The rumors of Thief’s death are greatly exaggerated. After what was, as admitted by several members of the development crew, a poor showing of a walkthru for Gamespot, I got to do something very few people have done – I got to play Thief for myself. In this short article I’ll try to best encapsulate the experience – or more accurately, my experience with the game.
Eidos Montreal, the folks responsible for Deus Ex: Human Revolution have taken on an equally ambitious reboot – the genre-defining Thief series. Narrative Director Steven Gallagher and demo driver Johnathan gave us a quick look at the game in a theater demo prior to our hands-on time. The code is pre-alpha, but you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone of that with this demo.
Gallagher’s first assertion is the one that gave long-time fans the most angst – they intend to reinvent the game. They want to look at what lies at the base of the original license while bringing some new things to “match the audiences of today”. The demo is from a pivotal moment a few hours into the game. The people of the city are rising against The Baron and have begun to set fire to the city. Ever the opportunist, Garrett intends to seize this moment to infiltrate the Baron’s Keep, to steal the Heart of the Lion – a precious heirloom that is likely as priceless as it sounds. The “Iron Leader” has employed quite a few guards to ensure his valuables remain his – this won’t be easy. For the purposes of the demo, Gallagher intends to remain mostly in the shadows but assures us that you can play completely non-lethal, lethal but stealthy, be a complete ghost and remain invisible throughout the game, or even attempt it the hard way and go in head-to-head.
To keep the HUD as minimal as possible, the team has a light gem, health, and focus in the lower left corner. This gem gives a subtle visual indicator difference between being completely visible, entirely in the shadows, and everything in between. When navigating in first-person, a black ‘fog’ rings the edges of the screen, lettting the player know that they are hidden. There are several new mechanics that the team has introduced to help Garrett join the newest generation of gamers. The first of which is the aforementioned Focus skill.
Through some event earlier in the game, Garrett has been given the ability to engage Focus – a skill that slows down time for the Master Thief allowing him to take careful shots with his bow or engage with his blackjack. Engaging this we take a slowed shot at a guard’s head, earning 40xp for our efforts. This popup can, like most visual indicators, be deactivated in the options for the game, so purists need not despair. Lifting the lifeless body, we drop him into the shadows.
Re-engaging our Focus skill we can see silhouettes of important things in the area, highlighting grating, collectables, and hostiles in the area. As Garrett surveys the area he places his hands realistically on the edges of the boxes before him, peeking around the corner while remaining hidden. Pickpocketing a few guards, we skirt disaster for profit, retreating back into the shadows using the new “Swoop” mechanic.
The Swoop mechanic is a little different in practice than in the video demonstrations we saw. As shown, this mechanic lets you zip from shadow to shadow, but I found some new uses for it when I got hands on. Before we get to that, let’s talk about the rest of the guided demo.
Ascending the nearby free-standing structures, we spot a guard standing in a slick of oil. We could use one of our fire arrows to make this a far more interesting night for him, but we resist temptation and press on. Descending on an unsuspecting guard we knock him out and make our way to the Garden Maintenance area, careful to not make too much noise splashing through the water. Flicking the lights off, we find a valve and turn off all of the water to the gardens. As we head back up into the gardens we see that the water being turned off gives us a previously-hidden path into the Keep. Using our raised intuition, we visually see the noise guards are making on their patrols, allowing us to sneak up on the Guard Captain in the area. Satisfying an optional objective, we pickpocket a map of the area, as well as a key. Using Focus pickpocket we are able to snag multiple items off of another nearby guard in rapid succession. With the stolen map in hand we now have a better-populated minimap. It was time to get inside the Keep.
Some earlier skirmishes with the guards left us a little low on health and focus. Neither one recovers on its own, so we’ll have to craft our own health and recovery items. We grab some poppy plants for later. Being spotted by the guards makes a small white eye appear about their head, showing their suspicion level. When they are in a more aggressive state, the eye will turn red, flashing when they’ve got you dead to rights. Again, for purists these can be turned off entirely, making for a more immersive experience.
Creeping towards the rear entrance we spot a precariously hanging box that marks an additional entrance point. I’ll visit this in my hands-on session, but our demo driver decides to take us a different way. Grabbing a nearby bottle we toss it to distract a few guards on patrol, carefully sneaking up to a locked door that leads into the lower portion of the Keep.
The lockpick mechanism is a familiar one, giving both visual and rumble indicators as to the proper tumbler locations. Using focus you can speed up the lock picking process, giving you a greater chance of success and reducing the chance of being caught in medias res.
Setting off on this mission is a bit of a fool’s gambit – we have no idea what the Heart of the Lion is or what it looks like, but we do know it’s in a hidden room. Using our focus in the entranceway we find a trap set. Following the highlighted path back to the master control box, we use a tool to snip a rope, disabling both trap plates. Carefully heading into the kitchen we look through a keyhole and see some guards with a lot of tempting loot on their belts. Barely able to resist temptation, we head into the shadows of the first floor and head into the library.
In the grant library we use the bookcases to get a good look around, narrowly avoiding discovery with a quick swoop backwards. Looking above we see a post where we can use our Rope Arrow to reach a higher perch. Surveying the room we use a non-lethal blunt arrow to break a bottle to attract a guard’s attention. Baiting guards is a solid method of controlling the play space, and we make use of this by leaping down and knocking him out. Nabbing another map we find find a room not indicated on the Captain’s original map. Dousing a nearby candle with our fingers we use the lockpick mechanism to exit the room. Light streams into the room from a hole in the wall – a peephole. Looking inside we see a hidden vault, knowing that there must be a secret path inside somewhere nearby. Finding a nice piece of art that stands out a bit from the other pieces in the collection, we run our hands over the edge of the picture frame to discover a secret button to reveal the vault entrance. A team member later tells me that this is being tested with the touchscreen on the PS4 controller to provide a haptic feedback ‘bump’ to find the secret button. The vault revealed, it is clear that The Baron has converted this old family chapel into a secret storage location.
Before she will give up her secrets we will have to solve the puzzle of the two family crests on the edges of the vault chest. The first half of the puzzle is simple – matching the crest with crests we’ve seen in and on the Keep. Unfortunately, the second set of symbols are all but completely worn off. Finding a crack in the chest we peek inside – we’ll have to turn the discs blind, listening for the telltale ‘thunk’ of the plates falling into place, or race back and forth for each turn. With the second one in place, the two encrusted lion heads turn to the front of the box, their eyes lighting up as they swivel. Pulling a massive diamond from the chest, we now know exactly what the Heart of the Lion is – now we just have to escape. Using a rope arrow to ascend the cathedral, we push ourselves into the night air through an overhead hatch.
Skipping ahead in our escape, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, planting us foot-deep in the sewer. Leaping and ambling over some grating we see that we are actually underneath the Auldale Bridge, and the marauding mobs have set it on fire. Our only path is forward, so we’ll have to use every trick in our arsenal to make it through this one. Using a rope arrow we drag a capsized boat over to us and make our way into the burning structure.
When Garrett’s needs turn to climbing the game switches to the much-easier 3rd person perspective. As we climb up the edge of the bridge a chunk of wall gives away, giving us a quicktime prompt to carefully throw our hook to save ourselves. Risk/reward presents itself time and time again as we search for loot while furiously racing away from the pressing flames. Finding an unfortunate victim who either hung himself or was dispatched by the angry mob we use his rope to ascend to Watch Junction.
As we ascend into the Junction we find ourselves standing directly in front of three guards. Fate waves her hand and crushes all three underneath a large chunk of hot ash, flames, and rocks. Reaching the outside of Market Street we leap from rooftop to rooftop, entering the structures only to nab valuables within easy reach. As we narrowly escape through a collapsing foundation into a building listing sideways, forcing us to run on the walls and leap to the inevitable end of the demo.
Finishing the demo we are presented with a very-familiar summary screen. Optional challenges, loot picked up, pockets picked, suspicions raised, times detected, knockouts, kills, collectibles picked up, as well as a clean sweep of all of the loot or a clean run with no kills or knockouts are among the bevy of optional objectives. Appetite whetted, it was my turn to take Thief for a spin.
The demonstration and my hands-on demo were running on a PlayStation 4 developer kit. The demo was the same as the presentation, but unlike the run we just saw, I was determined to take a different path and play it as a ghost. The first thing I noticed was that the swoop mechanic is far more flexible than we were lead to believe. By using both thumbsticks I was able to with the left stick indicate the direction I wanted to move as well as ‘bend’ the swoop with the right. This allowed me to rapidly jet from one dark corner to another, even if they are not in a straight line. With enough skill and practice you can even pull a U-shaped swoop, moving Garrett around a corner without arousing too much suspicion. Carefully sneaking through the courtyard I found myself face to face with angry guards more than once. I’m here to tell you that the straight-in Dishonored-style combat approach may be viable, but it’s as unrealistic and difficult as it has been for previous Thief titles. Even with Focus which highlights weak points like the top of the lung, the kneecap, sword arm, or the head, on an armored and aware guard it may only stun them. When facing multiple angry opponents, you’ll quickly find yourself out of focus and then shortly thereafter out of health.
After a few restarts and a quick peek at the “You are dead” screen, I reached the precarious box I mentioned earlier. A carefully placed arrow dropped the box, allowing me to climb it and reach the attic of Northcrest Manor. Using a short crowbar to force open the vent, I dropped into the dusty room. Devoid of guards but stuffed full of long-forgotten valuables, I quickly scooped up a ton of shiny baubles. Carefully knocking out a few guards and stacking them like cords of wood I knew that I had screwed up my Ghost run, but was able to maintain my stealth approach.
Water arrows, rope arrows, blackjack, distractions, and all new goodies like the swoop mechanic took a meeting that made me, to be honest, a little nervous, and put me completely at ease. From what I’ve seen so far, the team has captured the Thief experience. While not having Stephen Russell voice acting the Master Thief is lamentable, the new actor Romano Orzari does a decent enough job of capturing the spirit of Russell’s performance, if not the pitch.
In the end, I came away from my hands-on demo of Thief a bit relieved. There is still a lot of development time ahead for Eidos Montreal, but the building blocks they have in place already at this pre-alpha stage are the right ones to bring this franchise back to life. It was my great pleasure to present them with a nomination for Best PS4 game of E3 2013. We’ll be eagerly watching this one as we approach the unspecified 2014 date.