Thief III Preview
Garrett returns to ply his trade in Ion Storm's next Thief game, whic will feature intuitive stealth gameplay and stunning visuals.
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Perhaps never has a thief had to go through so much to be seen. Fortunately, we've seen the new adventures of the surly master thief Garrett with our own eyes. Things seemed uncertain for a while after the closure in 2000 of Looking Glass Studios, which created both of the original Thief games, as well as a great many acclaimed first-person games, including Ultima Underworld and System Shock. Thankfully, Warren Spector's Ion Storm Austin studio was in a position to hire quite a few of the studios' talented developers and continue the celebrated stealth series with Eidos' support.
Thief III--the game's working title--has a lot in common with Ion Storm's other upcoming game for the PC and Xbox, Deus Ex: Invisible War, and indeed the two games are built on the same advanced graphics engine, so Garrett can now hide in dynamic shadows, including the shifting darkness created by a torch held by a guard on patrol. In contrast to Deus Ex's myriad player options and branching design, Thief III is a focused game that's all about sneaking into places you're not supposed to be in, stealing valuable items, locating important characters, and piecing together bits of information that expose an atmospheric story that's tightly woven into the gameplay. According to Spector, "Deus Ex is a Swiss Army knife and Thief is a scalpel."
One of the reasons Eidos would rather not put the "III" at the end of the title is the upcoming Thief game is intended to attract both new and old fans. Although the game loyally acknowledges previous events in Garrett's legendary career and builds upon this legacy, you won't have to be familiar with the earlier games to understand what's going on. From the beginning, Ion Storm conceived of Thief III as a game for the Xbox and the PC, and the game is being simultaneously developed from a shared code base so the team can quickly demonstrate a new build of the game on either platform.
Randy Smith, lead designer and project lead for Thief III, told us that while this cross-platform approach presented some technical challenges, it has undoubtedly benefited the gameplay. The earlier games in the series let players use many different commands mapped to various keyboard controls, but the same commands in Thief III have been reworked for both consoles and PCs so the game's control will be "simple, clear, and powerful." The uncluttered interface we saw seemed quite intuitive--some elements appear only when relevant. Only the light gem (a magical stealth meter) is prominently displayed at all times, a reminder of just how important it is to know if you're hidden in shadow or perfectly visible to enemy guards.
There is never any doubt that you're playing a thief, and although Garrett is a master of stealth, ambush, and escape, he's not your typical one-man-army action hero. He's quite the antihero, in fact. If he could have his own selfish way, he'd spend his days plying his trade and trying to accumulate wealth toward some hazy goal of retiring. But as much as he tries, Garrett can't quite keep from getting involved in events set in motion by greater forces. But that doesn't mean he'll follow along meekly, and he's certainly not one to pass up an opportunity to steal any valuables in reach.
Mystery of the Night
Thief III's nighttime adventures take place entirely in the confines of the City, a dense urban expanse that's a medieval fantasy world unto itself. It's a world divided between the rich and the poor, a world of run-down slums and luxurious mansions, castles, and museums. The City is filled with architecture--immense cathedrals, towering spires, scenic rooftops--that might seem remarkable, even startling, if you stopped the thievery long enough to notice. Naturally, Garrett is more comfortable living in the slummy parts of town, where a thief can more easily stay out of sight.
Apart from the city's nobles, who might provide enough valuable targets in ordinary times, there are three main factions that dominate the City. The Order of the Hammer is a religious group that finds its calling in technology and discipline, worshipping a deity called the Builder. While they were Garrett's employers in an earlier time, the Hammerites are bent on exacting revenge and display a fanaticism reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. The second guild is the diametric opposite of the first: The Pagans worship an ancient god called the Trickster and are deeply involved in using chaos and magic to return the City to its primeval roots. Then there are the Keepers, a shadowy secret society that guides events in the City from behind the scenes, pulling strings to fulfill destinies foretold by their glyph magic. Garrett grew up with the Keepers and has a tricky relationship with their elders.
The first we see of Garrett, it's just a typical day in the life of the master thief. His most recent caper starts to go badly, but he manages to escape and recover. It's then that events start to entangle him in something less ordinary. The Keepers ask Garrett to help them avoid a dark age they've foretold and are deeply worried about. Not one to change his nature, Garrett decides to help them in his own way.
Beyond this setup, Ion Storm is tight-lipped about how the story will unfold over the course of the game. We had the opportunity to see some of the game's cinematics, and these artistically rendered segments--which blend richly colored hand-drawn illustrations and 3D animation--set the tone of the game and introduce the major factions rather than tell a protracted story. According to Smith, Thief III will be a "show, don't tell kind of game," and much of the story will happen right in front of you, over the course of the missions. At one point during a demo of a mission, we walked in front of an arrow loop cut in a castle's thick stone walls and managed to overhear a conversation between two guards in a much brighter room on the other side. At other points during the game, characters may start to fight right in front of you, and may even kill each other.
The design sets out to combine story and gameplay without relying on heavily scripted sequences and to always provide a variety of ways to complete a mission. These guidelines represent what, in the designers' characteristically conceptual way, Ion Storm calls the "abdication of authorship," which essentially means that your actions--seen from the first-person perspective--are the focus of the game. While previous games in the series didn't force you to accomplish your goals in specific ways, they didn't offer the range of options you'll find in Thief III. You'll decide whether you should deliberately blow your cover to lead enemies into an ambush, or try to sneak past them. The new game will provide you with the tools you need to escape your enemies or fight it out.
Tools of the Trade
Few games that focus on stealth gameplay have presented as good a reason to be sneaky as the Thief series. Garrett is well-equipped and well-trained for his task, but there's nothing at his disposal that would let him take out groups of foes with ease, like a modern assault rifle. If Garrett unwittingly gets a group of guards on his tail, he can be in serious trouble. And because of his reputation--not to mention the fact that he looks like a thief--Garrett will be immediately recognized by any authorities who happen to be on patrol. It's a good thing he's a loner by nature.
Thief III will take advantage of Ion Storm's advanced game engine, with lip synching for every bit of character speech in the game, dynamic lighting and normal mapping for the lighting, realistic physics based on the Havok 2 toolset, and sophisticated 3D audio effects. All this will be combined with gameplay that Ion Storm hopes will be intuitive for new players and recognizable to anyone who's played the earlier games. As Smith says, "All the mechanics from the original Thief are being evolved for Thief III. They'll be easier to control and they'll also have a higher production values associated with them to make them more satisfying."
Garrett's best tool is his own stealthy nature and his ability to get into hard-to-reach places. As previously mentioned, there's a stealth meter that will tell you if you're hidden in shadow or not. This is actually more important than ever, because the new game's environments aren't nearly as uniformly and ominously dark. Deep blue colors are often used instead of black to fill in the darkness and make it easier to see the game's detailed environments on a TV or computer monitor. Thief III's dynamic lighting isn't a simple special effect that's limited to shooting out lights. Any light source can cast a dynamic shadow that can potentially serve as a safe haven for Garrett. This allows for new gameplay tactics, such as trying to move in time with guards who are carrying torches. The torches smoke and sputter realistically, and they also create swaths of darkness in rooms with rows of columns.
The need for quiet may limit Garrett's movement speed, but not his agility. One of the unusual features of the first-person series has been that it lets you reach up and grab chest-high objects and pull yourself up on top of them. Garrett is also quite good at jumping down from high places. But you'll need to make sure that you don't make too much noise, especially since the materials that make up the game's environments are carefully modeled. You need to pay attention to where you're walking--it may be possible to run quietly on softer surfaces such as carpet, but only the slowest movements can be silent on stone or metal. Also, the special rope arrows that you can fire and then use to pull yourself to great heights will attach themselves only to wood.
Ion Storm has put great effort into making the AI opponents more lifelike and interesting than ever. The smallest details can arouse their curiosity, but they'll have a series of progressively more serious alert stages, so a momentary glimpse of movement won't always cause a professional guard to call for his buddies. But guards will approach and investigate a variety of unusual phenomena, so don't expect to use a water arrow to extinguish a torch right in front of someone without attracting that person's attention.
Guarding the Jewels
Guards have worked together to an unusual degree in the Thief games. It's one thing for Garrett to successfully ambush one opponent at a time, perhaps by sniping from a distance with a broadhead arrow, but a wounded or alarmed guard will immediately call out for help. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that anyone will hear him. There's a proprietary pathfinding system for sound, which traces the route that noises or characters' voices might take to reach other characters and determines if the sound is actually loud enough to be heard. It's perhaps reassuring to know that if there's a heavy oak door and a stone wall between you and a guard six feet away, you can literally commit bloody murder without being heard. But killing is loud and messy, and the sound can really travel through open spaces, such as long corridors, and result in unwanted attention. The aftermath of a battle can be just as obvious a signal for enemy guards to come rushing in, but with time Garrett can move bodies out of the way and clean up bloodstains on the floor.
Fortunately, Thief III will have lots of equipment to make your tasks easier. The game will feature a selection of arrows to use with Garrett's signature short bow: broadhead, water, rope, noisemaker, and more. If Garrett sneaks up on someone from the rear, he always has the choice of knocking him or her out with the nonlethal blackjack or backstabbing him or her with his blade. Garrett will also have the aforementioned noisemaker arrows and a whole set of additional items designed to attract attention, as well as other items designed to help keep him hidden, like a noise suppressor that can be planted on the floor. Garrett will even be able to use diversionary items, such as flash bombs and gas bombs, that can incapacitate or distract pursuing guards.
However, Garrett's lock picks are perhaps the most interesting and essentially tools available to him. Thief III's lock picking has evolved into a minigame that works particularly well on the Xbox controller. Like in Ubi Soft's stealth game Splinter Cell, picking a lock in Thief III requires careful manipulation of the analog stick, and the controller's vibration provides feedback when you're near a lock's sweet spot. Locks will have multiple parts to unlock, some more complicated than others, and they'll come in distinct types, so you'll get a better idea of how to approach them after you've successfully picked a few. A rusty-looking square lock is different from a silver square lock, which is in turn different from a silver circular one. We didn't see lock picking demonstrated on the PC, so it's unclear how it'll work with a mouse and keyboard.
While Thief III's advanced graphics engine helps the visuals look technically impressive, the game's distinct artistic vision and unique environments are what really make it stand out. We saw a few different environments in motion, and the use of colors, light, and shadows was always remarkable. In one memorable moment, a guard moved away from a bright moonlit window, and his shadow lengthened as he walked down the hall. Even rough-hewn stone walls take on character, because the shadows in the pock-marked surface shift in the changing light. Other remarkable visuals we saw just momentarily or in screenshots featured creatively designed architecture, including intricate clockwork and a colorful museum scene. Even though the entire game takes place at night, it will hardly be dark and gloomy.
Ion Storm has been working steadily on Thief III for about two years, and it has plenty to show for its effort. In addition to the dozen programmers continuously working on the technology and tools shared by Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief III, there are roughly 20 people dedicated to producing content for the game. Even though Spector says his own attention has been pulled slightly more toward Deus Ex because it now has a firm ship date later this year, Thief III is clearly coming together quickly. Ion Storm won't specify when it plans to release the game, but Smith says the team is "doing its best to make a great game that is going to come out as soon as possible." Thief III will be on hand at E3 2003, and from what we've seen, it should get the attention it deserves. In the meantime, check out our exclusive video interview with Randy Smith for more details on the game.