If there is one thing a reboot needs to do right, besides not sucking, it’s keeping a certain flavor from the original and then improving on it.
The most recent Batman movies did this well, for example.It was still Batman, but one brought into the current world with some current realities and up to snuff with our current expectations for action and drama.
Now if they took Batman and stuck him in a generic, nondescript world, then dumbed down the Joker into a mildly irritating door-to-door evangelist spouting truisms about the sanctity of broccoli… well, it would suck.
Allow me, dear reader, to tell you of a reboot done wrong.
The return of Thief
Thief is a series of games that popped up in the ancient times of 3D PC games… The dreaded ’90s. In those far away times, we computer folk huddled around our bulky CRT monitors and played games from out 500 MB hard drives. Sometimes even in DOS *gasp*
A strange game emerged from the primordial soup of first-person twitch shooters and Command & Conquer clones: Thief — a game of thinking and sticking to the shadows, complete with a unfriendly anti-hero that enjoyed ‘borrowing’ things from people who had too much for their own good.
The storyline was interesting, the world well fleshed out, the characters highly interactive, and the graphics — Oh! The graphics!
The first of the series was a sleeper hit. The second was by far the best, taking the ideas in the first and really fleshing them out. The third was, well, mixed at best, being the bastard child of studio closings and stock-market crashes.
And then, due to the whims of the video game market, and a series of unfortunate events, Thief fell out of sight for many years. This was a sad thing for many reasons.
The games were fun, yes, but I personally loved the characters and the world. My attachment to the fiction of the game was only matched by a similar (borderline obsessive) love for the old Fallout games. Deep settings, crazy adventures, interesting protagonists.
And the gameplay itself was unique and (still) unmatched. It played more as a puzzle game than a first-person action game. You, being a thief (imagine that!), had to get into this building or that cathedral. Fighting, while possible, was very much not recommended. All you would get for your trouble were many unhappy, well armed guards looking everywhere for you.
Nope — better off avoiding or knocking out those between you and your goal and get in and out without a fight. Crawl through vents, hop from rafter to rafter, wait until that patrolling guard has his back turned…
So, after so many years without another Thief, imagine how happy I was when another was on its way — and a reboot at that!
This was going to kick some ass, no doubt! Right? Right????
Son of a …
Yeah, well let us talk about that.
Here’s the deal, people looking to reboot a series. Come close to Uncle Kris and allow me to explain using hand signals and runes carved on this sheet of yak intestine.
Kris’ first commandment on the making of reboots: Thou shalt not throw away all the good just to be different.
Kris’ second commandment on the making of reboots: If thou cannot please the fans, thy reboot shall fail.
Allow me to show you what I mean:
Thief, the original series:
- Populated by diverse groups and factions, including religious factions that worship technology and forest dwelling folk that worship the old gods. The Pagans spurn technology, the Hammerites consider the Pagans to be subhuman heathens, the Keepers manage things from the shadows, the Mechanists arise from inside the Hammerites and ultimately take over, etc.
- Steampunk, and created before that was cool. Steam machinery and sooty smokestacks abound.
- The City (that’s what it’s called, folks) is a character of its own. Dirty and ancient and built on the ruins of even older cities, the place has a distinct feel.
- Undead — a rare, but significant menace.
- Strange creatures — Lumbering lizard-like Burricks, all mouth and halitosis, clacking lizardmen who have lived underground so long they think the sun a myth, steam powered robotic creations that patrol rich estates.
- Patrolling guards and NPCs are varied and talk/mumble/whistle to themselves.
- You are given very little information on most missions. Maybe you get some info from a contact within the estate, or overhear a conversation between guards that helps you to your objective, but expect no hand-holding here. This is a puzzle, a maze of rooms and corridors and security systems, and you are the master thief.
- Very complex levels with multiple paths and ways to get to your objective. Got to get into that fortified bank? Try the roof, or maybe pry open a vent in the base of a wall, or try your luck distracting and scooting past guards at the front door.
- Secrets hidden almost everywhere. Many with little story snippets surrounding them. A letter folded into a book in the manor’s library may explain why the ghost of the dead librarian roams the room. Secret spaces between the walls tell of underhanded dealings and dalliances.
- The levels are unbroken and sometimes sprawling. Take, for example, on mission where you go from rooftop to rooftop (dropping in for a quick shopping spree when folks forget to close their windows) for a good forty minutes, only to reach a huge building you enter and explore its five or so floors — all without loading screens.
- Stealth is key. Avoid or knock out guards with your blackjack. Pop out, whack him on Ye Olde Noggin, and drag the snoozing meatsack into a corner.
Thief, the reboot:
- Populated by vague, barely (originally misspelled ‘barley’ — mmmm) defined factions. So similar, in fact, that when one faction overtakes the other and populates the City with its own soldiers you will be hard pressed to tell the difference.
- A fairly generic City with few spots of real flavor. Expect the same gray stone over buildings you can’t enter.
- An ancient city beneath the City that looks… well… very much like the city above. Yawn.
- No real undead or mythical trappings. Humans are what you see, and anything somewhat supernatural is merely the product of a ‘power’ that is never fully explained.
- The patrolling guards and NPCs often repeat the same four or five lines of dialog. This breaks the hell out of immersion. Not to mention there seems to be only two types of guards/soldiers patrolling the world and estates. I saw one review describe them as ‘Swordbro’ and ‘Crossbro’, and I think that says it all.
- Linear levels with very little chance to be truly inventive in your approach. Add the hand-holding floating objective circles on your HUD (you can turn that off) and you have missions that feel very scripted.
- Loading screens and strange teleporting door/windows transitions abound. Open a window and sneak in, and it shuts behind you on its own. Why? Because you were just whisked off to a little room somewhere on the map. The window is a gimmick to hide the loading of these areas. This, by the way, seems to be normal for games made with the modern Unreal engines, and doesn’t detract from game unless they are trying to emulate an ‘open’ world, like Thief.
- Batman-like takedowns. No subtle, thief-like blackjack action here folks. Nope. Instead, expect thumpy-punchy takedowns that would create enough noise in real life to wake up the dead. I had no idea Garrett was an MMA fighter…
To sum up and get to my damned point
When you reboot a franchise, you need to be careful to keep the good, throw away the bad, and update/modify things to make it fresh. It isn’t an easy task. And fans of said franchise will be squinting real hard at you as you try. Drop the ball and prepare for the rage of the nerd.
But when you are working with such a diverse and interesting world as Thief’s, the talented folks behind the Thief reboot (including Rhianna Pratchett) should have had little problem crafting a game worthy of the name, filled with pagan mystics and technology worshiping cultists and all the modern trimmings expected of current gen games.
Instead, we got a bland and colorless world, a confusing storyline, linear levels that allow very little creative thinking, factions so similar I couldn’t tell them apart…
And even worse, the great sin of any fiction: It never delivered on its promises. I was promised, by the story and the gameplay, certain things. An ending that made sense, for example. And an ancient and ruined city. In the end, I simply didn’t care.
It seems the troubled development of the game itself may have smashed any hopes of a good reboot, however. I mean, just look at this tweet by Rhianna Pratchett…
May I suggest, if any of this Thief stuff sounds fun to you, procure yourself a copy of Thief 2, smack that bad boy up with the modernization patch Tafferpatcher (it is an old game, and this patch makes it run like hot butter on new computers, including high resolutions), and play a Thief game that will turn your head.
Just be ready to spend an hour or more on each level, sneaking and exploring, reading secret love letters from the lady of the manor to the butler, and snatching up every sparkly thing in reach.