Preview: The world is yours for the taking in Thief

Pillaging in The City

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In recent times, it seems like the term ‘reboot’ has been treated as an ugly word. The type of phrase that causes fans of a particular franchise to cringe and become fearful knowing their adored series is making some changes. While that apprehension is understandable, I feel there is one such game that deserves another look.

As one of the pioneers of the stealth genre, the Thief series has been in dormancy since 2004, and what better time for its reawakening with the arrival the next-gen systems. Destructoid was invited out to get some quality time with the game, and to get a sense of where things are with the new stealth action game.

During our time, we spoke with narrative director Steven Gallagher and senior producer Stephane Roy, and we got to know how Thief plans to deliver on a new and compelling entry in the series.

Thief (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC [previewed])
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square-Enix
Release Date: February 25, 2014

As somewhat of a ‘soft-reboot‘, Thief seeks to reintroduce Garrett to fans and also get newcomers acquainted. Set in a world similar to post-Victorian era London, Thief takes place in a plague ridden metropolis known as The City. Garrett returns after an extended absence from a mission gone wrong and quickly discovers that the situation and atmosphere of the town has changed. As he attempts to reestablish himself as a master thief in The City, he must use his skills and cunning to take on jobs with shady individuals, rob and pillage loot from the wealthy and corrupt, and settle the score with an ex-apprentice who’s gone rogue.

Our session began in The City’s clock tower. This location serves as Garrett’s base of operation. Here you can manage your resources, research important figures and persons in The City, replay several missions, and take on new jobs as the story progress. The majority of our demonstration takes place in the Stonemarket, a section of town that is under constant watch by the city guard and home to many vagrants and closed businesses.

The Stonemarket gives a sense of hopelessness and despair, which of course makes for an interesting place to explore. One of the most admired aspects of the franchise is its attention to detail with its design and atmosphere. “I’m a big fan of subtle and passive storytelling, and that was something prevalent in the previous games,” said Steven Gallagher while elaborating on the scattered lore within The City. “There will be a lot to uncover for the story in messages and journals scattered around.”

As a hub area, Garrett can freely explore the space to acquire loot and resources, find journals, listen in on NPC characters discussing important events, obtain new quests, and meet new characters. Some missions are simple retrieval and Intel gathering missions, while others become more complex and challenge players with completing multiple sub-objectives to gain extra rewards. Garrett can enter and raid abandoned homes for loot, which can be sold for gold at the black market merchants around The City. Players can even find hidden safes and treasure troves by solving unique puzzles during their exploration.

As a reboot, they took a unique but still traditional approach for controlling and utilizing Garrett’s skills as a thief. “Games today are now very different to what they were in the past,” explained Stephane Roy while discussing the past Thief titles. “How I play games today is very different. We are now more demanding and dedicated for deep gameplay.” As in the previous games, the master thief still has a finite set of resources and items at his disposal, many of which are hard to come by. Going out into The City is always a risk, and players must manage their resources.

Compared to the previous games, the Garrett of this new Thief title has far more mobility and traversal capabilities, and the developers have designed a unique control scheme to  maintain momentum. While sprinting, Garrett will automatically vault and jump over obstacles and gaps while traversing the environment. To be clear, this does not remove the challenge at all, there were a couple instances where I ended up jumping to my death as a result of not properly judging the distance between gaps.

The most interesting choice is the absence of a dedicated jump button. While this omission may be a bit of quizzical choice for those reading this, I do have to say that it felt pretty smooth and slick. Even with contextual actions in place, I always felt like I was in control of Garrett.

To make up for the lack of a dedicated jump, Garrett uses a new ability known as the “swoop” which allows him to make a quick dash in your desired direction. This proved to be quite useful when moving through the street level and in and out of the shadows of Stonemarket. This gives him the skill to duck into the shadows out of sight with haste.

Fan favorite items and such as the composite bow, along with water, blunt, and rope arrows, and his trusty blackjack (a baton, for the uninitiated) make a return — in addition to a whole sort of new gadgets and items, such as knockout gas, for players to experiment with. But of course, Garrett is at his best while in the shadows.

The stealth gameplay is the core element of what this series is all about, and the folks at  Eidos Montreal wanted to maintain that element as the foundation of the player experience. “It’s obviously very important for us to look after the stealth guys,” Steven Gallagher explained. “This is the grandfather of the stealth genre.” With this in mind, the new Thief offers many different approaches to stealth gameplay, while still letting players be a bit more aggressive when they want to.

For instance, there is the silent and non-confrontational approach where you use the shadows, the useful peak ability, plus debris and litter from the environment to distract guards; or there is the aggressive stealth approach, where you can take enemies out (non-lethal or not) using up close or vertical takedowns, or take advantage of environmental hazards and lure enemies intro traps.

One of the much touted features of Thief is Garret’s focus ability. While on the surface it appears to be a standard bullet time feature, it goes much deeper than that. On a contextual level, focus amplifies many of Garret’s abilities to allow him to take on tougher situations, find sensitive information in the environment, and discover secret locations a little easier. For instance, you can use focus to amplify accuracy during aiming with the crossbow. It even affects some smaller tasks like lock picking and pickpocketing.

It should be stressed that the focus ability is entirely optional and it is not required at any point in the game. The developers were very quick to assert that the focus ability is an additional feature to help players (veteran and newcomers alike) get in and out of tight spots, or when they need to quickly complete tasks. In fact, seasoned players or those looking for a challenge can turn off the focus ability at the beginning of the game and play through without it.

Though stealth is his focus, combat is a viable option for Garrett when the needs arises. If you’re spotted, the city guard will engage and try to surround you. It is easy to become surrounded, so the fight or flight instinct kicks in depending on the situation. With his blackjack and composite bow available, Garrett has a variety of different ways of approach the enemy. During skirmishes, players can use a parry ability to block and counter attacks with quick blows. The focus ability also extends to combat, and allows players to target specific enemies during combat for instant takedowns, at the cost of focus energy.

To be honest, I found the combat experience to be a tad cumbersome. My primary issue with it, and this also extends to the stealth gameplay, is that it is difficult to judge the space between you and the enemy. During combat, I was whacking at the air a few times because I had difficulty telling how far away I was from my opponent. During stealth, I ended up engaging in combat when I was just a minuscule distance away from the target when trying to use the silent takedown. Moreover, the use of combat takedowns felt odd, as you would have to stop and hold down the attack button to activate an animation for takedowns — which felt like breaking up the pace of combat, especially when up against multiple enemies. Hopefully they can tighten up the combat mechanics a bit more before releases.

I came away quite impressed with the scope of the game at least. Visually, the title looks stunning and the game performance was quite solid. It’s a very interesting look at what people can expect from next-gen gaming. The Stonemarket section was much larger than I was expecting, and I spent well over an hour just trying to complete this area alone. Interestingly, this is one of the more modest HUB areas, as Garrett will trek across other places in The City and explore and pillage much larger areas.

As one of the earliest games of 2014, Thief looks to be in a good place to get some attention. While fans may still be a bit worried with this reinvention, I was quite taken with how much style and substance was present with this small slice of the game. If this demo was an indication, than Thief may have a few more tricks up its sleeve than you’d think. 

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