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Hands-On: Thief

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Posted on October 9, 2013 AT 06:00am

Dark Prospect

I refuse to believe that Thief is coming out in four months. It just can’t.

I understand that previews traditionally try to view a game on its own terms, assuming the best and glossing over the inherent flaws of any work-in-progress, but that seems too disingenuous here. My recent hands-on time with Thief showcased a demo that was falling apart at the seams. There’s no way I can, in good conscience, sugarcoat that. I have never in my life played a preview build that was accompanied by so many caveats and explanations from the developers—certainly not one that’s allegedly nearing completion.

Dialogue, we were told, was placeholder, and the finished product would have more narrative oomph. Crucial textures were missing, so I had to be told the solution to a couple of puzzles. An arrow type wasn’t working right, so I couldn’t employ it for half of its intended uses. Jumping from ropes was a completely unpredictable nightmare, since the default solution if the game determines you can’t make the leap to a platform is to force you to fall to your death as soon as you press the jump button. One clue didn’t appear in my inventory after I’d picked it up—and it disappeared from the world—so I was forced to reload my old save and memorize the map just so I could find my objective. A piece of loot I encountered would freeze my game each and every time I tried to pick it up.

But, for all I know, those bugs and missing pieces might have relatively simple solutions that can be slapped into place on short notice. The bigger problem, by far, is the disappointing state of the City. Granted, I was only able to explore one of several districts, and the play area was further shrunk down by a third to a half thanks to temporary gates erected for the purpose of the demo. If anything, though, you’d think that would give the team an opportunity to put their best foot forward, to really polish up this one confined space to give me a condensed slice of their ideal Thief experience.

Instead, I got a world that felt utterly dead. In all, I encountered something like six guards and two civilians wandering around the streets. Once I knocked them all out with my blackjack—about five minutes of work made slightly longer by the simple-but-clunky combat system—I was free to wander the City at my leisure, since they never woke up or received reinforcements.

In addition, there were a dozen or so beggars—but, as far as I could tell, they had absolutely no AI. They couldn’t make eye contact while asking me to spare some gold. They didn’t react when I started clubbing their friends unconscious less than a foot away. They were empty, vacant-eyed decorations with a few lines of dialogue to spout. They were props. If it weren’t for the modern graphics, I’d have sworn I was playing a game from 1997.

I managed to finish about six of the side missions available in the demo, and only one involved encountering any NPCs whatsoever. That instance consisted of a sleeping girl and her father, who walked back and forth across his living room before taking long pauses to face the wall. Taking him down was trivial, but it was at least an improvement over every other objective, which basically boiled down to breaking into an empty room and stealing something, sometimes hidden behind a switch or lock-picking minigame.

This, as you might imagine, is problematic. At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s no point to a stealth game if there’s no one to sneak past. I know that Garrett isn’t Sam Fisher. I don’t need hundreds of guards with AK-47s hunting me down everywhere I go. But the thrill in being a thief springs from the tension that comes from barely getting away with it. Sparse streets and empty houses deflate that tension completely. In its current state, they’d be better off calling the game Garrett Takes a Walk and Picks Things Up Along the Way.

To be clear, there’s a narrative explanation for the empty streets: A disease called “the Gloom” is sweeping through the population, forcing the government to institute a lockdown. I was also told that the City would become more populated later in the game, but I’m perplexed as to why they didn’t show us that. If the game is capable of environments bustling with life and personality, why not let us see them? Why hide something that paints the game in a positive light if it’s actually functioning?

The biggest disappointment is that there are a handful of things Thief appears to do exceptionally well. The visual and aural atmosphere is fantastic, and I’m quite impressed by the level design, which manages to feel both organic and meticulously designed, forcing you to deconstruct pathways and entry points like little environmental puzzles. I’m also digging how distinctly physical Garrett’s interactions with the world feel. When you pick something up, it doesn’t magically pop into your inventory. You reach out a hand, grab it, and put it away. The same goes for opening doors, drawers, and windows. It’s far more convincing than anything I’ve seen in a first-person game.

But in the end, those minor triumphs won’t amount to much if there’s no underlying game to support them, and I’m not sure there will be come February. Barring the unlikely (but not impossible) chance that the demo I played was woefully unrepresentative of the current state of the game, I just don’t see it transforming into anything polished with the time they have left. I know Thief’s development has already been long and costly for Square Enix, and it might seem best to cut their losses and get it out the door without the care and time it desperately seems to need, but that would be a tragic way to resurrect one of the most respected and influential franchises of all time.

Shigeru Miyamoto once quipped, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” If anyone at Square Enix is reading this, think long and hard about which category you want Thief to fall into.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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