E3 2013 Preview: Can Thief Steal Back the Stealth Genre?
In 1998, Thief: The Dark Project helped to pioneer the stealth genre, along with the releases of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and Metal Gear Solid, and since then, a whole host of games have risen in its wake, from triple A series like Hitman, Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, to smaller titles like Mark of the Ninja and Stealth Bastard. With the Thief series dormant for so long–the last installment, Thief: Deadly Shadows, released in 2004–one wonders: can the upcoming next-gen title, Thief, reclaim the spotlight from a genre not full of its many successors?
From what I saw of the game during a hands-off E3 demonstration, it may very well be on its way. The build we previewed was pre-alpha, running on a PS4 (although it was noted the game will of course be available to other platforms upon release), and set about halfway into the game. The developers at Eidos Montreal didn’t waste much time detailing the story or setting: this demo was clearly to show that Thief still had it when it came to the stealth genre. After what I saw, I was inclined to agree.
If you’ve never played a Thief game ever before, then you must know that the first of the series, Thief: The Dark Project, was the first to incorporate light and darkness and sound into stealth mechanics. So if you’ve played any variety of the stealth games that have come since, you’ll find the simply titled Thief familiar. With protagonist Garrett breaking into a heavily guarded Victorian compound, there were many options available for infiltration. Garrett very well could go in and attempt a Corvo-esque Dishonored lethal approach (sans the magic), which Eidos Montreal say they’re not completely discouraging: but of course, playing smarter will help Garrett survive longer, because the Thief series has always been about stealth, evasion, and avoiding combat. The less of a presence you have, the easier it is to get in and out without running for your life. As we saw later, Garrett can handle simple combat, but he’s just not cut out for group encounters.
Thief feels similar, but speedier. Anyone who’s played a stealth game before also knows that to be successful, you need to take opportunities when they present themselves, which requires speed and a good eye. To reinforce these concepts, Garrett has dash-like moves that allow him to lunge forward and backwards swiftly. Garrett also has a “Focus” ability, one that can be used for a variety of purposes. Focus could be written off as yet another “Detective Mode” feature, but it’s used for more direct applications, like increasing accuracy, for “hearing” sound through walls to get an idea of what’s behind them, to catch traps, to see useful objects, and more. Focus can’t be just used continually without penalty; Focus is exhaustible, and must be managed wisely: waste it searching for items in one place, and you won’t be able to use it in melee combat later to pinpoint weaknesses on your enemy (using Garrett’s trademark blackjack) and take him out more efficiently. For gamers who want a stronger challenge, Focus can also be turned off in the main menu, along with other features.
Of course, the majority of time Garrett will be avoiding combat, and this is where the darkness is his friend. Garrett relies on darkness to evade his enemies, with a black smokey edge that fills up the screen in place of the light/darkness meter from earlier games. At first I found this distracting, since it reduced visability of Garrett’s peripheral vision; later, I grew accustomed to it, because it felt like Garrett was actually sitting in darkness, and felt more natural than a meter.
But what would a good thief be without his tools? Any veteran of the series will be pleased to see that Garrett returns with his arsenal of arrows, each with their own purpose for traversing environments or aiding Garrett’s stealth. Rope arrows, for example, can be used in specific locations to give Garrett a little help in getting vertical; blunt arrows can be used to break fragile items and attract guards to a particular area. Some arrows must be used carefully: use a water area to extinguish a torch (to reduce the light in an area and make it easier to sneak about), and guards may notice the torch is out and come to inspect it. Again, this encourage players to take advantage of opportunities when they happen, and to move swiftly. Garrett can–as mentioned above–take more lethal options against his enemies, like using a fire arrow to ignite the oil that a few guards may be standing in. But again, this could bring Garrett more attention than he wants.
The environment can be as much Garrett’s tool as it can be treacherous. Walking past a pair of caged dogs, for example, may make them bark and raise alarms. But Garrett could also do this on purpose, drawing foes to one area so that he can sneak around and get to an area they were previously guarding unnoticed. Water can cause enough noise to alert guards, but Garrett could also find a water fountain’s controls, turn it off, and then climb up through the fountain to reach new areas.
Of course, what would be a game about stealing if there was no actual thievery present? We were shown that Garrett will have occasions when he must sneak up behind guards–in a lit, exposed area–and pickpocket them, which of successful can net Garrett information that he can later use. Garrett can also lockpick, which Eidos Montreal showed us comes through on-screen visual cues and vibrator feedback, and can be sped up with time. Garrett can also search objects like picture frames, which also uses similar mechanics to detect useful hidden items. Garrett can also peek into keyholes or peepholes to listen in on conversations or find things. During a puzzle-like lock mini-game, for example, Garrett used a peephole to help solve the placement of the tumbler since it was weathered on the exposed side.
The rest of the demonstration had a lot to show us: we got to see Garrett run through an extensive platforming section, which switched to a third person perspective, and had a sort of Prince of Persia or Uncharted feel to it; we got to see Garrett escape a burning house; we got to hear the, uh, lively dialogue of the NPCs, and more. Thief will not have a large open world, but will be an objective-based game with various intricately designed levels. Thief is set to release to the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC in 2014: if the game can continue with the variety and choice of previous installments that it seems to be reintroducing into this reboot so well, then it very well may steal back the stealth genre that it’s been absent from for so long.