Thief, once the only stealth game worth mentioning, is paying catch up. Assuming there are no further delays, Eidos Montreal’s reboot will sneak onto shelves almost ten years after Thief: Deadly Shadows slid a lock pick into the original Xbox. During that long period of absence, we’ve grappled Gargoyles as Batman, lounged on benches as Ezio Auditore and scuttled up walls in Mark of the Ninja. What can Thief offer that younger games can’t? And how can the latest incarnation of a genre that worships obscurity ever satisfy publisher Square Enix, a company so hungry for cash it considers four million sales of Tomb Raider a failure? The game doesn’t quite have the answers to these questions yet, which may be why returning lead Garret is in such a raging hurry. Instead of easing purses from belts, he all but punches them loose like someone hammering an unresponsive elevator button. Similarly, stray ornaments are swatted into his pocket as though to stop them from wandering off.
The urgency of the presentation is arresting but a little over-the-top. In the old games, mugging somebody meant aligning yourself carefully and treating the unlucky customer with a swift bump on the skull. In the new Thief, its all cutaway Kung Fu and slow motion joint abuse. Rather than inching about on tip toe, you can tap a face button and yank the stick to swoop silently and invisibly from one shadow to another- a guiltily nod to the blink spell in Arkane’s Dishonored, a game that stole Thief’s thunder back in 2012. A context sensitive cover system also allows Garret to flit around crates, barrels, and the like, sparing you the tedium of full manual control.
Evidently, the quiet thrill of plotting a route from the security of a dark corner is no longer enough for Eidos; nowadays, the most insignificant feat of larceny or guilt needs to as gut wrenching as emptying a shotgun in Battlefield. Even when your stationary Garret isn’t entirely at rest, his fingers twitch tentatively in the corner of the screen. It’s a shock to the system, but thankfully, the game is still fundamentally about observation and taking your time.
My experience of the game unfolds in Sonemarket, the city district that contains Garret’s base of operations–a clock tower where you will be able to store and view especially prized loot. Helmet-wearing police patrol the streets below, theoretically on the watch for doused torches and open doors (in practice in which they’re not always as suspicious as they could be). Locals sit on pallets outside the Crippled Burrick tavern, gossiping about plague and the rich in weary, soiled undertones. It’s worth lingering over the details. Inch up to a shutter and you may hear a conversation inside one of the buildings. Investigate an underpass and you may stumble on a tramps bolthole, hung with lines of laundry. Eidos Montreal has applied the same level of detail in Thief’s city it bestowed on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And while I was bothered by the lack of the old factories seen in the last game, it was a bewitching vision, nonetheless. The graphical treats are savoury indeed: crisp, mobile shadows, moist highlights on picture frames, the omnipresent swirl of mist.
My Dickensian contact, Basso, furnished me with a few “jobs” to cut my teeth on. One involves stealing a painting from a loft–child’s play for a practised rooftop ballerina like Garret, but there’s one small hurdle to overcome: the new Thief doesn’t have a JUMP button. As in Assassin’s Creed, you grip a shoulder button to enable a high profile mode, during which Garret will run up, jump over, or bounce over, anything he is aimed at. Not all of the objects in the world can be climbed or jumped, and I am hopeful the game will be tweaked to communicate the difference between them. I suffered a few deaths by banging into ostensible handholds whilst fleeing the law…
The overall game feels good to play and watch so far but Thief feels a little unsure of its own identity. The handling could be the deal breaker of this game by far. That aside, it’ll fall to the areas beneath the cities crust, the dungeons that are the franchises traditional forte, to persuade me that Garret’s greatest feats are yet to come.