Thief, a modern update to the originator of the stealth game genre, released February 25, 2014, didn't steal my heart. Titanfall, released March 11, 2014, practically exploded it.
There's a lot to like in Thief, which reboots a venerable stealth game for next gen systems Xbox One and PS4 as well as last generation systems Xbox 360 and PS3. Unfortunately, there's also a lot to dislike, and not much benefit to playing on Xbox One as I did, over the Xbox 360.
The game takes place in a vague time and place. Everyone is kinda Britishy on the accents, apart from the plot advancer/mystery girl Erin who sounds vaguely American until a telltale OUt marks her as Canadian. Ditto time frame. It's all swords and bows and no guns, but there are street lamps and various steam powered devices. Never mind, I give Thief credit for making you a thief in a far off place rather than the absurd contrivance of its nouveau riche cousin Assassin's Creed's "ancestor memories."
If Thief's setting is passable, its plot is not. There's no way to describe it except cliched and hackneyed.
In a nutshell, some pudgy cultist mages are playing with forces beyond their reckoning and they've unleashed a mysterious plague on the City. This was a lousy storyline when Neverwinter Nights used it over a decade ago and it hasn't grown better with age.
That's all forgiveable, but like most games, Thief rides or dies on its gameplay. At its core, Thief's game dynamic is not too shabby. Basically, you are a glass cannon who thrives in the shadows and wilts in the light. Stand up fighting with guards is out. You need to stay undetected. While in the shadows, you can perform takedowns, which are basically insta-knockouts.
The original Thief was the first game to really utilize this style of gameplay, but by now it's a victim of its own success. Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (by the same studio), Dishonored, even the Batman: Arkham series all use style/shadows/knockouts as their primary game mechanic. So, it is not enough to simply be good at stealth.
What you really want with a game like this is interesting challenges and a variety of ways to overcome them. Too often Thief feels like it gives you one option and punishes rather than rewards creative problem solving.
One experience in particular captured Thief's lost potential and focus on the wrong objectives. You have to sneak into a brothel. (You witness various soft core porn scenes, which may make this game unsuitable for parents of children still convinced they are not already watching internet porn.) To do so, you need to follow a prospective John as he is walked in by a guard.
There's some pleasing sneaking about during this part. Once I got inside I was delighted to discover that the game allows you to overhear two ladies of the night discussing measurements for burning opium and pumping it through the ventilation system -- one of the clever ways the brothel increases "dwell time" if you will. The implications are clear! You can knock everyone out and traipse around to your heart's content without fear of detection if you overload the opium!
Problem: You need a tool. A pair of wirecutters. I didn't have them. But I could buy them. However, I would have to leave the brothel and go back into town to get them. No big deal. I reloaded my game before that particular mission, spent a long time trying to find the little pub where the guy who sold the wirecutters was, and then returned to the brothel. Immediate problem: The game decided to play the same charming-the-first-time sequence of the John getting led along by the guard. Things like that break immersion in a game.
Next problem: I use the wirecutters, I sneak around and pull the lever and... mission fail. Hmm, was I seen? Try it again. Same result. Again. Same result. Google it. Ah ha, turns out that I am playing on "Master" difficulty, under which you cannot knock out any civilians.
This is silly. To provide an innovative and fun solution to a problem and then deny that solution to the group of players who chose to play on the highest difficulty level confuses challenges with ordeals. To make matters worse, there is no way to change the difficulty level once you begin your adventure. My only options were to start completely over with a new game and play through again or forget about seeing what happened with the opium and sullenly move on.
I moved on, but dear readers, my enthusiasm for the game was crippled.
Poor design choices like this abound in Thief. For instance, to open a window, you have to tap a button about 10 times. This gets old quickly and there's no good reason for it. Or, in another mistake, you can throw a guard's body in front of civilians in the city and they will not react. Guards are also hyper aware of movement and light, but they don't mind if you systematically knock out all of their friends. This does not alarm them.
A similar strange decision: You can extinguish candles and shoot torches with water arrows, but you cannot dim oil lamps.
All games make you jump through hoops. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption point out the hoops and effectively say "jump through them if you like, or don't." Other games like Call of Duty or spiritual successor Candy Crush say "if you jump through this hoop you will get this treat!" Thief tells you "jump through these hoops, or stop playing, it's up to you, man." That gets annoying, quickly.
In sum, although Thief has great stealth elements and there is an interesting game in here somewhere, it was just too unpolished and not only linear, but rigid to hold my interest.
I'll have an in-depth look at Titanfall next week, but I can report after playing the Beta and an evening of the full game that it is worth your $60. In fact, I cannot remember a more deserving game since Mass Effect 3.
Deserving not only in the sense that Titanfall does bold things in terms of the tired multiplayer genre and it is nice to reward creative work, but also because it is the most fun I have had playing a multiplayer video game in years.
In a nutshell, it's the future, man, and there are giant mecha running around and cool weapons, and a vague resource war going. Titanfall owes a lot to the Battletech universe, but that is A-O.K. There is no traditional campaign, only a lightly scripted multiplayer campaign which struggles to accommodate the fact that the scripted losing side might win the match. Titanfall resolves this by allowing the losing side to triumph tactically, but still lose the strategic objective.
The campaign mode is short, clichéd and takes only a few hours to complete. You won't care. It's still fun and it just serves as an appetizer for the fast and furious combat to follow. Buy it on Xbox 360 or Xbox One. More on this one next week.
Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC.
Language, violence, partial nudity, graphic sex.
The publisher provided me with a digital review copy.