Oh, the indignation of owning a totally sweet sword and struggling to hit anything with it. It was a disarming gesture in 1998's Thief: The Dark Project – to be turned into a chronic bumbler in confrontation, but a master thief in shadow and silence. The game was better when you hid from it.
The skilled and unacknowledged player still has a place in the new Thief, now under the guidance of Eidos Montreal. I recently gained a sense of the first-person stealth game's priorities and its adherence to Looking Glass' foundation, thanks to a sneaky stroll inside a cordoned-off piece of a grimy city. The city connects crucial missions, but its crooked buildings hide additional objectives and its streets provide ample opportunity for pickpocketing and trouble.
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Thief's remade protagonist, Garrett, is gaunt and more cynical now. His narration still drives the story, and Eidos has introduced some clever ways to highlight his presence and illicit occupation. His hands are all over the place, and thankfully it is a place where law enforcement has not yet considered the value of fingerprints.
He runs his fingers across the frame of a painting in search of a switch, swipes the coarse stonework of a darkened hallway, and grasps the edges of a crate as he peeks around the edge. It's a simple bit of flair, but it conveys just a sense of texture and closeness in a game where you always have your nose pressed against things.
Garrett's operational space will span three districts of a large city, situated somewhere near the aesthetic crossroads of Medieval and Victorian. This invokes foreboding clock towers, grimy cobblestones and flickering lamps that can barely push back the darkness and the fog that stalks the streets. The aesthetics suit your low profile in the shadows, though I found them hard to read when it came to navigation.
You can climb certain obstacles and wooden perches automatically by holding the controller's left trigger – a quick clamber button – but it's not always clear when you'll vault up, or simply stand there inspecting the fine wood of a discarded crate. Is this one for climbing, or for decoration? The unexpected gaps in your line of traversal can be learned with practice, but it seems like a crucial failing of a system that seems designed to encourage and ease Garret's swift movement.
The unreliable parkour, however, does promote safety in its own way – Thief isn't forgiving when you fall from a serious height, so it really is best to look before you leap. I found that careful, staccato dashes across and above the city streets got me to my targets with certainty, even if it didn't feel as cool as vaulting over railings recklessly.
Though there is a satisfying power at play in Thief – the ability to steal things from under the game's guards, lights and other systems of detection – it's also a game of resource conservation and expenditure. Arrows to extinguish flames or choke suspicious patrolmen are the obvious consumables, more so than Garrett's health (which does not recharge on its own) or his ability to focus. Focus doesn't recharge without item use either, which makes its use feel more calculated, a little risky, and more exciting when you pick just the right time to trigger it.
Focus visually highlights traps or items of value (both in terms of interaction and monetary value) in a cool blue, and is actively used to hasten Garret's pilfering processes. I was on the verge of being discovered, for example, but triggered focus to complete my lock-picking quickly and slip behind the door unnoticed. Once I had looted the tailor's store, I ventured back outside to find the city's other shining spoils.
The city hub is reminiscent of the one in Thief: Deadly Shadows, offering the chance to explore and sample Garret's regular nightshift outside of the plot. It doesn't exactly feel alive, gripped as it is by nighttime eternal, but a sleepy environment seems more apt for Garret's brand of burglary. I suspect new players will have a hard time finding their confidence in the climbing, however, and they may be surprised by Thief's grounded stealth.
Eidos Montreal's game seems reticent now, but still poised to reveal itself over time. Thief is due on February 25 next year for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PC.