Thief: Hands-on with First Three Hours

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It’s been a decade since we last delved into the thieving world of Garrett, Master Thief. After successfully revitalising the Deus Ex franchise, Eidos Montreal hopes to do the same with Thief. With time comes change, and with change comes trepidation and fear. So we were beyond interested in getting our hands on the game and experiencing the developers’ vision for ourselves, which we did… three hours worth of the PlayStation 4 version, in fact. We also received the opportunity to interview the game director, Nicolas Cantin, all as part of a recent Square Enix Showcase.

Right off the bat, I was introduced to a feature that you may or may not have heard about, and that is the “Custom” difficulty setting. Remember those fears you had that this wouldn’t be anything like the Thief you knew and loved? Let’s quell those this instant. Eidos Montreal have gone to every length imaginable to appropriately update this IP, whilst allowing the gamer to play how they please, with whichever conditions they desire – including a set of “Classic Thief” mods. Here you’ll find the options to toggle on or off ‘Chapter Saves Only’, ‘No Focus’, ‘Stealth Takedowns Only’ and ‘No Reticle’, essentially transforming the rule-set of this modern Thief entry into that of the 1998 original. A second set under “Legendary Thief Mods” allows the choice of having on ‘Specialty Arrows Only’, ‘No Resources’, ‘It Hurts Not’ (take damage and mission is failed), ‘Expensive Tools’ and ‘Slowed Movement’. And finally, the third and most extreme “Ultimate Thief Mods”. These are for the hardest of hardcore, and include ‘Iron Man’ (permadeath), ‘No Upgrades’, ‘No Kills or Knockouts’ and ‘No Alerts’. They are mostly self-explanatory, but if anybody requires some clarification, don’t be afraid to ask in the comments section.

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Tying into the aforementioned conditions is a multiplier, as Eidos Montreal are integrating a competitive leaderboard into the title (a possible retooling of the scrapped XP system). So, depending on what you’ve got toggled on or off, your multiplier will raise or lower accordingly. The best comparison is to that found in Forza Motorsport – turn off driving assists and your multiplier increases to reflect the additional challenge. To settle any potential ties, the player who finishes the game first will attain top position. Keep in mind, with all of that said, you’ve still got your usual Easy, Medium and Hard difficulty settings. You’re also able to switch off visual cues and user interface elements, ranging from ‘navigation prompts’ to ‘object highlights’ and everything in between, regardless of what difficulty setting you decide on. Before moving onto the campaign, there is another mode that wasn’t playable, but is definitely worth mentioning – “Challenge Mode”. From what we gather, there will be three types of challenge sets to tackle across different maps. Think of it as something similar to the “Challenge Maps” implemented in the Batman: Arkham series or Hitman: Absolution‘s “Contracts” mode. As you can tell, although this is a story-centric game, there is much to entice those with a decidedly competitive nature.

Thrust into the campaign, the ‘Prologue’ begins with Garrett embarking on his latest thievery mission, as assigned by a familiar personality – Basso the Boxman, the arsonist Garrett saves from prison in The Dark Project (with ulterior motives, nonetheless). As he makes his way towards the objective, Garrett runs into another “child of the streets”, and former protégé, Erin. The two had gone their separate paths after Garrett grew tired of her methodology. He tried to instil in her a code – never initiate open conflict, no unnecessary killing and only steal from the undeservedly rich. She broke that code. Realising Basso’s plan all along was to trick the duo into reuniting, Garrett hesitantly races Erin across the rooftops to the marked location. It’s here that the player learns the basics of traversal and light vs dark. Erin unveils her creation – ‘the claw’. It allows her to attach to grates and climb walls, but unfortunately, Erin is too quick to use the tool as a weapon, killing a young guard who posed no immediate threat. As they near their destination, the player must steal the claw from her belt, which proves as easy as walking behind her and simply grabbing it. She has truly lost her natural instincts, now resembling an assassin more than anything else.

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Eventually, the player encounters the Keystone ritual highlighted in the previously released ‘story trailer‘. Atop the glass dome, Garrett expresses his frustrations. Following a brief struggle for possession of ‘the claw’, the glass cracks and shatters as Erin was reaching for her invention. Garrett fails in his attempt to save her, witnessing her fall into the conjured pool of primal energy. He too follows suite, knocked unconscious by the crumbling building. The next time we embody Garrett, he is hidden inside a cart, being pulled through checkpoints in ‘the City’, which is now on lockdown. His unnamed accomplices panic when members of ‘the Watch’ threaten inspection and bolt. A chase ensues, and amidst the commotion Garrett hops out, slinking into the shadows towards the Clocktower – his hideout and central hub of the Stonemarket district. His road back, however, is not without obstacles. As mentioned (and reflected in the Chapter 1 title – Lockdown) Watchmen are patrolling the streets, all but enforcing a city-wide curfew. Why? Because of a plague so depressingly known as ‘the Gloom’. The city is literally sick, and no one knows why. Civilians are blindly placing blame on the Baron, creating a widespread backlash against the mayor-like figure.

Garrett has no memory of recent events leading up to this point… everything beyond the ritual is foggy. He just recognises the need to retreat to home-base and clear his mind. This section takes the opportunity to acquaint the player with the more intermediate sneaking skills. The fundamentals of breaking eye-lines, staying quiet, and taking out light sources is explored. ‘The Swoop’ ability enables Garrett to quickly dash in any direction, rarely drawing the attention of nearby enemies. It may sound like an invulnerable, over-powered manoeuvre, but the player must be wary of his surroundings, as swooping over water or any other loud surface will still alert those in the vicinity. I learnt that the hard way. As a matter of fact, you must watch your step constantly – broken glass litters the alleyways. Even stepping on wood palettes or ropes, and knocking objects with your shin can invite peering eyes. If you’ve caught the ire of a singular enemy, standing and fighting may suffice, but with multiple enemies, your best bet is to run, escape their vision and hide. Later in the game, when you accrue enough gold from stealing everyday items from drawers, tabletops, chests or wherever else people lazily store their valuables, you can purchase flash bombs to get you out of sticky situations.

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Another thing I learnt the hard way (and by not taking the time to read its description) is that choke arrows supposedly only put animals to sleep. The gas emitted upon impact will send any pesky, persistent, vociferous dog or bird to la-la land. This would have come in handy during the opening sequence, where the player is tasked with carefully navigating a room full of bird cages in order to reach a wall safe. For humans, not so much… and you don’t want to waste your ammunition in Thief, as the more unique items can cost a pretty penny to restock. Merchants also carry tools or charms that are significantly more expensive. They serve many purposes; for example, the basic wrench will allow you to unscrew collectible plaques around the city and access vents for shortcuts, while some charms will extend your maximum health or focus bar. Thankfully, a merchant can be found not so far away from the Clocktower, which you will be transported to after each successful mission. It’s therefore easy to re-arm yourself before undertaking another. But before embarking on another dangerous quest, take the time to admire your takings at the hideout. Garrett collects the most unique of collectibles – of which there are 81 in total – in displays. There is also a ‘stash supply’ at the safe house, so aforementioned trips to the merchant may not even be necessary.

The City is an open world, and Garrett can take side jobs to make more money; in the earliest case, the player is asked to meet Basso at his pub, the Crippled Burrick. Garrett’s amoral friend proceeds to reveal the amount of time he’s been gone. It’s been a whole year since the ritualistic event that took Erin’s life, put him out of commission and seemingly infused him with potent powers of above-normal concentration and ‘focus’. Garrett wants to understand what exactly is going on, but accepts the mission at hand. Bringing up the mini-map by pressing down on the D-Pad, we head off in the direction of the objective. Entering a new area means sitting through a loading screen, which is more frequent than you’d like, especially on a next-gen title. Chapters are also initiated by doing so. So once you’ve completed the included mission, you can trek back to that gate and enter the zone, triggering a replay of that chapter. In that respect, the world is actually semi-open, as you can not practically traverse portions of the map freely with intentions other than. Chapters can also be replayed following completion via a summary screen, which also displays your successes and failures in finding all possible loot, and achieving certain criteria to earn either a ‘Ghost’, ‘Opportunist’ or ‘Predator’ designation.

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Points of entry are many for the dwelling that is housing the piece of jewellery Basso is after. This variety in approach encourages experimentation with the verticality of the level design. Rope arrows can be shot at wooden posts wrapped, itself, in rope (the signifier) to improvise a method of fast vertical movement. Windows are a common avenue of infiltration, and are usually the proverbial gateway to a remarkable number of missions. In this particular instance, we come in through what appears to be the basement after lock-picking the door. And just our luck, as the prize is right there on the table, but a man is standing in our way. In Thief, you are never forced to kill or even incapacitate, but we didn’t have the comfort of taking our sweet time with every single thing in the game, so sorry bud… you’re going night-night. We were surprised that bodies could not be hidden in these cabinets that Garrett himself can hide within (à la Siren: Blood Curse), although they can be thrown or dropped in the shadows. We then snatched the jewel before attempting an exit through the open window on the top floor (why not go back out through the basement door?).

Of course, there are guards roaming upstairs… and sleeping too. We had to take that opportunity to sneak past him and steal some more belongings, just to rub it in. Imagine when he wakes up and realises! Oh, the quiet satisfaction. Although the A.I. is quite intelligent, and will notice drawers and the like that are left open, they do all have fixed patrol routes. So no matter the mischief you partake in, you need not worry that a guard from another room will deviate from his stomping grounds to investigate, unless you make a loud enough racket. Alerted guards will attract their buddies though, as will snitches on the streets. Once we vanish, it’s time for a visit to the Queen of Beggars. Taking refuge in a dilapidated chapel, the elderly mystic explains that it was her people who found Garrett amongst the rubble and brought him back to health. The Queen does more than shed light on your current situation, as she also provides you with the chance donate your hard-stolen cash in return for ‘focus point’, which can then be spent on upgrading numerous ‘focus abilities’. Each has two stages of upgrades and will run you 150G. One specific enhancement grants you the capability to lift more than a lone item from an oblivious target.

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Throughout your adventure, jewellery won’t be all you steal. Food items and Poppies are also extremely valuable, with the former rejuvenating a portion of your health, and the latter regenerating part of your ‘focus’. They don’t automatically take effect upon pickup, instead going into your inventory for use at your convenience. The PlayStation 4 version of Thief utilises the touchpad for inventory access, whereas all others feature a recognisable radial wheel. The tactile nature of the touchpad means that you can not only touch and drag to highlight the wanted arrow type/restorative item, but you can develop a muscle memory for their individual locations, soon enough being able to intuitively click in on their corresponding spot without searching first. Speaking of platform exclusive capabilities, the light bar on the Dualshock 4 reflects the ‘light gem’ indicator on-screen. So, when the ‘light gem’ is glowing white, indicating that you are visible, the light bar will also glow bright white. When you are safely in the shadows, the light bar will stay the default blue, with the ‘light gem’ devoid of colour.

Chapter 2 – Dust to Dust begins with Basso requiring the retrieval of a precious ring. However, the man who was last in possession of it is deceased. His corpse has been taken to the Old Vale Street Ironworks, with the Foundry within crawling with the Baron’s men, as well as the imposing Thief-Taker General. This is a very tense slice of the game, with the high number of adversaries proving an intimidating challenge. The blunt arrow is especially effective here as a distractionary device; hitting light and machinery switches, or just striking a plain surface is almost crucial. The Thief-Taker General has taken a liking to the ring in question and, to make matters harder, has locked it inside a newfangled lockbox inside his office. To even reach it, you need to take a ride on the empty hooks that transport the dead bodies, deftly pinch the key from the man’s own belt, and then complete a puzzle on the face of the lockbox that entails rotating pieces to form a fully realised image. Then is the escape, naturally. After a confrontation, Garrett locks the Thief-Taker General out and then takes off into the night. It should be noted how fluid the running is in Thief, as all forward motion is carried out by holding ‘L2’, even climbing.

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“5 Days Later…”, back within the secure walls of the Clocktower, Garrett gets a message via carrier crow to meet Basso at a disclosed location. I did a little exploring on my way there and met a man named Ector, who owned a store. Turns out he had a secondary quest for me to retrieve something from Alfonso’s Attire. I accepted, but couldn’t find a way into the shop (could see it on the map, but was unsuccessful in discovering any paths to), so I continued to rendezvous with Basso. This time, he tasks me with acquiring a special book that may be tied to the cultists responsible for tapping into the primal energy. It is located at a whorehouse called ‘House of Blossoms”, and needless to say, this part of the game gets raunchy… nudity and simulated sex acts abound. Antecedently, Garrett needs to learn how to gain admittance, and the only person amongst his peers who had any personal knowledge of the establishment was Erin. Her Mill hideout lies in the South District, with a hidden switch opening a camouflaged entrance. Booby-traps of pressure-sensitive floor-tiles ward off intruders, but we press on, nimble as a cat. Getting what we wanted, we progress towards the brothel.

Here is where we ended our playthrough, but during loading screens (don’t worry, they aren’t that long) we occasionally peeked at the gamer on the station next to us, who was further along. House of Blossoms is a tough zone to stay unseen, with little verticality, cramped, open spaces and a substantial number of witnesses. Succeeding it is the official start of Chapter 3 – Dirty Secrets, which appears to examine the ritualistic/supernatural elements of the story, as Garrett matches ruins on a stone tablet with rotating rings and engages some suspicious, robed men. All in all, I have got to say that Thief impressed me and I actually came away wanting to play more. The tone, the world, and the polished mechanics really appealed to me and conveyed a grand sense of self and place. You are the Master Thief. Eidos Montreal may have just reinvigorated another fan-favourite franchise. Keep a look out for our full review closer to its release date of February 27. And again, if you have any inquiries, ask away in the comments section below.

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I am a graduate of the Bachelor of Interactive Entertainment (w/ major in Games Design) course at Qantm College, Sydney.
  • Shane Mullan

    Hi Zac really enjoyed that review the best i,ve read so far on the net. just a audio question do you know if thief will support a EAX sound card and 5.1 , 7.1 surround sound. Been a big fan of thief since playing the first thief demo back in 1998. Looking forward to the game and your full review when it’s released. Cheers shane

    • Zac Elawar

      Hey Shane, I really appreciate that. I wish I had an official answer for you (I also realise I tend to neglect the audio side when I attend previews and leave it for the review). I would assume that it should be fine, although I can’t confirm. Sorry!

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