Thief gameplay preview: We steal, shoot and lockpick our way through early play of the 2014 title
Thief is set to land on consoles in the first quarter of 2014, almost a full decade after the last title in the series surfaced. Pocket-lint got to play some sections of a pre-release version of the game on Xbox One to see whether it's been worth the wait.
Is Thief in 2014 set to be the title to steal our next-gen gameplay hours or will the stealth series fall under the radar?
There will be plenty of players new to Thief who don't know the earlier versions of the title. The latest has been described by Edios Montreal, the game's publishers, as a re-imagining of the series, not a sequel or prequel to the previous games. That's the best fit, really, as it will open out the series to its widest scope of potential players.
If, of course, stealth games are to your taste. Because Thief is all about tip-toeing, hiding in the shadows and being a clever clogs about achieving your all-important goals and heists. Goals that, unsurprisingly, revolve around pinching, stealing, robbing, thieving - as the game's title would suggest.
We start our game with a brief introduction to the key characters. There's Garrett, the master thief and protagonist whom you play, supported by the burly Basso, an apparently former thief who lands you jobs. Basso even has a communicative magpie. Well, how about that?
Set in an imagined city that seems to resemble a dark and dank early 19th century Britain - accents included, honest guv - there's the usual rich versus poor story bubbling away in the background. The city's Baron holds all the wealth and power, the people live in squalor and then there's Orion, the voice of the people, who is on the cusp of rallying the masses into revolt.
As much as this intro titillated, it had an apparently small bearing on the actual gameplay that we saw. Garrett seems to be out for himself more than the Robin Hood kind. The world as it was, eh?
Thrown into gameplay we start in a clock tower that Garrett has adopted as his place of residence. High above the city it gives a good impression of the scope that's at play. You meander across rooftops, jumping and diving from the first-person perspective often just represented by a pair of hands on the screen. Make foolish jumps and you'll come tumbling down to earth in a bloody mess, so you'll need to be highly aware of the landscape around you.
The first gameplay mechanic to get a grip of is the concept of light and shadow. To the bottom left of the screen is an icon that fades between black and white relative to whether you're in light or shadow and, therefore, how visible you are. There's no doubt that the game takes on the stealth concept with vigour.
Problem is, in its current state, enemies' visibility seems somewhat binary at times. You can be staring a guard pretty much in the face from a shadow and he won't spot you. Unless, that is, he's holding a flaming torch which will illuminate your hiding spot.
There's definitely potential for some clever dynamics here and the final title will surely make good use of them. Some clever examples are that guards will be aware of things that change in specific locations. Leave a window or cupboard door open in a room, for example, and they'll more than likely be on your case. Nice touch.
The second gameplay mechanic you'll need to get a grip on is the whole process of control. This is one tough game, akin to cracking a safe. There are a lot of controls, all of which you'll need to learn in order to produce fluid motions throughout the cityscape. The learning curve is steep - we fell foul of groups of guards numerous times and were pummelled to pieces.
Always up for the challenge we kept on plugging away, with repeat killings proving that this isn't a hand-to-hand combat title as such. You need to pick out your enemies out of sight. Jump at them from above, unsuspected, to dispatch them quickly.
We do enjoy a stealth game, but we're just as keen to pull out a Doom-style BFG gun and blow everything to hell. Not that, in 1800-and-something, that could ever happen. We await the PC mod hacks next year to see whether someone will change that up.
It's not all stealing and hand-based tactics, however. We're quickly into collecting various arrows with a multitude of uses. There are blunt arrows for making noise - another dynamic that you'll need to grasp to avoid detection - hooked arrows for gripping hold of objects and pulling them - think drawbridges, distant objects, or high-up escape routes via vertical rope-climbing - in among standard pointed arrows, fire arrows and more that we're yet to see.
With so much choice you'll need to be a shrewd player. Your arsenal is small so you'll want to use it sparingly. This is a thinking man's game. It's not a GTA V style "should I use the RPG or the shotgun?" kind of fare. It's about plotting routes, thinking around goals and executing things with perfection - once you've mastered the controls.
Perhaps the most fun element, for us, wasn't to do with the arrow firing but with locating those harder-to-find entrances into buildings to scout out additional scores of goodies to steal. There are plenty of valuable things to nab - and you'll need to do so in order to barter with street sellers to trade for other useful items. Breaking into a locked door has an essence of Fallout about it in order to pick the lock, while the game at times felt like a medieval era Dishonored (minus the robotics) painted with some additional realism.
Garrett also has a "focus" ability where the world transforms into a grey-ish shadow to assist your heightened senses in locating those all-important objects and clues that you'll need to seek out. It's visually entertaining, but then the game as a whole pulls off the muddied, miserable palette of the era rather well. And we mean that as a good thing. It's inviting from a gamer's point of view.
It's interesting to play and out-and-out stealth game as it's something we've not seen for a while in this kind of context. Hitman: Absolution, with its car explosions, drug overdoses and the like, was hardly a title to compare. And for those thinking that Eidos was going to push out a Deus Ex style title - think again. Thief sticks to the art of stealing, and avoiding being caught.
It's not quite stolen our hearts yet, largely because it's as hard as trying to crack a safe. But if you're a serious gamer that likes to think through a challenge and has plenty of patience then Thief looks to deliver that in its own style. We see the light in among the shadow.
Thief will be released on 28 February 2014, available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.