The gold standard for stealth game play has, and probably always will be, the original Thief series. It wasn’t that it was one of the first games to get stealth mechanics right, I believe that title belongs to the Metal Gear series (even though I’ve never played any of them), more that the blend of mechanics, cues and emphasis on finesse rather than force made the series stand out amongst its peers. It’s been a very long time between drinks for the series though with the last title, Thief: Deadly Shadows, being released almost a decade ago. The latest instalment, Thief, is an attempt to reboot the series for a modern audience something which may be at odds at the long time fans of the master thief Garret
After taking a job from Basso, Garrett’s only friend and contact for all this nefarious and underworldly, you find yourself atop a glorious manor accompanied by your former apprentice Erin. However something doesn’t feel right about this particular job as you witness something strange, an otherworldly ritual that shakes the very world. You’re just about to pull out when Erin, who was watching the ritual from on top of a glass dome, falls. You try to save her but it’s too late and she falls down right into the middle of the ritual, disappearing from sight. Suddenly it’s a year later and you have no recollection of what has happened.
Thief certainly impresses graphically as all the environments pack in an incredible amount of detail, something which is key to the core game play mechanics. There’s atmospheric and lighting effects everywhere which can turn some of the most dull environments into wonderful screenshot bait. Having said all that I feel like it could’ve been better as whilst they’re definitely on the upper end of the scale there are some sections where it’s obvious that sacrifices had to be made for the large number of platforms that were targeted. This did mean that I rarely had any performance issues but I’m usually happy to sacrifice that for a little more eye candy.
Unsurprisingly Thief is a stealth game, one where the objective of your current quest can be completed in a variety of different ways. The tools you have at your disposal are wide and varied, ranging from tools that will help keep you concealed to weapons of massive destruction. There’s also two different upgrade systems that allow you to tailor Garrett’s abilities to your play style of choice allowing you to become the master of the shadows or a brutal predator that lurks around every corner. Indeed whilst Thief’s pedigree is in stealthy game play either play style seems viable, even a mix of both if either one of them starts to wear on you.
In terms of retaining the trademark feel that all Thief games have this latest instalment does it quite well. Whilst the environments aren’t exactly massive open world sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed there’s enough back alleys, secret pathways and rooms with tantalizingly locked doors to make the maps feel a lot bigger than they actually are. Thief certainly rewards players who take the time to go over everything with a fine tooth comb which I’m sure a lot of players will find rewarding. On the flip side it never feels like this is a necessary part of the game as you’ll find more than enough resources to keep you going if you just meander off the beaten trail once in a while. Whilst this might annoy the purists the inclusion of a custom difficulty mode turns this optional but rewarding task into a necessity, something which should keep them at bay.
The combat in Thief is understandably lacklustre, mostly because it’s obvious that out and out fighting isn’t the game’s preferred way of completing objectives. This is in stark contrast to other similar stealth games of recent memory (most notably Dishonored) where both paths were somewhat viable. You’ve still got the choice of killing or knocking people out to achieve your objective but should you find yourself discovered there’s really no way to get yourself out of that situation without finding a nearby hidey hole. I don’t necessarily count this against Thief as out and out combat is not what the series, nor the genre itself, is usually about. The option is there but its a blunt instrument in comparison to all the other tools you have at your disposal.
The stealth, on the other hand, is quite marvelous. With the highly detailed maps peppered with vents, corridors and passageways it’s guaranteed that every obstacle you encounter has multiple ways to bypass it. Indeed every time I found myself struggling with a particular section it was always because I wasn’t noticing the alternate path that was right before me, opening up options I didn’t know I had previously. There are some situations where trade offs have to be made though which can lead to some frustration but realistically it’s just about making the choice that’s right for your particular playstyle.
The game is well executed for the most part with no major bugs or glitches to report however the control scheme does feel a little bit awkward. Using the lean out ability can be a real exercise in frustration, especially if you wanted to pick something up from a chest or box instead of peeking around it. The same can be said for cancelling things, which can be right click or another key, leading to some heat of the moment confusion. Additionally dropping off a rope can’t be done with space if there’s no nearby ledge and instead must be done with X. It just feels like the interface lacks consistency and makes the more routine parts of the game harder than they need to be. This is somewhat excusable in survival horror games but it’s also one of the reasons that I have a tendency to dislike that genre.
Thief’s story is decidedly middle of the road sharing some similar threads to those of previous instalments in the series (secret society conspiracies laced with bits of magic) but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. The initial build up in the opening scenes is far too short for us to have any emotional investment in the main characters and seems to rely on our previous experiences with the series to derive most of its impact. It simply doesn’t work as the vast majority of people playing this game haven’t been involved with the Thief series for the better part of a decade and much of the detail is lost to the ages. I’m a firm believer that a good story can make up for nearly any shortcomings that a game might have but unfortunately for Thief that isn’t the case and it’s lucky that it’s so strong mechanically.
F or a series that hasn’t seen a release in 10 years Thief delivers a solid game play experience, modernizing many mechanics without incurring the usual penalty of simplifying them too greatly for mass adoption. Thief doesn’t rely heavily on its pedigree in order to deliver a good experience, being able to create its own distinct identity through it’s well executed game mechanics. Unfortunately the story is the giant black mark on an otherwise highly polished experience, leaving this and many other reviewers wanting. Still it’s hard for me to recommend against playing Thief as it really is a solid game, just don’t play it for the story.
Thief is available right now on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.995, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Thief difficulty with 11 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
It seems like the classic genres of games are undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the now extremely viable independent game developer market. Whilst a lot of gamers will still go for the current staples (FPS, RTS, RPG) many independent developers are making a good living out of things like top-down shooters, adventure games and the good old fashioned platformer. What’s really surprising though is what sets them apart from their classic brethren and one such example of this is Trine which takes the idea of a platformer and turns it on its head by adding in all sorts of curious game mechanics.
You start off the game by being introduced to the 3 characters you’ll be playing throughout the game. They are (from left to right in the picture above) simply named as The Wizard, The Thief and The Warrior. The thief, in attempting to steal treasure from the Astral Academy, stumbles across a mysterious artifact that when touched bound her to it. Hearing the noise the warrior runs down to protect it, only to himself be bound to the object. The wizard, who has remained in the academy to study the skies, also came down to see what was going on and upon touching the object all of them vanished. From then on only one of them could exist physically while the rest would have to reside in the artifact, which the Wizard recalls being named The Trine.
It’s an interesting set up for the core mechanics of the game which are heavily physics based. You can only control one of each of the three characters at any one time and each of them has their own set of unique abilities. The wizard has the ability to conjure objects (platforms and planks) and control them via levitation. This also extends to a good number of environmental objects throughout Trine which will need to be used in order solve certain puzzles. He also lacks any form of direct combat ability being only able to thwart enemies by dropping things on them or conjuring objects that fall on them. The Wizard then is almost wholly dedicated to solving puzzles.
The warrior is at the complete opposite of the spectrum, being almost entirely used for combat. His initial abilities are quite simple, he has a sword which he uses to kill things and a shield that he can use to deflect things trying to kill him. As you progress he gets the ability to charge at enemies, useful for when they get a bit tougher and have shields of their own, as well as a two handed hammer that does more damage and can be charged up to shake the ground when released. Considering there are times when you’re swamped with enemies the Warrior is far from useless in this predominantly puzzled based platformer.
In the middle of these two extremes is the Thief being both a capable fighter as well as an essential part of the solution to some of the puzzles. Her main weapon is the bow which can be upgraded to fire up to 4 arrows in one shot. She also has a grappling hook which can latch onto any wooden or other appropriate surface which she can then use to swing around from. Her bow can also be upgraded to fire arrows for those few levels where there’s little ambient light but torches sprinkled around for convenience. Out of all the heroes I found myself using her the most since she was so versatile, even if I don’t have a single screenshot of her here (thanks to her being a bit tricky to use whilst also mashing the screenshot key).
The game itself is quite pretty especially when you consider that it was released back in late 2009. All of the environments are lush and rich with little bits of detail from the forests with plant life littering every corner to the dank dungeons with bones and all sorts of nasty things strewn everywhere. Trine also has an extremely vibrant colour palette which is amplified by the extensive use of bloom throughout the game. Whilst this might be seen as gaudy by some Blizzard has shown that a lively colour palette keeps people interested whilst also making it a lot easier to distinguish enemies from a bland background. Personally I quite enjoyed it, even if it seemed a little too outlandish at some points.
Trine also combines a few RPG elements so that they can throw ever increasingly harder puzzles at you as the game progresses. Littered through each level are green experience jars that you have to pick up with some of them dropping directly from enemies. Every 50 of these will grant you a level and a point to spend in upgrading your characters skills. These allow you to do things like conjure more boxes as the wizard, shoot more arrows as the thief and be more effective in combat as the warrior. There are also various chests hidden around each level that contain special items that can augment your abilities, grant special powers like resurrection or reduce downtime like restoring health if it drops below a certain level. Whilst you can complete the game without hunting all of these down they do make the game quite a lot easier if you do, as you can see below.
Thanks to its heavy reliance on physics for the basis of nearly all its puzzles Trine is also subject to the same emergent game play phenomena that all its predecessors were prey to. Whilst it’s obvious that the level designers had a certain solution in mind it’s obvious that there are easier ways of doing them if you mix certain abilities in an unusual way. The screenshot above showcases one such idea where I built a bridge using 5 of the wizards objects which I carefully counter balanced so it wouldn’t fall to pieces when I ran over it. This starts to take on a whole new level when you get the conjure floating platform ability as the wizard, especially when upgraded so the thief can hook onto it.
Whilst this game play idea does make the game infinitely intriguing at points it is also its ultimate down fall. The heavy reliance on the physics engine means there’s always quirks in the way it functions such as when you hit a ledge there’s a moment when your character is considered “standing” for a brief moment allowing you to jump again. This trivializes many of the puzzles and whilst you can avoid doing it the tendency to spam the space bar is not unique to me, so I’m sure many people have found it before. Additionally whilst the game designers coded a fail safe to stop you levitating objects you’re standing directly on you can put a single platform on top of anything and the levitate to your hearts content, wizard surfing your way past almost anything.
Combat, whilst well done for the most part, also let’s Trine down in some parts. Initially it feels like any other part of the game but towards the end there are points where enemies will continue to spawn endlessly until you get far enough away from that point. That’s all well and good but when you’re right at the end of a puzzle and the next check point in sight it’s a damned shame to have to cut through 50 skeletons just to get there, especially if you’ve killed 45 of them not 5 minutes ago. It’s the same complaint that many had with Dragon Age 2 spawning multiple waves of guys, ruining the idea of planning a strategy out before engaging.
Despite these complaints however I still enjoyed Trine throughout the 7 hours I spent with it. The wonderfully lush environments and emergent game play made me feel like I was figuring out solutions that had never been thought of before. Whilst there would be some frustrating times where I’d die over and over again I still kept coming back, trying every avenue I had available to me. The story, whilst simple in its ideas and execution, was enough to carry Trine through to the end and wrap it up succinctly, a rarity in today’s market. Overall Trine is an enjoyable experience for both the things it gets right and the flaws you can so lovingly exploit.
Trine is available on PC right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with about 7 hours of total play time. I’d guess I got about 80% of the total experience and secretes available in the game.