Thief: Stepping Out of The Shadows
“I’ve been away, but I couldn’t tell you where. Time’s moved on. Powers have shifted. New greeds replace the old.”
Those lines – uttered by Thief’s returning antihero Garrett in the demo I saw – are acutely self-aware. (You can almost see the writer winking at you.) Thief has spent too long in the shadows – an entire generation, in fact. And as Garrett rightly points out, time’s moved on. Today’s player is different, and so are their expectations. A game often has to appeal to the widest possible audience. The original Thief series was in many ways an uncompromising experience – a hardcore stealth title – that made few concessions to accessibility. It was purposefully arcane, ambiguous, difficult.
Powers have shifted, though, and new genres and bigger franchises have replaced the old. It’s now a time of shooting and endless running, of explosive birds and stackable blocks. Much has changed, Garrett. After so long in the shadows, Thief faces the inescapable problem of keeping itself relevant whilst remaining true to the fundamentals of the series. That dilemma is clearly foremost on the minds of those working at Eidos Montreal, the studio responsible for bringing back this long-dormant franchise.
Garrett is a man with a mysterious past who has elevated petty crime to high art. But it’s more than that, he’s in it for the challenge, for a way to relieve boredom: the more impossible the job seems, the more impenetrable the location, the more attractive it all becomes. The game is about practising this illicit craft, prying into forbidden places, fooling sentinels, and voyeurism – you’ll be looting secrets, not just diamonds.
You’ll be looting secrets, not just diamonds.
After guiding Garret to the rooftops, you’re presented with a clear view of The City – dark and oppressive, yet quite beautiful. In the distance, there’s a red glow illuminating the nighttime fog. It’s the House of Blossoms, and you must get there… quickly. Garret has mere seconds to dash across the crumbling rooftops and negotiate the city’s winding streets – a tricksy web of dead-ends and blind alleys – to reach his destination. It looks like Mirror’s Edge but set in the Dark Ages, as Garret slides across wooden tables, clambers through open windows, and spills out onto the cobbled streets, all at a blistering speed. (If you fail, you don’t have to do it again. The mission adapts, letting you access to the house through an alternate route.)
Thief’s gameplay has three distinct movements: infiltration, theft and escape. With the house of ill repute in sight, we’re introduced to the first. In the demo I watched, Garret uses special arrowheads to extinguish watchfires dotted around the building, manoeuvring guards out of position and letting him to move closer to the entrance. From an adjacent rooftop he makes a leap with the the help of a mechanical grappling hook known as the ‘claw’ – he waits for new clientele to enter, clinging to the wall, before slowly lowering himself down and sneaking in behind them. During such sections – climbing walls, clinging to ledges – the game adopts a third-person perspective with Garrett negotiating his environment much like Nathan Drake or Desmond Miles. It’s an attempt to make these sections more exciting – the alternative is to stare at brick wall in extreme close-up.
You’re stalking a baron named Eastwick, who’s taken control of The City and trying to force revolution before its time; like everyone, he’s got secrets to hide. Inside the brothel, gameplay shifts gears, focusing on the art of stealing itself. The House is a decadent boudoir with an oriental theme. Drug-addled men lie draped on furniture. The shrill twang of a Chinese fiddle can be heard. It’s a sensuous environment, and an overwhelming contrast to the dismal streets Garrett calls home. The room is partitioned with dividers, behind which frustrated husbands find expensive comfort. Creeping overhead you listen in on conversations – “I can’t wear my wedding ring while doing this”, “Can’t one of the other girls f**k him for once?” – emphasising the voyeuristic aspect of Garrett’s profession. You can be more daring, though, sneaking around the corridors, swiping jewellery from the necks of working girls done-up like geishas. Garrett’s hands frequently appear onscreen, subtly interacting with the world around him – clinging to furniture, steadying himself after a fall – a neat visual reminder of his physicality and presence in the shadows.
This is a game that wants to give its player choice, with multiple side-quests and more than one way to achieve your goal. While you can leave crime scenes undetected, occasionally things don’t go to plan and Garrett must rely on his wits and weapons. In the demo I saw, the demonstrator used the environment to assist his escape. In one of the side-rooms there’s huge glass chamber that pleasantly scents the air with opium. Using his bow, Garrett empties more opiate into the chamber, releasing a potent cloud into the building. Guards and guests begin to pass out, while Garrett must escape holding his breath. Running outside he’s confronted by some heavily-armed enemies – this is the first time that Garrett draws his weapon, entering into what is being called ‘Focus’ mode.
In Focus mode, time slows down, allowing you to target your opponent’s weak spots. At the minute, this seems to be done by dragging a moving cursor over key areas and a matching button press. It makes combat more of a quick-time event sort of experience, but with ‘Focus’ disabled combat is a more traditional affair. This optional mode takes its inspiration from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film, in which Sherlock Holmes uses his immense intellect to rapidly evaluate an opponent’s physical frailties – “So alright, because you have this brandy nose, you probably drink a lot, so I’m going to target your liver and it’s going to be very painful. That’s the philosophy behind it,” reveals Roy. The escape itself recalls that frantic Mirror’s Edge-style section, in which you get a sense of Garrett’s agility and speed.
I saw more of the game, but only in the form of an impressive tech demo. It’s worth noting here that Thief is being made for PC, PlayStation 4 and ‘other next generation consoles’; it won’t straddle generations like a lot of upcoming games will choose to do, clinging to the safety of a huge install base. This is proper next-generation world building, and it shows. The tech demo, which is remaining behind closed doors for now, showcases some of the impressive lighting and environmental effects Eidos has created for Thief using a heavily-modified version of the Unreal Engine 3. From dynamic shadows to combustible surfaces to fog that spills around objects, it’s all being used to give Garrett’s home an incredible atmosphere.
This is proper next-generation world building, and it shows.
I’ve never been so excited by fog (and I live in London) – does it mean that Garrett will be able to stay hidden during the day? But technology isn’t what’s driving the project. “It’s not a question of polygons, particles or tech,” promises the game’s producer Stephane Roy. “That said, the next generation of PC and consoles helps with the immersion. If you don’t believe in our universe, it’s really difficult to convince audiences that they are Garrett. So the next-gen is a really powerful tool to build worlds. For instance, the ladies in the House of Blossoms – they’re not cloned ladies. They wear different clothing. On an older platform, they’d be cloned with different coloured hair just because it wasn’t possible to have that density of variation. It helps us to convince you that you’re in our universe.”
It’s evident that a big aspect of the game is The City (respectfully, they haven’t given it a name), likely to be one of the game’s main characters in itself. It’s a grim metropolis – the poor are placed in gallows, bunting sags miserably into puddles of mud – but also full of mystery. It’s not fixed by time: medieval stone structures stand next to newly-constructed Victorian town houses. The industrial revolution is still erupting, yet advanced technology has already found its way into the some hands. Propaganda is plastered on the walls, as the Watch Faction desperately tries to maintain its control of the people. The politics of The City are sophisticated and substantial, the stuff of real social science fiction. And while it isn’t an open-world experience, Garrett will be able to roam around a large district of The City freely which will function as a hub.
Thief had been away for so long it was only natural that a spiritual successor would emerge.
So now for the awkward part. Are you thinking this all sounds a lot like Dishonored? The abundance of choice, the emphasis on stealth with the option of combat, set in a retro-futuristic city beset by plague and warring factions? The parallels with Bethesda’s critically-acclaimed game are inescapable, and Eidos Montreal knows this. Thief had been away for so long it was only natural that a spiritual successor would emerge. But has this created an unfortunate situation in which the original now looks to its progeny for inspiration? It’s something that’s clearly on the minds of the development team, but they remain confident there are key differences and that Thief is the rightful king of this type of game.
“I would be lying if I told you that, ‘No, no, it wasn’t important. What is that game?’ We have to work very hard to make sure that some people know we’re not taking inspiration from Dishonored,” says Roy. “Dishonored was inspired by the original Thief. We have to teach them that we are the grandfather of that type of gameplay.”
“We played Dishonored. We had fun playing it,” says lead level design Daniel Windfeld Schmidt. “But at the same time, when we were playing it we realised it was a very different type of game, even though the inspiration and the source is the same. In terms of game mechanics, they have a very strong arcade feeling over their magics. They’re very magically inspired – our direction is more mystical, more immersive, more realistic feel.” Mystical, not magical – it might sound like a subtle difference, but realism is a big part of the game’s design. The supernatural remains but it’s been diluted by a believable world. “Part of immersion is that the player can relate to environments. So if everything is fireballs and rainbows it’s going to break that immersion. We still continue the lore and the fiction of the universe, so there’s a strong mystical aspect – it’s a big foundation of that story – but without making it so magical that it becomes abstract.
“We want people to relate to the environment, relate to being in a place, versus teleportation and so on. We had fun playing Dishonored, and they did an awesome job, but that’s not what we wanted Thief to be.” Schmidt is very clear on what his game is about: “Thief isn’t about revenge. It’s not about killing people. It’s about stealing, and being places you shouldn’t be. That’s what made Thief stand out in the old days. It was about everything else but killing.”
Eidos Montreal has pedigree when it comes to reawakening long-dormant franchises. It succeeded in bringing back Deus Ex from its slumber, with a game that respected the history of the series but made smart concessions to modern audiences. The same sensibility has carried over into Thief – stealing is still a focus, but combat is there if you want it. Many fans of the series will be happy to know that there’s no multiplayer whatsoever. Perhaps most reassuring to fans of the series is the presence of Garrett – still weary, still mercenary – and The City, which was a particularly strong presence throughout what I saw. The time has finally come for Thief to step out of the shadows.
Thief is coming to PC, PlayStation 4 and other next-generation consoles in 2014.
Daniel is IGN’s UK Staff Writer. You can be part of the world’s most embarrassing cult by following him on IGN and Twitter.
By Daniel Krupa