Thief – E3 Preview

Title   Thief
Developer  Eidos Montreal
Publisher  Square-Enix
Platform  PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4 (Previewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One.
Genre  Action-Adventure, Stealth
Release Date  2014
Official Site

When guns and violence nearly always shine through, there’s nothing quite like going stealth, picking off your enemies one by one, and making it to the other side with nary a scratch on you. If you’re good enough, they’ll never even know you were there. With Sam Fisher now eschewing stealth for violent interrogations and dog punching, and Metal Gear Solid has gone open-world, Thief is slowly edging its way out of the shadows after a decade out of the game, and it’s making a grab for the coveted stealth crown. Don’t turn off the lights and don’t look away – that’s exactly what he wants you to do.

The fourth in the franchise, Thief carries with it the stigma that’s often burned upon those who also carry the badge of the dreaded ‘R’ word. With the series outside of the current Zeitgeist after being out of action since 2004, Square-Enix have decided to start anew, meaning that this Thief is one of those ever-dreaded reboots, kicking the series back into the spotlight but doing so in a way that accommodates those who’ve never had a chance to dive in before. As someone who fits that quota and needs a strong dose of stealth after wetting my beak with Dishonored last year, I found myself anticipating my time with Thief, eager to take on a stealth title that doesn’t come with night-vision goggles, overwrought pseudo-intellectual political discussion and cardboard boxes, or a woefully inadequate story that acted like it was going somewhere only to end up in disappointment.

Thrust into the boots of Garrett the master thief, the demo took part some way into the story when the civil unrest in our hero’s city has led to them starting a revolution, giving our wily protagonist a chance to steal a precious treasure known as the Heart of the Lion, belonging to the Baron ruling the now-protesting city. Starting just outside the confines of the manor, my objective was laid before me, and all I had to do was take it. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the same could be said of retrieving the Baron’s precious possession, with three potential paths clearly proposed to me moments after beginning. Opting to just wing it, I simply moved forward in order to see how viable an option it was to infiltrate the Baron’s abode, and should maybe have reconsidered this move shortly after, being that it lead me right into what seemed to be the resting spot for all the nearby guards, who were congregating by the boxes I was now attempting to hide behind.

Cowering behind the crates was good for a short-term solution, but if I wanted to finish my mission I’d need to move sharpish before I was discovered, the odds of which were closely detailed by the visibility meter ever-present at the bottom of the screen. This meter shines in three levels of colour: white, grey and black, and being constantly aware of the state you’re in is vital to making it through the rest of the level without being caught, with one of the developers telling me that you’d gain more rewards for ‘ghosting’ – an achievement awarded for making it through the entire scenario without alerting a single enemy. Keeping the meter in the black was all-important, as it means that you’re completely invisible to those around you, while being in the grey means that while you’re partially hidden, you could be caught at any point, with white only appearing if you’re fully-exposed and likely to be seen at any moment.

As the demo was taking part on the Playstation 4, this feature was largely boosted by the controller, not necessarily because of its control scheme, but because of the Move sensor between the shoulder buttons. If the player was submerged in darkness, it’d do nothing, but if the player moved into a grey or white state, then the sensor would start lighting up to match how exposed you are, with it shining brightest when you’re most likely to be caught. This actually felt like an amazing touch, and one that was improved by the fact that it allowed me to concentrate on the events in front of me without having to keep glancing at the gauge in the corner, as I could instead judge my progress with the ever-dimming and brightening light in my hands.

Still behind these boxes, I instead sought to use another trick from Garrett’s arsenal, as he can now silently lunge forward a short distance in order to keep himself hidden, and here it was used to dart between boxes the moment a guard looked away, determined not to be seen underneath the torchlight. Successfully making my way around I made a dash for a nearby wall – climbing over it with nimble prowess – only to be cut short on the other side as I was immediately seen by a nearby guard and bludgeoned to death.

As it should be in a true stealth title, combat is absolutely a worst-case scenario, and getting caught short will shortly spell failure for you if you fail to make a quick and hasty escape. This is compounded by the blackjack that Garrett carries, which can be used to effectively choke out and carry guards, but is borderline-useless in an actual combat scenario, especially when the now-alerted guards can – and will – quickly surround you and give you little room to manoeuvre.  Though it’s potentially possible to best a guard or two, I was never able to, and with your foes only needing to land a couple of blows to subdue you, you’d have to be silly to view it as a viable tactic in lieu of stealth.

Opting to take a different path in my next attempt, I chose to use Garrett’s focus mode to get a better look at my surroundings, and discovered that I could climb the pillars to my left, which allowed me to get the higher ground and see how well-guarded the left side was in comparison to the guard’s den that was the right. It was here that I also chose to take advantage of another tool in our hero’s arsenal: his trusty bow, which came a variety of arrows, with traditional, fire, water, rope and blunt-headed types among his quiver.

With rope-arrows used more for traversing through the environment and being used on specific parts of the environment, I opted to go for a distraction tactic and fire a blunt arrow – used specifically to catch the attention of others – by a nearby guard, hoping that he’d be confused long enough that I could sneak right past. However, this didn’t go to plan and the blunt arrows refused to work at all – the nearby developer said it was a glitch they’d iron out – and so readying a fire arrow and deciding to get a bit murdery, I felt a bit let down when the guard recoiled in pain, only for the flames to almost immediately die out and leave me totally exposed… even though I’d shot the unsuspecting guard right in the face.

Trying a tactic with a little more finesse, once I’d reset the demo I then discovered the water arrows nestled in my inventory, and – spying the nearby torch – I let one off, dousing it and leaving the disgruntled guard to begrudgingly investigate and re-light it, by which time I’d already snuck right past, dashed right into the path of another guard and been beaten into a fine paste. Getting cocky means openly inviting failure and, after slowly and carefully considering every move, I finally found myself closer to my treasure. Garrett’s ability to move freely about the environment and climb nearly everything around him is all-important, and maintaining higher ground was key to getting through the early stages of the demo without being battered by the security detail.

Thief is considered an early cornerstone of the stealth genre, and so what happened next was a moment that many fans of the series – and those who are primarily aligned to being sneaky – will find incredibly abhorrent, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. At the end of the demo, Garrett had to make his escape in an on-rails section that saw you running for your life and trying not to die in a moment that forces you to disregard everything that you will have previously learned in the name providing something to appeal to a wider demographic. Rather than sneaking back out the way you came, or slinking into the shadows never to be seen again, this sequence threw out everything you’d previously had drummed into you in the name of trial and error moves and an egregious quick-time event that spelled instant death if you didn’t react quickly enough and if you weren’t prepared for it – why would you be? Despite all the goodwill the rest of the demo had built up, that it threw it all away just for a completely out of place action-movie moment left a sour taste in my mouth, and I was grateful to have another appointment to move quickly on to.

That horrendously out of place and frustrating section aside, there was plenty to like about the new Thief, though it was clear that it’s currently far from perfect and there are more than a few bumps to even out. The actual stealth portion was great – minus that glitch – as it rewarded tactical and considered thinking and punished you for your mistakes in a way that felt fair, and were that the whole story then this preview could end now and the upcoming Square-Enix epic would walk away with a tentative recommendation. However much I wish it, that’s not the case, and so the best I can advise is to sit back, consider your next move carefully, only strike if the opportunity is right, and not to throw in a gimmicky action movie imitation while you’re at it, just like Thief should have done.

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