The release of the THIEF reboot has sparked up conversations again about what makes a good or bad stealth game. Over the last few weeks it’s prompted me to take a look back at games from THIEF’s family tree and contrast how they approach things.
Last month I played through Dishonored again — the first time doing so since having beaten the old Thief Gold and Thief II: The Metal Age — and played its DLC. That by itself put Dishonored into perspective in relation to its ancestors and I think gave me a good frame of reference to see where the new THIEF is coming from.
The big shift in many of the stealth games we’ve seen recently, or games that use stealth, is that like shooters, they’ve gone for a more linear approach based on waypoints and sometimes small dynamic environments. The missions in the old Thief games were built to feel like dynamic, working environments, and you’d be thrown into them with a map and multiple objectives, expected to figure out the plan for yourself. The first Crysis game was more or less like this too. Crysis 2 instead just had you head from waypoint to waypoint, taking you through small sneaking arenas filled with clever alternate paths. The missions in the new THIEF do pretty much the same thing. This works for simply providing a stealth experience, but I feel like it forgets the freedom and emergent gameplay of the older games.
Dishonored I feel is somewhere between the two, but closer to the old style. The objective is usually not to simply reach a waypoint, but to do an actual thing which is established as soon as you reach the area. Dishonored’s areas are smaller than those of classic Thief and it’s gated by loading screens, but that basic structure is still there. Some people are down on Dishonored’s validity as a stealth game because of how easily its super powers let players combat enemies. I decided to play through the game without using them, particularly the “blink” teleportation, and it instantly felt very much like a Thief-lite. Blink was basically incorporated for the sake of impatient people. Discarding it instantly forces players to methodically examine enemy patterns and the rest of their environment like a traditional stealth game. If you wanna get real technical, Dishonored’s overall structure is actually much closer to that of the original Deus Ex, which makes sense as both games share a level designer.
If you wanna ask between all these which is the best actual stealth game, I guess that’s all on preference due to a bit of irony. Dishonored has more of that dynamic emergent structure, if even only a tiny bit of it, but let’s you tear apart squads of enemies like Deus Ex does. New THIEF would be called dumbed-down by many, but is actually more of a “pure” stealth game where you have to sneak because you can’t fight off five alert enemies.