Moreso than perhaps any other game series, I want a new Thief to be flawless. I’m the sort of irritating Thief nerd who knows how to find all the hidden rooms in Constantine’s Mansion in Thief Gold and the name of the City Watch officer who helps you out in Thief II (it’s Mosely.) A little sad, I know, but there it is.
The first two Thief titles are a rare example of innovative mechanics and exceptional level design working in harmony with a well-told story and iconic protagonist. It’s a huge act to follow, but early word that Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) would be doing the fourth entry in the series was somewhat reassuring.
But of late, unconfirmed rumours about development problems at Eidos Montreal and rapid staff turnover on Thief (it’s the fourth one, but it’s also a series ‘reboot’) have given me the fear. The decision to pass on voice actor Stephen Russell concerned me even more. And the latest CG trailer, shot like a perfume commercial and depicting new-Garrett as someone who steals as part of a hipster lifestyle, had me knocking back buckets of anti-anxiety meds.
It could still end up as a half-decent game. Perhaps even a good one. Though on the evidence of gameplay demos shown at E3 this week, it doesn’t look like a project for long-term fans like myself. I’d hoped that actual gameplay footage would allay some of my worries, but that has turned out not to be the case.
The mission being demonstrated at E3 is part of (what appears to be) a simple break-and-enter-and-leave-again job. For reasons unknown (though probably just because it’s expensive,) Garrett wants to steal a precious heirloom from the autocratic ruler of the city known as The Baron. It has echoes of the very first mission in Thief: The Dark Project, in which Garrett nabs a jewelled scepter from an aristocrat called Lord Bafford.
In that respect, the basics seem to be in place. Although the gameplay demo always ended at the point where Garrett had gained entry to the mansion, there were at least two ways in: the attic, and basement. So while the interior of the building itself is a mystery, we know the grounds surrounding it are open enough to offer at least a pair of paths inside. So far, so good.
The light gem is back too, after a fashion. In the previous games, it changed hue according to how visible Garrett was to guards and his surrounding area. Now, it still shows whether you’re in shadow or visible, but in conjunction with a sort of encroaching cloud of shadowy fog around the corners of the screen. The more fog, the more hidden Garrett is. That does give a clear visual indication of your visibility, but it also takes up a fair amount of on-screen space and gives the impression that Garrett hides best when there are groups of people smoking big, dirty pipes just outside his peripheral vision.
Rope arrows make their return too. Although it now appears that they can only attach at certain designated points in the architecture, rather than ‘any wooden surface’ as before. How do you know what these points are? By employing Garrett’s mechanical eye to pick out points of interest in a style akin to Batman: Arkham Something’s detective vision, Hitman: Absolution’s ‘instinct’ or Dishonored’s dark vision.
That’s indicative of Thief’s apparent devotion to pretty much every single one of gaming’s recent trends. Experience points; third-person, single button ‘takedowns’; and slo-mo aiming functions akin to Max Payne, or Red Dead Redemption or any of the other countless games that did this. Though no quicktime events, mercifully.
Eidos Montreal are at pains to explain that many of these things can be switched off, the UI can be tweaked to suit the player and that, if necessary, levels can be ‘ghosted’ through (an unseen run where Garrett kills no-one.) But here’s the problem with that, and it’s a problem that affects pretty much every modern attempt to reboot an older game with a devoted fanbase: the focus is always on “oh, and you can turn this off if you want.”
Think about that. The approach is never, “well, if you find the game a bit hard you can turn on all of these assistance features.” Instead, the tacit implication is that all the extraneous stuff (which the developer knows will infuriate the portion of the audience who actually has any connection to the name Thief, hence the damage control) is now the intended method of play.
Look, there’s really no way to continue this preview without sounding like an embittered old Thief fan, so I’m just going to embrace that.
Experience points can quite frankly bugger right off out of a Thief game. When I saw Garrett murder an unfortunate guard with an arrow to the head and ‘40xp!’ popped up, I think I died a little inside. When I told fellow IncGamers writer Tim McDonald what I’d just seen, his response was “oh christ.” Maybe you can toggle the UI to hide that. Perhaps you can justify it by saying that Garrett sometimes killed guards in the original games (it’s true, he did.) But it was never encouraged, or rewarded. Higher difficulty levels prevented any kills whatsoever.
The series already had a perfect system of “levelling up”; one which matched both Thief’s tone and theme. If you stole a lot of gold on any given level, you then had more to spend in the pre-mission shop for the next one. Your reward for being a talented thief was the option of more tools (and an easier ride) for the upcoming mission. Gold pieces were your experience points. It was a system that was simple and elegant.
During one of the E3 playthroughs, Garrett was spotted by a group of three guards. This was a cue to show off the slo-mo ‘Focus’ ability that our protagonist now possesses. It is, of course, an optional ability; but given the amount of work that has clearly gone into it, you can almost guarantee that there will be points in the game where you’re heavily encouraged to use it. Aided by Focus, Garrett is able to mow down his pursuers in a hail of arrows and get away.
Now, with the best will in the world, no level designer is going to be able to create a mission that fully caters to Focus-happy folks and those who want to ghost-stealth their way through everything. That remit goes way beyond offering a helping hand to those who want a less demanding ride (nothing wrong with that,) and fundamentally changes how Thief operates as a series. In the originals, discovery meant flight or death. Harder difficulty didn’t mean switching off bits of the UI, it meant additional quest objectives that encouraged wider exploration and no killing.
There are a couple of positive notes, at least. Eidos has added a neat little ‘swoop dash’ to Garrett’s list of abilities, meaning he can dart quickly in a given direction to get himself into cover. That makes sense, and looks like it works rather well.
In addition, neither health nor ‘Focus’ can regenerate. They have to be replenished by munching on poppies (Garrett has a bit of a heroin problem now, it seems.)
I get it. When you’re bringing back a series after such a long time in the wilderness, certain changes have to be made. Doing a straight remake of Thief: The Dark Project with nothing altered except the graphics would leave people with a pretty clunky user interface (separate keys for equipment in left or right pockets, yikes) and some weak swordplay.
But those changes have to be smart. They have to update and improve on what the older titles did in a meaningful way, without just falling back on contemporary gimmicks.
From what Thief has offered up at E3, it looks like a game too much in thrall to passing gaming trends. In relying heavily on mechanics and features from games that (in some cases) were themselves inspired by the Thief series, this title is left looking derivative and estranged from its source material. I dearly hope that changes, because no amount of platitudes about retaining ‘core elements’ of the original games will be able to cover it up.
Thief is coming in 2014 for “high end” PCs.