Thief PS4 preview – stealing from the past to reboot the future

Thief ps4

[Update: check out a load of Thief 4 PS4 screens here.]

Thief is, and always was, a game about avoiding combat. The streets teem with guards you’re not supposed to kill and somewhere in the steampunk-Gothic-industrial sprawl of ‘The City’ is a building full of loot that you want. Sticking to the shadows and moving silently is essential. At the heart of the experience, game director Nicolas Cantin tells us, is a simple gameplay loop: infiltrate, loot, escape.

Thief PS4 preview

“We wanted to keep the main pillars of what was a Thief game,” explains Cantin. “It was really important to us. We had carte blanche – we were able to do almost anything we wanted to do – but at some point we constrained ourselves within that Thief experience.” Those pillars, Cantin says, are playing as a true thief, rather than an action hero in a leather facemask – “The fantasy of being a thief was really important. It was one of the first things I wanted to keep” – and using darkness as your primary weapon: “The contrast plays a big part in the art direction. When we talk about Thief, we talk about light and shadow.” Well, that sounds like Thief, but will it feel recognisable?

“We wanted to keep the main pillars

of what was a Thief game” 

In the demo we’re shown, the streets are rife with pestilence and a gigantic wealth gap as a tyrannical ruler enjoying an opulent lifestyle at his people’s expense. It’s part Dickensian London, part Dunwall. Men clad in filthy rags beg guards to spare their lives before choking in the noose. Garrett, ever the observer, remains entirely impassive as he’s pulled through by cart. Already we’re introduced to the main characters of the game – the thief, and his stomping ground.

Thief 4 ps4

The latter is incandescent with detail and atmosphere, dynamic with NPCs and their conversations, candle light flickering across brickwork, wide vertical and horizontal boundaries for exploration, and a skyline to stop you in your tracks. There’s a central hub where you’ll get to upgrade gear and hawk stolen goods, before departing to other areas for set missions: open-world this is not, and nor should it be. Better to maintain the detail in a few memorable locales.

In Thief games past and present, you’re not equipped to lay whole postcodes to waste. Maybe you’ll come out on top of one swordfight, but a second is suicide. In more than 30 minutes of gameplay at Eidos Montreal HQ, I never even see Garrett’s sword. Instead, the master thief relies on his trusty bow, an instrument of distraction as well as destruction.

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In one inspired sequence, I watch Garrett track an architect named Eastwick to an underground cathouse, the House Of Blossoms, licking his lips as he eyes Eastwick’s gold medallion. He fires an arrow towards a bottle, creating a sound that shepherds one guard into an adjoining room. Then he sneaks behind another to whack him around the head with another old stalwart, his Blackjack. With the first guard still investigating the noise next door, Garrett switches back to his bow and launches an arrow at a lever that drops an iron gate, trapping the remaining foe behind it.

Thief 4 ps4The glimpse of other tools at your disposal is encouraging. Standard arrows are accompanied by special projectiles that extinguish flames using dry ice (a faintly more plausible version of the previous games’ water arrows) or expel smoke for you to disappear into. Then there’s the Claw, it’s your prototypical grappling hook thingy that allows for greater vertical movement, giving you access to the upper nooks and crannies of The City’s towering tenements and Medieval structures.

There’s no mention of a return for the moss arrows that muted your footsteps, the noisemakers or flash bombs, but there’s also no steampunk bazooka. Thief’s toolset is geared towards manipulating your environment, not killing. This is about being the mouse among cats, and in that respect the blueprint of this reboot’s source material is unmistakably present.

 The blueprint of this reboot’s source

material is unmistakably present.

I might as well get one of the changes out of the way now through so people can go and set fire to the internet. There’s a Focus mode, Garrett’s new augmented-vision ability. Here, Eidos Montreal feeds Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Smart Vision through Victorian machinery and crafts a faintly plausible in-canon ability out of it – Garrett lost an eye during Thief: The Dark Project and had it replaced with a mechanical orb fashioned by the Keepers.

Thief 4 ps4Previously, that eye could zoom in on faraway scenes and be thrown under doors to check out the next room. In Thief’s PS4 incarnation, said mechanical eye teams up with Garrett’s nefarious instinct to highlight loot, secrets and guards in ghostly blue against a grey fog when you enter Focus mode. It also slows time, enabling you to pick pockets or strip opulent ladies of their jewellery before they realise they suddenly got lighter. It doesn’t feel shoehorned, it’s an extension of the glimmer that used to dance over the low-poly loot items in Thief games past.