Thief 4: Pure, Unadulterated, Stealth
Gaming on the PC since the very early 90′s, I’ve tried to keep my hand in every major franchise that graced the platform. Thief was one of the few games that I didn’t have a close connection with, despite playing them enough to have some sort of appreciation for the stealthy mouse and keyboard classics. Looking Glass and Ion Storm, Warren Spector and Ken Levine — these are the words we associate with quality PC gaming (if not in the present, then at least in the past), and these are people held in the highest regard by veteran enthusiasts.
So here we are, roughly nine years after the release of Thief: Deadly Shadows. Are we ready for another Thief game? Can Eidos Montreal do well by fans of the classic and strict Stealth franchise? How does Thief stack up to the most obvious of competitors, Dishonored?
(I’m pretty happy that I made it over 150 words without mentioning Dishonored, by the way. That was pretty tough.)
Thief 4 is the story of Garrett, a reboot of the character found in all three Thief Installments. This is a tale of Robin Hood gone…indifferent. A plague has crippled the working and lower classes in The City, while the entitled castes exist in a bubble, uncaring of the chaos that’s spread like wildfire over the city. Garrett exploits the city tearing itself apart, stealing from the haves to give to himself.
The Thief 4 demo drops us outside the house of The Baron, the ominous villain who rules a Victorian-esque “The City” with no sympathy for the poor. The objective, The Heart of the Lion, is locked away in The Baron’s mansion, which Garrett must break into after navigating the maze of gardens, blockages, and guards. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos seems to be a recurring theme, as the Baron’s Guard is pre-occupied with keeping pyro-happy rioters at bay.
Navigating the gardens, in fact navigating Thief 4 in general, takes patience and a certain level of pacifism. Garrett does pack a few weapons – a multi-purpose bow, and a blackjack for close encounters – but running through the Baron’s Guards guns a-blazin’ led me to several untimely deaths. Your arrows, diverse but limited; your blackjack, inadequate and more of a defensive tool. Violence is not your true ally in Thief 4, as it is in Dishonored, but rather a last resort tactic to keep you in the game instead of dying back to an earlier checkpoint. The bow is a tool, shedding the weapon designation found in virtually every other game. It can kill, yes, but the water arrows, rope arrows, and other specialty tips are to serve stealth above all else.
Stealth is not the preferred route; it’s the only route. After trying several methods in the gardens (some intentionally unsuccessful), I found the easiest way to gain entrance to the mansion was to avoid conflict as much as possible. Subduing one guard was all it took, as the other half-dozen stayed blissfully unaware of Garret’s presence. In was in these trials that I learned how effective stealth really was — too effective at certain points. A cliché complaint, I suppose, but staring a guard in the face from less than ten feet away, even in complete shadow, seems too good to be true to me.
If stealth isn’t enough, Garrett can Focus, which reveals hints in the level design — pipes to climb, arches to perch on, and so on. I didn’t use Focus much during the demo, only because, once I was done testing the waters, I didn’t seem to need it…although Focus would have helped me avoid those dart traps, in hindsight.
The AI in Thief 4 is quite robust, as NPC reactions to my same movements over several playthroughs were varied. Light and time affect AI the most, and timing and position related to those two factors are only amplified by the “no violence” required of me.
The demo started to lose me a bit once I entered the mansion. The AI still sharp, the scenery still gorgeous, but some of the mansion’s trappings were very hard to believe. Who sets a dart trap in their second floor hallway, right next to the study? That’s secret agent’s arch nemesis territory, not “old and possibly senile” territory. Not even Howard Hughes went that crazy.
Garrett will be doing plenty of pick-pocketing in the open world of The City, but the mansion’s prize is tucked away, and presents more of a cat burglar scenario, rife with lock-picking and other puzzles, artwork switches, and traps. Clues come from Garrett himself (thinking out loud), and your environment, particularly NPCs. Thief 4 is definitely a game that rewards the eye for detail.
As sharp as ever, Garrett and his appetite for big scores is as insatiable as it was in 1998. The biggest difference between Thief 4 and its predecessors is the world in which Garrett exists — there’s a stark contrast between the good versus evil backdrop of the 90′s renditions and the steal-while-the-stealin’s-good vibe in the demo. If Garrett embraces the cause of those rising up against The Baron, it’s a side of the “protagonist” that we haven’t seen just yet in the reboot.
We’ve all seen the Game Informer cover, along with the assets and info that followed, and the burning question seems to be how Thief 4 separates itself from Dishonored, a game developed by some of the very same people who were around Looking Glass and Ion Storm 10-15 years ago. The setting – a small, intimate city-state, a plague terrorizing the less fortunate, and a old man ruling with an iron fist – is the strongest connection between the two. But Dishonored is a hybrid of sorts, rewarding stealth but not requiring it at all times. Thief 4 is the strict tradition, the patience-and-stealth-until-you-walk-away-for-a-few-hours-out-of-frustration kind of tradition. There’s less magic involved, although the Focus and stealth pillars are evidence that it still exists. There are no guns, no Force-like powers, no inkling of superhuman.
Thief 4 is the Batman to Dishonored’s Superman, it seems; equal, but different. Two different takes on the same genre, with the former keeping the stealth purist in mind above all else. If sneaking is your modus operandi, Thief 4 is a must-try later in 2013.