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What Is Yours Can Be Mine: Thief Stealth Preview


We’ve seen Eidos Montreal’s 2014 reboot of Thief in motion. Our impressions, as well as details of new stealth mechanics, follow!


Garrett’s voice is a familiar thing: husky, cynical, not giving anything away. “I’ve been gone, but I can’t tell you where,” he intones, moments of his life flashing before us like meaningful, weathered snapshots. Garrett’s hands curled around the splintery wood of the slats of a horse-drawn cart; from within, he peers at a City now riddled with disease and rotting bodies. His vision is bleached of colour and zeroed in on a hapless woman as he snatches three pieces of jewellery from her body in one fluid motion. Buildings fall and fires crackle in the street as a charismatic leader rallies for a revolution; Garrett’s mechanical eye glowers in the darkness.

This is Sneaky Bastards’ exclusive first glimpse of Thief’s gameplay in action. Producer Stephane Roy and level design lead Daniel Windfeld Schmidt anxiously eye us, trying to read our reactions. Roy chances a small smile in our direction.

“Do you feel that Thief is back?” he asks.

Our goal is to aim for the stars and see if we can be as standalone as they were at the time

 
105172K13-Apr-4-Thief Screenshot 006“The original Thief was one of a kind – it stuck out from all the other games of the time, it tried something new,” Schmidt recounts. “Our goal is to aim for the stars and see if we can be as standalone as they were at the time. To live up to the legend.”

It’s been fifteen years since The Dark Project rattled our senses like keys on an unsuspecting guard’s belt, and nearly a decade since we last got to step into Garrett’s footwear in Deadly Shadows, the series’ third – and as many of us thought, final – outing. Roy explains, though, that this new Thief is neither a prequel nor a sequel.

“For the first time, the title is just ‘Thief,’” he says. “There’s no ‘The Dark Project’ or ‘The Metal Age.’ It’s Thief – that’s it. It emphasises that the series has been restarted.”

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Though we made strong comparisons to Dishonored upon Thief’s recent unveiling, the developers don’t necessarily take this as an insult. Roy emphasises that both games draw heavily on the same source, that being the original three Thief games – so much so that even some of Dishonored’s concept art was influenced directly by Garrett.

48322K13-Apr-4-Xiao Xiao office“We played Dishonored,” Schmidt says openly, “and it’s an awesome, awesome game.”

“But when we were playing it, we were like, ‘this is not what we want to do,’” Roy adds. “This is not Thief for us. You have the option to deal with things the way you want, but unlike Dishonored, we’re not all about the killing. The challenge is in stealing, getting to inaccessible things.”

Dishonored’s approach to steampunk also helped to “ground” Thief, inspiring Eidos Montreal to move away from the more mystical and arcane aspects that Dishonored gifted its protagonist with, and that the prior Thief games’ lore was built upon. “If everything is magical,” Schmidt explains, “you lose your connection to the world. It’s a very important part of the story, but we didn’t want your character to shoot fireballs.”

 The challenge is in stealing, getting to inaccessible things

 
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48242K13-Apr-4-embargo-Barricade-ShieldsFor the same reason, Eidos chose to largely eschew Deadly Shadows’ third-person option, saving that largely as a “pacing-breaker” used in specific challenges. However, Garrett’s presence in the City will remain very tactile, with his hands visibly gripping corners and ledges as he peers from the shadows. Also heightening realism is a redesign of the AI, making guards and other people in the world follow much more believable patterns.

“If a guard saw Garrett, would you expect him to just return to his patrol?” Schmidt asks. “If he found his co-workers dead, how would you expect him to behave as a human – while still making him predictable and fair to the player?”

Most games’ AI only project their line-of-sight cones through the characters’ chests, Schmidt says, as it’s difficult to match up with subtle animations. For Thief, Eidos Montreal instead chose to have AI see through the characters’ eyes – meaning that a guard might be able to spot you while idly looking over his shoulder.

“Every thirty seconds or so, the guard’s going to look away and then” – Schmidt snaps his fingers – “that’s your chance. You have to pay real attention to finding that little snippet of opportunity.”

Every thirty seconds or so, the guard’s going to look away and then – that’s your chance

 
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One thing that didn’t sound quite so promising was whether stealth would be just as tricky to accomplish vertically, too. Do the guards ever look up, we asked, or will a thief positioned high above the ground be at a distinct advantage? Will finding a way to the roof make things too easy, too simple?

105162K13-Apr-4-Thief Screenshot 005“They have a limit to looking upwards,” Schmidt admits. “If they see you climb up there, if you make noise up there, they will look up. They will react.”

It sounds as if they won’t necessarily be scanning the upper reaches of buildings for uninvited guests, but Schmidt insists this is part of “empowering” the player to reach higher vantage points. “It’s going to cost you some work to get to that position; we’re not going to give that to you for free.”

But the reward? An aerial takedown, which joins stealth takedowns as a resource-free way of taking out guards. We were concerned about such absolute moves being so easily accomplished, but Schmidt assures us that providing the player a challenge akin to the original Thief experience is always at the forefront of his approach to level design.

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We’re not making a game about a soldier, a killer. Your job is to stealth

 
If, like us, you worried that one of the modern-age features carrying over into Thief would be the ability to play in an overly cinematic, bloody style, you can relax. Roy points at Dishonored’s recent success as a sign that stealth games are still viable and in heavy demand with players, and he goes on to clarify what that means for Thief: “We’re going to give you tools to protect yourself, but at the same time, we’re not making a game about a soldier, a killer. Your job is to stealth. What can we do to make sure that you understand and accept that that could happen in the Thief universe without Garrett being a killing machine?”

48232K13-Apr-4-embargo-ArrowsThe incentive to stealth will be ever-present. This will be achieved by introducing some of what Schmidt calls “fragility” to Garrett’s situation. “You’re not going to have all these tools to begin with,” he says. “You’ll have two arrows and there’ll be three guards. Pick your battle.”

Made too much noise around a guard, only to find your quiver empty? There’s a melee system that acts as a fallback. Though it’s not dependent on the focus resource, Schmidt assures us, with a laugh, that it’s “pretty tough to play one-on-one with a guard;” it’ll take a truly hardy player a lot of skill and patience to try to swordfight his way through the game.

A completion screen at the end of each mission will list details of how you played; how many people you killed, how aggressive you were in pursuing your goals, or whether you were an effective “ghost.”

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One thing that had fans worried was the apparent lack of a light gem in Thief’s original unveiling. It was one of the first things Sneaky Bastards quizzed the developers on when we had the opportunity, but they assure us that it hasn’t been removed – only repositioned to the bottom-left of the screen, alongside the health bar.

“It’s still there, in a different sort of guise,” Schmidt points out. “But on top of that, there’s the new ‘shroud’ on the outer edge of the screen to support it.”

The shroud is a cloudy sort of vignette that gnaws at the corners and flashes briefly when the player moves between light and shadowed areas. This reduces potential hampering of the player’s immersion, Schmidt explains, while still providing a very clear indication to the player that his stealth may be compromised.

“Humans have very good peripheral vision,” he says, “but it’s good for movement, not for details.” The stealth shroud, he argues, is just enough to clue the player in on his situation without fully distracting him or drawing his eye away from the action. “The old fans might be like, ‘Oh, we don’t need that, just give us the gem!” but try it. It feels really natural.”

It may not be something that we’ll truly come to terms with until we play it, but ultimately, Schmidt felt the light gem was a little intrusive. “The challenge shouldn’t be within the UI or the controls,” he says. “It should be within the game itself, so you remain immersed.”

105142K13-Apr-4-Thief Screenshot 003

We will support being able to get through the level without taking out guards. It won’t be easy

 
Adding to the challenge are optional, player-determined objectives, such as “ghosting” or completing missions without killing anybody. You can fire an arrow into a guard’s eye socket, take him out silently with the blackjack, or use your wiles to just plain slip by.

48182013-Apr-4-CGI-ScreenCap“We will support being able to get through the level without taking out guards. It won’t be easy,” Schmidt grins, “and I’m going to make sure it’s a challenge, that’s for sure.”

That’s the beauty of Garrett’s 2014 return, Roy adds. Eidos Montreal wants to have players of all persuasions find something to sate their appetites for their own brand of stealth.

“How do you want to play this game?” Roy asks. “Do it. Really. It’s not just a tagline, it’s not just bullshit. Really. Do it.”

Katie Williams

Further Investigation
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The Man In The Iron Mask
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Neon Struct Developer Interview – Structural Analysis
We speak with Neon Struct developer David Pittman about the game's colourful world and clean stealth systems.
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Fifty Shades of Black: Splinter Cell Blacklist Hands-On Preview
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Thief Revealed
Eidos Montreal's take on the stealth genre's masterpiece has finally been brought out of the shadows. See the first screenshots, video and official details here.
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Neon Struct Stealth Review – The Fluorescence Age
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A Midnight Sermon
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Our deep dive analysis of the Thief reboot concludes with a holistic look at its stealth systems in the context of the game's level design.
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Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part 11 – Big City Life
The hub world of the City in the Thief reboot features some well-designed sidequests within confusing architecture.
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Lay Down Thy Hammer: Thief Hands-On Preview
The Darkest Project: Tangiers Stealth Preview
The Man In The Iron Mask
Neon Struct Developer Interview – Structural Analysis
Fifty Shades of Black: Splinter Cell Blacklist Hands-On
Thief Revealed
Neon Struct Stealth Review – The Fluorescence Age
A Midnight Sermon
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Conclusion
Deep in the Shadows: Thief Design Analysis Part

12 Responses to What Is Yours Can Be Mine: Thief Stealth Preview

  1. By Subjective Effect, April 8, 2013 at 2:48 am

    it’s “pretty tough to play one-on-one with a guard;”

    That’s really good news.

    Re:Peripheral vision – humans have two eyes side by side. This gives us good peripheral vision to the left and right but not up and down; our visual field doesn’t extend very far upwards because we don’t have any predators or many threats that will come from above us in comparison to those on our level or on the ground we have to navigate.

    Having a stealth advantage when up high is only right and good.

  2. By Marrowmonkey, April 8, 2013 at 10:06 am

    I hear many good things but one worries me:
    “The shroud is a cloudy sort of vignette that gnaws at the corners and flashes briefly when the player moves between light and shadowed areas.”

    Does this mean the shadow-light system is now binary (or almost so)? In the previous Thief games the visibility system was gradient, adding much to the complexity of the core gameplay.

    I’m also curious about sound, almost nothing has been reveled so far even though it was an important aspect of the original games.

    • By Daniel Hindes, April 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

      There was a vague discussion of what next-gen hardware means for the implementation of gradient shadow areas, but we’ve no solid confirmation on how they will affect visibility or be communicated to the player. The same goes for sound design. In the future we’ll have another opportunity to probe deeper, now that Eidos Montreal is over the hurdle of revealing the game.

  3. By Tetracycloide, April 9, 2013 at 4:23 am

    I know they said “[Dishonored] is not what we want to do” but they’re making a stealth game with resource free takedowns, including aerial takedowns, that features heavy stealth advantages to verticality. Honestly, what difference does the number of arrows you have, the example for implementing combat fragility, make when there are resource free takedowns. The whole thing leaves me feeling like this will be Dishonored minus magic.

    I really like the parts about AI and vision though. It’s always bothered me that find a dead or unconscious body usually leads to a temporary alert in a stealth game but that makes no sense at all. Also love the focus on eye movements with vision cones. I’m not bothered that they don’t look up. Not only is that natural but anything of real value is likely to be at eye level anyway. Without blink it should be much harder to abuse as well.

    • By Justin Keverne, April 11, 2013 at 10:17 pm

      Technically Thief already had resource-free takedowns, and aerial takedowns; the Blackjack requires no resources and can be used while airborne. The latter is even tracked in the end of mission statistics screen.

    • By Sean Gabriel, April 19, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      The difference of course being that Mario’s and Blackjack KO’s required precision and skill. Pressing X doesn’t.

    • By Justin Keverne, April 19, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      Quite, this is where having to hold the button to “charge”, or something similar, would make sense. You’d have to release at exactly the right time or you’d fumble and the guard would be on you, change the timing for each guard, or each type of guard, and you’d always have to be paying attention. Timings, and the “sweet spot”, could then be modified based on difficulty level.

  4. By routtj, April 14, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Resource-free takedowns don’t bother me even a little; none of the classic stealth games had them. I’m looking forward to this game; the team is saying all the right things. And hey, at least the screenshots indicate that water arrows are back.

  5. By Stossel, April 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    After playing Dishonored and really thinking about guards and stealth games, it seems kind of absurd that killing guards is on the table in a game like Thief. I mean, if you killed a guard each time you went out on a job, people are going to think of you as a murderer, not a thief. A cat burglar is a problem that plagues a city, a serial killer (who also happens to steal stuff) sparks a manhunt.

    In Dishonored you’re not expected to behave one way or the other so its kind of permissible. But in a game like Thief, killing people, even if it’s just 1 drunk guard, should have serious ramifications. Perhaps not game-ending, but if noblemen had reason to believe that not just their jewels but their lives were at stake here, they’d be pulling out all kinds of stops.

    Going along with that, I’d like to see guards react defensively to seeing you with an arrow drawn at them. Like, maybe have guards not be so eager to charge a guy aiming at his face. In that way, if you got into a sticky situation, you could essentially hold a “stick up” and then you’d have to quickly come up with a plan from there.

    I think I’ll definitely be going for the “ghost” status in Thief, anything else would threaten to break my immersion.

    • By Justin Keverne, April 19, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      I’d always perceived the City as a place where death is common: accidents, murder, disagreements that got out of hand etc. Death is treated in a fairly flippant manner by people in positions of power, nobles kill each other in family feuds and everybody shakes their head and moves on, if a commoner dies nobody even notices. City Watch and household guards kill on sight, nobody stops to check if you’re a thief or a murderer the punishment is always the same. Under those circumstances killing one or two people a night would barely register. Killing everybody though certainly should and it’s here I wish something more was done, if you’ve been violent it makes sense for that to be countered by an increasingly militarised guard force.

      Occasional City Watch sweeps of certain areas could make for interesting situations, having to avoid a large group as they patrol a certain section of the City methodically searching every building and hiding space for you.

  6. By Sean Gabriel, April 19, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    It would appear that you just put more thought into the game design of the new Thief than their whole team combined.

  7. By TheMich, April 19, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    “Garrett’s voice is a is a familiar thing”. Wait, what? Just the *idea* of a different voice actor gives me a very alienating feeling…

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