At the climax of our hands-off Thief demo - a 30-minute manor ransack which spilled out onto burning Victorian streets - we were left with a powerful sense of déjà vu. Is this really the next-generation?
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Graphically, Square's reboot looks immense, but to play (or, in the case of our demo, to watch), it feels like an experience that could comfortably fit on PS3 and 360. Unlike Watch Dogs or Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, Thief doesn't have the excuse that last-gen versions are holding it back.
Maybe, in our heads, we've set the bar too high - stratospheric when it needs to atmospheric. Atmosphere certainly excels here. Candles dynamically cast flickering shadows along walls while volumetric fog hangs thick in the air. Gas lamps glare with moody rings of smudged light, while subtle depth-of-field effects cast a cinematic quality over the scene. And within it, ninja-burglar Garrett has his mission: steal a prize heirloom, The Heart of the Lion, from Northcrest Manor. Tough, even for a qualified character in his fourth jaunt in fifteen years, but luckily Northcrest's army of gobby guards are, this evening, distracted by a gaggle of rioting peasants at the gate. The low rumble of the crowd pitched against a moonless night is enough to give you goosebumps.
"It's not a question of pushing more polygons," says producer Stephane Roy, "but convincing you you're part of this city. Sometimes technical limitations can be a good thing. A long time ago, [lighting] was either dark or light. Today, it's like real life. We have to create a universe you're able to read, but if it's too black and white, too binary, you won't believe in it."
Northcrest bore several ways in. Away from chin-wagging sentries and tail-wagging dogs, you could crank a valve and switch off a waterfall (noisy); pick a lock (time-consuming), or fiddle with a guard's pocket (neither). Picking pockets mostly gets you gold, which is used to buy weapons and upgrade abilities. Here it got Garrett a set of keys instead. Holding the X button as a five-second dial counted down, he lifted the keys, cracked the lock, and stepped inside a tall stone hallway.
Focus mode reveals puzzles, solutions and points of interest, aids you in combat, and slows down time
Something's up. It was too easy to get inside. Now suspicious, we trigger Focus and highlight a floor trap in shimmering blue. This alternative vision mode reveals puzzles, solutions and points of interest. It also gives you the ability to loot wallets in a pinch, more efficiently assassinate enemies, and slow time to pick locks before being caught in the act.
Switching back to Bog Standard Vision, Garrett disabled the booby trap - his not-very-Victorian wire-cutter pitted against a not-very-Victorian control panel. It's fair to say Thief takes artistic license with the time period.
Gadgets range from rope arrows which can be hooked on perch points in the ceiling, returning water and fire arrows - useful for snuffing out lamps and lighting up oil slicks respectively - and a telescopic melee baton which extends in times of face-bashing.
So what's Stephane's favourite? "The blunt arrow. You can't kill with it, but Thief is about stealing and not killing. It's really flexible, you can create noise and interact with the environment. If you're creative you're going to use it in many ways."