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Final hands-on preview: Can Thief steal the show?

By Dan Griliopoulos on Friday 24th Jan 2014 at 2:00 PM UTC

Square-Enix is on a mission to drag all of its Eidos favourites kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Deus Ex, Tomb Raider and Hitman have all had the modernising treatment and now it's the turn of 1998's Thief.

For those unfamiliar with the game, the premise is as obvious as the name. You play a thief, Garrett. He's a classic fantasy rogue, with soft, black clothing, a blackjack and fingers lighter than air. He lives in a classic fantasy city, the sort that has more thieves and scoundrels than workers, where guards are stupid and brutal, a city that flashes back to Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and seems to have infinite opportunities for conniving minds to make money - and enemies.

But like Squenix's other revamps, the edge has been taken off the concept, to make you more of a superhero than a mere pickpocket, to fill in those lacuna that were previously reserved for your imagination. So what I'm playing today is unlike the old Thief, with its weak, slow, sneaking Garrett, who'd agonise over walking on a hard floor without firing off a moss arrow to soften his steps.

Here we have a Garrett with a hub location full of Cool Stuff, a Garrett who has Sass, a Garrett who displays incredible athleticism. Eidos Montreal's Thief shoves the original concept of the Looking Glass Thief games together with the infinitely-flexible superhumanity of Assassin's Creed - leaving this Thief, like Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absolution, feeling much more normalised than the original aberrant games, with all those edges that the casual player might get snagged on having been carefully hidden away.

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So, although sound detection is still present, the guards are nowhere near as sensitive and acute as in the old games. Nor do they always spot the obvious thief, especially if he happens to be scooting at the time or hiding in dark shadows a foot from their face. And when he does get spotted, it's madly easy to run away, thanks to the verticality of many of the environments. Even getting cornered by a single guard isn't a big threat.

To be clear, I'm playing the game on the absolutely standard normal difficulty, which explains that normalisation to some degree - I'm sampling the experience aimed at the average player, who'll never have played old Thief. There is a standardised easy mode too, in case you want to be even more superhuman. And then there's the hard mode, which will gives your enemies a bit more of a chance.

But, importantly for the Looking Glass thief players and the Dark Souls crowd, there's a good range of options to turn on, bringing back out all those difficult snags. They're arranged into three sets; classic, legendary and ultimate. The more you turn on, the more a multiplier goes up, which I presume tots up a score at some point (though maybe only for the many challenge modes in each area, none of which I managed to unlock).

The classic options make the game closer to Looking Glass's Thief; no reticule, no focus, stealth takedowns only, and saves only when a chapter ends. Legendary steps up another gear, removing the medikits of food and poppies, slowing Garrett's movement, only allowing him specialist arrows, not allowing him to take any damage and making all his gadgets cost a lot more to buy.

"Garrett runs like a scion of Ezio - except he screws up occasionally, because the mechanism isn't as polished as Ubisoft's"

Finally, the ultimate settings include an iron man mode, a no-kills or KOs mode, and a no upgrades mode. You can mix and match any of these; combining all of them would make the game nearly impossible to play - so we expect to see the first insane difficulty runthrough within a week of release.

As I mentioned, Garrett isn't the plodding ape of yesteryear. He's now wonderfully agile. Walls can be scaled in seconds with his climbing claw, as long as they have the requisite markings on them. Rope arrows can be deployed to open up new areas - but can only be fired into beams marked with rope (a recurrence of that pure Tomb Raider visual logic).

He runs almost exactly like a scion of Ezio, bounding over obstacles - except he screws up occasionally, because the running mechanism isn't quite as polished as Ubisoft's and it's not always clear what he will leap and what he won't. He can even scoot, which seems to be a magic super-long step he makes, ostensibly to move from shadow to shadow without being noticed.

Similarly, though there are traps and puzzles, Garrett acquires a Batman-esque focus vision mode after the tutorial accident, which allows you to magic your way through most puzzles, tracking wires back to panels (in this curiously medieval-but-with-circuitry world), beating up on enemies better, speed-picking locks, and so on. The meter can be refilled by eating poppies, making the local Remembrance Day volunteer a prime target. It's an understandable modern system, but seeing through walls is really not very Thief.

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Focus mode also makes theft even more crazily-easy. The world seems covered in loot, from birds' nests to the pockets of passersby to every last drawer in every wardrobe. On top of that, there's collectible loot, special items that Garrett can take back to his lonesome Clock Tower home to put on display, again like Tomb Raider. If you thought Bioshock Infinite's endless dollar hunt encouraged the magpie in you, you're going to be mildly sick of Garrett's slight bobbing grab motion within about three hours. Cup. Comb. Mirror. Coin. But he is a thief, after all.

The only thing that the game never makes easy is the fighting. On normal difficulty, it's easy-if-slow to take down one guard, but two are tough, unless you're prepared to use some Focus on the fight. On harder difficulties, running away makes much more sense, especially given how fleet-footed Garrett is.

And you couldn't pick a better city to hide in. Sure, Dishonored has stolen much of Thief's clothing - setting, style, weaponry, plot, equipment, locations... Sure, it's not the true, giant open world game we were promised back in 2009 and no amount of window-opening minigames can conceal a level transition.

But The City still has some settings that wow, even compared to Dishonored (which, after all, had to run on much weaker systems), and much of it is true to the old Looking Glass vision. Take as an example, Stonemarket, the old shopping district from the original Thief. Here it's a hub, with verticality that rivals Deus Ex: HR's Hengsha district and is full of sidequests, doled out regularly by Basso, Garrett's fence. More importantly, there are a hundred routes through the area to dodge the Baron's endlessly patrolling guards or find even more goodies to pilfer.

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Or look at the House of Blossoms brothel that moves from seemingly-abandoned ruins to decrepit palace hung with luxurious draperies and oh-so-pinchable valuables, to spyhole-riddled basement, where you can see and hear every last depravity of the ruling classes (and, bloody hell, this section really earns its mature rating) further down to an abandoned library and (behind a trick bookcase) an underground library comprised of giant multi-storey towers straight out of Harry Potter or the Name of the Rose that seems to be haunted by something not-quite-human... it's all quite, quite elegant and beautiful, in a built-to-be-played way.

So the atmosphere is mostly right - but the reasons for Garrett to be stealthing his way around are everywhere. We don't want to spoil too much, but Garrett starts the game in a tutorial with his onetime protegé Erin. Erin is arrogant and careless of human life, but also inventive compared to Garrett, who is careful to keep as many people alive as possible. Erin's carelessness leads her to plummet through the glass ceiling of your target building - into the middle of a ritual the city's leader had been conducting to drag the city into the modern era. Cue huge magical explosion and whiteout.

A year later Garrett awakens, having been cared for by the beggars guild in something like a coma. In the meantime, the city has fallen victim to a strange sickness, the Gloom, where people get depressed to the point of death. So, whilst attempting to find out what happened to him and where Erin has gone, he starts to chase down a cure for the disease too...

"Although sound detection is still present, the guards are nowhere near as sensitive and acute as in the old games"

The original Thief is still just about playable, (visit GOG) if that's what you really want. However, this game does have the prospect of recreating that hard stealth, if you're happy to play with the settings and can ignore frustrating deaths from the multi-use of buttons and le parkour glitches.

What we have here is part tribute, part pastiche but most of all a modern do-everything action game, modelled around Thief. It shares much with Tomb Raider, from the range of systems and collectibles to the annoying wavy-armed animation style and squeezing area-transitions. It definitely has some of the charisma of Thief - enough that I know that I'll go back and complete it, like I did Tomb Raider - but it doesn't have much strangeness about it. All that said, it probably won't steal your heart, but it's a charming, fresh-faced rogue all the same.

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