Thief: NYCC 2013 Preview

Right before New York Comic Con, I got an invite to a Square Enix preview event showing off their new titles. At the top of my list was Thief, and when the PR rep mentioned where the demo machine was, I left only a cloud of dust in my haste to it.

I have only seen brief playthroughs and demos, nothing really giving me a good sense of what to expect from playing the new update to the Thief series. I had, however, read plenty of worrisome press talking of a troubled game that has the potential of missing the mark it is setting out to do by copying too much of the poor design choices of modern gaming. I’m sorry to say that I can see where these reports are coming from. An hour with the game has left me scratching my head as to what audience this game is intended for.

The demo places Garrett in a small section of town and tasks him with pilfering multiple locations of their golden trinkets. The objectives are marked on the map and can be handled in any order the player chooses with the task being only to get to it using whatever means necessary. This open-endedness really helped the game without driving the player towards a certain goal and giving me the chance to play around and explore the area without feeling forced into a single way. Stick to the streets and lurk behind the guards or scale the walls and stick to the rooftops, the choice is yours.

But here’s what is worrying me and is the easiest place for any stealth game to fall apart. After the player slinks from shadow to shadow, finally screws up, and gets caught, what happens then? The vast majority of stealth games give the player such power, such as the Metal Gear and Splinter Cells, that being caught simply turns the game into an action shooter. While I truly enjoyed Conviction, I was never afraid of being caught. Being caught only meant switching over to a machine gun and mowing the place down. The punishment for being caught in a stealth game is non-existent when the player still has the ability to easily overcome their attackers.

When I’m caught in a game like Thief and I’m not instantly aware of exit points and using evasion, then I should die. This is against a squad of guards or a singular one. They should be stronger than me at all times and the only advantage I have should be that I am more agile. A stealth game’s true strength in in movement. It’s where the Splinter Cell multiplayer got it right, taking away the offense options for the spy but giving them much more capable maneuvers. The ‘Spy vs Merc’ multiplayer mode is the poster child for the way stealth games should be and where the strength in the player and the guard should be.

Yes, make the game mean, make people die when they are caught. It forces me to learn what I did wrong, to mind my corners, and to be ever aware of the environment around me. I don’t learn how to be sneakier when I can easily dispatch guards when caught. In gaming, like all things, we learn from failure. The fact that the industry hasn’t taken this lesson away from Dark Souls is unbelievable. To see a game do something so right and to see that the community adores it for that very reason while games are being dumbed down in mechanics to justify a broader audience is the wrong thing to do.

So yes, I see why so many who have previewed the game are worried. It is struggling under the guise of being faithful to what Thief was back in the day and to the “broad” audience of today, which means that concepts get dumbed down in fear of pushing a player away.

What I hated was the idea of the chase being non-existent. Before my demo ended, I had a mishap that landed me, comically, in front of two guards after falling off a roof top. There was a brief moment before the guards registered that a person clad all in black had mysteriously fallen right in front of them. Granted, Garret’s costume isn’t one for subtlety, and I doubt many would struggle to understand his true purpose from this fact. Still, in the moment before the guards were able to yell, “Stop thief!” and pursue, I smacked one in the face with my melee weapon. My actions answered the question if I was up to no good, and the guards gave chase. I quickly sprinted away, ducked into an alleyway, and disappeared. I was barely running for a few seconds before I noticed I wasn’t being chased. The guards didn’t seem able to follow me down into the gutter. It wasn’t an unreachable place. The guards could’ve easily dropped down, but something about the change of depth threw them off. Were they so lowly paid that they only felt compelled to chase vagrants on the same street level? Whatever the reason was, my escape was uneventful, and my efforts felt wasted.

It is a real loss that few stealth games get the chance to highlight the thrill of the chase. When disaster strikes and a mess-up happens, how can I escape? I remember the days of hiding in a vent while watching the numbers slowly count-down to zero, sweating and hoping that the spot I quickly chose in a panic would suffice to stay out of the narrow sight of the guards. Being pursued in the original MGS wasn’t complex, but with a combination of visual and musical cues, it was pulse-pounding excitement. Thief, in my brief playthrough, lacked that excitement. Maybe it changes once the game progresses, but in this early segment, the guards seemed a minor inconvenience rather than a threat.

This is what makes previewing a game difficult, especially for someone like me who is relatively new to press junkets. I’ve played demos, but I have never sat down with a member of the development crew as he walks me through the title.

All that aside, my time with Thief was not all bad. I think as a whole it has me worried, but there are individual pieces that I quite enjoyed. One factor that stood out to me was movement. The game feels incredible sharp when it comes to traversing the very vertical landscape. The controls are reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed series where holding a button makes Garrett into a parkour master. While holding the trigger down (the game was the PC build but using a 360 controller), Garrett will automatically scale or interact with the environment fluidly, be it scaling a wall or hopping over.

This is something I talked about with my review of XCom: The Bureau. When a game tries to be all encompassing instead of directed at a specific audience and/or genre, gameplay gets misdirected. What Thief appears to be suffering from the most is making concessions to a crowd unfamiliar with stealth gameplay. It isn’t surprising. The past few years have been abysmal in training players how to avoid rather than engage. I don’t blame the players, though. Assassin’s Creed sums up all the problems with modern stealth games which is that the player is too heavily armed. Should any of the assassins get caught, they have a plethora of tools that make combat a breeze, so much so that it is actually more ‘fun’ to fight than to avoid. There are few examples of late where remaining unseen is emphasized more than combat, such as the Batman: Arkham series and Dishonored.

Will Thief get better as the game progresses? Maybe, but the recent onslaught of media seems to be playing it safe and throwing explosive and heavily scripted content at the players to coax them in. Maybe it will attract a new fanbase, but it is clearly alienating the older fanbase that has been begging for a new entry. This is the problem with large, expensive games, especially ones that are built on existing franchises. The developers try to reach every audience rather than reach a single one in their attempt to make a profit. What gets lost is the reason why this series was the name in stealth gaming once upon a time. What also seems to be lost is the audience that a game like this needs to be a success, and that saddens me greatly.

Eric Godfrey • Staff Writer

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