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Thief’s latest preview highlights vast improvement

What a difference three months can make.

The last time we played Thief was at an event in October in New York. The build was riddled with problems. At the time, developer producer Joe Khoury said that while the game was "feature complete," it still needed a lot of polish. Recently, we had a chance to check out a more polished version of the game during an event in Sydney. The differences were striking.

During our time with the game in October, we were unable to finish the demo because of the game's unstable state. We ran into bugs that prevented the player from switching arrowheads, froze Garrett in midair and crashed the computer to the desktop.

In the October interview, Khoury also told us that the team was past the development woes that some said were partially to blame for the game's more than five-year development. (You can see our video interview with them from last year below.)

Earlier this week press were invited to Square Enix's Syndey offices to once more drop into the game's urban hub, a district that players visit between the game's narratively driven levels. I experienced none of the bugs that plagued the earlier version of the game during my time playing the latest build on PlayStation 4, and speaking with those who played it on PC, those issues were also no longer present. The game's navigation was smooth and the decaying Victorian-styled city was a eerily fun setting to explore, while its stealth mechanics proved novel to experiment with.

Thief's stealth gameplay rests on a formula, game director Nicolas Cantin explained; figure out a way to break into a place, pilfer and escape undetected. To do this successfully, the player has a range of tools to use, environmental objects to exploit and a broad range of user interface options tweak to suit playstyles and experience levels.

Players can also use 'Focus', which heavily hints at solutions, intended pathways, enemies and hidden jewels. However, this hand-holding mechanic, along with Garrett's narration, can be turned off through the options. Through UI customizations, Cantin hopes to deliver a Thief experience that can appeal to a new generation of gamers and die-hard Thief fans.

When asked to elaborate on what it meant for Thief to evolve from a pure stealth to action stealth, Cantin explained that the action refers to how Garrett navigates throughout the world. Garrett can leap upon climb ropes, edge around eaves and swing across to ledges when the environment allows it. It isn't a truly free roaming experience where you can scale anything and everything you want within the game, as in something like Assassin's Creed. A ledge within reasonable reach wouldn't necessarily be available to scale. Or a well-placed grate had to be in existence to use with the special grapple hook.

“With the action it is more about navigation than being a really big action game," Cantin explained. "The action is more about navigation and Garrett can climb things, it was a little bit less like that before. But, again, you don't have superpowers and you don't have things that kill the stealth aspect of the game. It is really about being a thief, being Garrett.”

The game was first presented at last year's Game Developers Conference. At the time, the player's perspective jumped from first-person to third when climbing buildings or doing actions such as fighting, which was disorienting for the player. Only one instance of that perspective switch was present in the latest build, which was necessary to scale one large section of a building. Cantin said there are only one or two scenarios in the current build where a camera switch is necessary.

Garrett is armed with a bow and an array of arrow types to manipulate the environment with. While players can customize arrows as they progress through the game, there are standard arrows available to exploit. For example, a Broadhead Arrow can knock out a guard, things can be set alight to attract guards' attention with the Noisemaker Arrow and the one we used the most throughout our playthrough was the Water Arrow. Shooting this to open flames will extinguish them to grow the shadows for Garrett to lurk in, yet sometimes you only have a certain amount of time before an AI huffily relights it.

Violent confrontation is tricky to pull off elegantly, as Garrett is not a fighter. He is designed to dispatch enemies stealthily, either by sneaking up from behind, from above or with the Broadhead Arrowhead. If confronted, the option to dodge and make a getaway or take enemies out point-blank with arrows is there. However, when we were clumsy and were caught, our fighting style just usually devolved into continually bludgeoning the poor blighters over the head with Garrett's Blackjack until they went still. And this technique usually only worked against one enemy.

Although it is a stealth title, the game does support an aggressive playstyle. But it won’t be easy for the player in the long run.

“We know that some people will want to play like that," Cantin said. "We encourage the stealth aspect of the game. And at the beginning of the game you can tell [what sort of character] Garrett is, but it is still up to the player how to decide to manage Garrett. We put in a lot of possibilities but when you play the game, the stealth way to play it will reward the player a little bit more.

"But there is good space for people who just want to use the bow and try to kill everyone. And on that side, we can do that and it is not breaking the game. But at some point, narratively, we would like to say that this is what Garret wouldn’t do.”

Eidos Montreal announced in October that it killed Thief's XP system following fans' negative feedback at seeing XP points awarded for a headshot kill during an E3 gameplay demo. The developer explained that the progression system restricted the gamers' playstyle and didn't suit Garrett's personality.

“We realised quickly that it was breaking our economy system and our economy system is what makes you steal, to get more money and so on,” Cantin explained. “And Garrett is already a Master Thief, so we didn’t want to start off being the ‘weak Garret’ and then becoming ‘good Garrett.’”

Eavesdropping and exploring houses opens up lucrative thieving opportunities to the patient player and adds depth to Thief's universe. For instance, a particular route led through a jeweler's establishment, where players could steal the required loot and leave. Once inside, eavesdropping and observing led to uncovering details about a potential loot grab that we would have otherwise missed.

Audio also plays a big part in the title. Walk too fast near a sleeping guard and you'll feel his bleary-eyed wrath, wade through water too hastily and your inelegant splashes will alert a guard. Alternately, audio can be used to a player's advantage — using Xbox Kinect, the PS4 or a headset, players can yell to attract guards' attention.

Players can also use the Xbox Kinect's motion detection to peek around corners in-game. Otherwise players can peer around corners by pressing X near a wall and leaning with the left stick.

Other next-generation integrations include choosing items using the PS4's touchpad. The method was a little tricky at first but only because of our own lack of experience using it. It was a novel way to switch between items, although players have the option of using the traditional D-pad.

The game's music built excitement and added an edge and various spots. Only for a split second was the modern industrial styling a little jarring with the Victorian environment. But, it slotted right in with Garrett's leather-clad character, his situation and the decaying city.

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