The promise of Thief is much more compelling than the delivery. That's not unusual with an unfinished game, but it's worrying for a title set to release in February on five platforms.
Thief, planned for a Feb. 25, 2014, release on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, is a return to the fabled stealth action series launched in 1998.
The series was one of the progenitors of the stealth genre, so it's fitting that this latest edition is a hardline addition to that type of gameplay.
At a recent event in New York City, players were dropped into The City, a sort of transitory location within the fiction of the game that Garrett returns to between the game's main missions. This small setting includes Garrett's clocktower home, a fence for buying and selling items and upgrading equipment, and a guy who can give Garrett short side quests.
These narrative-free side quests give Garrett an opportunity to test his thieving skills and, more importantly, a chance to earn money that can be used at the fence.
In my visit to The City, I had four objectives I was able to take on. Unfortunately, the game's unstable state prevented me from completing them all. During my hour with the title I ran into several bugs that prevented me from switching arrow heads, froze me in mid-air and, twice, crashed me to the computer's desktop.
In a post-gameplay interview, producer Joe Khoury said that the game was "feature-complete" but that the developers still had a lot of polish to do and bugs to fix.
During the interview, I pressed Khoury on the state of development, how the studio's troubled past affected the game's current state and if he thought the game's lack of combat options could be a problem.
"We realized there are certain ways to play the game that we need to clarify a little bit more," Khoury said.
Those tweaks to gameplay include doing a better job with the game's visual language, how it shows players when someone can climb, or leap, successfully. The team also has to work on the AI and how it reacts to players, he said.
"There's little things that combine together, that we know we have to get out of the way," he said. "So for us, the remaining time we have left we want to focus on polishing every feature and making sure everything is working as intended and that there is no real way to really break the game."
How locked in to the game's ship date is Square?
"We're pretty locked, "Khoury said. "We're locked."
Ignoring the build's instability, the game had a uniquely punishing approach to stealth action.
While Garrett is armed with a bow and a plethora of arrow types, once he gets into close combat he has to either try to fire the bow at point-blank range (which is surprisingly effective in an off-putting way) or use a club.
It's clear that the game design doesn't really support slugging it out with guards — this is a game meant to be played from the shadows. But players can still manage to fight their way out of discovery. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but this form of melee-combat gameplay feels disjointed. I would have preferred being cut down by guards to the awkward combat that near-capture seems to lead to.
The good news is that when you're not mixing it up with guards, the game can be enjoyable, at least what I played of it.
The objectives all feel like puzzles. Garrett has to find where his target is and then figure out how exactly to get inside. This usually leads to a lot of looking around trying to figure out the way to get to that second story window, or rooftop. The routes are almost always circuitous and finding them is satisfying.
Once inside, sneaking your way past sleeping home owners, and figuring out where they hide their prized possessions is quite fun.
As much as I enjoyed the puzzling aspects of these objectives, it still didn't give me any real sense of what the game itself is like. Instead, this felt like a chance to play with the mechanics of movement in the game and to relearn the importance of light and dark when hiding from city guards.
Thief has a lot of potential, but not a lot of time. Hopefully it will find a way to deliver.
Editor's note: In the days leading up to the interview, the team working on the game contacted Polygon to let us know that they wouldn't conduct the interview with Chris Plante because of his prior story on the studio's problems. We proceeded with the interview with a different reporter, but only after telling them we would be asking the same questions during the interview.