By Kevin Kelly
A decade has passed since the third and final game in the Thief series, "Thief: Deadly Shadows," was released, and a new generation of gamers who have been raised on consoles and handhelds have no idea what it was like to slink about in the shadows as a master thief named Garrett. Which of course means that it's time for a reboot, or a sequel where the protagonist has been away for a very long time. Thus enters the upcoming "Thief" from Eidos Montreal and Square Enix, which is a little bit of both.
The original "Thief: The Dark Project" actually began life as different different projects with developer Looking Glass Studios, including "Better Red Than Undead," which would have been a 1950s cold-war game with zombies in the Soviet Union and "Dark Camelot," which would have been a backwards retelling of the Camelot tale, with Arthur as the villain and Mordred as the hero. But those two ideas, along with a project called "School of Wizards" eventually morphed into "Thief: The Dark Project," with some development help from Ken Levine.
But that was way back in 1996, and after three games, the Thief franchise seemed to have run its course. "Thief 4" was announced back in 2009, but four years later we've had a chance to look at the game, which is now known simply as "Thief." What we saw featured some impressive gameplay, but with the veil of time obscuring our last experience with the series, it was easy to say "Hmm, looks a lot like 'Assassin's Dishonored'" But that discounts the fact that the original came before all of those. Is borrowing from properties that originally borrowed from you borrowing at all? In the case of "Thief," it might be legitimate theft.
"Thief" producer Stephan Roy and lead level designer Daniel Windfeld Schmid took us through the game not only through the eyes of Garrett, but also through some technical demos that did things like show us the new lightning and shadowing they are using, and how the new way they render smoke will fill rooms volumetrically. These are the sorts of things you see in games and think, "Huh. Cool." For about five seconds. Then you continue to your destination. When they showed us the same things, we said "Huh. Cool." Mostly because we wanted them to keep driving Garrett around. After all, when showing off "Thief," you really want to see the thief.
But that's not to say that the game doesn't look gorgeous, because it does. While we weren't able to take the controls ourselves, it was obvious we were watching a live demonstration and not a canned presentation when they flubbed a portion of the mission. "Oops, sorry about that!" That was a nice punctuation to half an hour of beautiful gameplay, featuring Garrett stealing across The City, and entering a brothel called The House of Blossoms where he needs to find a key item. While you could choose to run pell-mell for the brothel and slip inside, and the developers want you to play how you want to pay, it's clear from the beginning that stealth is the name of this game.
While Garrett is no pushover when it comes to conflict, he won't last long against groups of armed guards. So you'll learn that being sneaky will lead to a lot more gameplay (and enjoyment) once you master it. Thankfully, he has many tools to help him out, some of which come from being a master thief. Garrett can hide himself completely in the shadows, becoming undetectable by enemies. He wears these shadows almost like a shroud. He also has a new ability that the team calls the Swoop, which allows him to quickly pull back into the darkness, once he has snuck out of the Cloak. It really has to be seen to be appreciated, as he nearly moves at super-speed, pulling back into the dark.
He also uses an ability called Focus, which is one of the greatest abilities that comes with being a master in your class. Which is where you start the game, by the way. You won't be working Garrett up from apprentice burglar to master thief. Garrett's eye (which was replaced by a mechanical prosthesis back in a previous game), allows him to see Focus items marked in blue, meaning he can possibly use these items. Or, he can trigger it at key moments like speeding up a lockpicking, or in order to take out an opponent in combat, much the same way Robert Downey Jr. does in the Sherlock Holmes films. You can choose when to use Focus, but it's based on a depleting resource, so it isn't always available to you, and you'll have to be judicious at times.
But stealthing doesn't just involve looking. You will also need to eavesdrop on people throughout the game, picking up clues about treasure, possible secret entrances, facts about guards, and so on. It also involves climbing and launching yourself high above the streets, courtesy of Garrett's claw, a grappling hook-like object on a rope that allows him to ascend quickly. Using all of these things together and paying attention to environmental details with Focus will allow you to choose multiple paths to your goal. There is always more than just one way to complete a mission, and part of the fun of the demo was just watching the world around us unfold while listening to conversations.
Without spoiling much, Garrett decides to go after a mysterious medallion. But after acquiring it, he uses his Focus ability to see some glowing runes on walls that correspond to marking on the medallion. Aligning these "activates" the medallion, which then begins glowing with a blue light. But we didn't have time to find out what that meant, as Garrett soon had to fade back into the shadows, and then fight his way out of the building after filling it with opium fumes. During some key moments in combat, like takedowns, the game will shift to a third-person perspective, which can be a bit jarring at first, but is something that you become used to after a couple of encounters. Using his collapsible bow, Garrett was able to subdue guards and also collapse pieces of the environment down on them before making his escape.
After the gameplay, it was back to the technical aspects of the game, including real-time reflections, the volumetric smoke, dynamic lights, and much more. But these are the bricks and mortar that make up the entire building that is "Thief," and it looks very impressive. And it should, as it is meant to debut in 2014 on the PC, as well as the Sony PlayStation 4, and an "unannounced console from another company." Gee, who could that be? We were told that none of the things we were seeing in the tech demos would have been possible on current-gen consoles, so look for "Thief" to push graphic boundaries sometime next year as it runs on a heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 3. Until then, you can feast your eyes on the gallery below featuring concept art from the game.
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