Thief & Dishonored – Why The Student Is Now The Master
There’s a spectre that looms large over Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot, and we’re not talking about the legacy of the series of which it is a continuation (or our Thief review). We are talking about Dishonored.
That Dishonored is a game heavily influenced by the Thief series is no secret and as such, it’s inevitable that the two will invite comparisons.
As well as sharing superficial similarities – Victorianesque settings, terrible plagues, arrows in the face and reality augmenting visual abilities, amongst other things – Thief and Dishonored are both, at heart, stealth games.
Making direct comparisons between games can often be unfair and there are enough differences between Thief and Dishonored to exercise caution in that regard.
Nevertheless, in considering what it is that makes Dishonored work so well, some of Thief’s problems can be teased out into the open and a suggestion can reasonably be made that Thief would have done well to learn from Dishonored, just as Dishonored endeavored to learn from Thief.
Thief Vs Dishonored – The Importance Of The Mini-Sandbox
What makes Dishonored work so well at a fundamental level is that it is a sandbox game.
It’s not a sandbox in the sense that it presents you with a big open-world for you to explore at your whim, but it’s a sandbox in the sense that each level presents you with an array of possibilities with which to play: different routes to explore, different mechanics to test the game’s boundaries and different tactics to achieve the same goal.
At times, Thief takes a similar approach, offering the player mini-sandboxes where it feels as if you’re rewarded for exploration by discovering different ways of approaching the task at hand – in one case, even changing the level completely to tip the balance in your favour.
Where Dishonored is entirely built around that sense of discovery and experimentation, however, Thief is not.
Rather than taking the concept of the mini-sandbox to its apotheosis, Thief’s environments gradually begin to feel less like stages built on the principle of facilitating exploration, and more like levels that want you to progress from A to B (that’s not to mention the terrible third-person platforming sections and tepid action set-pieces that often serve to mar the experience of playing Thief).
There are still different routes to take, but they feel less like paths carved out by the player as a natural result of freeform exploration and more like pre-defined options offered up by the developers.
In many ways, then, Thief’s decision to implement a contextual freerun button is indicative of a game that too often anticipates the player’s intentions, rather than one that tries to unshackle the player as much as possible, as is the case with Dishonored.
Thief Vs Dishonored – Combat, Focus & Upgrades
One area in which comparisons between Thief and Dishonored becomes problematic is in the games’ combat systems. Combat in Dishonored is intended to be a viable part of the player’s toolbox, where as in Thief, it’s actively discouraged.
That combat in Thief is bad enough to push players to stealth is probably a good thing, given that this is where the game’s strengths lie, but the decision to include a combat system that, intentionally or not, doesn’t really work, is instructive of greater issues.
These issues are nowhere more apparent than in Thief’s focus system.
Turning on focus highlights objects in the environment that can be interacted with – very useful indeed – and a series of upgrades that enhance your abilities can also be purchased using focus points.
The issue is that when looking down the list of upgrades available, the majority of them look to be pretty useless. Indeed, aside from using focus to spot interactive objects, we used it no more than one or two times in the whole game.
You might argue that having a focus system that is a bit useless doesn’t detract from Thief if you don’t have to use it, and there’s an element of truth to that.
The focus system is, however, representative of Thief’s tendency to employ half-hearted and poorly implemented ideas and systems that, if not actively damaging to the game, fail to add anything interesting or compelling to it.
Thief Vs Dishonored – What Dishonored’s Upgrade System Says About The Game
Compare Thief’s upgrade system to the one that’s included in Dishonored.
When considering how to spend your upgrade points in that game, it’s immediately apparent how each ability on offer – whether something as innocuous as increasing your jump height, or as ostentatious as unleashing a plague of rats on enemies – can completely transform the way that you approach the game.
In other words, Dishonored’s upgrade system is built as a means to enhance the core of experimentation that accounts for the appeal that’s already apparent in the game’s mini-sandbox levels.
Thief’s upgrade system on the other hand, feels tacked on, like an afterthought representative of that games inability to structure everything around the principle at it’s heart, its frustrating tendency to include features that feel at best disjointed from, and at worst detrimental to, the good game that’s at the centre of Thief.
Thief Vs Dishonored – The Student Becomes The Master
The point in comparing Thief and Dishonored’s upgrade systems is not so much to point to the merits and weaknesses of the two systems in and of themselves.
Rather, it’s to point out that where the focus system functions as a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with Thief, Dishonored’s upgrade system is emblematic of that game’s commitment to structure everything around the desire to encourage to the player to experiment, to test and prod and play with it’s world.
That is what makes the game great and that is what Dishonored never forgets.
The problem with Thief is that, far too often, forgetting what makes the game fun, engaging and interesting to play is precisely what it does.
Thief may include a focus system within the game’s fictional world, but it would have done well to learn from Dishonored, and to apply the principle of focus to the game at large.