New Thief PS4 gameplay & preview – how’s Garrett’s return shaping up?

In its current state, Thief doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not talking about the cartoonishly evil villains who shoot lackeys in the face for sport (good lackeys are hard to find), or Garrett’s incongruous aversion to murder but total readiness to rob the City’s starving poor of their last copper coin. What doesn’t make sense is how two­ and­ a ­half years after Deus Ex: Human Revolution, developers Eidos Montreal have made a game that ­ less than a month before release has taken several steps backwards from Adam Jensen’s excellent cyberpunk stealth­-em-­up.

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New Thief PS4 gameplay & preview

Where Jensen moved gracefully through secret labs and underground bunkers, just getting about the world can be a struggle for protagonist Garrett, most flat­footed of thieves. The free­running he uses to vault over the city rooftops is cumbersome and more than once saw me accidentally bound over a wall only to find nothing but a steep drop on the other side. Garrett’s also remarkably picky about what he will and will not deign to climb. Much of the city is timber frame construction, but whereas in Assassin’s Creed you’re free to scrabble up the merest crack in the paintwork, Garrett will sit in front of many perfectly scalable surfaces and stubbornly get hacked to pieces by pursuing guards.

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The clunky movement system can make stealth difficult. Slipping unseen past guards just doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should when all you’re doing is tossing glass bottles into the corners of rooms to lure them away and then hightailing it to the exit while their backs are turned. Garrett does have a Swoop move, which lets him move quickly across short distances ­ but it’s a poor substitute for Dishonored’s surgically precise Blink ability.

I found myselves missing Corvo’s toolbox of magical macguffins the more I played. Where transforming into a rat or freezing time would open up new paths to Dishonored’s objectives, Garrett generally treads a more linear path. From time to time you’ll uncover a back entrance to an area (especially if you’ve purchased the ratchet that unscrews vent covers) but for the most part stealth felt like creeping quietly down a funnel.

Thief lets Garrett dash across rooftops, although not a smoothly as we’d like.

It’s also quite hard to screw up. As mentioned last month, the guards patrolling the City are sharp as ping pong balls and reliably fail to notice Garrett crouching in shadow a foot from the end of their noses. They also react with laudable cool­ headedness when attacked, in one case standing stock still while I pinged arrows into them from across a well­ lit room.

If you do get caught by plod, you’ve usually only one option: flee. Garrett’s no fighter and is artificially limited in the number arrows he can carry – where Deus Ex gave you choice in how to approach its objectives, in Thief you either play by Garrett’s rules or go home. Guards will swarm in once alerted, charging you with swords or sniping with crossbows. You have a tiny club. One­-on­-one you might clobber a pursuer to death, but large detachments quickly become overwhelming. It’s the worst of both worlds: sneaking past guards doesn’t feel rewarding, while getting caught and killed feels unfair.

Where Deus Ex gave you choice in how
to approach its objectives, in Thief you
either play by Garrett’s rules or go home

Fortunately, running away is an excellent solution in 90% of encounters. The guards can’t climb (though they do wield irksomely accurate throwing knives), so rooftop escapes are a cinch, and even a couple of left and right turns in the streets will throw them into confusion. But my frequent jogs to safety brought up another gripe: just how fake and empty the game’s world feels.

Here’s a good story to illustrate these last two points: one mission in Thief requires Garrett to break into a brothel to steal an old book from the secret underground library (that all brothels have). The tight corridors were unsuited to stealth, and more than once the level ended with me leading a murderous conga line of guards around the soft furnishings, only dying when I ran into a dead end or accidentally vaulted over a balustrade and fell to my doom.

Thief’s environment can feel lifeless and sparsely populated.

Frustrated, I finally threw stealth to the wind and made a mad dash for the finish line, sword­ swinging garrison in tow. Nearing the objective and looking to shake my pursuers, I ducked into one of the velvet curtained salons to find a hiding place. I ended up crouching next to a working girl and her punter, who continued their scripted canoodling on the red banquette, oblivious to the masked assassin now crouching on the pillow. Guards wandered about outside, shouting for me. The couple carried on unabashed.

That sense of humanity as window dressing makes the game’s core business of thieving a hollow experience. Garrett has main storyline heists to pull off, as in the brothel, but earns spending money burglarizing the city’s general population ­ exclusively in their absence. No­ one is ever home when Garrett arrives to pinch the silverware, even though candles burn in almost every house. Occasionally you’ll hear two NPCs having an improbably expositional conversation through a wall or an unopenable window (“gosh, Mary, if anyone were to find out I’d hidden my wedding ring on the roof outside, I don’t know what I’d do!”) but bashing on said window with Garrett’s club to no response only makes these pseudo­encounters feel all the shallower.

Thief lets you rob a houses almost at will but it’s an exercise in cash grinding rather than artful stealth.

These are Potemkin houses you’re robbing, and the odd notes and snatches of dialogue are nothing but embellished objective markers. Most crushingly, breaking and entering lacks variety and quickly becomes a grinding exercise in wallet­padding. Walk up to a closed window. Press Square to insert levering tool. Hammer Square to force window. Open every single drawer in the one closed room for interchangeable pieces of loot. Repeat. Sometimes you’ll find a locked chest which Garrett has to pick, but the lockpicking minigame requires no skill: only that you rotate the analogue stick until a white circle appears and press R2. That’s it. No breaking picks, no timing, no­ one walking in on you and screaming for the guards. Thieving is Thief’s most tiresome activity.

It’s a sorry thing to say about a series with such pedigree, but from all the time I’ve spent with the game, Thief still feels like a Beta build ­ all mechanics in need of tuning, a world in need of fleshing out. It’s an inevitable comparison, but there is just nothing here ­ not one element ­ that Thief does better than Dishonored. Perhaps some of the niggles can be stamped out with a day­ one patch ­ but with this much to fix in such little time, it’s hard to see how even Garrett could escape the noose this unfinished experience is tying for him.