FEATURE: One Last Pre-Release Look at "Thief"

Hands-on gameplay impressions from the first few hours of the game

Eidos Montreal's revival of first-person looter Thief is right around the corner, and last week I was fortunate enough to get hands-on time with what's more or less the final retail build of the game. Late last year, I was not only able to play an early build of the game, but have a chat with Thief's senior producer and narrative director to get into the mindset of this reboot of the classic PC stealth series. Now knowing what to expect, I dragged along Peter from the newsletter team and got back to thieving!


Thief starts with a brief, thankfully unintrusive tutorial, putting you through the paces of master larcener Garrett's repertoire of moves. The controls have been tightened up some, and the PS4's actual triggers helped make for smooth parkour and accurate shooting. One of the cooler next-gen features uses the PS4's controller touchpad for your inventory instead of a radial menu--it takes a little getting-used-to at first, but it quickly becomes second nature. Items are laid out in a rectangular grid, and pressing the touchpad brings up the items menu. Slide your finger across it and release to select items, or simply press the area of the touchpad to automatically select a specific item.




Last time, narrative director Steven Gallagher turned the lights down low and told us the tale of Garrett and his young, headstrong apprentice Erin, but in this 4-5 hour segment, we got a first-hand look at what poor Garrett has to deal with. Erin--totally okay with killing people if they get in her way, contrary to Garrett's teachings--has split from her master, and is taking jobs on her own. Some time later, Garrett's fence Basso sets up a job to steal an exceptionally valuable stone from the mansion of Lord Northcrest, Baron of the City, but there's a catch--Garrett and Erin must work together.




Sneaking into the mansion isn't particularly easy, as there are guards everywhere, and you're introduced to a world where any sound above a whisper catches their attention. In her time away from Garrett, Erin has picked up a handy new tool: a claw that lets her climb to previously inaccessible places, leaving Garrett on the ground to slip past guards the old-fashioned way. The game does a really good job of providing distractions: sure, you're supposed to go catch up with Erin and meet her on the rooftop, but that guard over there has a fat purse that's jingling with coin, and he's standing next to a treasure chest--who would pass up such an opportunity?




Of course, things are going far too smoothly for Erin, so she needlessly kills a young guard she could have easily just knocked out. Garrett and Erin have a tense exchange: "At least he won't be waking up and sounding the alarm," Erin says to justify her actions. "By the time the guards wake up, I'm long gone," Garrett bitterly replies. Garrett's had enough, so now you have to pickpocket Erin and steal her claw from her. Things just go farther south from there, and Erin doesn't have her claw when she needs it most--she plunges to her death, and Garrett can't save her. As Garrett tumbles down after her, the world fades to black.




After the credits, Garrett is woken by the creaking of a cart and complaints of townspeople--bad things have happened, the city is gripped by a mysterious plague known as the Gloom, and Northcrest's guards are ruthlessly killing protesters in the streets. Garrett has to make his way back to his clock tower hideout, but being the hilariously ADD-stricken pilferer that he is, of course he has to make a stop at the jeweler's store along the way, because who cares about a plague or stormtroopers when there's a gorgeous jeweled mask in the window?



Whoever took this screenshot was a lot meaner than me--there's the poor jeweler in the corner


Breaking into the jeweler's through the basement, I come upon the jeweler himself writing a blackmail letter. After stealing a copy of the letter (and the piece he's working on... and his pen... and his cup), I make my way upstairs, where there are a few guards patrolling the closed store. Only one is awake, and the rest are sleeping on the job. You'll have to be careful while thieving--while the absent-minded jeweler waved off stuff vanishing whenever he turned around, this guard noticed when I left drawers open or lights off. I quietly knocked him out, picked the store clean, and then decided to clear out the jeweler's safe. Picking locks is a lot more exacting now than it was in the early build--miss adjusting a tumbler and a click that seems as loud as gunshot will wake up nearby sleeping guards.




After robbing the jewelry store blind, Garrett finally returns home, seeing his clock tower hideout in disrepair and covered in dust. After getting in touch with Basso (and playing through the section of Stonemarket I went through last time), we find that a whole year has passed since the incident at the Baron's mansion. Before Garrett gets to work, he has to make a stop before the blind (yet somehow all-seeing) Queen of Beggars. "There are worse things in the shadows than you," she warns Garrett.




Our final stop for the day takes us to a factory run by Northcrest's men that's processing the corpses of plague victims. We find that the bodies aren't being burned--they're being replaced with mannequins, but why? There's a guard who's using the corpses as target practice--Peter knocked him out and threw him over a bannister, then threw his body on broken glass and danced on him. It's a pretty hefty price to pay for just being bored and a jerk, but them's the breaks in the City. (We're not going to talk about how I smashed a wine bottle against the jeweler's wife's head while she was knitting, because I'm writing this preview. The Square Enix rep commented on how much we were giggling while playing this game, because it's just that fun to dick around in.)




The factory itself is pretty terrifying, forcing us to take a ride on a meat hook and steal some vital information (and a very valuable ring) from a general who happens to wear a crossbow on his arm. Something (specifically how Garrett doesn't kill him in a quick cutscene) tells me this guy is going to be a problem in the future, now that he knows someone is actively opposing the Baron's plans. But Garrett isn't working for the growing resistance against Northcrest, so what does this mean for the City?




Gameplay-wise, everything's been tightened up since I last had my hands on Thief. Instead of the somewhat-buggy, grey and dreary ghost town of the early build, the City is filled with people milling about, even in the dead of night. Some will freak out at seeing you, while others won't bat an eyelash--there's enough going on in their day-to-day lives that a suspicious man in black doesn't really faze them. All the collision problems I came across had been ironed out, and with a few more appropriately-placed torches and streetlights, the City feels a lot more alive.




A lot of people have been mentioning Dishonored, and while there are similarities (emphasis on stealth, a plague, corrupt guards, a powerful lord, and a crazy old lady living in the slums), I've gotta say that actually playing the game feels different. In Dishonored, I felt pretty empowered, like I could take control of any situation whether by simply vanishing from view or overwhelming enemies with force. In Thief, my options are pretty limited, at least at first--while you're able to level up your abilities (you earn Focus Points for meeting objectives that you can spend on upgrades, like making your steps quieter, targeting individual enemy weak spots like a bad leg, or finding handprints that point to rarer treasure, Garrett is very much still a normal human, even with a few slightly-supernatural-seeming improvements. Get in an unexpected fight with a group of guards, and they'll very likely stab you full of holes.




Thief comes out on February 25 for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. Stealth has never been my strong suit, but after all the time I've spent skulking around in Dishonored and Far Cry 3 (and some especially intense stealth segments in Tomb Raider and The Last of Us), it's nice coming back to one of the first stealth games I ever really got into. Are you ready for Thief? What are you looking forward to in the game, and what questions or concerns does it raise for you? Sound off in the comments!

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