Thief hands-on: meeting Erin, Garrett's troublesome shadow

Omri Petitte

Garrett doesn't need a sneaking sidekick. I don't need a sneaking sidekick. Stealth is a solitary adventure. Characters come and go for the sake of narrative and theater, but when it's time to get down to the dance of detection, they're left behind. For good reason: nothing gets me to hit “Quit” faster than a wayward ally barging into a carefully planned route, or blowing my position with the umpteenth complaint of “C'mon, we gotta move!

And so, when I was given the opportunity to experience the introductory sequences of Thief and meet Garrett's protégé Erin for the first time, I could already feel a sneer forming. I had doubts—Garrett had broken his professional partnership with her for Mysterious Reasons. In my mind, she was already a nuisance. When I heard the first few tense exchanges between her and Garrett, however, I realized her qualities symbolized an important facet of the stealth genre—her aggressive, confrontational style shows just how varied approaches to stealth can be.

Starting a new game handed me an easy grab-and-bag as part of a linear tutorial on basic thievery. I found myself in a quiet wooden attic. Dust motes filtered through the soft glow of an evening sun peeking through board slats and narrow windows. Birdcages hung haphazardly from the ceiling in dark chains, their feathery occupants eyeing me with beady looks. The whole thing looked like a crude obstacle course, which it definitely was, but I suppose slamming a “Don't Make Noise” sign in my face wouldn't be as subtle.

PC Thief-ery

Having snuck around the explorable market district in an earlier version of Thief , I was surprised that Eidos chose a narrowly structured introductory sequence for starting a new game. This improved build (using code submitted for gold approval, I was told) certainly touted visual improvements and a much smoother-looking menu system, but a linear introduction doesn't make the best first impression for a stealth game promising generous portions of explorable content.

Guard behavior was also still a lingering issue. Detection would send nearby enemies into that annoying state of hyper-awareness and x-ray vision, and I had to endure a couple frustrating deaths as guards beelined straight for me regardless of how hidden I was. Vantage points and line-of-sight trickery seemed the only recurring methods of avoiding being spotted; beyond Garrett's short “swoop” move—an unabashed response to Dishonored's teleport ability—it would've been nice to see a return of some of the master thief's classic moves, like flattening against walls in Deadly Shadows.

I also ran into a snag with the PC controls during a particular mission set in a crumbling refinery. I had crawled through a rusty ventilation duct that ended in a drop to a stair landing. A torch-bearing guard stood directly below, but I ignored the large prompt on the screen that urged me to use Garrett's takedown move. The guard moved away, and I moved forward to exit the vent—except I couldn't. Having missed my window for landing on the guard's head, I apparently was blocked from progressing forward, since I actually couldn't manually jump down no matter how many different key combinations I hit. I brought up my predicament to the developers on hand at the event, and I was told that Nixxes, the company responsible for porting Thief to the PC (and the same company that ported Deus Ex: Human Revolution) was still in the final stages of touching up actions on the keyboard and mouse.

Still, Thief gets a lot of things spot on. Garrett's cynical monologues provide wonderful immersion. The rain-drenched City is suitably claustrophobic and warren-like with its twisting alleyways and man-made jungles of tiled rooftops and chimney stacks. The way Garrett's hands clench in anxiety while sneaking or gently return a safe door to its original position with surgical precision are great touches to watch.

Garrett mostly feels like the Garrett of old. But Erin is something new—the aggressive mirror image of Garrett's practiced calm. Erin wasn't an addition of unimportance, either. She was there nearly every step of the way during my playtime, and a few interesting moments stood out from the rest.

Sneaking and squabbling

Back in the attic, I tiptoed across to a painting set on the far wall and soon had Garrett's spindly fingers searching for the hidden switch City dwellers seemed so fond of placing behind pieces of art. The game's first collectible, a necklace studded with red rubies, sat in the safe behind it.

After I snatched my prize, Erin made herself known. Loud footsteps thundered across the rooftop, sending the birds squawking and a cage tumbling to the floor with a loud crash. “I have a feeling I know who that could be,” Garrett mumbled with a hint of exasperation. A nearby window offered both a way out and a spectacular view of the burbling river spanning the City's central and western districts.

I clambered onto the roof and finally met my noisy interloper. Erin greeted me with a cocksure smirk and a few boastful words before beckoning and bounding away, jumping and sliding across rooftops like some sort of leather-clad rabbit. It's a short sequence on learning the free-run and jumping controls, a key combo of Shift and Space intuitive enough for most PC gamers but not as elegant as the one-button run/jump setup on a console controller.

From a narrative perspective, the scene is a blunt reinforcement of Erin's divergent attitude on stealing valuables for a living. I ended the chase with a dramatic slide down a sloping roof—an exciting moment of badassery—and tumbled to a halt on the ground next to Erin and her still-smirking expression. “Did you pick that route because it was fast, or that you thought it would be fun?” Garrett questioned.

Garrett touched upon something interesting with that remark. He's a veteran. Old school. The path of least resistance is his forte, and he somehow hooked up with the one person in the City who considers the art of stealth as competitive muscle flexing. Erin turned to Garrett and showed off a tool of her invention with childlike joy: a cudgel-like grappling hook, its top ringed with wickedly sharp metal spikes. The gleam in Erin's eye suggests a more sinister purpose for her creation beyond climbing assistance, and Garrett's been around the shadowy block enough times to catch on. “Nice,” he mused. “That's sure to get the Watch running over whenever you use it.”

Sure enough, Garrett's concern quickly turned to alarm as Erin ended a Watchman's life with blunt force trauma further into the mission. The ensuing confrontation is quite the clash. “Why'd you kill him? He was barely older than you!” Garrett hissed. “He was in the way,” Erin responded curtly. Garret's in full scold mode now: “I don't kill without thought or good reason, and I don't get paid for it!”

I'm not yet sure if I agree with Garrett's scorn for Erin. She's brash, but to me, she embodies the aggressive form of a stealth player. Like someone who doesn't mind a little wetwork in exchange for some breathing room, or someone who constantly holds down the run key that would make a speedrunner grin.

But she also accomplished something pretty important: she stayed out of my way. It's evident Eidos Montreal kept the franchise faithful in mind as they made the radical addition of a new character. Of course, it still felt weird and uncomfortable having someone else along in a full-blown Thief mission. It was hard not to feel a little miffed—who does Erin think she is to stand up to Garrett's legacy as a solo stealthmaster?

But I'm exactly the kind of player Eidos wants to assuage. If I climbed onto a rooftop, Erin would climb onto the one beside it. If I was supposed to maneuver past guards or avoid light sources, she'd tuck herself into a corner and keep her mouth shut. When the game thankfully steered away from the linear tutorial mission and opened into it explorable market hub, I was alone again, almost as a reminder of how Garrett traditionally operates. I was being sent the message that this is Thief at its core, but the new things Eidos is bringing won't transform the game into something wholly different from the groundbreaking series it's following. The studio's recent removal of QTEs and overhaul of the XP system is a testament of this attitude.

Erin's not just a thief. She's a ninja. She's Corvo on the warpath, a reckless Sam Fisher. Her relationship with Garrett represents the duality of stealth gaming playstyles, and I'm looking forward to getting a better sense of how that duality expresses itself when I get deeper in the world of Thief.

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