenge. Collecting everything else is busywork. You more often feel more like a diligent cleaner than a master thief.
This rather thoughtless design characterises Thief. The City has the grime and all-day polluted murk of 19th-century London, and its trinkets are consistent with the period: fine art, silver cutlery, signet rings, candlesticks and other antiques. But the sense of historical place is immediately broken by guards that speak in a range of unlikely accents from Texan to Aussie, and who endlessly complain about how much they long for a cup of coffee. The scriptwriting also fails to find a coherent voice or tone. (In one early scene you watch a guard plunge a dagger into a corpse's stomach to remove a swallowed ring. After the amateur surgeon leaves, another guard, having been chastised for missing the valuable when he first searched the body, comments: "You don't suppose we should be checking for cock-rings and stuff?")
The sense that things haven't been rigorously thought through is further exemplified by 'Focus', a state of heightened awareness that the player can trigger in order to highlight people and interactive objects in bright blue. Focus makes no distinction between enemies, valuables and switches (although traps are highlighted in red), but it's useful nonetheless for working out what interactions are available in any scene. Focus depletes with use and quickly runs down, as it's by far the most efficient way to scan a location to find out what to do next.
It's so useful, in fact, that when the gauge is empty the designers allow you to keep using Focus for a couple of seconds regardless - enough time to highlight the interactive objects and secrets in any given room. It's an understandable decision: scouring every inch of a wall or floor is tiresome and slows the game's pace to an intolerable degree. Yet by giving the player unlimited Focus, the system is undermined. What should be the most valuable resource in the game is presented as being scarce when it is in fact limitless.
The AI, one of the game's most important technical facets, is also undercooked. Case in point: I've broken into a heavily guarded stately home. Inside the study I find a switch on the side of an oak desk which, when pressed, reveals a safe in the wall. I pick the lock and empty the contents. I open the door to leave only to find that there's a guard standing on the other side. He's startled by the door's ghoulish flinging but, after a few seconds of staring into the dark room, mutters to himself: "Strange, but nothing to worry about."
Relieved at my dubious escape, I slide to one of the study walls for a moment's respite, forgetting that the owner's canary is preening itself inside a cage by the fireplace. It hysterically flaps and squawks at my approach, once again drawing the attention of the guard. Rather than stepping inside, torching the light and taking a good look around, the guard stands motionless outside. He finally shouts: "It's only a matter of time, black-hand." And he's right. 30 seconds later, he's on his way, and I on mine.
These weaknesses are further highlighted by mild bugs and glitches: voiceover that begins playing too early or too quietly or which repeats, and barks of dialogue that play over one another to create a cacophony of noise. Some puzzles are confusingly arranged or sign-posted, leading to frustration, and it's never clear whether you'll be able to return to a room you're exiting, or if the story will force you away, never to return. The option to immediately replay a chapter after completion does little to ease these frustrations.
Indeed, Thief is a frustrating game as much as it is a disappointing one. There are glimmers of what could have been: the exquisite concept art used in the loading screens shows the care and attention that's gone into conceptualising this dim-lit world; the cloying density of the city - a higgledy-piggledy mess of housing built on housing - has a marvellous sense of place, and many of the optional missions in this hub area, in which you have to briefly break into lofts and cellars, are interesting.
A great deal of care and attention has gone into the humblest of locations: a pornographer's den, a taxidermist's workshop, optional locations you'll only see if you solve the many spatial conundrums of the city and spend the effort on getting to hard-to-reach places (even if, more often than not, the reward for all the effort is a bagful of more trinkets). The stealth is over-familiar, but there remains a certain thrill when you successfully yank the necklace from an aristocratic lady while she natters with her maid, before sliding back into the shadows and exiting the bedroom chamber unnoticed. The option to tinker with custom settings, setting the parameters that dictate difficulty, is a welcome one.
At times the game suffers from a lack of ambition, placing far too much importance on the tiresome looting of endless cupboards and dressers in the vain hope that this will be enough to propel you forwards. In other places, Thief suffers from too much ambition, unable to draw its systems into a cohesive whole. Whether the game simply needed more time or entirely different foundations is never quite clear. Either way, it's a game that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Undeniably, Thief suffers greatly by comparison to Dishonored - its more coherent, more thoughtfully and successfully designed cousin, in whose shadow Garrett and his game now cringe.
If you're getting stuck into the game for yourself - but have come unstuck just a little - take a look at our Thief walkthrough.
6 / 10