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Looks like Thief might have done better if it lingered in the shadows for a little longer.
Our latest game to undergo the Threeview treatment received a good, if not a tad lukewarm, reception from our academic reviewer. But our industry analyst clearly sees the reboot of this classic franchise — and some would say cherished — as a flop.
Here’s why our reviewers felt Thief didn’t meet expectations — both from fans of the old games and those expecting bigger worlds to explore thanks to Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed.
Thief: The critic’s review
- By Stefanie Fogel, GamesBeat writer
Despite my disappointment with Thief’s setting and story, I did enjoy my time with it. Sneaking about, pickpocketing guards, picking locks, and finding new ways to infiltrate a building are as satisfying as ever, and the game looks and sounds great (despite some janky audio mixing). As a longtime fan of the series, I want to believe a spot exists for Garrett in the current stealth-action genre he helped create. And if one doesn’t? Well, he’ll probably just wind up stealing one anyway.
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Final critic’s score: 70/100
Thief: The analyst’s review
- By Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst, Cowen and Company
- Twitter: @DougCreutz
Square Enix’s Thief is the fourth and most recent iteration of a franchise that spans back to 1998. The original Thief: The Dark Project was very well-regarded (Metacritic score of 92) due to the innovation it brought to the stealth genre. However, the most recent iteration was published 10 years ago, and thus the IP had become somewhat forgotten. Square’s intention was clearly to reboot the franchise, using the console transition as an opportunity to attract gamers by offering an early next-gen (Xbox One/PlayStation 4) title while the available software choices remain relatively sparse. We believe that console transitions are the most opportune time to (re)introduce “new” IP, as gamers are most ready for fresh game experiences when they have new hardware.
While the plan may have been a good one, the execution appears to have been lacking. Thief has received poor review scores, earning just a 69 on Metacritic for the Xbox One/Playstation 4 version (it appears that critics largely ignored the Xbox 360/PS3 versions). Reviewers cited bugs, long load times, a clunky story, flat characters, and a lack of player choice as reasons to avoid the game. Given the poor quality, one would expect gamers to largely stay away; based on reported February NPD U.S. sales data, this appears to have been the case. While sales were not a total disaster, we believe Thief will probably struggle to reach two million copies of sell-through on a worldwide basis, which is likely not enough to drive a game that has been six years in development to profitability.
Square really needed Thief to do well, as the Japanese publisher has been steadily losing share in Western markets since the PlayStation 2 era, in part because the company’s flagship Final Fantasy brand is a shadow of what it used to be. Between 2000 and 2013, Square’s share of total U.S. console and handheld video game sales (including sales from Eidos, which Square acquired in 2009, as part of the 2000 total) declined from 4.2 percent to 1.7 percent. Considering only Xbox and PlayStation consoles, their share has dropped even more precipitously, from 8.2 percent to 2 percent. With Square sending out games like Thief to compete with much higher quality titles like Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed, the decline in market share is no surprise.
Final analyst’s score: 50/100
Thief: The academic’s review
- By Soraya Murray, Ph.D, assistant professor, University of California at Santa Cruz
- Twitter: @sorayamurray
Garrett, Master Thief and protagonist of Thief, has a loner’s bent, a foggy memory of the last year, and a dubious moral compass. His crafty ways intersect with the interests of powerful men — some corrupt (Baron Northcrest), others revolutionary (Orion). Orion fights for the dispossessed and administers aid to the poor, serving as part Jesus, part Robin Hood. Garrett, on the other hand, is no do-gooder — but he is nevertheless driven by a desire to know what happened to him during his lost time. This leads him deeper into his own lapsed memories and demons as well as into the mystery of what’s become of his hotheaded protégée, Erin.
The ethos of the steampunk-inflected fantasy game is one of misanthropy, a bleak view of humanity, and the dark times of feudal systems as they transition to an industrial age. The Great Unwashed masses are being taken advantage of by those in power, who are in turn filthy in their own way. This is complicated by “the Gloom,” a plague in the unnamed “City” that has become so rampant that quarantines are imposed through martial law and curfews. Bodies are piling up in the streets. The repeated refrain of the looming “progress” heralds a great change — but one that benefits only the elite few. This begins to gesture, perhaps, toward more present-day anxieties about the traumas of radical global economic restructuring. This would be interesting, but the game never seems to have anything to say about the increasing expendability of people, about the growing chasm between rich and poor.
From a playability standpoint, it sometimes feels like an interactive fiction for which creeping and scavenging merely leads to the unlocking of the next plot point. The story unfolds with progress in the game, yet one does not have the feeling that meaningful transformation of the character takes place through gameplay. In this regard, as a player looking for more in today’s major franchise games, the successive episodes of rifling through drawers, evading watchmen, picking of locks, archery, nimble-fingered thefts, and finding of secret buttons was impressively rendered yet curiously without pathos. Thief annoyingly demands my extended labor by creating the conditions to keep me playing — time I’d be happy to give, were there rewards — but it is ultimately without any real gratification.
More interesting, however, are the power dynamics of the micro-world created, in the way one is seen or not seen, branded as sick or well, as sane or insane, as wealthy or poor. Garrett, as a character who skirts the dark shadows of these categories, interestingly functions to draw attention to their repressiveness. To be labeled marks a dweller of the City’s place and limits their possibilities in this world — as in ours. Power in the game comes from observing but not being observed, from existing outside the eye of the law and not becoming a “gloomer.” It’s all about working the space and the system, undeterred; it’s about getting over.
Standing alongside but outside this system, Garrett (as an exception to the rule) highlights the increasing control of bodies modeled in the game that, during the time of plagues, also came to pass in the lived world. As such, he represents not only an anomaly in the structure set up in the story but a tremendous opportunity to maximize him as a glitch or exploit in the repressive system. In this, once again, the gameplay left me frustrated.
Its first-person perspective is a kind of predatory vision that traps the player squarely in the limited viewpoint of the thief, and it feels claustrophobic. Garrett’s inexplicably Standard American Man voice makes it even worse. The game’s stealth orientation proffer an opportunistic relationship to the City’s environment as a space to be mined for all its potential use value. Get all you can, it tells you, because the ship is going down. But the dominating first-person perspective, narrative voice, and lack of open-world exploration that players are coming to expect provided a constricting experience of what it would mean to be an outlaw or outside-the-lines kind of character.
To be sure, the sense of control and surveillance also comes through in the backdrop of a society battered by contagion and exploited in its weakness by ambitious rulers, all in the name of progress. But my overall impression is that of an impressively rendered space, but one lacking of the texture, depth, variety, and freedom of engagement that would make it truly remarkable.
Final academic’s score: 75/100
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