When the PC game “Thief: The Dark Project” was released in 1998, it broke genuinely new ground in the gaming world. “Thief” brought true stealth tactics into the realm of first-person shoot-em-ups. The goal wasn’t to blow up the bad guys, it was to sneak around them, steal their stuff and – ideally – make your escape without ever being detected.
The shadowy display scheme and careful sound design worked in harmony to create an unprecedented experience, in which looking and listening were your best weapons. On top of this, the designers established a delightfully weird storyline set in a Gothic steampunk city.
That first “Thief” game cast a long shadow, generating two sequels and a whole new genre sometimes called the “first-person sneaker.” Now comes the long-awaited reboot, “Thief” ($59.99; rated M), which recalls at least of some of the original glory.
Sneaking and scaring
The new game isn’t the glorious resurrection that hardcore fans had hoped for, but it preserves the series’ core strengths. It’s still enormous fun to sneak past guards and nobles, swipe their coin purses, then fire a rope arrow to make a rooftop escape.
The game’s setting – a shadowy metropolis known as The City – remains compelling. The time frame in “Thief” is deliberately indeterminate, with high fantasy tropes (swords and crossbows) bumping up against sooty industrialization and Dickensian street characters.
Story and characterizations return to familiar ground, too. As the dark antihero Garrett, your nocturnal prowling gradually uncovers a sinister conspiracy involving political intrigue and ancient mystical powers. A devastating plague called the Gloom has descended on The City, and the bodies are being carted away to an old industrial mill. Why?
The answer to that will take you through towers and dungeons, taverns and alleys, and one seriously scary level in a haunted insane asylum. Here, Garrett discovers that there are worse things than ghosts – for instance, lobotomized ghosts.
An uneven reboot
The asylum level represents “Thief” at its best, but overall the reboot is maddeningly uneven and lacks the unified elegance of the original game. It’s the little things that jar.
Despite greatly improved graphics and technical specs, the character of Garrett is ironically less defined in high-def 2014 than he was in low-tech 1998. The voice acting is stiff and Garrett’s tough-guy one-liners do not serve the character well. Interstitial scenes are curiously rigid, too, with waxy facial renderings. Gaming has enough gruff, stony-faced heroes. Garrett’s much more interesting when he’s on the run and freaking out.
More troublesome is the odd and unintuitive design of The City itself. Garrett moves about by street, balcony and rooftop, so you’re navigating in three dimensions much of the time. The map options are a complete mess, with scale and orientation changing apparently at random.
Frequent load points also disrupt the action, and the AI opponents are not too bright. Compared to the similar “Assassin’s Creed” games, “Thief” comes off more than a bit clumsy. And that’s the last thing you want players to feel in a stealth game.
Still, players who value mood and atmosphere will find that “Thief” still delivers the goods. Garrett’s quiver of tricks – fire arrows, water arrows, sleep arrows – can be deployed in creative ways to take out patrols in style. Be aware that the game, by its very nature, requires a lot of patience. If your style of first-person play is to shoot first and never ask questions, you’ll find very little to keep you occupied.
The new “Thief” could certainly be a little better, but it could also be a lot worse.
“Thief” is now available for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows.
New this week: The year’s most anticipated game so far, “Titanfall” should keep multiplayer shooter fans busy for the next several years. Also, “Dark Souls II Collector’s Edition” and “TowerFall Ascension.”