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game review

Nana nana nana nana, Bat, er, Thief-man!

If you've ever wondered why rich celebrities like Lindsay Lohan or Megan Fox sometimes steal from stores (and often end up getting caught), Thief might provide some insight. Eidos Montreal's new reboot of the storied "first-person sneaker" series superbly realizes the thrill of "getting away with it," proof enough for me that the loot itself is usually secondary. Whether it's lightening the purse of a guard while he looks the other way or picking the lock on a chest just a few inches from a slumbering sentry, Thief provides enough of this sort of vicarious excitement to make you worry: Should stealing really be this much fun? Maybe we're all powerless to resist the urge when put into the right – or is it the wrong – situation?

Garrett, the hero of Thief, is beyond such moral quandaries. He's a rogue through and through – a necessity in The City, a Victorian-Gothic metropolis ruled over by the oppressive Baron. Poverty and the plague-like "Gloom" permeate and combine to create a sense of dread. This is not a good place to live, so you do what you have to in order to survive.

Garrett isn't a bad guy, though. Cut from a similar cloth as Robin Hood, he's a noble master thief. While he doesn't necessarily give to the poor, he does steal from the rich – which, in this land of want, is pretty much anyone who has earthly possessions of any sort – and he generally doesn't kill, unless he has to.

Things change for Garrett when he and his protégé Erin witness a strange occult ceremony at the Baron's mansion. An explosion knocks the duo for a loop and, when he comes to, Garrett finds himself alone in a cart full of bodies. When he meets up with his fence Basso, he learns that he's been out for a full year.

So begins his quest for answers, which leads into intrigue with a mysterious cult, the Baron and his head lieutenant, the Thief-Taker General, who is the spitting image of Daniel Day Lewis's Bill the Butcher character from the 2002 movie Gangs of New York.

Thief bears unmistakable similarities to Dishonored (2012), which comes as no surprise given that that game was itself inspired by the Thief series, which dates back to 1998. Both games make – and suffer from – the same trade-off of the first-person viewpoint. While it certainly adds to the immersion, it also sacrifices adroitness and flexibility. There were several times I misjudged jumps and fell to my death, something that probably wouldn't have happened in a third-person view. I'm not convinced this is the best choice for this particular genre of game, but on the bright side I found it less interfering or jarring in Thief than I did in Dishonored.

The City is a fantastical and engrossing place to visit, thanks in part to some great graphics but more because of the audio. Everywhere he goes, Garrett can eavesdrop on conversations to learn plot details or information that could lead to hidden loot. Overhearing a woman arguing with her husband might, for example, lead him to a stash of jewellery nearby. Or a pair of guards might discuss the clever trap they've laid and how to disarm it. Stopping to listen has high rewards in this game.

Moreoever, the sound design brings The City's various locations to life by creating tension. When he's stealing his way through a mission in a brothel, the hushed whispers all around constantly add to that potential thrill of being caught. It can be quite alarming – you always feel like you're just a heartbeat away from being discovered.

In another sequence in an abandoned lunatic asylum, the distant howling winds and the occasional patter of hard-to-pin-down footsteps had me on the edge of my seat. I haven't been so freaked out by a game for a long time.

The City itself is a virtual warren of alleys, sewers, rooftops and apartments. The Thief-Taker General's men are always on the lookout for Garrett, so getting around without getting caught is a challenge.

Fortunately, it's always night, so there are plenty of shadows to blend into. Garrett also has access to a veritable arsenal of tools – water arrows that can extinguish torches, wirecutters to snip the lines that activate traps, a wrench to open up grates. He can also use Focus (the sort of ESP "detective vision" that has become de rigueur in games these days) to detect hidden items or guards. Focus, like his health, is limited, though.

Garrett can also use his blackjack to knock guards out from behind, or to defend himself when detected. While he can generally hold his own against a single guard, it's usually curtains if multiple opponents attack at once. Thief is thus very much a stealth game where you have to pick your spots and combat is best avoided.

Putting it all together means there are plenty of ways to play. Truly patient players will take their time and move through missions without ever being detected or touching any guards. Aggressive types, meanwhile, will do their best to take out all obstacles in their way. With all the different nooks, crannies and hidden areas, there are plenty of reasons to go back and replay the missions and side objectives after the main story has been completed.

There are also a few challenge modes, where you can test your thieving abilities. In one, you have to keep finding loot in order to keep the clock going, while another is a version of a hot-and-cold game where you have a set time to find and steal the next item. The latter is fun, but a little scanty and looks like it'll be fleshed out in the future with downloadable content. I'm not sure it's deep enough to pay more for, but it's an interesting start that will hopefully be expanded in the inevitable sequels.

The game also doesn't have any sort of multiplayer mode, which I was actually glad for. Too many games these days tack lacklustre multiplayer experiences onto otherwise excellent single-player campaigns, so it's good to see Eidos Montreal didn't even bother with the pretense.

Fans of the series will be relieved to know that virtually every aspect of this Thief reboot can be fiddled with, meaning you can get as hard core as you want. The heads-up display can be turned off, as can Garrett's Focus ability. You can even shut off his speech so that he doesn't say a word in-game, should you want a totally silent experience. The total customization is a great way to please the whole range of potential players.

The new Thief is a game that requires patience, but which amply rewards players that can manage it and knits together lots of elements for a solid reboot of the series. It might also be the best thievery simulator – where the adrenalin and thrill of the steal is replicated – put together yet. Whether that's a good thing or not, socially speaking, it makes for a fun game

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