Yesterday afternoon found me at my desk with the vague expression of a lobotomy patient or a recreational user of thorazine. If a passerby had said “whatcha thinking about?” I’d have said, “Nothin’,” which was better than the truth. I was really thinking about narwhals, and Kate Beckinsale. I rarely think of narwhals, since they don’t usually impinge on my day. Kate Beckinsale is a more frequent mental guest, though not one I typically associate with narwhals – or, indeed, with any marine life. Then, because I hate myself, this reverie was interrupted by The Other Voice: “No wonder that Thief article is four days late, you’re so busy there.” God damned Inner Guilt.
Being a couple days late on a game nobody expects much from isn’t a big deal, but yesterday had been a bad day – and I’ve been late on stuff a lot recently, and kinda kicking myself for not having as much time to write like I did, and the usual. Something about the day made an otherwise innocuous deadline push feel like a double helping of Ennui Cake topped by the Scrotum-Pulverizingly Judgmental Cherry of Self-Loathing. Fortunately, my mood was about to improve dramatically.
Didn’t seem that way at first. I sat in a ball of grroawrr, thinking that death was probably the answer, until Outlook plorked and handed me a message from one “Amy Louise.”
It was a query to run an unsolicited article. I hate query letters.
We get them often.
“Will TaprRepedatly piublsh kids atroiocles? Im ate and i lijke mylittle pony. Her is my artcle on me favrotizotest ponsy int he poiny patch. Thasnk yuou!”
Okay, they’re not all that bad, but only a few have met our editorial standards. This Amy Louise character didn’t have history on her side. In fact, I was so ready for the punctuational wasteland I usually get that her email didn’t register as English right away.
This isn’t in English, I thought. Why would the subject be in English and the messa-ohhhhh.
Look, under no circumstances will I guarantee to run unsolicited work, but if you’d like to try your luck, Amy Louise could teach a master’s course in how to maximize your chances. Gracious, structured, grammatically perfect queries are a good start. Everyone loves compliments, and being able to demonstrate familiarity with our site going back to Four Fat Chicks days, as she did, well… it can’t hurt. She also revolutionized the concept of article writing by actually writing the article she wanted us to publish (no. You’d be amazed how many don’t).
An article which, to my Inner Guilt’s scream of rage, happened to be a sharp, fizzy word-cocktail of a debut, equal parts attitude, knowledge, and thermonuclear passion for the Thief universe argued with lawyerly precision and offering plenty of chances for great discussion below.
Thief disciple, Morrowind fan, Dishonored appreciator, good writer, and likes our site? Forget the unsolicited article, at this point I’m wondering about her position on unsolicited marriage proposals.
Very rarely, it becomes necessary for me to make an executive decision immediately, without any time to build some web of deceit by which Gregg appears responsible if the decision is wrong. When that happens I just have to do my best and hope I’ve made the right call.
So in the end, I have to sigh and accept that I can’t lead our Thief coverage under the byline of an unsolicited writer. It’s not quality, or opinions, it’s… politics, I guess. Such a big commercial game, with such a long history at this site; it would look bad to start off that way, no matter what the quality of the actual work. As a debut for Tap’s new staff writer, though, it fits quite nicely.
The fact that she wasn’t seeking and didn’t precisely even want that job… well. Details.
Please welcome the Thiefy stylings of Amy “Official Byline To Be Decided But For Now We’re Going With Amy Louise” Louise, a UK-born psychotherapist with a hell of keyboard, profound love of Rope Arrows, and a gaming timeline that goes back to the ZX Spectrum. She says stuff like “I’m not a professional writer,” but I’d take those protests salted. I’m miles behind in Thief anyway, and I know plenty of people who want to get talking about it now. (Meho! I got your Steam text, and I invoke thee, come forth!) Me, I’ve got more skulking to do, and I’m definitely looking forward to some contributions from our new team member. Everybody say hello… if possible, in slightly warmer tones than the remote “at times Tap will consider unsolicited work from industry professionals” that she got from me before I read her article. I was much friendlier later!
Amy Louise! Make with the thieving!
Impressions: Thief 2014
By Amy Louise
I’m going to start by putting my cards on the table: I love the Thief franchise. I am in no way an unbiased reviewer. This series cast a huge shadow (pun, er, intended?) over my impressionable adolescent years, and Garrett holds the dubious honour of being my favourite ever video game character – perhaps even favourite character, full stop. The revival of the franchise represents a deep emotional investment for me, as it opens up the possibility of all those sacrosanct childhood memories being sullied by an inferior instalment. How melodramatic, you might exclaim! But honestly, for me – and I suspect many other hardcore fans – there was a lot riding on this one.
Despite that, I was determined to give Thief a fair shake, even with reports of headshot bonuses, quick-time events and interviews showcasing developers who expressed a desire to move Thief more towards (cringe) Assassins Creed territory. Thankfully, the general outcry in response was successful in altering that artistic trajectory, as Thief turned out to be far more faithful to its genre roots than I’d first feared.
A quick note on hardware and performance – I’m running a fairly old system (2007), and my Intel Core 2 Quad 9550 2.83Ghz with Radeon HD 4870 is starting to look a little elderly. If I crank the settings up to max I get significant lag. Turning off the shinier graphical treats and lowering the textures to medium ensures a more stable performance, although my framerate drops the more NPCs happen to be around. I assume most PC gamers will have a better system than mine, however, and no-one I know has experienced crashes or any other serious problems.
Anyhow, despite having opened on the positive note of the game’s fidelity to the stealth genre, the first entry on my checklist is the one I feel lets Thief down the most – its swing-and-miss interpretation of its protagonist. Garrett’s great draw has always been his personality, both in his obvious traits and the more surprising ones we catch only tantalising glimpses of. In Dark Project and Metal Age, this was achieved solely through Stephen Russell’s iconic voice acting. The fact that we were never given more than a shadowed hint of our protagonist’s face only fuelled the importance of his narration. Russell’s Garrett is cynical, jaded, selfish and shamelessly materialistic, but his sardonic wit and dark humour make him impossible to dislike. Throw in the occasional glimpse of compassion – his sincere comfort of a Pagan agent on the edge of death in MA11, or his reaction to the news Viktoria has launched a suicidal attack on Karras (“No!”) – and you have the foundation of an antihero who continues to make “greatest character of all time” shortlists sixteen years after he burst (slunk?) onto the scene.
While undoubtedly a talented stunt artist and actor, the problem with Nu Garrett’s VA Romano Orzari is that while he does a passable imitation of Russell’s tone, the warmth and humour of Classic Garrett is entirely missing, and without it he’s just a po-faced dullard wearing eyeliner and a corset. Honestly, I could forgive all the black nail polish in the world if the personality was right. I don’t really care what Garrett wears; I care how he sounds and feels, and Nu Garrett is all style and no substance. According to this interview on Eurogamer the reason for the change was that the same actor was needed for both mocap and audio in order to make the cutscenes more streamlined and natural. My response would be to point to Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, who was nominated for both Hardcore Gamer’s best new character and Destructoid’s best character in 2013, despite having three separate actors – one for mocap, one for facial design, and Courtnee Draper as VA. In any case, as many of Nu Garrett’s lines are delivered in first person, the consistency argument seems moot. My main disappointment is that it could easily have been so much better – I was really surprised to hear such clichéd and lacklustre dialogue coming from Garrett’s mouth, particularly with the acclaimed Rhianna Pratchett on board the writing team. Maybe they thought biting observations on potential marks’ décor and literary collections didn’t fit with their character’s gothic redesign. Whatever the reason, it’s a real shame.
I’ll freely admit I’m making guesses here, but by watching various developer interviews and browsing through the official art book, I feel like the design team were more interested in creating their own character than sticking to a faithful recreation of Garrett. And that’s natural – when you’re in a creative job, you want to create, not be constrained by the boundaries of long-past titles. But if that was the case, this really should have been an original project and not a continuation of a franchise. Any fears of poor interest in such a project should have been allayed by the critical reception to Dishonored, a beautifully made standalone love-letter to the genre classics that suffers nothing from being an open homage. But with Thief, it feels like the main point of the franchise association was to cash in on its fanbase, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
This theory is further supported by the baffling removal of the City’s most recognisable factions – namely the Pagans, Hammerites and Keepers. I understand that the developers wanted to inject some new blood into the old worldspace, and I agree – social and political upheaval in the City was an unexplored theme in previous titles, as was the seldom-mentioned Baron – but the new can work alongside the old without replacing it entirely. The existing factions don’t have to be the centre of the plot – they’ve all had their day in the sun – but to leave them out completely just seems weird, like making a Star Wars movie without the Force. These are the things that lend uniqueness and character to the City. The Pagans, Hammerites and Keepers are brightly coloured threads in the tapestry of Thief’s mythology, and though they were only part of a greater whole, without them the resulting product feels that little bit more drab and generic.
That doesn’t mean lessons haven’t been learned, however. The previous titles aren’t immune to criticism, and one of the big complaints of Deadly Shadows was the absence of the steam/clockpunk-plus-magic element that made the City’s design so unique. Thief has scrapped Deadly Shadows’ pseudo-medieval veneer in favour of pseudo-Victorian, and in my opinion it’s a huge improvement. The frustratingly ineffectual climbing gloves have also been ditched, with a return to rope arrows that will surely draw a sigh of relief from long-time players. The huge increase in customisable gameplay elements also seems to be a direct result of the backlash against Deadly Shadows’ restrictions – Thief generously allows you to turn off the light gem, loot glint, map markers, guard hostility indicators and a whole host of other options that when coupled with the unforgiving Master difficulty make this game a truly challenging experience. Here, at least, the spirit of the franchise is carefully preserved – the biggest rewards in terms of achievements are skewed towards ghosting rather than violence. But while Altair impersonations aren’t exactly encouraged, the developers have successfully implemented bloodier pathways for those who prefer them without any cost to those who don’t. I generally choose to ghost, but even I can’t resist the occasional takedown. The aerial ones are my favourite; there’s something amazingly satisfying about drop-jacking a hapless guard from a roof beam like some kind of murderous Brandon Lee bird spider.
The PC controls are intuitive and easy to use, with full keymapping options for any who wish to make changes (I typically swap the jump/use buttons because years of Elder Scrolls games have given me an ingrained ‘spacebar = activate’ muscle memory). To my pleasant surprise, I noticed that my changes were reflected by the in-game alerts – Skyrim, learn from this! – so that when the game helpfully tells me to press ‘E’ to mantle, I’m not going to smash an empty bottle into my own face instead. The dodging function during fights is also a fun and genre-appropriate addition, and gives you a trick up your sleeve beyond ‘run awayyyyy’ during combat. The ease of control means that when you find yourself a good route, the exhilarating rush of haring pell-mell through alleyways and across rooftops feels like Mirror’s Edge took a lesson in steampunk.
Just when you think you might fall in love, however, the game bitchslaps you with an infuriatingly pointless lasso designed to keep you firmly railroaded to its preferred route. It’s like the Apple of open play. “Sure, you can try anything you like, but if it’s not the way we want, we’re going to make your life really f***ing hard.” Windows and doors occasionally shut behind you like coffin lids, leaving no way to return and explore the area beyond the loading zone you’ve just unwittingly crossed. Rope arrows, while initially delighting me with their welcome return, quickly proved to be usable only in carefully designated spots. Jumping/mantling is location-specific, leaving you ineffectually humping a waist-high barrier because there’s a super cool rooftop you really want to explore, but you’re not allowed to because that’s not the way we want you to go! The swooping mechanic, while delightful in its own right, should really have been a separate function instead of merging it with the jump key. It all adds up to a point when you realise this wonderful sweeping vista, with all the opportunity it promises, is actually a tight-laced laboratory maze and you are the mouse, expected to run the path that has been chosen for you. Once you’ve had that realisation, it’s hard to recapture your immersion.
Though I do have my laundry list of gripes as per above, there really are a whole host of things to love about Thief, and it’s a solidly enjoyable stealth game if you look at it as an original title. Considering it on those terms, I’d give it a good 7/10. But as an addition to the franchise…? I’m less decided. Metal Age’s plot was needlessly convoluted and Deadly Shadows was full of frustrating gameplay annoyances, but I could forgive them all because in the end, Garrett was such an infectious personality that I’d play anything if he was the protagonist. To me, that’s Thief 2014’s greatest failing, and one I simply can’t get past.