Thief – Retaining its Stealth Roots | Hands-On
I don’t have nostalgic remembrances of Thief. I played the first level of the first game a long time ago, but it never held a special place in my heart. I know it’s a cult favourite. I know there are a tonne of fans out there. And I know that the new Thief (Thi4f? Thief ’14? Damn confusing reboot naming) has a whole weight of expectation.
I’ve played Thief, and I can tell you exactly why you should be looking forward to it.
But first we had a presentation by game director Nicolas Cantin. In between the typical trailers and screenshots, Cantin discussed the design philosophy behind the new Thief. Thief is designed to bring new gameplay innovations to an old franchise while remaining true to the ideological and gameplay roots. To do this, Eidos Montreal are building on the mythos of Garrett’s world, bringing a more mature and dark interpretation of Thief. Yes, I know that’s generally an alarm bell phrase, but I got the genuine sense from Cantin that for Thief this means a more grown up approach to narrative and themes, rather than grimdarkin’ edgy.
It retains its stealth roots, with a foray into action stealth territory. Don’t worry, Garrett isn’t a whirlwind of hidden death – action is a reflection on actively seeking out stealth routes and avoiding patrolling members of the Watch, and not engaging in battle. The main approach to areas revolves around the infiltration, stealing, escape cycle, where Garrett carefully plans and executes ingress, swipes whatever he can see, and then escapes – preferably unnoticed.
Cantin did emphasise that they weren’t just looking to make remake the original Thief with modern graphics – Thief is a modern game, after all. But the team at Eidos Montreal sound like they have a great deal of respect for the Thief series, and a reverence for the work Looking Glass and Ion Storm did with the original three games.
Cantin and the team were also adamant that the game should follow its predecessors and remain a purely single player experience, which I always like to hear.
If you’re overly worried about the new features that Eidos Montreal are implementing to streamline and modernise gameplay, you can always utilise the many customisation features to bring it to your level. There are two ways to do this – through HUD and gameplay options, and through initial difficulty settings. In your HUD options, at any time, you can remove the light gem indicator, turn on waypoint indicators, remove item shine, add or remove the focus ability, and even turn off Garrett’s inner monologue during levels so you don’t hear any hints. But the main fun comes with difficulty settings.
When starting a new game, you are given three difficulties to choose from – the standard easy/normal/hard trifecta. But! But! You are given the choice of a number of modifications that alter the base game in a number of ways. It might be small things, like a decrease in recovery items, or more aware guards. Or, you can choose one of the “ultimate” mods – Iron Man means one death loses your entire game, no upgrades takes away all gear upgrade purchases, no kills or knockouts means you cannot kill or knock out any guards, and no alerts means getting discovered is a game over. In return for adding a mod, you are awarded extra points, but the real reward is the extra challenge you get out of it. Everything is, of course, entirely optional, and the default settings are what the designers think is the most balanced for most people, but hardcore Thief fans will definitely want to tinker with the settings to make it the game they want to play.
As for me, I went straight for normal default. The game starts with Garrett padding through a sleeping man’s house, taking liberties with whatever shiny things catch his eye. The very first mechanic introduced is swiping loot, which set the tone for the game quite aptly. You are gradually drip fed how to sneak, open windows, pick locks, find hidden switches, and generally stay out of sight as you run across balconies to meet your partner in crime Erin. Garrett’s young apprentice, who sports a spiked club-like weapon ominously called the “claw”, accompanies Garrett as he infiltrates the mansion of someone obscenely rich. Erin seems particularly eager to resort to braining anyone she can disdainfully, which of course results in a fundamental disagreement in approach between Erin and Garrett. Needless to say, the people of the manor are up to no good, summoning eldritch powers and whatnot. And, conveniently, an altercation between Garrett and Erin regarding her violent disposition on the glass skylight above said ceremony leads to the obvious unforeseen consequences.
With Erin’s death and his precarious escape, Garrett again finds himself alone in the City of intrigue, equipped and ready to thieve all the things.
From here the game branches out into the hub world of the City, with a number of missions available for Garrett to undertake. In between these missions, Garrett is pretty much free to roam the City, going where he pleases and taking anything not nailed down. The City is a dark imagining of Victorian London, with twisting alleys and claustrophobic rooftops. The City is Garrett’s playground, flitting from shadow to ledge rather freely. I didn’t spend too much time exploring the hub world, but what I saw was encouraging. Dark and atmospheric, the City oozed fiction, and gave Garrett’s actions a clear sense of context.
Garrett has plenty of tricks, both old and new, to help him pilfer his way to riches. Starting with his gear, of course. First up, Garrett comes packing his trusty bow. It’s a folding compound deal, looking excessively mechanical. Apparently, the team took the original concept designs to a real life armourer, who turned the artistic design into a real weapon, after a few minor practical design changes. In turn, the art team remodelled Garrett’s bow in game to reflect the functional real life version. It still looks ridiculously excessive to my eyes, but hey, it’s fantasy. Either way, Garrett’s bow can fire a number of classic arrows, from blunt, to broadhead, to water, to rope, to fire, to exploding, to gas – Garrett’s arrow arsenal is as varied as ever.
Garrett also carries his signature blackjack, capable of knocking out an unsuspecting guard, but not much else. When it comes to one on one combat, the stealth tool is not very effective, with open fights revolving around agile dodging and quick jabs from the side. This provides incentive to remain hidden and avoid guards, while allowing for an emergency way out if needed. Unconscious guards can be picked up and dragged about, conveniently hiding the victims of your stalk.
Finally, Garrett repurposes Erin’s lost claw, turning it from a weapon for killing into a sort of grapple, allowing him to latch on to drains and boost himself into the rafters. It’s a handy trick, often allowing Garrett to sneak above searching eyes, and providing much needed verticality to often tight spaces.
Garrett is able to upgrade his gear, too, using money to purchase power ups. With the XP system removed, Garrett’s equipment instead relies on how much he is able to steal. Upgrades can impact Garrett’s passive abilities, such as reducing his movement noise, or enhance his equipment, with explosive arrows. There are also some twists on old classics – I spied a “moss quiver” as an available upgrade, which added the moss effect to your arrows. Money is also used to restock your consumables during the hub world lulls – it’s recommended that you do this since finding refills during missions is very rare.
In fact, Garrett’s abilities have been designed with the concept of him already being a master thief in mind. With upgrades revolving around gear instead of XP and skills, it reinforces the idea that Garrett already knows pretty much everything when it comes to thieving.
A lot of thought has gone into Garrett overall. While there is a new voice actor, many of the character’s mannerisms and movements will be familiar. According to Nicolas Cantin, a lot of work was put into Garrett’s hands, making them expressive and grounding him in the world. It works, too. The way Garrett moves has a fluid elegance to it, suggesting a familiarity with sneaking and comfort in the shadows. It helps that you can actually see your own legs and shadow, putting Garrett bodily into the world more than a disembodied head does.
Those deft hands of Garrett are put to good use when picking locks and finding hidden switches. Lock picking is a short and actually quite well executed minigame. Activating a locked door brings up three or more empty white circles down the bottom of the screen. You must then rotate the stick to find the sweet spot, lighting the circle and causing a subtle tactile rumble in the controller. Set the pin and move on to the next one. It’s quite clever in how it utilises rumble, with the gentle rumble a great analogue for finding the correct spot. It’s also heavily player skill based, with a dextrous and sensitive controller hand enabling quick picking. Finding hidden switches in painting frames is a likewise tactile experience, with Garrett running his fingers around the edge of the frame until he finds a bump.
Garrett has some extra moves available this time around. As well as the aforementioned claw climb, Garrett can “swoop” into shadows, quickly traversing short distances to minimise his visibility. Running and vaulting is handled with a press or hold of L2. Additionally, there is a contextual peek mechanic, where pressing square at a corner will let Garrett stick his head out to look around without being noticed, although I found it a little unwieldy and finicky at times.
Garrett’s most divisive new ability, however, is the controversial focus mechanic. At the touch of a button, Garrett will augment his vision, highlighting objects, items, hazards, and loot. Far from a cheesy gimmick, focus provides a very quick shorthand for interacting with the environment, essentially emulating Garrett’s experience and conveying it to the player. Focus has secondary effects, too, providing a quick augment to whatever task Garrett is undertaking. For example, picking a lock manually can be a fiddly and slow process, but with the use of focus you can zoom in and see the tumblers of the lock and pick it a lot quicker. Using it while picking pockets enables Garrett to swipe multiple items from the person at a time, speeding everything up. Focus is not game breaking, nor a crutch – it effectively supports gameplay and the player without making everything too easy.
While most UI elements are unobtrusive and superimposed on the environment, there is one exception – the light gem. On the bottom left of the screen are two meters – health and focus – and a gem that gets brighter or darker depending on Garrett’s position. The series staple fulfils the same role here, indicating roughly how visible Garrett is in any particular lighting scheme. Needless to say, it’s completely invaluable for a ghost run.
Other subtle indicators signal when you are visible. The screen will take on a harsh brightness if you’re visible. And, if you’re playing on PS4, the light bar on the back of the controller will turn bright white when you are visible.
That’s not the only console specific hardware feature, though. With the PS4, you can use motion controls in the DS4 controller to aim your bow and thrown items. The touchpad can be used for item quick selection, dragging to select and clicking to equip. Both of these can be turned off in the options, if you’d prefer regular aiming and a radial inventory system – and some might. Xbox One can use Kinect to trigger lean mode. Both systems can use voice inputs to make Garrett utter a noise, distracting guards and misdirecting attention.
As an entirely optional side activity, Thief has a separate challenge mode. Similar to Batman’s challenge scenarios, Thief will place Garrett in an area and task him with stealing the most stuff. You can earn points, and your score will go towards an online leaderboard.
This isn’t a wholehearted endorsement. I do have some reservations. First pertain to the look of the game. Graphically, the PS4 version is okay. It’s not as pretty as other contemporaneous releases, such as Tomb Raider Definitive Edition. I spotted some low resolution textures and lax environmental clipping. The omnipresent darkness does a lot to conceal the rougher edges, but it doesn’t look the greatest. And, on PS4, there were some rather significant framerate issues. Most of the time it looked and played smoothly, but there were a handful of times that I noticed significant dips. While I have zero exact benchmark numbers, I did notice jittering that looked to my eyes to be just below 30fps on a few occasions. This could be attributed to not being final code, and I couldn’t do any exact benchmarking so I only have my eyes to go off, but I really do hope those issues aren’t in the final build. In contrast, the PC version looks and runs much better. Playing through an Alienware laptop there were no framerate issues at all, and the graphical grunt of the PC format made everything prettier. Playing on PC with keyboard and mouse looked comfortable and natural – I didn’t actually play the PC build, but I watched it being played – but without the rumble feature of a controller, picking locks seemed to lose some of its ease and impact.
I am not a big fan of the way Thief handles jumping. There is no dedicated jump button. Instead, you must hold L2 to mantle. What you can and cannot mantle over seems rather arbitrary, although using focus can clear it up somewhat. In a stealth game where navigation and mobility are huge tools in your arsenal, being unable to jump seems like a strangely basic omission.
Another point of slight frustration is the way the infrequent loading gates are handled. While there are no loading screens, streaming in new areas takes time. This is frequently handled by having to jimmy a locked window or move a heavy beam. Watching the same silly animation where Garrett searches every corner of the window only to pull out a crowbar, then having to tap square to open gets old fast. I recognise it’s a necessary evil for streaming in the open world, but varying animations and getting rid of the annoying rapid tapping QTE would go a long way in helping my enjoyment.
So what we have is a remake that takes the spirit of the original and gives it a mechanical and graphical facelift. What I played was tight, enjoyable, and very intriguing. There is enough here in the core game, plus more than enough customisation options, to appeal to both first timers and series fans alike.
Thief is coming to Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, and PC in February – 25th in the US, 27th in Australia, and 28th in Europe. Preorderers gain access to the Bank Heist mission. Thief is in our Big 12, as well as one of our Most Anticipated of 2014. We’ll keep you updated on all the latest details right up until next month’s release.