Originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 252.
"I heard it's like stroking a turtle!” There are probably lots of reasons for not listing a crass line of NPC dialogue as your favourite part of any game, let alone the much-anticipated return of a classic. Still, this is my favourite thing about the new Thief . Partly because it sounds rude, which always goes over well, but also because it captures the spirit of the old games in a way that a thousand hissing water arrows never could – a snatch of conversation caught while cosily enveloped in shadow, the sense of a busy, oblivious world playing out in the light. It's about voyeurism and detail, power and character, and it's a big part of why Thief currently looks like an assured reinvention of a fiercely guarded series.
The studio behind this reinvention, Eidos Montreal, have previous experience with this kind of material. They were founded in 2007 for the specific task of bringing back Deus Ex and Thief, two games associated with an influential creative group that moved between the Looking Glass and Ion Storm studios at the turn of the last century, and are spoken about in the kind of hushed tones normally reserved for great artists or really old people. The games were bound by common ideals: first-person perspective, choice, immersion – and the first reinvention, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, succeeded because it made excellent choices about what to keep from the original and what to update and improve. Now the same process is being applied to Thief.
When the team talk about this process, a few things happen. As a group they're aware of the pressures of expectation, but still unusually relaxed and funny – producer Stephane Roy, for instance, opens his introduction by saying his job is “to convince you that I really loved Thief, I'm not just saying it”. The other thing that happens is that everyone says “pillars” a lot, referring to core elements of the first two Thief games in particular (the third game is a more distant creative relation). The arrows are a pillar. The shadow-based stealth is a pillar. Freedom in achieving objectives is a pillar, as is the unnamed city. But the strongest pillar, the one expected to bear the most weight, is the thief himself: Garrett.
Garrett announces himself with a line of monologue that is, under the circumstances, perfectly ambiguous and Garrett-like: “I've been away, but I couldn't tell you where.” The main points being that he's back, and he still talks to himself in the style of a cynical noir hero – handy, since he rarely talks to anyone else (he's the kind of guy who “doesn't have a Facebook page”, says one of the team). As far as Eidos Montreal are concerned, this is the same Garrett as before. “We had carte blanche,” says game director Nicolas Cantin. “We were able to do everything we wanted to do, but at some point we wanted to constrain ourselves within the Thief experience. Our goal was to bring back Garrett, the master thief.”
He looks broadly the same as we last saw in Thief: Deadly Shadows, only with nearly a decade's worth of visual embellishments and detailing. He's an odd shape for a hero: wiry, slightly hunched, bound in leather with piercing eyes staring out from a under his hood. There's an irony somewhere in the character who made not mass-murdering every polygon in sight a first-person possibility, also being the one you'd scream and run from on sight. The added visual sophistication heightens the effect – the scar across Garrett's right eye, for instance, the one that suggests a plot continuity with the very first Thief, looks raw and jagged rather than a leading man's cosmetic accessory. It looks like it really hurt.
The new visual fidelity was key in nudging the team towards Garrett's buckled leather. “With the new power of the platform today, we can really go deep with the shaders,” explains Cantin. “We can almost say 'what type of leather do we want?' and it will be exactly that.” If that gives anyone else flashbacks to mixing seven subtle varieties of brown while painting a Warhammer army, Cantin's team took meticulousness even further. “We made real costumes,” he says, “then lit them to see how [the leather] would react to the lighting.”
Similar steps were taken with Garrett's bow – another of the game's perceived pillars, although this time one open to some changes. Describing the original bow as “kind of weak”, Cantin explains how the specifics of the new game's setting have influenced the updated weapon. “We now have a more industrial setting, a clash of medieval and new industrial. Garrett uses the new gear and technology to build his new bow, which is more powerful than before.”
It's also a bit more self-consciously cool: not just a stick with a string on it, but a folding mechanism that snaps out into a deadly metal instrument. Like the leathers, the bow was physically constructed, this time by a traditional blacksmith in Montreal whose functional design work ended up changing the weapon's final in-game form. (I actually visit the workshop where, as the proud Quebecois artisan turns red hot iron with his bare, blackened hands and speaks earnestly about his mission to save the ancient knowledge of smithing, I decide never to introduce him to my wife.)
Changing the bow is inching into more sensitive territory. Not because the bare aesthetic will be missed, but because the arrows it fires have always been Garrett's principal way of interacting with his environment. Part of the original game's non-lethal sidestep was that arrows were in the main not for killing – they were for snuffing out torches with water, covering noisy floors in deadening moss, and making sounds to distract guards. And so it will be again, the only changes to this particular pillar being an idiomatic refresh of the arrow types (it's now dry ice, rather than water, that extinguishes torches) and, servicing one of the development team's wider concerns, stress-testing the ammo types for plausibility. “We worked really hard on the credibility of those things,” says Cantin, “especially that layer of magic and mysticism. We still have some of those [ammo types], like fire for example, but now balanced so we'll believe in it a little more.”
One of the most interesting elements of the new Thief is an expansion of this pronounced sense of the world's physical properties: the soft carpets, clopping flagstones, almost blanketlike darkness. Now on the borders of the first-person screen are Garrett's hands. They rest on surfaces and obstacles, brush against walls – not always visible, but creeping into view when Garrett presses up against objects, giving a sense of the fabric and flavour of what the studio are calling a “tactile world”.
In the demo Eidos Montreal have prepared, this tactile world looks like one you wouldn't necessarily want to touch. The introduction to The City, another core returning element, has a sense of BioShock-like parade. Garrett rides a bumpy wooden cart through a portcullis checkpoint, with piles of plague victims stacked nakedly on the filthy roadside, top hats and iron armour marking the clash of medieval and Victorian, bystanders and guards muttering and arguing as he passes by. There's a sense that The City is happening on cue – on the left, a thief protests as he's clapped into the stocks, on the right a noosed prisoner is kicked from a first-floor ledge and swings lifelessly into place alongside two or three others.
The City is the same place as before, with a different configuration. The Hammerite and Keeper ideologies that dominated the earlier trilogy are all but swept away (at least on the surface – the occasional Hammerite slogan might appear as a brickwork advertisement, and I did glimpse some Keeper glyphs in the demo).
Instead The City is divided between an autocratic Baron – whose guards Garrett will spend a lot of time piling unconsciously in dark corners – and a growing, seething population on the verge of revolution, with the feudal and industrial charging each other headon. “We skipped the Renaissance,” says Cantin. “We're not making a historical game, we don't have to stick to that period – we wanted to have two brutal periods that clashed.” This brings up an interesting point of philosophical distinction between Thief and Assassin's Creed, a series that many at Eidos Montreal have worked on: Assassin's Creed is rooted in the Renaissance as a defining moment of civilised man's evolution; Thief is about stealing things in the dark.
So it's interesting that the two now share some similarities – with The City bigger and more explorable than before, Thief now includes third-person climbing, scrambling and ledge-inching, with a claw grapple (not entirely unlike Assassin's Creed: Revelations' hook) to make the acrobatics smoother and faster.
Including third-person moments has clearly been a laboured decision (the team ask assembled journalists pointblank if the perspective shift breaks the immersion) but is apparently preferable to the first-person limitations on agility that came in, say, Dishonored.
In the demo, a burst of third-person clambering brings Garrett to the rooftops. It's an impressive view, a Hammer Horror matte painting of atmospheric light and shadow with his clocktower hideout (as The City's only landmark, it's also the worst hideout ever) visible in the distance. Cantin describes it as a “cold, blue, Jack the Ripper mood”, by which he means it's full of moonlight, cobbles and fog. The fog is particularly important, because if it were up to Cantin the game would actually be black – and he's not even joking. “Technically, we want to have a pitch dark game, and to see nothing on screen. The fog helps us to see things in a dark setting, a night setting. It's helping us to create gameplay as well as a visual mood.”
Thief is a game built of contrasts: most obviously between light and shadow, quiet and loud, medieval and Victorian, but also – it's clear once Garrett slips inside his target building in the demo – between frozen exterior blues and warm interior oranges.
Emphasising the 'layering' effect of The City – of the past existing underneath the present – The House of Blossom, an opium-cloud bordello run by the exotic and oddly deep-voiced Madame Xiaou Xiaou, is in fact the same building as the old Keeper Library. The books are gone, replaced with red drapes, rich brown furniture and glowing firelight.
The House of Blossom underlines the common ancestry between Thief and Dishonored – the extravagant masks, the decadent opulence, the busy rota of characterful NPCs. But it also underlines the key difference – that while Corvo was a man of magic, Garrett is still a creature of the dark. The shadows are everything, and while his world has been updated and made more credible, when Garrett stands in them he's completely invisible. He lurks, he distracts and he swipes, gradually exploring the location to build a picture of dangers and dark, safe areas. It's reassuringly familiar.
While inside Madame Xiaou Xiaou's office breaking into her strongbox, that too-deep voice warns that Garrett might be interrupted. This is a chance to show off perhaps the biggest addition to Thief: Focus. Focus is a temporary abilities boost that, for a few seconds, makes Garrett better at everything. He can see things others can't – switches for secret passages, chandeliers that might crush guards – take down several attackers in a few seconds, and swiftly snatch loot. Activating Focus drains a nonrecharging resource with the aim of limiting players to tactical, essential uses, but it's still a move away from the stern old formula of patience and perfection – a get-out-of-jail-for-a-chunk- of-this-blue-bar card.
Super purists may shudder at this. But they do a lot of shuddering. On balance, I've decided Focus is fine (actually, on balance I've decided it's a fine bit of balancing). Thief should be about freedom and choice – as well as bocking people with short, blunt instruments – and the kind of person who complains vigorously about Focus will also have already loaded their last saved game before they have to use it.
The most important objectives in Thief are those you set for yourself – dropping all the guards on a level down the same well, or disavowing stealth and stabbing everyone in the neck – and the most important thing Thief should provide is a world of tools, freedom and surprises. That's why, as the demo ends and Garrett heads for a violent exit, that overheard line becomes my favourite: “I heard it's like stroking a turtle!” Because it's a surprise, and suggests a world of further surprises.