The Thief reboot from Square could have been better.

The Thief series is a fondly remembered PC franchise that excelled at offering non-linear gameplay. You had an objective – usually stealing something the stupid rich – and you could go about it however you chose as long as you didn’t alert the authorities to your presence too much. The new Thief being developed for the next generation by Eidos Montreal certainly offers the stealthy gameplay the series is known for, but the presentation shown at the Square Enix booth during E3 put far too much emphasis on running through burning buildings.

Garrett is set on breaking into a mansion compound to steal a priceless treasure called the Heart of the Lion – all while a rioting mob sweeps through the City. The guards are on high alert in the mansion due to the situation outside the gates, which seems like an inopportune time to stage a break-in but that’s just the start of the nonsense. Still, Garrett uses many of the tricks at his disposal, such as rope arrows and an uncanny ability to move around without being seen.

It may have just been the demo, but it seemed the guards were intent on not seeing Garrett as he moved about the courtyard. Perhaps that’s because of the addition of a gameplay system called focus, which seemed to let Garrett get away with anything. Focus is essentially mana, and it’s consumed when you enter a mode that somehow heightens your senses to the point where you can see footsteps through obstructions. Focus makes everything easier, from picking pockets and locks to rushing from shadow to shadow without being seen. It honestly appears to be a cheat mode, so I was thankful when Stephen Gallagher from Eidos Montreal said you could turn it off in the menus.

At least focus doesn’t automatically regenerate. You have to collect poppy flowers to replenish it just like you need food packets to get back your health. It’s nice to have a scarcity of resources in a game like Thief, but of course that means you as the player might feel compelled to look in every crate or box you find. I know I will.

Garrett was able to sneak past all the guards without getting into a single bit of combat by stealing maps to find the right approach, turning off fountains, and breaking bottles with blunt arrows to distract the guards. He even made it to the secret vault chamber after finding the clues to its existence in the library, and then solved some simple puzzles to open the vault and grab the huge jewel that was the Heart of the Lion.
It’s really the next bit that bugged me the most about the presentation. Garrett decides the best way to escape the mansion and get back to the City is to cross a bridge that’s burning down. There follows a lengthy sequence of Garrett running through various burning chambers, dancing over burning rooftops and climbing through flames, all which seem needlessly dangerous for a so-called master thief. He wasn’t being chased or anything. There had to be a better option for escape. Why would you run in to fire? Why wouldn’t he escape over or under the water? There’s even one part of the sequence that involves freeing a boat from its mooring so you can use it to cross a short span of water under the collapsing bridge. Why didn’t Garrett just get on the dingy and row out of danger?

Answer: Because it’s a “game”.

I admit I may be reacting a bit too harshly. The stealthiness of the Thief series certainly does seem to be intact in this reboot and it’s clear you have to use your observational awareness and intelligence to complete the mission without getting into all-out combat. I was unimpressed with the focus mechanic, but if you can turn it off then it shouldn’t be too bothersome. I just hope the missions don’t devolve into nonsensical action sequences just because the developers want to show off the fancy flame animations in the next generation.

Look for Thief to come out for Xbox One, PS4 and the PC in 2014.

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