Thief Hands-On Preview – Robbing Hood
Written Wednesday, October 09, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Oppressive streets draped in eternal twilight lend Thief a distinctive atmosphere, one that pervades every corner of its sprawling City, a small chunk of which we're afforded a good few hours to explore at our leisure. Unsurprisingly, the crux of Thief is stealing, but it's how you go about doing it that provides the hook.
We start with Garrett brooding at the top of his clock tower hideout, a base where he can store and admire his most precious acquisitions, and remain hidden from the rest of the world. The City's superstitious populous believes the clock tower to be haunted, making it a safe haven for Garrett. It's his refuge away from the poverty and disease running rampant on the streets below.
While surveying The City, as light streams through the tower's huge clock face, Garrett is unmasked while ensconced within his base, before he dons his hooded shroud and slinks into the darkness for a bout of theft. The City is an unusual place, bathed in darkness and mist, The Watch a constant presence around the alleyways, threatening to pierce Garrett's shadowy veil beneath which he likes to hide and avoid getting into any kind of confrontation.
“Garrett is a shadow. He's a ghost. He doesn't like the unwanted attention, and he knows that by doing things that attract attention he'll be even more wanted and the attention will be focused on him,” Producer Joe Khoury tells us “The feeling is that he wants to limit as much damage as he can. He wants to get in and out of a situation quickly.”
As such, Garrett is all about being sneaky and remaining at a low profile. In combat, he's not much of a force to be reckoned with, and can be felled by a guard's sword with just a few swipes. Stealth and evasion is vital in Thief. That said, the guards of The Watch patrolling the streets of Stonemarket where our next-gen demo takes place, aren't all that smart. This is something that Khoury is more than aware of.
“The AI right now is one of the things we have in our hands to be able to evolve in the future. We have to be able to offer the player a realistic and fun approach to stealth, and that's definitely one thing we're trying to figure out,” Khoury observes. “What would the AI do? What is it doing right? What is it doing wrong? That's definitely an area we want to push very hard in, for the remaining time we have in production.”
Getting our hands on Thief for the first time, the controls initially feel muddled until we remember that we're not playing a first-person shooter. As we've already mentioned, Thief is first and foremost a stealth game, and is tailored as such. Left trigger initiates Garrett's athletic climbing and free-running abilities, stopping you should you be in danger of falling to your death, while the right draws and aims your bow when held, firing when you let go.
While sneaking, you can see your hands in front of you, and getting the jump on a guard means you can take him down in one fell swoop. You can lean around corners to peek, hit a face button to swoop swiftly in any direction, use said swoop to go between cover, and crouch to remain quiet. It all feels second nature after a while, and gives Garrett plenty of sneaky options to utilise.
Garrett's signature weapon is his blackjack; useful for clubbing guards to knock them out cold, but next to useless in a toe-to-toe dust up. There's also a light and dark indicator next to Garrett's health and Focus ability meter, providing clear visual feedback to let you know whether you're visible or hidden among the shadows. It's all very well-presented in this current build, and indeed the very act of pilfering precious items is great fun.
In the basement of the Crippled Burrick pub, we meet Bassos, Garrett's connection to the seamy underworld and the man to go to for jobs. We're handed several tasks to complete around The City, and pointed to the shopkeeper, who'll gladly trade our stolen goods for useful items and tools. It's the tools that we really want though, with the ratchet and wire cutters available at a handsome sum. Acquiring these enable Garrett to unlock otherwise inaccessible areas, with the ratchet unscrewing ventilation shafts that have been bolted shut, and the wire cutters able to disarm traps and disconnect door mechanisms.
Thanks to our industrious sticky-fingered activities, we're able to purchase both the ratchet and wire cutters from the shopkeeper, along with a few meat packs and poppy flowers to replenish Garrett's health and Focus respectively. We're then able to go about completing the demo's missions unhindered by closed off areas, crowbarring windows open, breaking into safes to liberate the shiny gold trinkets within and picking the locks on chests to pocket other valuable baubles.
Focus ability gives Garrett various hints by highlighting points of interest dotted around the environment in blue, but its use is limited by a gauge. And if you prefer, you can switch it off entirely. Focus also makes combat and lockpicking easier, and can point you to the quickest route out of a situation. It's helpful, but by no means a reliable crutch to fall back on. It saves time when you're looking for a painting to steal, or a safe to breach behind a different painting, or a ladder, rope or grate to climb up. Most people will actually end up using it, in all probability.
Garrett's bow is also rather versatile, with blunt arrows able to stun guards temporarily, while broadhead arrows can lower bridges when you hit the designated target or have a more fatal effect against enemies. Then there are fire and water arrows that light or extinguish torches, or in the case of fire arrows, ignite guards if you're feeling a bit sadistic. Choke arrows provide a distraction, causing guards to cough uncontrollably as Garrett escapes, whereas rope arrows can be shot into designated outcrops with rope wrapped around them, anchoring a point to which Garrett can cling and climb up.
Traversing The City is a joy, and indeed the environment is remarkable, conveying a real sense of oppression as the poor and needy sit slumped in the dank of the dirty alleyways, begging for coins and sloop (Thief's equivalent of gruel). It's when you start to pick at the veneer that the illusion starts to suffer, as we look around the same stretch of street, market square and alleyway, and realise that there's no real feeling of hustle and bustle. People are strewn in small patches and it all currently feels a little on the sparse side. There's certainly ample room for improvement in a number of aspects like these.
Nonetheless, Thief is looking strong, with this short demo alone offering a variety of genuinely interesting missions that each managed to put a different spin on the primary objective of stealing stuff. Some might bemoan the fact that Thief is a re-imagining and reboot of sorts, but there's no doubt that Eidos Montreal has the chops to pull it off in the same way it did with Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
“Right from the beginning it was interesting, and a better approach to re-imagine rather than go with a prequel or sequel, because it's been so long,” says Khoury. “A lot of people would probably like to get reacquainted with Garrett, as opposed to revisiting via a prequel.” It certainly makes sense. Thief is a chance for a whole new audience to get to know Garrett, and an opportunity for veteran fans to once again enjoy the essence of a franchise that has been away for far too long.
Thief is out in February 25th, 2014 in North America and February 28th, 2014 in Europe for Xbox 360 and Xbox One.