E3 2013: Thief Preview

June 19, 2013

Following in the footsteps of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal has another franchise revival in the works, and we both know it as simply Thief. Garrett’s return, or reboot to be precise, is on its way to a multitude of platforms. And, to ensure we have a good idea how this next generation stealth title is shaping up, Eidos Montreal provided a behind closed doors demo session of the future of gothic stealth, and a reboot they’re saying has been re-geared for a contemporary gaming audience.

Our demo was a pre-alpha build running roughly equivalent to PlayStation 4 specifications, the team sure to remind us that the gameplay and world are still being designed and refined. Ours took place a few hours into the full game, with Garrett working towards a heavily guarded bastion to steal an artefact known as the “Heart of the Lion”. Standing out the front gates lit by torchlight, we’re reminded that Thief will be a game about options, with several pathways to sneak in an encouragement on dynamic play. Stealth faithfuls might be a little bit concerned to hear that “all arrows blazing” approach is certainly one the developers do want to consider, but they again reinforce the notion that Thief is primarily about stealth. For example, Garrett can get into hand-to-hand combat, but since he is not a soldier he won’t last long. For most players the benefit of staying silent in the shadows greatly outweighs the risk of direct conflict. We’re also told getting to your objective is only one half of the puzzle. In good Thief fashion you’ll need to escape, too.

Staying faithful the series trademark qualities and what fans have come to expect from stealth games, Thief will retain the franchise’ iconic light gem, a highly varied measurement of Garrett’s visibility based on lighting. A second visual cue, a dark haze surrounding the screen, envelops vision to let you know just how hidden you are. Those who’d prefer to just stick with the old school light gem and not crowd the screen will be able to turn off the dark haze visual effect. Light isn’t the only part of sneaking you’ll have to be attentive to. Garrett’s footstep volume will depend on the type of surface you’re trotting across. Might want to stick to the soft grass over loose stone paths.

Sneaking past guards relies on a similar formula to most stealth games: stay hidden, and stay silent. Pick up and throw items to distract guards, luring them out of their patrol paths, and be sure to hide any bodies resulting from above or behind silent take-downs. Eidos Montreal has added some extra production polish to the classic formula to give Garrett a stronger resonance with the game world, his hands grabbing edges to pick around corners, and ledges to climb up and over obstacles.

One of the newest additions in Thief is what the team is calling “focus”. Similar to ‘detective’ mode in many modern games, focus highlights interactive objects (loot, for example), the status of enemies, slow down time to line up shots, and so on. It also gifts Garrett the ability to rapidly (and silently) dash between shadows. It, like your health meter, is its own energy-like metre. And, like health, won’t recharge naturally during play. You’ll need to dig around for hard-to-find poppies to refill your focus metre. And, like the dark haze effect, the focus ability and guard status can be turned off. Purists rejoice.

Indeed, purists will be happy so many staples of the series, along with essential stealth elements, will be present in Thief. Sneaking up behind guards to look their pockets is made all the more cool by the discovery of maps, hand drawn old school style, giving greater insight into the position of guards and their patrols deeper in the level, along with optional secret treasure. Garrett’s bow and assortment of arrows makes a welcome return too, allowing you to extinguish flames, ignite the environment, and even shoot rope to grapple up to otherwise out-of-reach areas.

As the devs progressed through the demo, they showed their focus on making environments interactive and occasionally puzzle-like. Garrett turned off a water valve to open a secret passage, and lock picking initiates a Splinter Cell-like mini-game where you turn the analogue sticks to find the right pin. This all climaxed with Garrett finding his precious Heart of the Lion, requiring the player peek through a broken part of the statue and flip levels to find the right unlocking mechanism. We expect to do a lot of this for certain treasures throughout the game.

The demo ended with Garrett making a daring escape from the castle base, now alight with flame. The escape sequence seemed a bit at odds with the slower stealth focus leading up to it, and we’re not sure how they’ll be received in the full game, but if they’re used sparingly they could provide a nice change of pace from time to time.

Overall we were quite happy with how Thief is coming together. Eidos Montreal is clearly trying to find an appropriate balance between offering a more accessible and enjoyable experience to new players, while also avoiding unnecessary restrictions on old school purists. Stuff like the focus mode and extra features might seem on paper to detract from the hardcore stealth experience, but that the team did remind us all of these can be turned off leads us to believe they’ve got the best of intentions in mind.

Thief is looking to release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC at some point in 2014.

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