Thief First Impressions Preview – Next-Gen Steps Further Out of the Shadows
Written Friday, April 12, 2013 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Reboots are a tricky thing. Balancing the nostalgia, making the game current whilst all the time keeping intact the pillars of the original and ingraining them into the reboot. Well, my friends, that is what we call “one hell of a bitch thing to do.” In this generation reboots have come and reboots have gone, some have failed dismally whilst others have absolutely nailed it. A great example of the latter is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, designed, developed and published by Eidos Montreal and Square Enix; the same collaboration behind the next-generation Thief reboot. That’s a good start already.
Set in the same mundanely-named setting the original was, The City, Thief sees the series-long protagonist, Garrett – a pale faced, bright blue-eyed thief, with a penchant for cloaks and the shadows – return to find it under the rule of a tyrant known as the The Baron and his Watch. And Garrett being Garrett, he’s going to do what he does best: steal from the rich and take for himself, like a selfish Robin Hood.
Thief, in essence, is a classic stealth game: you’ll have to infiltrate, steal something, and escape; but the choice is there for you to do it however you want. Don’t be under any illusions though, while you will be able to fight your way out of a hole, you won’t be able to do it that often, partly because it relies on the ‘focus’ abilities that will assist you in combat – think Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock Holmes from the new TV films. The focus abilities will allow you an all-seeing eye, able to detect points of interest in the environment; lock-picking; pick-pocketing; and more; but because it’s not an unlimited resource, you have to choose when to use it.
The main objective for Eidos Montreal, according to Stephan Roy, Producer on Thief, is not just to bring the franchise back, but to “make it relevant.” That means keeping everything that made Thief what it is today. So yes, it’s still first-person, breaking that mode to go third-person for things like traversal sections, takedowns and aerial takedowns, and all the usual gear like the Blackjack and the bow and arrow return – with interchangeable heads that offer things like dry ice tips to put out flames and smoke screen tips to provide a much needed distraction. Garrett also has a handy ‘claw’ at his disposal, allowing him to rappel down buildings and what not. He’s essentially like Batman, without the body armour and billions of dollars behind him. Actually, he’s mot much like Batman for that matter… Moving swiftly on.
We pick up our GDC hands-off demo with Garrett entering The City, about a third of the way into the game. His mission is to head to the House of Blossoms, a bordello of sorts, to steal a fella called Eastwick’s priceless medallion.
Sneaking in via a carriage, we get a glimpse of what it’s like to be an inhabitant of The City. Guards wheel away bodies on carts and strangle locals on the cobbled streets, while other inhabitants are being tormented in stocks and other citizens hang from the gallows. The City is quite clearly a dystopian society, meaning it’s essential that Garrett sticks to the shadows or feel the full wrath of The Watch.
It doesn’t take long to notice Garrett’s swaying hands in front of his eyes and gripping onto cover as he leans in, it’s apparently something Eidos Montreal has decided to use to keep the player grounded in the experience. It works for the most part, although it can be somewhat disorientating at times. Listening to conversations and creating distractions by throwing bottles, Garrett climbs to the rooftops to assess the situation. Moments later he pings off an arrow, taking out a nearby guard, before aerially assassinating another. It’s all go now as the clock ticks away and Garrett has to intercept and track his target before it’s too late.
Leaping and bounding across the roof in a very Mirror’s Edge-like fashion, Garrett reaches his target and has to tail him to his destination. Sticking to the shadows and stalking from the rooftops, Garrett keeps a close eye on Eastwick and rappels down a building before sneaking in through a doorway behind them, moments before it closes.
While inside, Garrett has his wits about him, distracting one guard with a dry ice bolt to put out a flaming torch, while trapping another one behind a gate with a carefully placed arrow. The shadows are Garrett’s best friend in Thief, encapsulating him with an eerie aura around the side of the player’s view to indicate that Garrett is where he should be: hidden.
The next sequence of events sees Garrett traverse across some stone walls, before heading into the House of Blossoms. Creeping through the curtains and past the paying punters, Garrett heads deeper into the establishment – pilfering whatever he can get his hands on along the way. It’s a case of watching guard patterns, the reactions and movements of NPCs, hiding in the rafters and what not. Get caught? Chances are your days are numbered.
After reaching Xiao Xiao’s office and finding the whereabouts of Eastwick (who you lost when he entered through the front door) Garrett sets off to get the medallion, but not before performing a secondary objective and swiping the contents of a heavily locked chest. Garrett hears footsteps and slips back into the shadows until the danger passes.
When downstairs, Garrett looks through holes in the brickwork to work out what he has to nab, and in an instant, it’s his. What then unfolds is a puzzle of sorts, leaving Garrett to search out four glyphs – only seen in focus mode – that are dotted around the dank underground rooms of the brothel.
Infiltration, done. Object, nabbed. Time to escape. By this time though, the guards are on high alert after Eastwick discovers his medallion has gone. Getting out might be tricky, but thanks to the quick thinking Garrett he is able to sabotage the ventilation shafts and create a big enough distraction to get out unscathed. A quick Sherlock Holmes style slo-mo combat sequence later on the guards that blocked his escape – which exhausted a good portion of his resources – Garrett disappears like a wolf into the night. Mission accomplished.
In addition to the lengthy mission walkthrough, Eidos Montreal also came armed to the teeth with an awfully impressive tech demo to show off the nuances of the new engine and to show us what next-gen systems can truly do. The tech demo showed Garrett walking through the rainy streets of The City and into a burning building. Every few steps Roy and Lead Level Designer, Daniel Windfeld Schmidt, would stop to point out the advancements in the engine – a heavily modified Unreal 3 engine.
It was 20 minutes of pure unadulterated eye candy and it showed off a huge amount of advancements between the generations; whether you’re talking about the flow mapping, which allowed for the realistic movement of the rain as it covered the environment; the lightning, which lit up every individual particle of rain; how the fire spread across various surfaces in the burning building; even how the fire scorched the wood to a white hot incandescent glow; but more importantly, it showed off the absolutely phenomenal light engine; it was all enough to convince any next-gen sceptic that the next-generation has so much more to offer than this gen in terms of visual fidelity and immersion.
The light engine alone was incredible, especially in the output and effect it had on the environment differed from light source to light source. For example, a candle would give off a different light, glow and even shadow, to that of a burning hot fire. Watching Garrett’s shadow flicker on the wall from the fiery blaze that surrounded him was one of my first truly jaw-dropping next-gen moments.
What’s even more impressive is that this demo is a year old, meaning a lot of work has been done on the engine since. This was a brief glimpse into the future and tantalising doesn’t really cover it. It was truly awe-inspiring.
It’s only natural that Thief gets likened to Mirror’s Edge for its first-person free-running, to Assassin’s Creed for its aerial takedowns and traversal, and Dishonored for a lot of its mechanics, but remember this: Thief came first. And while Dishonored and co. allowed for you to tackle the situation with anything but stealth, Thief allows no such shortcuts. It’s brutal, and as Roy pointed out, you’re not going to last long running and gunning. While the industry evolves the stealth genre to make it more accessible, Thief doesn’t hold back and really packs a punch. With the next-generation tech behind it, some old-skool Thief gameplay and plenty of guts, Thief is looking like it’s for stealth purists, and that excites us.
Just as a bit of housekeeping as well, it should be noted that Thief hasn’t been officially announced for the next-gen Xbox either, it’s only been announced for the PS4 and PC. Square Enix has neither implied nor confirmed that Thief will be released on the next-gen Xbox, so this is purely speculative on our part. Plus, they’d be mad not to, so says us.
Thief is slated for a 2014 release on next-gen platforms.