Thief, Eidos Montreal’s carefully balanced bid to revive a genre originator

Publisher: Square Enix Developer: Eidos Montreal Formats: 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One Release: February

Pity any developer that admits its desire to make a cherished series more accessible. FromSoftware fell foul of this loaded term, and now Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot has snagged on the furrowed brows of series fans. Thief, like Dark Souls, is synonymous with challenge, but Eidos stresses it has no intention of dumbing down Garrett’s world. It just wants to give those in it more options.

“We want players to be able to choose their strategy situation by situation,” lead game designer Alexandre Breault tells us. “Even within a single level, it will be easy to switch between aggressive and stealthy tactics [and] easy to run away, hide and wait for the situation to cool down.”

Fret not: Garrett hasn’t been recast as a brawler. While you may be able to solve some problems with violence, the shadows will always be your greatest ally. “No matter what strategy you’re using, you’ll need to think about the situation,” Breault says. “It’s really a game about anticipation. Even though we support more aggressive playstyles, if you just run into a situation without thinking, without even a little hesitation, you’ll very quickly find yourself in trouble.”

We experience this firsthand during our playthrough of a level that sees Garrett making his way across the city towards a clock tower, pillaging a jewellery shop along the way. A guard patrols an upstairs room containing drawers, cabinets and a locked safe stocked with valuables. We attempt to knock him unconscious with our blackjack after sneaking around a cabinet to get behind him, but miss the swing. Carefully timing our dodges and lunges proves successful and we quickly gain the upper hand, but only until his colleague runs in and knocks us to the floor.

An arrow to the kidneys downs one guard, while the next is about to suffer head trauma. Aggressive acts still require planning, however, which might mean observing guard movements for five minutes before you strike.

Better planning sees us through a second attempt, aided by the controversial new Focus ability. At the most basic level, Focus functions like a combination of Mirror’s Edge’s Runner Vision and Joel’s focused hearing in The Last Of Us, highlighting key parts of the environment as well as the footsteps of guards and civilians who are behind walls, helping you to keep track of their movements and plan ambushes.

It’s a finite resource, however. It can be replenished by finding poppies throughout the level, but you’ll have to manage it carefully. Assuming you’ve ingested sufficient opium, Focus can also help you to gain the upper hand during combat, slowing time and letting you target specific areas of a foe’s body. Or you can use it to speed up picking a lock or a pocket should you suddenly hear footsteps halfway through a robbery. Don’t mistake it for an instant-win option, however. Lockpicking is represented by three white circles, each glowing brighter as you get closer to being able to set the pin; engage Focus and you’ll be able to see inside the lock barrel, but you still have to finish the job.

More potential controversy comes from the takedowns, in which guards meet brutal ends. While Eidos has, thankfully, abandoned QTEs in response to overwhelmingly negative feedback, takedowns still represent a worrying removal of control in a series that has long made agency a core value.

“You can still be detected during those animations; it’s a strategy we want players to think carefully about,” says lead level designer Daniel Windfeld-Schmidt. “You have to pick your battles. Should I run from the shadows because this guard is isolated and I can take him down? Takedown animations are consistent, so you always know you’ll need that second extra to make sure you can also grab the body and store it somewhere where it won’t be detected by overlapping patrols.”

This is how you first happen across the jewellery shop, after making your way across the balconies of other buildings to find it. Two guards patrol the street below and the building presents a number of possible entrances.

This latest build of Thief is more linear than the one shown at E3, which was based around a mansion and its grounds. Here, we’re funnelled through Thief’s newly Victiorian-esque streets for the most part, the world occasionally opening up to present more than a simple choice between street level and the platforms suspended above it. The jewellery shop in particular offers multiple ways in, whether that’s through the sewers, the back streets, an open upstairs window, or even, if you’re feeling brazen, the front door.

There is more colour here, too, the warm yellows emanating from fire baskets and torches contrasting with the blue-tinged darkness. Lighting has always played an important role in the series, and here it is
at its most dynamic yet. A light gem in the bottom left of the screen telegraphs how visible you are at any given time. The PS4 version uses Dual Shock 4’s light bar as well, making playing in the dark a good idea.

Volumetric fog and shadows crafted by the game’s realtime lighting tech provide cover, and you can create your own path through levels by using Garrett’s water arrows to extinguish fire buckets and torches. A new Swoop manoeuvre, in which you duck down and cover ground quickly, enables dashes to the darkness, but does little to dispel fears of enemy myopia first raised by our time with the E3 demo. At one point, after some time spent trying to find a safer route, we even use Swoop to pass within a couple of feet of two talking guards in a well-lit alleyway.

In between missions, Garrett can spend time in an open-world hub called The Clock Tower, which contains his home and also plays host to all sorts of sidequests. “It’s important for the experience that we wanted for the player,” explains narrative director Steven Gallagher. “When you explore the area and you’re breaking into other people’s houses and hearing things you shouldn’t hear and seeing things you shouldn’t see, it feels that little bit more immersive. At a very basic level, the city hub allows you to prep for the next chapter – you can buy some stuff and upgrade what you have – but it also acts as the barometer of what’s happening in the city as well. It’s easy to get distracted on your way to the next chapter: you hear a rumour, see something down a back alley or see an open window, and then two hours later you’re like, ‘Oh, I forgot about that. I’m supposed to be doing something else!’”

Taking guards out quietly, or avoiding them entirely, is is essential if you don’t want to find yourself overwhelmed.

Only the finished article will provide a clear picture of how successfully Eidos Montreal has balanced Thief’s open world and its missions, its empowerment and difficulty. Early concerns aside, it’s difficult to deny the success of Focus and Swoop in making players feel like a master thief worthy of Garrett. If you’re really set on relying on your own senses, though, you can turn off the HUD entirely, get rid of Focus and set more extreme conditions for success.

“It’s possible to customise the difficulty so that you have to play the game without ever being detected,” says Breault. “We even have an Ironman mode where you can’t ever die or fail, otherwise you must restart from the beginning.” Windfeld-Schmidt interrupts: “We’re still trying to finish that ourselves.”

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