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Thief

The master is stealing a few lessons from its prized student.

It’s been a decade since apathetic rogue Garrett last took something he shouldn’t have in the Thief trilogy of first-person stealth games, but you’ve likely felt his sneaky influence in many top-tier franchises ever since. Thief wrote the book on hiding in — and striking from — the shadows. Naturally, it’s now time for a reboot. Publisher Square Enix and developer Eidos brought a 25-minute, hands-off slice of a larger level to the Game Developers Conference last week, and it felt both impressive and familiar.

But it reminded me less of earlier Thief games and more of Dishonored, the similarly steampunky, first-person stealth game that proudly declared its Thief inspirations with every move it made. Dishonored played like one big homage to those classics. The new Thief, due on the PC, PlayStation 4 and other next-gen consoles sometime in 2014, looks like it’s paying those compliments right back … possibly with a few improvements.

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Thief

True crime

“We loved Dishonored,” says Thief producer Stéphane Roy. “It’s really cool to see players loving that kind of game and wanting more. Dishonored is about revenge. In Thief, your job will be to steal, not to kill.”

And while some mystical elements return from the previous games, Thief won’t go full-bore into the fantastic like Dishonored did. “We really want to be more realistic,” says Roy. “No zombies.”

Thief returns to its traditional setting of The City (still unnamed after all these years), a port town bisected by a giant wall and built around twisting waterways much like Dishonored’s Dunwall. Story missions happen out in the city proper while Garrett can pick up more personal side missions in his own inner-city hub. The chaos-versus-order themes also remain intact, with the mysterious Baron pushing an industrialism agenda backed by a brutal police force called the Watch. Roy wouldn’t go into the opposing faction, but concept art hinted at a religious figurehead giving a fiery sermon with a noose ominously dangling in the background.

Thief

Taking what isn’t yours

The demo opened with Garrett targeting a nobleman named Eastwick — specifically, a gold medallion temporarily in Eastwick’s possession. Garrett infiltrates a city district in a covered wagon as the Watch piles bodies on carts; locks other, less skilled thieves in stockades; and hangs troublemakers from second-story windows. “A change is coming,” says Garrett. “I hear nooses tightening on every corner.”

That’s the first major step away from Dishonored and Corvo Attano, its annoyingly silent protagonist. Garrett narrates Thief. We get full access to his shrewd, pointed thoughts.

Appropriately enough, Garrett’s design steers clear of the heroic. He’s dark, gaunt, and scarred. The game shifts into third-person views when Garrett makes a vertical climb, so you get a good look at him often. Roy didn’t specify whether Garrett’s bionic eye makes a return, but his right eye is conspicuously green and glowing. While he doesn’t have magic powers, Garrett does know what he’s doing. “You start out as a master thief,” says Roy, with all that that entails. Garrett made liberal use of a rush move that gave him a stealthy burst of speed over a very short distance — nowhere near as powerful as Blink, Corvo’s handy teleportation move — and he has access to Focus abilities, one of which highlights all useful items and enemies much like Corvo’s Dark Vision.

Focus, however, also comes with a few offensive uses.

Thief

It kicks normal pick-pocketing up a notch by letting Garrett snatch every last item of value off a victim without detection. In combat, it allows quick-time-event targeting of an enemy’s vulnerable spots, instantly dispatching the guard in your way. Focus is limited, and the thief who tries to Rambo through a job ends up dead fast. And often.

So while Corvo could take on groups of enemies with the right juggle of magic tricks and trip-mines, Garrett must be more selective about revealing himself. It’s still best to snuff lanterns with a dry-ice arrow (replacing water arrows), blackjack guards from behind, or pounce on them from a roof. Or avoid them altogether.

Thief

Stealing is quicker

But if Dishonored repeatedly paid homage to Thief, the motives behind Thief’s responses aren’t always clear. Garrett tracks Eastwick to the House of Blossoms, a high-end brothel that’s a dead ringer for Dishonored’s own house of ill repute, the Golden Cat. The resemblances are pretty staggering. Sure, Garrett will eavesdrop on prostitutes and clients, creep across rafters, and find secret areas, but even the general decor and color schemes seem weirdly similar.

The multi-path level design, however, shows more sophistication than Dishonored’s. Roy described the mission structure as infiltration, stealing, and escape, but the game flow in the demo went far beyond that. Just getting to the House of Blossoms involves a Mirror’s Edge-style parkour run to reach the gates before they close up tight. That smoothly folds into quietly removing guards, skulking around the brothel and prying out its secrets, spying on Eastwick, and nabbing the medallion, which has a few secrets of its own to uncover.

Each beat lasted just long enough, giving the player something new to do every few minutes. And just when Garrett finished unlocking the medallion to reveal a glowing energy inside it, Eastwick discovered the theft. Guards locked doors and started a room-by-room search, tightening the net around Garrett.

Thief

It felt nicely tense, but it’s tough to judge gameplay at this point. Operating on “god mode” with enemy A.I. switched to the “deaf and blind” setting, the demo’s version of stealth looked fairly broken. Garrett routinely moved past characters in plain view with nobody raising a voice in protest. A little balancing, a few tweaked settings, and it’s fixed. But as presented, it seems as if you could simply walk up to any of the distracted, disinterested non-player characters and politely request their valuables.

Even so, running on a tricked-out PC, Thief presents a compelling, gritty world filled with amazing complexity and beauty. Fire effects need some work, but a simple moment watching rain drip between the separating planks of a shoddy wooden balcony stood out as a demonstration of what’s now possible in a video game. Both Square Enix and Edios remain cagey about what platforms Thief will land on, but the technology fueling their game makes it seem unlikely, if not impossible, that any current-gen hardware could handle it.

It also raises a very serious bar for Dishonored 2. The master has returned, and once its stealth mechanics fall into place, Thief might just have a few more things to teach the student. And us.

Thief

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