Preview

Thief Preview (PS4)

Despite calling the Thief titles my favourite gaming series, I honestly believed that Thief 4 (from Deus Ex: Human Revolution developer Eidos Montreal) was going to be cancelled. It had to be next-gen at this point which would increase the costs, and historically despite being brilliant the series had a very niche appeal – a pure stealth game set in a medieval fantasy universe that over three games had killed two well-respected developers? It was a risky proposition to bring Thief back, but I was overjoyed to see that Square Enix decided to take that risk and run with it into full Next Generation reboot territory. Today I got to see the game running for the first time. To say I was excited would be like saying a burrick has a slightly gassy stomach or The Cradle isn’t really a good place to leave your kids – a gross understatement.

Eidos Montreal’s goals with Thief (which they carefully outlined to our little group of game critics) are to create a full reinvention of the IP rather than a prequel/sequel, to make it relevant again, and to offer a sense of scale and freedom greater than any other stealth title – and alongside these preserving the essence of Thief. Straight stealth gameplay is more strongly encouraged than it was in Dishonored, although Garrett will be more capable of dealing with enemies (lethally, non-lethally, and just plain escaping from) if you make a mistake or simply aren’t as interested in watching your every step and shadow. You’ll be rewarded if you ghost through the game not killing anyone, but while you’ll have a tougher time there won’t be strict punishments if you’re a less patient/more violent type.

Yay, water arrows! That’s all I needed to know

Garrett’s nameless City is on the cusp of industrial revolution and under the fearful omnipresent watch of The Baron, who rules with an iron and bloodied fist using the Watch as his tool for keeping order. As the gameplay video opened we saw the results of this “order” as the Watch violently stuck peasants in stocks or just hung them in front of a crowd (as Garrett hid in a body-filled cart going down the street). Apparently there is revolt against the Baron’s rule, and curiously we were told that the rebel leader was specifically not allowed to be named right now, so I’m guessing it’s someone interesting. Constantine perhaps?

As Garrett moved down the street he described recent events to us. Apparently he’s been away for quite some time, and has heard of a rich noble named Theodore Eastwick attending a “meeting” at the House of Blossoms, a house of ill repute. Now’s as good a time as any to talk about voice acting, and sadly as you may be aware Stephen Russell will not be returning as the voice of Garrett. The reasons for this have been outlined (basically boiling down to “he’s too old, can’t do facial/mo-cap, and doesn’t fit the new design”) but it’s still a bit sad. Nevertheless I want to make it very clear that I really liked the new guy playing Garrett. He’s smooth, roguish, a bit oily, and most definitely not to be trusted. I like him, and I honestly believe that once players get their hands on the game there won’t be complaints. Frankly with the time difference (the previous trilogy was medieval, this is early industrial) we could be looking at a 100-years-later sequel with the grandson of Garrett rather than a full reboot. This theory of mine was slightly vindicated when Garrett sneaked through some old ruins and there was clearly a very old Keeper sigil on the wall, as if they’ve been forgotten for a long time.

Gameplay-wise I want to make it clear that this is very Thief-like. There’s been no Deus Ex makeover, no unnecessary cover system or full third-person mode added, and no attempt to ape Dishonored. There’s a Light Gem, it’s all about sticking to shadows, avoiding guards (sometimes through clever tricks), tackling each mission however you want, and stealing as much as you can. It’s predominantly first-person, you can lean left and right (although only around corners), most of your time is spent crouching, you have to watch out for hard uncarpeted surfaces, and there are secrets to uncover everywhere. Everything I saw in terms of gameplay made me think Thief, and I’m very happy for this.

There are new differences however. On jumping off a roof on to a guard, blackjack drawn, Garrett did a non-lethal third-person “takedown” move. There was the suggestion that these could happen a lot, but at one point in the House of Blossoms Garrett definitely knocked out a guard without a takedown animation happening – which is good, since I’m sure most people won’t want to see these animations all the time (if at all). Apart from that the only obligatory third-person moments are climbing sections, which simply makes navigating up a wall easier and as such I’m totally fine with it. There was also a moment when Garrett realised that he needed to get to the House quickly and an Assassin’s Creed-style free-running section (in first-person) began, although I’m sure that this type of thing is optional since Eidos Montreal are really focusing on making sure no situation is unwinnable. This includes being discovered, as Garrett is a little more capable in combat but is also better now at evading capture – he can shove guards into each other and in the confusion make a break for it, for example. It won’t be the end of the game, but it will make guards more alert. There was also a ‘Swoop’ move that at first looked wincingly like Dishonored’s signature Blink teleport, but we cleared up that it was definitely nothing of the sort – a short “dash”, nothing more, comparable to flipping between cover.

The big new addition, which I know led to a few major groans when first revealed, is Garrett using his mechanical eye’s new Focus ability. On first glance it seemed to be another appearance of Batman’s Detective Mode that seems to be dumbing down all stealth titles, but since Focus apparently uses finite resources that’s not quite the case here. When you do use it though you can Focus to see important items, things to steal, clues, and use it to enhance your combat, lockpicking, and pickpocketing skills. To use one wonderful example in the House of Blossoms demo, regularly you can hold a button to pickpocket one thing from a person, but with Focus activated Garrett could quickly pinch a single lady’s purse, necklace, and even her earrings. It was hilarious, and I bet it’d be just as fun to play.

Sabotage these ventilation machines and it’ll get quite hard to breathe in the House of Blossoms

Focus is also used to find secrets, although it’s most definitely not required. One great moment was when Garrett broke into the office of the House’s owner Madame Xiao Xiao (who is, um, anything but a madam) but while breaking into “her” strongbox the Madame managed to enter the room through a previously unseen door. Hiding behind a blind Xiao Xiao was led off by one of her girls complaining about the weird tastes of Theodore Eastwick, leaving Garrett free to open the strongbox, get a “unique” loot item that can be displayed in Garrett’s hideout (wonderfully you can inspect this before you stuff it in your swag bag), then find the secret door. A quick tug of a certain book and the door swings open, revealing a secret passage that leads to every room in the House.

Looking pervily through a spy hole into the room Eastwick is in (we found this out by sneaking a look at the register earlier) we found the first hints of the game’s plot. Eastwick knocks out the girl he’s with and starts searching the room. Apparently the House is very old and Eastwick is hunting for something hidden within using a gold Medallion covered in symbols. After stealing the expensive Medallion Garrett spots one of these symbols in the room using Focus, as it is burned into the wall with some mystical power, and a quick search of other rooms reveals three more – including to my delight the Keeper Door Glyph seen so prominently in Deadly Shadows. Putting these into the Medallion caused it to spin and create some magical light, all of which is clearly going to be important later.

Stealing this and not knocking out Eastwick however had consequences, as he reports the Medallion’s theft and guards started sweeping the halls. An Optional Objective pops up suggesting sabotage of the ventilation system, which we examined a prominent clue for earlier. Avoiding the Watch Garrett sneaks into a back room and lets some type of gas into the air making everyone choke. He had to quickly escape now, although cutely still taking the time to help himself to a few valuables as their owners fled the building. A couple of guards stood in his way however. Using the last bit of Focus to carefully target weak areas Garrett temporarily incapacitates both guards and then vaulted off a wall using the new Claw, which is basically a more dynamic version of the Rope Arrow. As Garrett safely snuck away the demo ended.

The demo really highlighted everything that makes Thief, Thief, which I was particularly pleased to see. Gear was largely faithful too, from the Rope Arrow-like Claw, Bow (which is mechanical now and looks cool), Broadhead Arrows (which can distract guards with noise and nudge levers as easily as they can kill), Dry Ice Arrows (replacing Water Arrows to dowse light-sourcey flames), Lockpicks (that work in a minigame similar to Deadly Shadows), Burst Arrows (Fire Arrows, which weren’t used but were in Garrett’s inventory), and of course Garrett’s most important tool, darkness. Oh, and you can lean as well.

The second demo was more of a graphical tech demo than a proper level, set in and around a burning building. It was mostly to show that despite being based on creaky old Unreal Engine 3 Thief is most definitely a next-gen game. High-res textures abound, volumetric smoke that beautifully billowed down corridors, flow mapping for lovely wet cobblestones, cloth flaps around convincingly, the city seems to be utterly alive. Most importantly there’s the lighting tech. Shadows aren’t static in Thief anymore, every object in the environment can be interacted with and creates a shadow – for example Garrett was able to hide in the shadow of a guard holding a torch in front of him.

Of course being picky game critics we were only momentarily impressed by all this fancy high-end PC graphics technology and instead we wanted to know how the game itself was properly next-gen, since everything we had seen at this point could’ve been done on current consoles. While clearly not fully together yet the AI and sound systems in the game will benefit the most from next-gen, with guards able to naturally flow between many different states of awareness that cause them to react differently to the many various stimuli in the levels – and also allow them to have different ranks. A smashing bottle might send an alert veteran guard running to its location, but an alert rookie might go for help or be more cautious with his approach. Furthermore Deadly Shadows players will be pleased to note that while similar in ideas – a big city hub where you can access smaller missions – Thief has much larger playing areas and no loading screens. While it’s most certainly not a sandbox/free-roaming game you will have a lot of freedom when it comes to tackling missions. In the House of Blossoms demo there were plenty of moments where you could conceivable spend hours in exploration alone.

The Keeper Glyph-covered Medallion will clearly be key to Thief’s plot

Thief is looking very good indeed, at least at this early stage. Despite some modern ideas like takedowns (which don’t look that common), the almost on-rails sprinting section and Garrett being a bit more able in a fight this is still most definitely a Thief game. Saying that, it was slightly disappointing that a few of the more notable features from past games seemed to be currently missing, such as the Hammerites or the word “taffer”... although the Keepers definitely seem to have a role in the story. The AI is still clearly in early days too, as there were plenty of moments in the demo where Garrett should’ve been noticed either by sound or sight. Nevertheless Eidos Montreal clearly seem to understand the licence and there’s still plenty of time left for everything to come together perfectly, too much if I’m being honest – because as of right now I couldn’t be more excited about my next trip to Thief.

Thief is due out in 2014 for PC, PS4, and other “next generation consoles”. We’ll have an interview with producer Stephane Roy up next week, where we ask about Stephen Russell, zombies, taffers, Hammers, and whether he should be worried about “the Thief curse”.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Seeing if Eidos Montreal’s promises about the AI adapting believably to every situation hold up to scrutiny. If they do this’ll easily make it the best stealth game ever.

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