During GDC we had a chance to see a guided playthrough of Thief, a contemporary reboot of the classic PC stealth games. The presentation and demos were technically impressive, showcasing the advanced lighting and shadow techniques that the developers are using to take advantage of next-generation hardware. But the gameplay didn’t seem all the way there, and while it's still early in the development process I have some concerns that need to be addressed before I can get excited for the game.
In most regards, Eidos Montreal’s return to the classic Thief franchise is a welcome one, but it's being modernized in ways that disregard some of what made the original series so strong—plus, it comes off a bit unbelievable in a time when stealth-action games have been elevated past a visual detection via light and darkness.
That’s the basis of stealth in the new Thief, and while it cleaves to the gameplay mechanics of the original games it also seems to rely heavily on dumb enemy AI. During our demo the player appeared to be sneaking into a home for the blind, and where’s the fun in that?
Thief takes place in a time of turmoil as franchise protagonist Garrett returns to a medieval city under lockdown. Class disparity is a prominent theme: the rich run free while everyone else struggles to survive by begging for their lives on the street corner. That said, Garrett is no Robin Hood; he's a thief out for himself, or so it seems at the beginning of the sequence we were shown. But as we watched a developer quietly guide Garrett through a brothel trying to claim a gold medallion from a local famed architect, he realizes that there’s more to this medallion as he originally thought.
Garrett seems stealthy and quick, allowing him to lift items and money from targets without the slightest chance of them finding out. But this dexterity comes at the cost of being weak and vulnerable in direct confrontations. Garrett can still pull off some fancy moves in a fight thanks to his focus fighting abilities, special maneuvers that we saw briefly—during a swordfight scene our player activated focus fighting and had to move a reticle to select enemy body parts, eventually targeting enough areas to chain together a powerful series of attacks.
Perhaps the coolest part of the demo was when Garrett went into a full sprint to reach his destination in time: the sprint morphed into a parkour sequence of sorts that was extremely reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge. It seemed as though the constant balance between speed and efficiency, working with stealth and managing Garrett's time in the light and darkness, implied interesting tradeoffs in gameplay that didn't show up anywhere else in the demo.
At no other point during our demo was there a moment where Garrett had to make that tradeoff. It was all darkness and stealth, all the time. The developer constantly emphasized the need for stealth, but didn’t really clarify what happened if you were spotted and had to go on the offensive. As much as the comparison to Dishonored shouldn’t be drawn, the ability to step into the light and engage enemies became very popular, rare in a genre that typically discourages such action. It would have been nice to see some clarification on the outcome of the situation if you chose to forgo the standard stealthy route, especially in a game that’s so dependent on player choice.
We were also shown a second demo that focused on the technology behind the game. It was quite clear from the first look that the game was utilizing technology that isn't possible on current-generation consoles, an observation reinforced by the title’s launch platforms: PC, Playstation 4 and whatever home console Microsoft is working on. The light rendering techniques and particle effects we saw aren't possible on current gaming consoles, which are roughly eight years old at this point.
For a game that’s doing so much technically to bring itself to the modern age, it’s a bit concerning that the same can’t be said for the gameplay. The focus combat and parkour segments are interesting, but the stealth segments feel out of place and ill-constructed. In an age where developers can trust the player to be smarter, it’s weird to see them assuming that the player won’t notice how stupid and predictable the AI can be.
Of course, this all came from a scripted, developer-driven demo playthrough, so things could certainly play differently in the final game For now, color me skeptical on whether Thief 4 can retain and improve upon what made the series important in the first place.