Oh the sweet smell of gaming. It's not everywhere at CES, and gets a bit lost amid the 2,340,989,456,930,865 cell phone case vendors on the show floor. But tucked away amidst the mass consumer mania are some great gaming gems. Notably, a little Thief hands-on demo at the AMD tent.
Thief is a game with a long and noble history, and the next-gen versions look like they'll do justice to the series. Gone are the conventional tropes from similar games, like XP and health regeneration and idiot-proof handholding prompts. During my Thief hands-on I found a game that is staying true to its roots and honoring fans by giving them the game they want instead of taking them for granted in an effort to reach the wider COD/BF4 action addict audience.
I'm not saying Thief will be a sales flop. Quite the opposite, actually. Thief has the distinction of being one of the first AAA next-gen titles with some serious name recognition to it. For Xbox One owners, it comes about before the blockbuster Titanfall which is arguably the most anticipated game on the 2014 calendar. For the rest of us, a February 25 release date means we won't be waiting long to get a good look at what those next-gen boxes we paid (A LOT) for are really capable of. On the 2014 release calendar, Thief is in a sweet spot.
During my Thief hands-on demo I was immediately struck by how gorgeous the game looks. And Thief isn't a game built around pretty things. The environments are dark and dank and dreary but come to life via some amazing textures. At one point I simply sat in an alley and marveled at a brick wall, until the PR rep pointed out a gorgeous lighting effect of lamplight streaming through a weathered window and illuminating a patch of fog. Obviously, the game needs to be a bit more exciting than staring at fog, but the honeymoon period for next-gen gamers is still in full effect and Thief gives us plenty of drool-worthy moments. (Insert snarky PC Master Race comment here.)
There's more to Thief than pretty pictures and it didn't long for me to get down to business. As I previously reported in October, Thief is not a game about brawling and violence. Unlike the last great first-person sneaker Dishonored, there is no blood-soaked safety net awaiting players who stumble across the guards. I was a bad Thief on my first attempt and two guards spotted me almost immediately.
"Oh, a two on one? You're f--ked," Ryan Arbogast, the PR handler for the demo, casually told me. He was right. As we learned at NYCC, Garrettt is no brawler and Thief doesn't have some crazy melee system that lets you string together neck-snapping moves like you would in, say, Assassin's Creed. The name of the game is stealth, plain and simple. Hack and slash fans need not apply.
After a few helpful hints from Ryan I managed to make my way to the first stop in the demo, a jewelry store. Navigating the city in Thief also brings out the "everyman" aspect of Garrettt. Yeah, he's a great thief. But he's not some mystical acrobat capable of parkouring his way up every wall or teleporting to nearby ledges. There are only so many objects he can climb and vault across, most of which are marked with a few subtle scratchmarks. It's a telling visual cue once you know to look for it, but it doesn't have a hand-holding feel. This is Thief, after all. It's supposed to be hard. It's supposed to be a game about being quiet, being observant and being a pro.
Garrett does have a focus ability that will highlight objects of interest, like loot or locks or containers. But the focus meter is limited and doesn't refill automatically, another nice difficulty touch that I think lets Thief stand out in a genre too often defined by easy gameplay. You can't just leave your focus on constantly and hunt and peck from one highlighted object to another. You need to look around and judge things for yourself. In short, you need to think like a thief.
Breaking into the jewelry store presented its own set of challenges. According to Ryan there were five possible points of entry for players to discover, but he helpfully guided me around the back to show me the "better" way. I had to pick a few locks, which is always something I enjoy in sneakers. The mechanic is the familiar "rotate the left stick" situation, but I was surprised by the precision required on a few of the locks I came across. Again, it's Thief. It's not supposed to be easy.
Looting the jewelry store revealed a few collectible items which will become part of Garrett's hideout. It's a kind of "visual achievements system" that lets players track where they've been and what they've done. Garrett likes the finer things in life and your hideout will (eventually) reflect that. There are a few equipment upgrades to be purchased along the way, but don't expect any XP or levelling. You are who you are from start to finish, and Garrett won't pick up any crazy moves or shortcuts to help you out.
All told my demo time probably took about 20 minutes, but I absolutely could've played Thief for much, much longer. The game lived up to the things we've heard so far and, as a fan of the series, really does bring back the bare bones feel that makes the game a truly rewarding challenge. I honestly can't wait for Feb. 25 to get here so I can plop down on my couch, turn out the lights and enjoy some AAA stealthing action.
I might even stare at a brick wall or two along the way.