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Posted January 25, 2014 by Anthony in Feature
 
 

Thief Preview


Obscuring themselves in the shadowy streets of South Melbourne earlier this week, Anthony and Jarrod lucked upon the most recent build of Thief, Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the age-old stealth franchise. Risking the light, the two stepped into the illumination of LCD screens showcasing a virtual medieval world, and got a solid few hours play time with a more modern Garrett. What did they think? Read on to discover the perspectives of someone new to the Thief series, and a franchise veteran.

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Anthony Capone:

Some background information first – I’m a somewhat hardcore stealth gamer who loves the likes of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, and goes silent when given the option in games like Deus Ex. However, I’ve never played Thief and despite owning Dishonored – against which I think this reboot may be compared – never played it. I was also one of the first to cover the new Thief when it was shown at E3 last year, and I was excited to get some lengthy hands-on with the game at a recent press event.

First off, I think both old and new players will enjoyed the plethora of options when it comes to shaping your Thief gameplay experience. You can toggle on and off a multitude of features, all the way from basic, like only having the option for stealth takedowns and no reticule, all the way to hardcore, such as having no upgrades, kills, saves and more. Being new to the series, I jumped into the intermediate difficulty, with most of the default setting enabled. The game treated me to a basic but serviceable tutorial about the ins and outs of sneaking, movement and accessing your inventory.

Players assume the role of a rebooted Garrett, the Thief series iconic titular character, and although he does not carry the history of the franchise, the developers have stated that he is, for all sakes and purposes, the same personality as in earlier titles. Once you learn where all the buttons are, navigating Garrett through the shadows is fairly easily. The game also comprehensively teaches players the fundamentals of sticking to the shadows and making as little noise as possible. I initially received a few instant game overs, as enemy guards were able to detect my presence, but this subsided as I progressed further into the game. Despite being a novice to the Thief brand, I was taking all the new information in my stride, and was quickly darting around darkened areas with the proficiently of my other stealth heroes Sam Fisher and Solid Snake.

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In terms of the gameplay experience, I feel that I can liken Thief to earlier versions of Splinter Cell, where the path from point A to B is generally linear, with a few deviations here and there. The developers have noted exploring areas might grant players more collectibles, and you might discover a window or door that creates an alternate entrance. However, I found that it’s generally clear the developers have designed the game with a single path in mind. The presence of a climbable rope or walkway funnels Garrett to his objective, and while some might lament the lack of a more open experience, as a new player to Thief I had no complaints about this direct approach.

I had the most fun sneaking without any of the guards seeing me, observing their patrol matters, and sticking to areas where Garrett’s footsteps would not generate any noise. Getting to the objective without being spotting is satisfying, especially if players can avoid knocking out enemies. A light meter in the corner of the screen also informs players how hidden they are, but of course just because you’re hiding in darkness, it does not mean that an guard can walk straight past without noticing. Garrett can throw items to distract enemies, and an inventory of switchable arrows, such as one with a water tip, means you can extinguish torches to ensure a shadowy path.

At the end of our first mission, Garrett reached a clock tower, which becomes his de facto home for the duration of the game. From there, players can select from both primary and secondary missions to send Garrett on. In the clock tower, you can also stock your excess inventory of items in a chest, and observe the best examples of Garrett’s thievery on display.

Unlike other stealth games, I also really appreciate that Theif includes the ability to save anywhere. Some fans may not like this option, but I hate nothing more than achieving the perfect stealth mission, only to be detected in the final moments and have all my progress be for nothing. Overall, as someone who has never played the series before, I rather enjoyed my few hours with the rebooted Thief, and am inclined to add it to my library of games later this year.

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Jarrod Mawson:

While Anthony is new to the Thief series, I am not. I blame (or celebrate) growing up around PC gaming for that, introducing me to iconic franchises like Thief. We’re about a decade gone since the last title, Deadly Shadows, and this new Thief is all about reviving, rebooting, and in some cases re-imagining a world I’m rather fond of. I put around two or three hours into the most recent PlayStation 4 build, starting from the very beginning, making my way through the tutorial prologue, HUB introduction, and finally the first mission of significance. The verdict? There’s a lot of sneaking and thievery, but I’m not entirely confident Thief is the Thief fans will expect.

Perhaps the most obvious departure from the series roots is how larger, free flowing level design has been replaced by tidy encounters zones. Similarities can be drawn to the structure of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where making your way through a typical stage had you moving between rooms, conquering the layout and enemy patrol paths as you work towards an exit leading you into the next. It’s not unusual for modern games to be designed this way, Thief sharing that similar level of encounter compartmentalisation where the challenge is to pass through a small area of guards using whatever tools at your disposal (and your own sharp wits) in order to reach the escape point, whether that be a grapple ledge, door, or whatever else.

Such design isn’t at odds with quality stealth, but it is at odds with providing organic pacing through the stage entire, and particularly how AI responds to your behaviour. While AI was quite attentive to my mistakes and poor judgement, rarely was the threat of being pursued overbearing. Mistakes made in one encounter, no matter how significant, were made largely inconsequential once your escaped from the area and moved forward into the next, or found a hiding spot. Garrett’s newfound mobility gives him an edge against alerted opponents, and on at least two occasions I managed to comfortably outwit and subdue isolated targets even in claustrophobic environments. Larger groups naturally pose a greater threat, even if escape is still viable, and buffing up the difficulty to maximum while turning on optional modifiers (like blackjack stuns only work on non-alert enemies) should go some way to increase the challenge.

Thinking about my time with Thief, “organic” is definitely a word that kept coming back to me. It’s curious to see where Eidos Montreal’s focus has lead to accomplishments in some areas, while at the unfortunate cost of others. As an example of the former, Thief features some of the best in-game body awareness I’ve seen in a long time. Tremendous detail has gone into modelling and animating Garrett’s character within the game world, making every interaction and function triggered by the player represented by physical movement and engagement between the character and level itself. It’s more than just “I can see my feet!”; Garrett will pinch out candle flames, scoop up trinkets, and feel around the edges of picture frames looking for hidden buttons. If providing visual feedback for player interactivity in a virtual game world is paramount, Thief is about as good as you’re going to get from the modern crop of games.

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However, while I appreciate the presentation, I couldn’t shake a feeling of over-contextualising Garrett’s abilities at the cost of more organic player agency. In the original Thief, and recent titles like Dishonored, players are given a multitude of tools, systems, and abilities to experiment within sandbox-like environments. The function of skills is often limitless, with actual limitations the end result of the player’s implimentation of those skills. Thief works the other way around. Garrett has plenty of skills and tools, but many are contextual. You’ll only climb what has been designated as climbable. You can only jump specific gaps. Peaking requres contextual activation only when against a corner. Eidos Montreal has done a pretty good job of providing many opportunities to use your abilities in combination with diverse tactical planning, but the more restricted control and design felt a little overbearing in comparison to freeform, agency driven game design that I’m so familiar with from this genre.

But don’t get me wrong; beating at the heart of Thief is still a game of concealment, and obmutescence. Unlike Hitman: Absolution‘s drastic overhaul of the costume system resulting in the series’ iconic design changing on such a fundamental level that it hardly resembled its predecessors in play, Thief still values the virtues of patience, silence, and planning over recklessness and conflict. Much of the accessibility fluff, like focus mode, can be (and was!) turned off to provide a stronger stealth experience while avoiding an artificial difficulty spike.

Whether that alone is enough to keep series faithfuls content is a hard question to answer, as it’s so dependant on a subjective experience and perspective. My heart says it won’t, sadly, if just for the (often justifiable) lofty and specific expectations from those who hold the series dear. But even the most drastic change to an existing formula is not mutually exclusive to creating quality entertainment. Though in many ways this Garrett is far removed from the One Eyed Theif of yore, Thief‘s reboot has the potential to provide stealth genre fans with a new title that is, at the very least, faithful to most of the genre cornerstones people have come to expect from a game about sneaking, not fighting.

Additionally, some of my concerns are hard to truly gauge when my sample size consists of the very earliest, easiest stages of the game. Where later stages ago, and the difficulty and design they provide, particularly in how AI is integrated into larger stages, is something I won’t know until I’ve played the full game. And even though this new Thief doesn’t really scratch the same itch as old Thief, I’m still keen to see how Eidos Montreal’s complete vision for modern Garrett shapes up.

Thief will be available on 27 February 2014, for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.  Stay tuned to Rocket Chainsaw for more coverage on Thief, including an interview with game director Nicolas Cantin by Alex Mann.


Anthony

 
While not scouring the galaxy, Anthony is Editor and PR machine of Rocket Chainsaw.


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