Video games are filled with scenarios where the only solution is to blast your way out. That’s why I have a soft spot for “stealth” games like “Metal Gear Solid,” “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell” and 2012’s brilliant “Dishonored.” There’s something more mentally stimulating about finding ways to outwit your enemies without filling them with lead.
In 1998, Eidos Interactive’s “Thief: The Dark Project” introduced many of the elements that ancestors like “Dishonored” have built upon — in particular, the idea that light is your enemy and darkness your friend. The Eidos Montreal studio is now trying to reclaim that legacy with “Thief” (Square Enix, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99), a game whose bright spots are sometimes overshadowed by thoughtless design and technical shortcomings.
The protagonist, Garrett, is a jaded master thief in a fog-drenched city (called “the City”) that looks like Victorian London. In the prologue, Garrett stumbles across an arcane ritual and gets knocked unconscious.
Fast forward a year, and he can’t remember a thing. The City is being destroyed by starvation and a disease known as “the gloom,” and the vile Baron Northcrest has its residents living in terror. Garrett’s ability to sneak into the Baron’s heavily guarded fortresses may be the only thing that can stop the City from descending into anarchy.
Garrett begins with a few essential tools: a blackjack for knocking out nosy guards, a claw for climbing walls, a bow and a quiver of arrows. Water and fire arrows let Garrett douse and relight torches, while rope arrows, which can be shot into hanging beams, help him climb onto rooftops. As soon as you raise the cash you should buy a wrench, a razor and wire cutters, which Garrett uses to steal plaques and paintings and disarm traps.
The event in the prologue has also gifted Garrett with “focus” powers, which, when activated, increase his dexterity, speed and perception. Focus is most useful when you’re searching for loot, highlighting all the treasures and traps in a given room.
The major story missions are well constructed, and often so suspenseful I found myself holding my breath. They offer a variety of approaches: You can be a “ghost,” completely avoiding detection; an “opportunist,” collecting the most loot; or a “predator,” killing anyone who stands in your way. Two clients, an inventor and a circus master, also provide some intriguing side missions.
And then there’s your fence, Basso, who has a list of a few dozen artifacts he wants you to hunt down. Some of those are easy enough to find — you just need to climb through the right window — while others require some tricky navigation of the City’s rooftops and alleys.
The main obstacle to your crime spree is the Baron’s Watch, an army of surly thugs who patrol the streets. They aren’t particularly bright, animated by shaky artificial intelligence, but they are everywhere and they will kill you if they see you.
The initial challenge of avoiding the guards gets tiresome by the fifth or sixth time you need to cross the City to start your next mission. And neighborhoods are divided by loading screens that kill any sense of immersion — an irritation that’s inexcusable these days, particularly if you’re playing on a high-powered PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
Finally, the overarching story in “Thief” is incoherent. Midway through I gave up trying to make any sense of it and settled in to just enjoy the clever individual missions. Fans of stealth games, who get so few of them, will probably be able to overlook the flaws in “Thief,” while wishing Eidos had polished it more carefully. Three stars out of four.
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