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Thief hands-on preview: Franchise reboot left in the shadows - E3 2013

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'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot


Thief sees the classic PC stealth series return courtesy of Square Enix and Deus Ex: Human Revolution studio Eidos Montreal.

We've heard the ways in which the studio is approaching the franchise reboot, but E3 presented the first chance to go hands-on, seeing Garrett enter a mansion to steal an artifact from The Baron.

Starting in the courtyard, Garrett had to hide in the shadows from patrolling guards while trying to find a way into the mansion.

Scaling stone pillars in the courtyard provided a higher vantage point to observe guard patterns, while the series' signature water arrows return for putting out torches from a distance, which both offered darkness as cover and brought a guard away from his post to re-light it.

'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot



Garrett had a creative arsenal for players who want to use it, including blunt arrows to distract guards without injuring them and rope arrows to help scale walls and reach higher platforms.

After shutting off the courtyard fountain, a path through the sewers opened leading into the mansion. Inside, Garrett had to take it slow, peeking through keyholes to make sure no guards were in the next room.

Garrett also has a focus mode at his disposal, washing out the world in a blue light that highlighted guards and valuable items through walls.

Focus energy did not replenish automatically though, requiring players to use the power sparingly and find poppies to restore their focus.

'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot



Focus also played a part in picking locks, which lets you see inside the lock to more easily arrange tumblers and open the door.

Otherwise players will have to rely on sound to successfully pick locks, which might take too long if there is also a patrolling guard in the room.

Eventually Garrett finds his way to a secret room, which he must open by examining a picture frame for a hidden switch.

The secret room contains a chest locked by a pattern-matching puzzle, which was made more difficult since one of the patterns had faded away.

Using Garrett's focus ability, players could see inside the chest to find out how its mechanisms worked, and complete the puzzle without needing to see the pattern.

'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot



Thief is not just about infiltrating and stealing though, as Garrett still had to escape the mansion after finding the artifact.

The escape took Garrett on a linear run through sewers, over a canal, and eventually through a series of burning buildings as his pursuers caught up to him.

The burning buildings were of particular note, since the smoke-filled rooms drained your health while inside. Players who made it to that section without much health left found the demo impossible to complete.

While Thief is predominantly a first-person game, the escape showed instances where the camera will switch into third-person for easier navigation.

'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot



At one point in the demo players had to scale the side of a building, and where a first-person view would feel unwieldy the camera naturally switched to third-person for a more Uncharted-like climbing sequence.

Despite Thief being in development for next generation hardware, the E3 demo suffered from distinctly last generation artificial intelligence.

It was possible to stand immediately next to an extinguished torch while a guard walked over to relight it - and remain completely undetected until the fire was burning again.

Even standing eye-to-eye, so long as the stealth indicator said you were in the shadows then guards would remain oblivious.


Thankfully, once a guard does detect your presence the artificial intelligence kicks back in and guards will hunt you relentlessly through the shadows until you can break their line of sight with you.

It is worrying that stealth detection is treated in such binary terms, where players are either completely visible or practically invisible.

Next-generation lighting should allow a stealth game to offer something more fluid, to use literal shades of gray in how it treats shadows.

The final game may make improvements in that regard, but none of it was on display in the demo.

'Thief' screenshot

© Square Enix

'Thief' screenshot



Thief also did not stand out as a next-generation leap ahead for visuals.

The Victorian-inspired steampunk world is engrossing, but had I not been holding a PlayStation 4 controller while playing, the game could have easily been mistaken for something releasing on the current generation of hardware.

The main concern with Thief is the intelligence, which feels like it hasn't changed since Thief: Deadly Shadows was released in 2004.

When fans say they want a game to play similarly to the originals, this is seldom what they have in mind.

With Thief scheduled to hit Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC and current generation systems in spring 2014, there is still time for Eidos Montreal to improve on the solid but flawed foundation seen at E3.

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