The first words spoken by shadow-hugging anti-hero Garrett in almost a decade are carefully chosen: “I’ve been away, but I couldn’t tell you where.” In that wry, noirish tone of old, they acknowledge his absence and also address the conundrum of bringing him back – the balancing act of continuity and reinvention at which Eidos Montreal proved itself more than adept with 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
In some ways, this is a fresh beginning. The ‘4’ is gone from the title – a blessing, since at last look it appeared in the middle of it – and the game is aimed at PC and the next gen, confirmed for PS4 and “other next-gen consoles” (read: the new Xbox). These decisions are linked: Thief is now a new game for new machines. But it’s also still unmistakably Thief, a firstperson stealth adventure set in a world built around shadows, light and stealthily cracking people unconscious with a sturdy blackjack.
Certain building blocks have been identified as crucial to the Thief experience. Garrett is one of them. The 30-minute gameplay demo Eidos Montreal has readied for the press shows a scarred, angular hero strapped in buckled leather layers up to his high, peaked hood. The obvious concern is the jollification of this dark hero to appeal to broad console audiences, but if anything the new Garrett threatens to be too snarled, too icy. He delivers his signature line during a monologue – “What’s yours can be mine” – and it seems a shade more purposeful and directed than the appealing bow for hire of the original games. The team, though, see him as essentially unchanged. “The Garrett I know is back,” says producer Stephane Roy.
Faithfully preserved alongside the man are his methods. Thief is still a game founded on – and enveloped warmly within – darkness. What’s currently an uncluttered UI still includes a light meter, now a small circle in the lower-left corner, which moves from jet to washed-out black as Garrett slides out of the shadows and into the light. While many of the changes to the old Thief formula are motivated by plausibility, the shadows remain as impenetrable as ever, even at close range. The corners of the decadent Victorian burlesque house Garrett slips through are cosy safe spots, and at one point he even uses the looming shadow thrown by a moving guard to steal through a doorway unseen. Probable? No, but it’s a conceit central to the rules that make up Thief’s world.
Equally central are the tools of Garrett’s trade. These have been updated, but respectfully so. The blackjack, deliverer of a thousand muffled blows, returns as our hero’s standard armament, although word that it can be upgraded in this game is rather perplexing. Its virtue, after all, is its simplicity.
And then there are the arrows, which aren’t weapons so much as instruments of precision. In the past, they plugged into the Thief games’ systems of light and sound, and were an elegant way for Garrett to interact with his surroundings. They’re back and just as full of tricks as ever. We see a dry ice-tipped arrow extinguishing a brazier so that Garrett can sneak past a guard, an update of the original torch-snuffing water arrows. But the bow is also more powerful, more overtly lethal, and used more frequently for headshot kills during the Eidos demonstration than for altering the environment.
This is the pattern for everything in the new Thief: the same, but a little different. This particular approach has become the speciality of Eidos Montreal, which was founded in 2007 with the mandate of bringing back the twin Deus Ex and Thief series – both highly influential firstperson hybrids, both forged in the creative fires of Looking Glass/Ion Storm.
This has led to the development of a particular approach: a respectful remastering that’s creating something between sequels and reboots. The deft resurrection of Deus Ex leaves the studio in credit when it comes to noteworthy additions or corrections to the Thief formula, but these alterations also merit the most scrutiny.
The biggest of them all is Focus, a mode entered for short bursts that highlights key objects in Garrett’s surroundings and which helps to streamline combat and puzzles. It is, in other words, a temporary power-up to help players over difficulty spikes. In the gameplay demo, activating Focus shortens close combat to quick time despatches, slowing time to allow Garrett to identify vulnerable points on his attacker before erupting into a flurry of critical blows.
Focus also fast tracks a lock-picking puzzle that’s in danger of interruption, and even alerts Garrett to the precariousness of an overhanging chandelier when an alarm has been triggered, which our hero uses to crush a pair of onrushing guards. In short, Focus adds a dash of the spectacular to Thief’s patient lurking. Its supply is strictly limited, forcing you to use it strategically, but the idea of it will have the purest of purists twitching.
It’s not the only lurch that Thief makes towards action gaming, though. The camera slips into thirdperson perspective for the kind of ledge clambering seen in the Assassin’s Creed series (during which Garrett uses a new piece of grappling equipment called the claw) and also during cinematic combat takedowns. Drawing in further influences, there’s also a burst of freerunning through the city inspired by Mirror’s Edge. The view’s still locked in firstperson, but Garrett’s dashing down alleyways and sliding over surfaces while frantic music plays in the background.
The aim is to make Garrett agile as well as invisible and, rather more functionally, to cut down the time potentially impatient players spend negotiating the rooftops and plague-ridden streets of the City, which isn’t entirely open to exploration, but does feature an explorable hub. Comfortingly, though, when the dashing about is done, the mission seen in the demo has a very familiar Thief feel to it, with tense infiltration, delicate probing leading to item acquisition, and an escape that starts out carefully before throwing both hands in the air, sprinting into the open and jumping over a wall.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to play – there’s still a strong emphasis on choice and open approaches to mission goals. But the creeping, the off-hand swiping of everything that isn’t nailed down (into implausibly large trousers) and the eavesdropping on the unguarded comments of guards and civilians project an attitude that matches the original. And that is the key to Eidos Montreal’s approach: it’s not replicating the gameplay specifics of a game too dated to emulate, but recapturing its spirit. On this showing, it seems unlikely that Thief will manage to surprise us, but there’s every chance it’ll be entertaining all the same.