Thief: In with the Old, In with the New
The newest Thief is very much a modern game--but it hasn't forgotten its deep roots.
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Before Sam Fisher, before Agent 47, before Corvo Attano, there was Garrett.
Garrett was introduced in 1998's Thief: The Dark Project, the first stealth game to feature a first-person perspective, and one of several games that made the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios so beloved among PC game enthusiasts. With the plainly-titled Thief, Eidos Montreal resurrects a series left untouched since 2004's Thief: Deadly Shadows for a gaming public apparently ready for the next step in stealth. Of course, the question for concerned fans becomes: will the new Thief be enough like the old Thief, or will it be diluted by modern elements that diminish the challenge and the tension? In other words: Is Thief really, well, Thief?
The answer isn't yet clear, but with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, developer Eidos Montreal has already proven their ability to modernize an older franchise and still retain much of what makes the series unique. During the week of San Francisco's GDC, I met with producer Stéphane Roy and lead level designer Daniel Windfeld Schmidt for a private demonstration of Thief and the technology bringing it to life. And while many modern concessions were clear--I noted similarities to Assassin's Creed and, unsurprisingly, Human Revolution--what I saw of the game seems to have retained the series' soul, which came as some relief. And of course, the games I mentioned above owe enormous debts to the original Thief, so it's only appropriate that a new Thief game should emerge to remind us of the stealth genre's origins.
It all begins with Garrett, whose mysterious ways and hushed monologues have made him a popular figure. He is part of what makes Thief what it is, along with The City--that is, the dark, corrupted, pre-industrial metropolis where Garrett makes his home. And while it might be a cliche to call a setting the "real" star of a game, given how often such claims are made, Thief makes a strong case for that old chestnut, for what I saw of The City looked phenomenal. The City is about contrast--the interplay between light and dark, between hot and cold, between rich and poor--and the demo exhibited that contrast in a number of ways, both visually and narratively.
If there was one such element that was abundantly clear from the moment the demo started, however, it was darkness. Garrett's approaches The City's gates hidden in a merchant's cart, narrating the circumstances of his past while brief flashbacks hint at shaded memories. It is frighteningly somber. Thunder and lightning are an old narrative trick used to communicate fear and dread, and Thief uses this trick to its advantage, allowing brief flashes of light to illuminate the sharp angles and heavy iron details of its architecture. So, too, is The City's malice illuminated. The signs of oppression are everywhere, from the sights of men secured by stockades, to the corpses hanging from rafters to remind the populace of the consequences of wrongdoing.
Oppression comes at the hands of the Baron and The City Watch, but fortunately, the autocrats do not rule unopposed. An opposition force, and its charismatic leader, have called for a revolution, and like it or not, Garrett finds himself drawn into the imbroglio. And if he hopes to thrive, Garrett must use every tool and skill at his disposal. Thief is built to support a three-way gameplay loop. First, there is infiltration--the ways you exploit the shadows and the enemy AI to express your stealthy creativity. Then there is theft, which requires skill and dexterity. And finally, you have escape, in which Garrett shows of his daring, agile side. From these three pillars arise focus abilities, which allow you to spend a resource called focus in order to expedite and enable your thievery.
Focus is one of Thief's clear nods to gameplay mechanics associated with more modern games, though it's worth noting that series purists can choose difficulty levels that disable focus if they prefer (along with vision cones, markers, and any other assistance). But what are these focus abilities? Well, there's The Eye, a sight mode that highlights fingerprints and interactive objects in the vicinity. Or how about lockpicking? Using focus this way allows you to speed up the process of attaining precious jewels when under duress. Alternately, you might use focus to enhance your pickpocket skill, which allows you to nab more items from your hapless victim in a slick, single move.
You can also use focus in combat, though you shouldn't take this to mean that Garrett is a sword-wielding menace, prepared to slice his foes Ezio Auditore-style. But there are times when you might need to disable or distract a guard that's caught on to your wily ways, and focus allows you to pinpoint and exploit an enemy's physical weaknesses, thus giving yourself time to flee. Of course, a proper thief avoids even the keenest of eyes, and Garrett has a variety of gadgets at his disposal, each of which aids in his sneaky pursuits. What would a Thief game be without the blackjack? Try using it to break a window and distract a particularly annoying sentry, or to perform a takedown from behind or above. Of course, you get a bow as well, along with various types of arrows, such as a dry ice arrow that reflects light--a useful tool for throwing a nosy foe of your scent. Garrett also possesses a claw, which he uses as he did the rope arrow or vine arrow in previous games: as a means of navigation to higher places. The claw also has a narrative purpose, though for now Eidos Montreal is keeping such details close to their chests.
Such gadgets and abilities make Garrett the ultimate voyeur, so it's only appropriate that the demo requires that he infiltrate a pleasure palace called the House of Blossoms, though reaching that opulent destination means slinking through The City's sinister streets. You sneak and peek, watching your hands grasp corners as you scope out any danger lurking ahead, and ultimately climbing a rooftop so that you can identify the red light that marks the brothel that houses your target. The House of Blossoms now in sight, you fall onto a guard below for a debilitating takedown and rush towards your goal, rushing ahead as if you are a speeding Cinderella, hoping to make it home before the clock strikes midnight.
Thief is still about freedom, so it's only sensible that you might try the front door or some other route, though in the demo's case, following a guard towards an alternate entrance provides the right kind of opportunity. Using snuff arrows to veil your careful movement, and firing broadhead arrows to smash vases and make a little distracting noise, you make your way across beams and rappel to solid ground when you get the chance. The camera occasionally moves from the standard first-person view to a third-person perspective for a bit of Assassin's Creed/Uncharted-style platforming, as you snake across ceiling beams before dropping down and peeling back a velvet curtain.
What you see inside illuminates the lifestyle of The City's privileged. Outside, the rain-drenched alleys and overheard conversations betrayed the strife playing out on the streets. Inside, you take in the other side of the class war. Courtesans and their escorts sashay about the elaborate mansion, and hedonists lounge around, high on opium. Of course, a sleepy sensualist makes a particularly vulnerable target, so it's only appropriate that you silently approach one and pilfer a few things from his person before sliding away. You also relieve a few bureau drawers of their contents before making your way into the House's opium dispensing room. Here, you activate focus to reveal some objects to clamber up, and make your way into a ceiling grate, across the attic, and into the more private regions of this den of iniquity.
I didn't play the demo--I only watched it being played. But every movement seemed to have a tactile smoothness to it that made me wish to feel the game under my fingers. Occasionally, the demoer would activate focus for a momentary boost of speed, which gave the tense-looking exploration an additional sense of urgency. As Garrett stepped across different textures--stone, carpet, wood--the sound of his footsteps changed to reflect the new surface. It was difficult to tell if the AI reacted to such audio cues, though I saw no obvious AI flaws that disrupted the immersion--no guards seemed overly doltish or supernaturally aware of Garrett's presence. Roy told me that consistency is key. While some types of foes will be smarter than others, their actions must align with player expectation; after all, stealth gameplay is about observing and exploiting AI behavior. Too much deviation from expectation, and frustration ensues.
The House's inner sanctum contain some of the sensual sights and sounds you might suppose you would encounter. Couples united in congress tend to vocally express their pleasure, after all. The business' flamboyant proprietor isn't much of a threat--he's more concerned with his shallow, gluttonous lifestyle than with keeping a close eye on nearby valuables. That's just as well: you spend some focus to efficiently open a chest and pocket the jeweled egg contained therein. Soon after, however, you glimpse something even brighter than those jewels: a glare of light shining from a hole in the wall.
What you see within contrasts with the luxury surrounding you: your target, an architect called Theodore Eastwick, is smothering one of the House of Blossoms' courtesans. Seemingly satisfied that his crime has gone unnoticed, Eastwick leaves an odd-looking medallion unattended, giving you the perfect window of opportunity to nab it. Once you have it in your eager hands, however, a new mystery arises: the dials of the medallion have glyphs etched upon them. What can they mean--and how can these glyphs be aligned to reveal even more secrets?
The answer, as they say, is staring back at you. And all it takes to discover it is to activate The Eye. Peering through gaps and at the walls and ceiling of nearby rooms reveals the same symbols you see on the medallion, so naturally, you turn the dials to match the clues. The medallion shines and the series' mystical qualities come to the forefront, but just for a brief moment: Eastwick has noticed that the medallion is missing, and the head of this extravagant House announces that a thief is hiding among the clientele. The ambient music breaks into an insistent, uncomfortable rhythm, and you know you must make a hasty departure. But what to do about the men and women milling about? As it happens, it's a great opportunity to turn their hedonistic ways against them.
It's off to the opium dispensing room, where the turn of a valve and the shot of a single arrow cause thick, narcotic clouds to waft through the establishment, causing anyone that catches a whiff to fall unconscious. (Note, however, that this isn't always an option; if you have eliminated the NPCs that refill the dispenser, this method won't be available to you.) Garrett can hold his breath, but not forever--and not every guard has been affected by the drifting gas. Speed is of the essence. And so with an arrow, you bring down a chandelier onto the foes below; activate focus to identify a pesky guard's physical vulnerabilities; and disable him long enough for you to speed away from the House of Blossoms and into the blackened streets.
The demo ends but not before Garrett delivers an important message: "I am Garrett. What's yours is mine."
Is Thief a reinvention, as Eidos Montreal claims? It certainly looks the part. Roy seems to understand the value of scale and freedom as they relate to the franchise, and what I saw of The City made it look truly alive. Of course, Thief is a game about illusion, and that sense of a populace at work and at play might itself have been a highly scripted mirage. But one thing was clear: this was a gorgeous demo, as was the tech demo that followed, featuring amazing amounts of textural details that made me wish I could reach out and feel the crumbling walls and iron balustrades for myself. Rain flowed naturally through the gutters, and light reflected and refracted authentically. The City was frighteningly beautiful, and I can't wait to return to it.
Of course, nothing can keep me from the visiting The City as it existed in previous Thief games, so that might be as good a way as any to pass the time until the new Thief's release. How long will that be? Well, here's what I know: it's coming in 2014, and it's coming to the PC, the PlayStation 4, and, presumably, to whatever upcoming system Microsoft will announce. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to lock up my valuables; something tells me they may not be as secure as I'd like.'