Thief reboot sneaks up on you

Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014

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When I play an Elder Scrolls game, it never takes long before I find myself on the path of the kleptomaniac, forgoing all quests, combat, and progression in favour of entering people’s homes and stealing everything that isn't bolted down.

Enter Thief, Eidos Montreal’s reboot of one of the founding fathers of the stealth genre, which essentially takes these pickpocketing impulses and constructs a whole game around them.

First, a history lesson: the original Thief: The Dark Project, by Looking Glass Studios, released for PC in 1998, the same year as Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins.

While the latter two emphasised stealth-driven combat, Thief’s focus was strictly on avoiding confrontation as much as possible. You had weapons and could fight if push came to shove, but the relative weakness of the player character made this a last-resort option.

The Dark Project was followed by an improved Gold Edition and two sequels, which lead to the series developing a cult following.

However, with the close of Ion Studios in 2005 (who had taken over the franchise from Looking Glass), there have been no new Thief games since 2004’s Thief: Deadly Shadows.

Until now.

Eidos Montreal’s goal with the reboot, then, is to create a game that strikes a balance between catering to the existing following and being accessible enough for new players.

It’s a big ask, but with the likes of 2011’s critically acclaimed Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal have shown that they’re up to the demands of reviving a dormant series.

Based on the the preview code I played, this reboot appears to find that balance absolutely perfectly in some ways, but falls short in others.

The core of Thief’s gameplay is very much in line with the original games; it’s a first-person stealth game with missions focusing on stealing certain items (as opposed to assassinating targets, like others in the genre).

Going in arrows blazing is a recipe for a quick trip back to a lengthy reload screen; to succeed, you have to be sneaky.

However, the formula for how you go about this has opened up a bit; avoiding confrontation entirely is not always the best option, with the ability to silently neutralise guards with your club (the trusty Blackjack) often coming in handy.

As the developers described it, the game has shifted from a pure stealth game to a stealth-action one. You even have access to things like explosive arrows should you want to take the Michael Bay approach.

What stood out most is that, while some levels will encourage you more towards one playstyle or another, you’re never forced into any of them.

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Some areas are easier to play predator style, silently knocking out foes to create a clear path, while others will favour of an evasive, ghost-like approach, but nowhere is a playstyle locked out entirely.

The game even encourages and rewards maintaining an approach throughout.

The other big change is the introduction of deeper character progression than was present in the source material.

Despite the removal an experience system, following backlash against game footage at E3 2013 (which was something already being considered for removal at the time, according to director Nicolas Cantin), RPG elements are still present.

As well as being able to purchase tools and consumables, you can buy upgrades for your equipment and improve your character by donating money to the Queen of the Beggars.

To do all this, obviously you need moolah, and earning it is where the preview code was at its most exciting.

A bulk of your cash comes from stealing and fencing valuables during missions, and while these function more or less like standard collectibles, they’re incredibly well implemented.

As well as fitting in with the overall theme (you’re a thief, remember) and providing tangible benefits, a lot of the more valuable pieces can be quite puzzling to obtain - particularly without alerting patrols - so much so that the sheer act of stealing becomes its own reward.

Diehard Thief fans may be concerned about the changes to the formula, but the “classic” Thief experience can also be enjoyed thanks to custom difficulty settings.

Thief offers the standard Easy / Medium / Hard settings, but also lets you toggle certain settings at the start of a game to make the experience harder.

The list of options is impressive, ranging from things like “no healing items” to “Iron Man Mode,” in which death is permanent.

Depending on your level of masochism, you could, for example, turn on Iron Man Mode at the same time as no alerts - resulting in any alert instantly ending your game and making you start over.

The one element truly different to the classic Thief games is level design. Not in the sense that the levels in the preview were poorly designed; on the contrary, they were rather intricate and fun, but they were small.

The days of navigating through a big, sprawling steampunk metropolis seem to be lost in favour of compartmentalisation.

I’m hoping that this becomes less true later on in the game, but to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.

Ultimately, Thief shows a lot of promise when it’s seen in its own light (or shadow?); I’d been cautiously optimistic about the game, but the preview build was better than I anticipated.

It’s a smart, engaging, well-designed stealth game, which still seem to be something of a rarity.

However, despite the best efforts of Eidos Montreal, cult fans of the series may not find that it quite lives up to their expectations.

Time will tell.


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