Thief hands-on: the life and times of a kleptomanic clock tower cosh-ninja
So, Garrett is a ninja that lives in a clock tower now. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I always had him pinned as the sardonic vagrant sort, scraping a difficult living eating mice in stolen basement spaces to avoid the authorities. That's the trouble with Thief, I've filled every dark low-poly corner of the game with assumed lore. In the long years since I first played it, it has become a better game in memory. It's easy to forget how blind and thick the guards could be, the silly hats they sometimes wore, and those damn giant spiders.
How can Eidos Montreal ever hope to meet the expectations of Thief fans? They've certainly ticked off the general feature list well enough. Hiding in shadows - check. Rope arrows, fire arrows, water arrows - check. A dark city full of bawdy crooks and racked with sociopolitical strife - yep. I spent a few hours sneaking around the market hub district that surrounds Garrett's clock tower home, and came away worried. I got a good whiff of the grimy, mysterious atmosphere I associate with classic Thief, but in the final ten minutes - side missions completed - I ran around the level easily coshing sword-wielding guards into unconsciousness in dull face-to-face combat. Hmmm.
Garrett has always been handy with a weapon, but he's always been vulnerable, and that vulnerability is a vital source of tension in the Thief games. I'd charitably guess that the demo was set on super-easy mode for newbie journos, but even discounting combat, escaping from any threat was a trivial matter thanks to Garrett's ability to squirrel up to higher levels where the guards can't follow.
I was set loose in one portion of one of the districts that'll make up The City in the final game. That gave me several blocks of uninterrupted territory to explore, which implies there's a very generous amount of explorable space in the full game. The street level was populated with loitering citizens and roaming pairs of guards under orders to nick me on sight. Luckily for Garrett, it's possible to get around using the unpatrolled balconies and rooftops above. Ladders, tiered stacks of boxes and grates can be used to get to higher ground, and Garrett has Assassin's Creed-esque traversal skills to help him get there quickly. Hold down the dash button and he'll vault over fences, jump gaps and scramble up climbable surfaces.
I met hairy crook, Basso, in a quiet corner of the district. He gave me a list of four items to steal from various houses near the clock tower. Each was located in an unoccupied room that could be accessed from high windows I quickly leveraged open using Garrett's truncheon. Once inside, a blue haze would highlight useful objects like suspicious picture frames, betraying the location of hidden safes instantly. Activating Garrett's "focus" ability (which can be entirely turned off in the final game) highlighted all the loot and locks in the room. Its purpose seems to be to make the game idiot-proof.
Stealing feels good. Any glittering item of value can be used buy arrows and gadgets from dodgy street vendors, so you're encouraged to lift anything that isn't nailed down. Garret snatches loot greedily, as though shovelling it into his mouth. His pale hands are constantly exploring the environment. You can run his hands around the edges of a picture frame to find hidden switches. His pale fingers hug the edge of cover when you hide. His quick and careful movements are performed with the poise and dexterity that you'd associate with a master thief. It makes you feel like an expert.
There are other nice atmospheric touches, too. Guards grumble to themselves as they plod along. You'll overhear arguments through closed windows as you skulk about the rooftops. These will gently drop little world-building tidbits that hint at the struggles emerging from The City's rich/poor divide. Sometimes, a note you'll find in on a mission will offer leads on other potential heists. I discovered a note that implied the local tailor had come into unexpected fortune. Garrett murmured something about checking it out, and a new objective appeared on my list. These little side missions are self-contained stories of greed and murder that add a little extra flavour to The City.
There was no urgency or challenge to the missions in the hub area. They feel like a way to give the player resources and narrative colour without any pressure, but Thief thrives on the fear of being discovered. Once I slipped into a bedroom and froze completely at the sound of someone talking on the other side of the wall. Later I realised that these little rooms you can find all seem to be unoccupied. That person I heard was never going to walk in on me. The nerves faded, and so did my interest.
One mission shone, though - a quest to steal a man's metal hand. This instanced house location came with its own bonus objectives that encouraged me to stay hidden and not knock out any guards. There were a couple of ways into the premises, and the claustrophobic, well lit interior meant I had to get creative with Garrett's stealth abilities.
Light and dark are, of course, terribly important. In shadow, you're extraordinarily well hidden. A guard would have to almost trip over you before raising the alarm. Garrett can now quickly "swoop" to quickly and quietly dart about, which is useful for moving between patches of shadow or, I discovered, staying on the other side of a banquet table as a guard slowly patrols around it. The moment the guard left the room, I swooped over to the candles on the table and put them out with a wave of a hand.
This mission was also responsible for the prime moment of panic I experienced during the demo. I'd found my way into the upper floor with a bit of ninja climbing, turned all the lights out and ventured out into the well-lit hallway. I took crept up to a corner, peered carefully around the edge to see a guard RIGHT THERE. I slipped backwards into the darkened room, hoping that he'd walk right by, but when he reached the doorway he turned. I stood still, just metres away from him, hidden by the dark. I knew I'd be fine as long as he didn't STEP FORWARD OH GOD.
With each step he took I took one back and to the side, crouched and silent. The guard loudly announced that he might stealing a few nick-nacks for himself, to nobody in particular. I, meanwhile, slipped into a closet and watched through the slats hoping he'd somehow render himself unconscious. I could have taken him in a fight (I could have taken everyone in the building in a fight), but the objective encouraging me to stay hidden artificially dragged Thief closer to what it needs to be.
It has the tools to be a reasonably good stealth game, but it desperately needs an element of danger to make that effective. I worry that the free-running, third-person takedowns and focus mode will alienate fans of the classics. For everyone else, it'll struggle to offer something new in a post-Dishonored world. My various arrows did little to provide alternative approaches to the environment. My rope arrows were only good for thwunking into pre-ordained posts jutting out at carefully placed locations, and the two gadgets I unlocked - a crank for undoing screws and a wire clipper for sabotaging pulley-boxes - were reskinned door-opening devices. The City is a rich and detailed place, I only hope it still has more to show us than this.