Thief hands-on: Eidos Montreal attempt to modernise a stealth classic

Graham Smith

This preview was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 255 .

We won't be able to make everybody happy,” says Daniel Windfeld Schmidt. He's the lead level designer on Eidos Montreal's Thief relaunch, and he's right. I recently played the first-person stealth game, and some people aren't going to be happy.

This Thief game has third- person climbing sections. It makes minor use of quick time events. It has 'Focus mode', which gifts master thief Garrett with limited time-slowing combat abilities. It has context-sensitive controls that mean you can only jump when the game says you can jump.

Unhappy yet? I'm not. After playing the game for over an hour at this year's E3, and putting all my concerns about the above to Schmidt, I've settled on being cautiously optimistic. Thief has changed, but not in the ways that matter.

The mission I played begins in the gardens of a large manor house. The house is situated in The City, Garrett's hometown from the first three games. You've been away for a long time but not much has changed: it's still a gothic, plague-infested hellhole, ruled by the rich and suffered by the poor.

Eidos weren't showing anything of it, but did confirm that The City would act as an openly explorable hub, connecting Garrett's missions, offering side quests and allowing you to commit 'generic burglary' against its inhabitants.

When Garrett arrives at the manor the city outside is rioting, and the house's guards are on high alert. The political machinations of the city concern you only in as much as they provide a distraction during which you can sneak inside and steal a diamond, the Heart of the Lion.

The manor grounds are a mixture of high walls and shadowy grassy areas. I start by clambering on top of the walls – modern stealth games like Dishonored have taught me that the high road is always the safest. I take a few steps and then realise it's a dead end. These walls don't lead anywhere. I decide to try the direct approach instead. I confront the nearest guard, who immediately yells out to his friends. I smack him across the head with my club, and then I'm beaten to death by a crowd.

I try that again, and again, and I die every time. Eventually, I activate Garrett's new Focus ability – a limited supply of magic that highlights key areas in a level, which in combat lets you slow time and target specific body parts. I use it to bash a guard in the leg, knocking him to his knees, and complete the manoeuvre with a lethal finishing move. Then another guard who heard the ruckus kills me anyway.

“It's not a game about fighting,” says Schmidt. “Fighting is a fallback, but for us Thief is about stealing, it's about stealth.” If you want to kill someone, you need to isolate them from their companions and do it quietly and quickly. Chalk this up as one for the optimistic column: Thief is still Thief, and a decade of new stealth games haven't caused it to stray from its shadowy path.

I eventually slip past the guards unseen, and reach a small room underneath a garden fountain, with water flowing down from an upper level. I turn a valve and shut the fountain off. The upside is I can now avoid the path by climbing over ledges and towards the house. The downside is that the water was masking my footsteps.

“I think audio is a really big part for us, like the original. Surfaces have different properties: run on grass, you're not going to make a lot of sound, but if you run in water you're going to splash more,” says Daniel. When I play, I'm mostly conscious of whether I'm in shadow or not – an indicator in the bottom left of the UI lets you know if you're in light, partial light or complete shade. I push Daniel on how much sound really matters in the game.

“Any Thief fan with any self-respect will be aware of the surface type. But technically, if you just crouch most of the time, you won't have to.” Surface types are used to carve routes through the levels; one path might be grassy and in the light, while another has metallic flooring but is in the dark. “It's a level of mastery on top. If you're careful you can get through it, but you won't win speedruns without it.” That emphasis on mastery is great news for anyone who loved replaying the original Thief games, perfecting each mission.

Twenty minutes later I've passed through basement wine cellars, skipped by arrow traps and crouched on top of a bookcase in a library. Thief 's environments are obviously designed to be snuck through by players like me, but they still feel detailed and real – and even the decadence of this rich man's home is comparatively understated.

I look to a nearby edge, and a prompt appears telling me I can jump across. Jumping is now a context- sensitive action. “Jumping, bouncing up and down, kind of broke the immersion,” says Schmidt. “We didn't want you to be the master thief and you just tend to fall off stuff all the time.” That's fair, but the loss of granular control when you jump feels very un-PC in philosophy. I'll come back to that.

The loss of manoeuvrability is compensated for by the addition of a swoop move, which allows you to duck and dash silently over short distances in a single movement. It's new, but it feels like a fair addition to Garrett's arsenal of abilities. I leap off my bookcase on to the head of a passing guard, knocking him out. Then I grab his leg and drag him into the shadows.

Stolen blueprints suggest the diamond I'm here to steal is being stored inside a hidden room at the building's core. Getting inside the building was hard, but sneaking my way around the stone corridors is straightforward. I extinguish lights with my water arrows, toss bottles to send guards in the wrong direction and crouch-walk my way to an unusual painting. Pressing 'use' on it causes Garrett to lurch forward and press his hands on its surface. I can paw my way across its canvas, on to its frame, and then around until I find a magic switch that causes a secret door to open. The world is full of these touchable objects: traps that can be deactivated with a snipped string; chandeliers that can be dropped with the thunk of a fired arrow; and inside the vault, a puzzle involving spinning cylinders to open a chest.

Ten minutes later and I've rope- arrowed my way out of the house and, after a timeskip to remove a section the developers thought would spoil the story, I'm on a city bridge set on fire by rioters. This is where I end up clambering up a wall face in third- person, and firing a rope arrow in a quick time event to recover from a forced fall.

Daniel explains that the team wanted to “add some small events to break up the pacing and add variety”, but that “in the grand scope of the game they're a very small portion, so you don't have to be worried about it”. I'm not worried, exactly. The Tomb Raider-ish clambering fits with the fantasy of Garrett as a master thief but, much like the contextual jumping, it's philosophically opposed to what makes Thief compelling. Thief is about being alone, powerful, sneaky, and the first three games let you feel that by providing an environment, a set of tools, and allowing you to find your own way through the vast levels.

The mansion is large, with multiple methods to enter and paths through the building, and plenty of tools and freedom, but the moments where the pacing shifts aim to make you feel powerful by forcing you through a single viable path. It's the opposite of why I play PC games, and the antithesis of why I think Thief is such a defining game for us. However brief, the climbing section – and a similarly constrained escape from a series of burning buildings – were the low points of my playtime.

Things look up when I reach the end of the mission, and the game rates me on my performance. There's ratings for whether or not I ghosted the mission without being spotted (haha, no), and for whether I did it without killing anyone (nope, no way). The new additions are concessions to mass-market appeal, but they're separate enough that the core of Thief is untainted.

“There is a challenge with the diversity of the audience,” says Schmidt. “Ask someone today to play the original Thief games, and it's going to be a challenge to really get into its patterns before you start enjoying it. So the way that we address it is we make sure that you have options, and difficulty settings.”

Those options include an 'old school mode', which ups the difficulty, turns off the UI helpers and entirely removes Garrett's new Focus abilities. Daniel even makes it sound like this is the real experience they want to provide, calling it 'more immersive'. “We're not balancing the game with Focus in mind, we're balancing it without. I don't think that's something that people are aware of, but Focus is the player's fallback, not the level designers'.”

I'll be turning off that fallback when I play. I'd turn off the more linear parts of the game too if I could, but when it means that for 50 minutes of an hour I'm playing Thief again, these few concessions to the mass market are a victimless crime.

“We won't be able to make everybody happy,” says Daniel. “That's just reality. If we make this guy happy, then this guy is going to be pissed off, and vice versa. If all people have to complain about is details like that, then we're pretty happy, because that means that the core is not broken.”

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