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Australian hands-on: the Thief reboot is as old school as you want it to be

By Shaun Prescott on Tuesday 28th Jan 2014 at 11:29 AM EST

In the midst of a next-gen game drought, it's likely that people will buy Thief in their droves whether it proves to be mindblowing or not. The question is, will they remember it?

Eidos Montreal has gone on the defensive against fears that this new, rebooted Thief will forsake the pure stealth elements of previous titles in the name of action set pieces and linearity. To combat this, the difficulty settings in Thief are completely customisable: players can select between four base settings ranging Rogue to Master, but each of these can be further customised to arrive at the perfect setting.

For example: if you want to do a permadeath shadowrun, you can. If you want to play without the ability to kill or knock out enemy AI, you can. If you want to play with no health power-ups and zero damage, you can. Waypoint markers and the Focus ability can be switched off. Best of all, each toggle switch - and there are at least a dozen of them - contributes points to your playthrough, meaning the more difficult the run the more points you get. These will all feed into an online leaderboard ranking completed playthroughs.

This is important, because in today's achievement hungry environment it's not enough to be allowed to play on a really difficult setting - you have to be able to prove it to your friends. Now you can torture yourself with the most obscene difficulty setting and know that, eventually, you'll have something to show for it.

Branching Paths

Thief's structure will be familiar to those who played Deus Ex: Human Revolution: the game world consists of modestly sized but detailed hub areas, which branch off into missions. Occasionally the option to pursue a side mission will arise, or maybe you want to buy some new arrows and food items. The hub areas give you an opportunity to take a breather between the action.

Side missions operate as expected: once, as we're quietly seeking access to a heavily guarded town centre, Garrett spots a jewellery store and, naturally enough, is tempted to rob it. We creep through the shadows down a side lane and find a back access door. Once inside, we knock out a poor defensive jeweller and - believing him to be alone - march confidently onwards only to find a bunch of guards upstairs. They corner and kill us before we have the opportunity to pull an arrow out.

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Stealing is the basis for all of the objectives we played in the first three hours of the game. The stealth systems are fairly straight forward: a dot on the HUD will glow white if you're exposed to light and visible. Garrett can peek from behind walls and large objects to monitor enemy patterns. He can also quickly dash forward in order to sneak between shadows with haste, and has a growing arsenal of arrows to distract opponents and manipulate the environment. For instance: water arrows can extinguish fire, fire arrows can light them. Blunt arrows are used to distract guards, sharp ones to hurt them.

One of the niggling frustrations with Thief is that Garrett can only interact with a limited variety of objects and surfaces in the game world. Using the 'Focus' ability - which depletes and regenerates - every climbable or clawable surface is highlighted, and this sometimes serves to reveal the limitations of Garrett's abilities and undermine the illusion that the player can be creative with how they approach situations. Why can Garrett access this rooftop, but not that one over there? Why can't he just climb that waist high wall? This makes the absence of a jump button ever more painful.

More often than not during our playthrough, it's better to resort to Focus from the beginning rather than tolerate disappointment when the game won't allow you to follow a path which initially looks like common sense. In certain bigger arenas the rules seem arbitrary, and every strategy designed.

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Still, these are issues that affect the genre as a whole, but they stand out in a stealth action title which prizes initiative and thinking outside the square.

These reservations aside, the systems in Thief work very well and those afraid that the stealth focus has diminished should rest assured that it hasn't. This is a stealth game, simple as that. In fact, the early hours of Thief play out like a purer stealth title than many other recent genre highlights, Deus Ex and Dishonored included. Unlike the former when it was first released, Thief can be completed with not a single kill to Garrett's name.

Add to that a compellingly dry and morally ambiguous main character in Garrett and a beautifully savage if murky steampunk game world, and Thief looks set to successfully navigate the sketchy tightrope between cinematic Triple A reboot and fan service - much like Deus Ex. If the narrative follows through on the dark promise of the first three hours then people will remember Thief whether they wanted a pure stealth experience or not.

Nonetheless, Thief will undoubtedly prove not pure enough for some.

Thief will release next month for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.