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Thief preview: out of the shadows

by John Keefer, shacknews.com, Apr 4, 2013 6:00AM PDT

The team at Eidos Montreal has a tough road ahead with its reboot of Thief. On the one hand, it must face the expectations of old-school players who loved the original Looking Glass and Ion Storm games. On the other, it must appease newer gamers who may have limited experience with stealth action. So what does the studio do? Producer Stephane Roy said they plan to stick to their own vision of what Thief should be. For those familiar with the franchise, he said, "this is not a prequel or a sequel. It our interpretation of what is Thief. The original Thief had more of a magical feel. This is more mystical."

A 25-minute hands-off gameplay demonstration introduced us to the medieval Victorian city that Garrett calls home. The city is run by a Baron trying to push the city into the Industrial Age, while a shadowy charismatic leader seeds revolution among the populace. As the cynical dark anti-hero, Garrett is caught in the middle of this struggle between rich and poor.

Several of Garrett's tricks of the trade return, including his blackjack and bow. Roy was quick to point out that, while many games have added bows recently, Thief has used bows since the beginning. "This is not the flavor of the month," he joked.

New to Thief is "focus," an ability that can speed up or aid certain skills. For example, if a player chooses to use focus while lockpicking, it can be done faster. If used while picking pockets, Garrett can walk away with more items in a faster time--or pluck expensive earrings right off a courtesan while her back is turned. And if Garrett needs to get out of combat, focus can be used to pinpoint key areas on an opponent to take him down quickly. Roy said focus is not unlimited, however. "You must use it like a powerful chess player. You must find the best tactical move."

The demo offered an impressive look at these and other abilities in action. Garrett would throw objects to distract guards, avoid detection by running across rooftops, or use a special arrow tip to extinguish a fire for added darkness. The goal was to follow an aristocrat and relieve him of his belongings. The entire time, the player is crouching, dashing, and dousing lights to avoid detection. Roy said there is also a sense of voyeurism, as Garrett eavesdrops on conversations and spies through peepholes to gather information.

Thief is played from a first-person perspective, although the game will shift to third-person when Garrett scales walls or goes into combat. Throughout the demo, you could see Garrett's hands, something that Roy said emphasizes the "tactile world" and the thief's primary tool in his arsenal of stealth.

Square Enix chose to show off a non-lethal playthrough, and Roy was careful not to divulge what other deadly weapons would be available (if any) in case Garrett got into a situation where he was severely outnumbered. Another aspect that Eidos Montreal is keeping mum about is how Garrett will use his ill-gotten gains. Throughout the demo, items of considerable value were stolen and a running tally was kept of the gold gained. Roy said there will be a use for the money that will be discussed at a later time, but a store where Garrett can upgrade his gear and items is a logical assumption.

With Garrett already being a master thief, it begs the question of what the player's motivation is to play through the game if he is already at the top of his field skill-wise. Roy hesitantly admitted that there will be some sort of progression system in the game, although he did not specify what form that would take. "There will be an incentive to steal things and an incentive to continue through the game," he said.

After the gameplay demonstration, Eidos Montreal presented a tech demo showing off the game's heavily modified Unreal Engine 3. This area was meant to show how well the engine handles light and shadow, "the DNA of the franchise," according to Roy. He said that it was important to get the ambiance right to feel like a Thief game. While it looks very good, it doesn't look particularly next-gen.

Based on the presentation, Eidos Montreal is on the right track in building a proper Thief game, mood and all. However, it's hard to ignore comparisons to last year's critically acclaimed Dishonored. This demo required Garrett to infiltrate a brothel to follow a wealthy individual, much the same way one Dishonored demo had Corvo finding a way into a bordello for a similar purpose, using similar skills. Garrett's dash and grappling hook--called The Claw--easily replicate Corvo's blink ability, although Roy said Garrett's abilities are meant to be "grounded in reality." Even the cities from the two games look and feel the same. It doesn't damn the game by any means, as a likeness to Dishonored is not a bad thing, but the similarities are there.

While it remains to be seen if Thief can shake the shadow of Corvo and Dishonored, Eidos Montreal is definitely moving in the right direction. There are still plenty of unanswered questions, although one was just answered with the reveal that Romano Orzari would be taking over for Stephen Russell as the voice of Garrett. But it appears Eidos Montreal is definitely trying to cater to old-school Thief fans, and that's only a good thing.

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