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Hands-On: Stealing a second look at Thief

Posted on January 24, 2014 AT 06:00am

Creeping forward

When I saw Thief back in October, I claimed there was no way the game would make its intended February release. After going hands-on a second time, I think it’s safe to say I was wrong.

Over the last three months, Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the classic stealth franchise has come a long way—much, much further than I ever expected it to—and it does indeed appear to be on track for launch.

This time around, nearly all of the placeholder content had given way to new, presumably final versions that tied things together much more cohesively from both a gameplay and story standpoint. All the arrow types worked exactly the way they were supposed to. Jumping to and from ropes was no longer a game of Russian roulette, but an intuitive and useful way to navigate.

Just as importantly, I was able to get a much better idea of the game’s full scope, and it’s quite impressive. Even rushing through the main missions, making almost no effort to loot the dozens of valuables hidden throughout each level, my lengthy four-and-a-half hours of playtime wasn’t enough to reach the halfway mark in the story. And keep in mind, that’s without touching any of the content in the City Hub, which contains nearly 50 sidequests and a frankly ludicrous amount of loot to pilfer. If you like what Thief has to offer, you’ll be happy to know that you’re in for a long, substantial ride.

The story missions themselves were likewise a pleasant surprise, balancing more guided, linear segments with open areas that allow for a bit more improvisation. While I didn’t have time to experiment with every possible pathway or approach, I felt like I was only scratching the surface of my available options—and one particularly clever environmental solution that helped me clear out a crowded brothel made me hopeful that there’s a wealth of neat secrets waiting to be discovered. There’s certainly a much greater sense of variety and careful pacing than you usually see in a stealth game, which could prove to be one of Thief’s greatest assets.

That being said, a few crucial elements still gave me pause. Technically, the game seemed to have a bit of a rough time on the PS4. The framerate dropped noticeably from time to time, and on two occasions, an audio file cued up twice in quick succession, turning a hapless guard into his own echo.

Whenever I got into open confrontation, the AI still seemed problematic as well. After sneaking from place to place in the City Hub to access my first few missions, I realized it was trivial to run through the streets without worrying about being detected. Even if I was spotted, I could just book it to the exit gate and leave with no consequences, save a slight bit of health gone from whatever arrows managed to nick me en route.

Once, I sprinted into a very well-lit, roofed-in, dead-end alley and hid behind the one small pillar in the center. I listened as the guard pursuing me ran up to the entrance, took one look, and decided aloud that I must have escaped. Another time, I ran into a dark room and closed the door behind me. When the three guards chasing me barreled in and crowded around the open doorway, I casually shot all of them in the head, one by one, without any of the others noticing my low-speed massacre. Any time I was forced into melee combat, I found I could pretty much guarantee victory by mashing the attack button without ever bothering to dodge. It was all a bit Keystone Kops, to be honest.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that many of these issues won’t crop up if you’re playing Thief the way a Thief game should be played: silently and nonviolently. And the staggering number of minor tweaks you can make to the difficulty settings mean you really can have an experience that holds you to that high standard—one where you’ll never need to run from guards or engage them in open combat, because being spotted would result in instant failure.

But, the fact of the matter is, I noticed these things because the default settings allowed me to experience them, and to a certain extent, I have to assume that’s exactly how the majority of players will approach the game, adapting to broken stealth by fighting or fleeing.

There’s still a bit of time left for Eidos Montreal to add the final coat of polish Thief deserves, and I hope they pull it off. Even before the game started to win me over, I saw enough potential to know that the game could eventually be great, and now it seems one step closer to that goal.

So, yes, I’ve still got my fair share of reasons to be skeptical, but I think I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve played the finished product in its entirety.

After all, Thief has already proven me wrong once.

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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