The Next Few Hours: Thief

It is much easier to describe what’s wrong with an OK game (or film, or book, or album) than what’s right.  Problems/mistakes are often very specific and universally recognizable, whereas positive traits can sometimes only be felt, and then only after a few hours of play.

To that end, let me at least start off this post by saying that I don’t actively hate Thief anymore.  My original list of problems still holds true, and I’ve been able to identify a bunch of new ones (which I will list below), but I’ve managed to become intrigued by what I’ve seen, and I must admit that I am enjoying the actual moment-to-moment gameplay quite a bit.  I’m still playing as non-lethally as I can – even avoiding takedowns whenever possible – and pulling off a mission without being spotted is quite a thrill.

Basically, if you can ignore the incoherent narrative, the bizarre design choices, the choppy voice acting, the strangeness of the City’s lack of any definable characteristics, and the juvenile, puerile titillation of the first half of the brothel mission (which is the mission I just finished), and you just concentrate on straight-up thievery and stealth, there’s some genuine fun to be had.

But it can be very, very hard to ignore all that other stuff.

[It occurs to me that some of the stuff I complain about below could be design choices that were in the original games, and that the developers felt obligated to keep for that reason.  I hope that’s the case, actually, instead of the alternative; but in any event, the fact remains that those original games came out a long, long time ago, and game design has evolved considerably since then, and some of these issues simply should not be there anymore.]

1.  Polygon’s Ben Kuchera recently wrote a great piece about checkpoints, and how difficult they are to properly design and implement.  Thief’s checkpoint system isn’t necessarily terrible, but it can be incredibly frustrating and/or annoying.  More to the point:  unlike, say, Tomb Raider (another Square Enix joint), which automatically saved every time you found a collectible item, Thief only saves under three conditions:  (1) you manually save, (2) you enter a new area, or (3) you hide in a closet without being in a combat state.  So if you’ve been cleaning up the town for a bit [see 1a below for more on this] and then accidentally get into a scuffle – and if you didn’t engage in one of those 3 conditions above – you will lose all of your progress since your last save if you end up dying.  As I said before, I’m trying to play non-lethally, and as such I’m deliberately not equipped to go toe-to-toe with anyone; if I get discovered, I more or less just give up and reload and try to figure out another approach.  But if I haven’t manually saved in the last 2o minutes, after scooping up a few hundred dollars worth of loot?  I’ve gotta do it all again.  Which sucks.  

1a.  Again, this isn’t necessarily that big a deal, BUT:  loot can be found anywhere, especially in places where it has absolutely no reason to be (i.e., coin purses in bird nests; golden ashtrays on raised wooden planks where no smoker would dare to loiter).   While this serves as a useful enticement for fully exploring the environment, it’s also without any logical sense whatsoever, and so it feels incredibly artificial and breaks any suspension of disbelief.  Another way to say it is that it doesn’t feel like I’m stealing so much as I am simply picking up litter.

2.  The map is useless.  If you find a hidden passageway the game will alert you that the map has been updated, but it literally doesn’t matter, because the map makes no sense.  It serves no useful function; it shows neither direction nor location, but rather a bunch of interconnected rectangles.  The game has an objective marker in your field of view anyway, and so all you need to do is head in that direction in any way you choose.  But if you find a hidden area and want to remember where it is?  Or if you want to go to a shop to resupply before going on a mission but can’t remember where the shop is located?  Too bad, there’s no ability to set a custom waypoint.

3.  Further to that last point, the game does not explicitly give you an opportunity to resupply yourself before a mission, which is insane.  I’d managed to scoop up a bunch of loot after the first mission, and I knew there were tools that I could now afford (specifically, the wirecutter) that I wanted to play with, and I sort of assumed that I’d find a vendor before heading to the brothel mission.  But aside from randomly stumbling across a vendor in a very out-of-the-way corner (who was only selling different kinds of arrows and basic supplies), I was not given a chance to buy the things I needed, and I didn’t know that the only place I could buy that stuff was in the complete opposite direction.  And once I figured it out, I still had to remember where the shop actually was, and the map – again – was utterly useless in that regard.

4.  This is less of a complaint and more of a bug, I think; I often stumble upon throwable objects (which come in handy if I need a pesky guard to go somewhere else), but the game will tell me that my inventory is full and that I can’t pick it up.  Except my inventory is not full, and whenever I need to throw something, the game tells me I have nothing to throw.  Does this mean that I can only carry a certain overall total of tools, and so if I’m carrying too many water arrows I can’t carry throwable bottles?  Or does this mean that the game is simply fucked up?  I can certainly carry infinite amounts of loot (which don’t weigh me down or make any noise, either)…

5.  I’m still very early, and I’ve not seen all there is to see.  But the brothel mission is so weird.  For starters, the brothel itself feels larger than the City that encloses it, and this is to say nothing of the second half of the mission (which feels substantially larger than the brothel that encloses it).  Then there’s the brothel itself, which features a lot of boobs and simulated screwing and a lot of dialogue that sounds as if it were written by overly horny 14-year-olds (who should absolutely NOT be playing this game, if only for this mission alone).  The mission also involves this weird hidden rune thing and a cipher that you use to crack it, except I don’t remember picking up the cipher in the first place, and in any event the controls you use to interact with it are backwards.  (Plus, there seems to be another bug; the game only starts identifying these runes as significant once you find a certain one.  I’d been staring at a different one first, for 5 full minutes, trying to figure out what it meant, before moving on and finding the one that “triggered” the cipher.)

You see what I mean?  This post is over 1200 words long and I spent at least 1000 of them describing the game’s problems, and only 200 or so saying I was having enough fun to stick with it.  Criticism is a tough business.

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