Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thievery, Zombies, and a shiny (but sinister) Future...

Where stuff happens!
It's been an interesting, and very enjoyable, two weeks on PS4. The long hoped-for Thief Remake made it's debut (on PC, PS4 and Xbox One), then F2P title Warframe drastically improved its look with new PS4 Update 12.0, and just a few days ago, addictive, top-down Zombie-Shoot-Fest Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition made its way into everyone's PS Plus Instant Game Library - for free. Plus, other stuff.

And yes, the order of the Headline is intentionally chronologically incorrect - it's for dramatic purposes. And attention. Definitely attention. In fact, the whole headline is incorrect, as I will only be looking at Thief this time around.

So, let's start with Thief. Which, due to its extremely ambiguous title (Thief), was apparently expected to be an action title. At least, that's what it seems like, reading some of these reviews. "The combat is clunky, and facing more than one opponent becomes quite difficult," or some such could be read all over the net. And while this is, at least partly, quite accurate, there is a distinction between a Thief and an Assassin. Starting with the name. Obviously. One is supposed to be sneaky. The other, efficiently lethal, with "sneaky" being mostly optional.

And just to get it out of the way, yes, Thief looks and feels a lot like Dishonored. Prettier, and maybe a bit more shallow, but there are differences. Efficient Lethality being one of them.
The settings of Thief and Dishonored are quite similar: 18th Century Steam Punk World, a sinister Ruler, a plague in the streets, and a dark, brooding protagonist. In the case of Thief, that man is Garret, Master Thief with memory issues, inadvertently becoming the linchpin in an ever revolving, and very sinister, conspiracy. There's stealth and sneaking, ranged combat and Melees, story missions and side missions, and lots of places you never need to go to finish the game, but would be amiss to not visit at least once.

What's different is, Garret is not a killer. "Steel and Thieves don't mix well", he says. "Are you going to use those shadows?", he asks. Despite the misleading, action-heavy title (Thief), the game tries very early on to impart to you a certain attitude, which can be summed up by: "If you have to hit, hit quietly." Yes, that does sum it up, you nay-sayers. It's one of those "reading between the lines" things.
"If you have to" implies it's not strictly necessary, but an option. "Quietly" intimates that big and raucous bar-brawl melees might not be in your own best interest. Because you're a Thief. It's like a common theme throughout the game (that game being named Thief). And thieving is what it does best. No, not that kind. Fine, it might "borrow" from Dishonored, but Dishonored in turn "borrowed" a lot from the original Thief games, which makes it a bit confounding to ascertain exactly who the egg and who the chicken is, here.

The Stealth mechanics are solid, the movement fluid, the thievery often exhilarating. The enemy AI is mostly competent, but, sadly, still pretty confined in their ways. What combat there is, is a bit repetitive, but it works well enough for something that is clearly meant to be avoided.
 "Repetitive" is a thing with Thief, though, but in a slightly weird way. Weird, in that part of the things you do over and over again are great and a lot of fun, while it is the movement through the city from one objective to another, that can definitely become a bit tedious after the 10th time. And the fact, that apparently every small path between crates or something else you can squeeze through has one support beam you have to move out of the way by tapping a button, is quite annoying, at least to me.

And yet, that beam is preferable to the unfortunate prevalence of loading screens when moving between areas of the City. It's not as bad as Dishonored, but it's close. The loaded areas are bigger in Thief, and feel a lot more... well, alive, for the most part, but with this generation of consoles being the "next-generation" after all, it's not something you'd expect from a game of only 21 GB.

Especially looking at the not so much jaw-dropping visuals. Thief really shines when it's dark and gloomy (Ha!), with ominous and coherent lighting, but up close things get clunky. Then there's the lack of really interactive objects. While some bottles can be picked up, and some more glass wares destroyed by arrows (sadly, excluding windows of any kind), the majority are indestructible and/or immovable filler material.

Some things you think you should be able to climb you simply can't, and the wonderful rope arrow needs a very special kind of crossbeam to work.

And then there are the bugs. Nothing world changing or game-breaking (yet), but they are a bit annoying at times, mostly because they do rip you out of the immersion that is so essential to enjoying the game.

Thief is not the prettiest or the biggest or the most unrestricted "mini-sandbox" game, ever. But what it is, is a very immersive, and very gratifying, First-Person Stealth experience. It lives from exploration and experimentation, with an addictive sense of discovery - and the Thieving is simply exciting. Finding a hidden trigger in a bookshelf or behind the frame of a painting, in the few more seconds that the guards are distracted by the now dark and damp fireplace you just shot a water arrow into, is quite a blast, really.
Not to mention the superpowers. Yes, there are powers, like a sort of "Important-Stuff Vision", additional eyeball zoom, quicker lock-picking and slo-mo targeting, but I never played with any of that.

Which brings us, neatly, but by total accident, really, to the wonder of custom difficulty. There are a lot of options, from the above mentioned eschewing of your Focus-Powers to Alerts or Damage causing instant Game Over to no checkpoint saves to no aiming reticule to... oh, well, you get the point. If you want the challenge, try experimenting, but be warned: Those options can only be set and changed when starting a new game, and finding out after 15 hours that you cannot work without knowing where exactly your bow is aimed, is a bit of a drag.

The way I play it? Master Difficulty, No Focus Powers, Damage results in Game Over, Only Specialty Arrows. And, as a further tip for the immersively interested, I turned off the interaction prompts in the graphics menu. It makes looking for and finding hidden switches a lot more gratifying, if there's no huge "Over Here" button prompt once you get close to anything. Not using the Mini-Map (you can switch that on and off with a simple D-Pad Down press), is another thing to add to the feeling of genuine exploration. Just don't expect to find everything on every mission, though. Even feeling like you had a complete and proper look around will most likely net you only half the special collectibles hidden in safes and chests around the game world. But don't be disappointed - be encouraged to know, that there is still so much more to discover.

Discovery is the word, really. I'm about 30 hours into the game, and I have just about finished a bit
less than half the story missions. I did a lot of stealing and exploration though, about 10 small and three bigger side missions, and playing with my constraints, necessarily adds definitive (but forced) replay value - since I'm also going for a "no man or animal touched" and "no alarms or detections" playthrough. And once that is done, there's the Challenge mode (I never played), which will probably get some DLC maps, to chase high-scores by chain-stealing or finding hidden stuff, real quick like. As I said, 30 hours, about half the game. But then again, my first Dishonored playthrough took over 55 hours, so if that`s your kind of thing, you will know what I mean.

Dishonored was an amazing game. Thief is not quite up there when it comes to deep and varied gameplay, but is undoubtedly the superior stealth experience. The higher the challenge, and the smaller the help you accept from the game, the more wonderful the experience.

Don't expect a First Person Assassin's Creed. Don't expect Dishonored 2. Don't expect medieval Splinter Cell or Hitman: Absolution. Your job is to steal - and that's best kept in the shadows.

Know your role, and Thief won't pick your pocket. And while the console versions are not really a "steal", it's still well worth to rob your piggy-bank.

So, I was forcing it a bit, there. I got excited.

But, here's some gameplay, for those still interested:

And, as you can see: First, it's dark. Maybe too dark, and I don't know why, really. Second, turning off the Interaction Prompts and Loot Glint in the Options/Graphics menu turns "walking quickly around, looking for prompts" into "searching slowly and thoroughly for whatever you can find or interact with". It's a completely different experience, and, if I may say so, a better experience.

For all your PS4 or Xbox One needs, especially the European needs, head over to Amazon UK - best deals in Europe (mostly). For TV or Movie Streaming needs, as well. Yes, I do buy there myself. Exclusively. Unless I find a better deal, elsewhere...

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