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'Thief' is a reboot with a few stolen tricks up its sleeve

In "Thief," players spend most of the time climbing, jumping, picking pockets, picking locks and disabling traps. Stealth requires lurking in the shadows, hiding in cabinets and climbing to places where guards’ eyes are unlikely to fall.

The hero stalks the streets of a squalid, plague-ravaged city, seeking to undermine a corrupt leadership that cares nothing for the sick and poor. His primary tools are stealth and uncanny acrobatic abilities, but he is equipped to fight if necessary.

This describes Garrett the hero of "Thief," the new action game developed by Eidos for Square Enix. If also describes Corvo from "Dishonored," which was released by Bethesda Softworks a little more than a year ago. Of course this leads to comparison, and "Thief" doesn't always stack up well against its predecessor, which was one of the best games of the last two years. However, it is a very enjoyable game when considered in isolation.

The "Thief" franchise got its start on PCs about 15 years ago. The three original games were considered trend-setters in the stealth genre. They featured Garrett, a master thief who eschewed violence, as he prowled through a city that straddled the divide between medieval and industrial. The latest game, which is more of a reboot than a sequel, brings back most of these elements as it tells its tale.

Garrett is hired to "visit" a mansion and is teamed with a former protégé, the impulsive and often violent Erin. It's a combination that doesn't mix well with the careful and less-lethal master thief, and it caused the two to part ways previously.  However, they decide to complete the mission together.

As the duo gain access to the mansion's roof and peer through a skylight, they witness a mysterious ceremony. Things go downhill from there as they are caught up is an otherworldly bust of energy. The next thing you know, Garrett is waking up a year later and everything has declined dramatically, with a sort of urban rot settling upon city and "the gloom" afflicting its citizens.

For the rest of the game, you use your burglary skills to unravel what has happened to your hometown — and lift a few sparkly baubles along the way.

You spend most of your time climbing, jumping, picking pockets, picking locks and disabling traps. And you need to be stealthy, which requires lurking in the shadows, hiding in cabinets and climbing to places where guards’ eyes are unlikely to fall. An indicator on the screen lets you know when you are in shadows and visual and audio cues let you know when guards are getting suspicious or danger is looming.

Garrett can get a boost to his skills by engaging his “focus” ability, which helps him see and understand more about his surroundings. As a result, he can perform a variety of tasks much more efficiently, such as picking locks more quickly, locating traps and aiming arrows with increased skill. Of course, Garrett’s abilities seem a bit pedestrian when compared to those of Corvo. The hero of “Dishonored” can teleport, bend time, possess the bodies of animals and people and summon rats to attack foes. 

Beyond his natural skills and “focus,” Garrett’s ability to accomplish his missions is tied to his gadgets. He has a grapple that allows him to scale walls more easily, a wrench to gain access to ducts and a wire cutter to deal with traps. But most importantly, Garrett has a good selection of special arrows that enable him to extinguish torches, anchor ropes to high places, knock out foes, start fires and even turn off switches for electrical lights. (For some reason, a society that has mastered electricity still uses torches and candles — and still uses crossbows instead of firearms.)

Garrett’s missions are usually well designed, with interesting tales to tell and engaging challenges. Most challenges involved using Garrett's abilities and tools to navigate around the cityscape in search of his target. However, developers threw in some good puzzles to raise the bar in a few cases.

Between missions included in the main story line, you can explore the area around the clock tower that Garrett calls home. You can visit shops to replenish supplies or buy upgrades. And you can accept side missions from your friend — and fence — Basso. These generally involve liberating some shiny trinket from undeserving hands.

Unfortunately, the city isn't the sort of large open arena that's available in other games these days. It's broken up into a number of smaller segments that are pieced together like a tricky puzzle. To go from one end to the other involves finding the right access points between the segments and waiting for each to load, as a result, cross-city movement can get tedious.

I played the game on the Xbox One, which boasts much better graphics and processing power than the previous generation of consoles. I expected lavish renderings filled with detail and texture. However, I was a bit disappointed.

The settings were generally pretty good, depicting a gloomy half-medieval city in distress. However, they weren't exactly leaps and bounds ahead of cityscapes we've seen on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. And the characters' were actually disappointing. Faces were somewhat soft and lacking in texture. And animations were good, but didn't reach the level of realism I'd expect from the newest generation of consoles.

The controls are smooth, but a few commands seemed counterintuitive. For example, the jump command is mapped to the left trigger, which is a very unusual setup.

It could be said that the game earns its mature rating for violence and sexual situations. However, you can play without engaging in much mayhem. But that leaves the sexual situations. In one mission, you sneak into a bordello, which contains a few topless courtesans. The mission involves a bit of peeping as you search for clues to a puzzle, and one of the rooms contains a couple having sex.

Bottom line: “Thief” delivers an enjoyable experience, but will seem overly familiar to gamers who played “Dishonored.”

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One (tested)

bowers.brian@stripes.com

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