A moment of appreciation, please, for the fact that the fourth installment in the Thief series is not called "Thi4f."
I'm not sure it was ever going to take that particularly loathsome approach to nomenclature, to be perfectly honest, but the complete lack of a numeral anywhere in Thief's title -- let alone jammed uncomfortably into the middle -- is a deliberate choice, and not just to try and confuse the audience; Thief is neither a sequel nor a prequel to any of the previous Thief games, it's a "reimagining."
However, this isn't an especially drastic reimagining, in gameplay terms, at least; it's more an attempt to make the new game a good place for newcomers to start, while simultaneously allowing series veterans something comfortably familiar. Speaking on stage at the Eurogamer Expo, Eidos Montreal's Joe Khoury explained what Thief's all about -- and gave us a look at how it will actually play.
The world of the new Thief and its background story, meanwhile, is a little different from the previous games. Series protagonist Garrett returns, of course (albeit voiced by a different actor, which angered some fans) and there are a couple of recurring characters, but for the most part the new game is made up of an all-new cast, with the factions from the earlier games being replaced by a new background conflict.
The city in which the game unfolds is under the control of a baron, and revolution is brewing thanks to a charismatic leader known as Orion, whom Garrett becomes involved with over the course of the plot. Exactly what role Garrett will have to play in the revolution as a whole remains to be seen, but the level Khoury showed to the Expo-goers depicted the master thief sneaking into the baron's estate under the cover of a riot at his gates. His target, a valuable jewel known as The Heart of the Lion -- Garrett doesn't actually know what the jewel looks like, but he knows that it's valuable, which is reason enough for him to extract it from the ownership of its current possessor.
Thief returns to the series' original first-person perspective, though with a more immersive approach -- you can see various parts of Garrett interacting directly with the environment as you do things. Take cover around a corner, for example, and you'll see Garrett's hands grasping the wall for support; vault over a low wall and you'll see his legs leaping over it. Garrett's a lot more mobile than in previous games, it seems; he can leap over things, dive into cover and climb up objects, all from first-person perspective. It goes further than this, though; we even see Garrett's hands grasping door handles to push them open and pull them closed, and manipulating various objects in the environment. There's a very strong sense of "being there" -- something that's very pleasing to see, given that Thief was one of the games that, alongside Ultima Underworld, System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, helped establish the concept of the "immersive sim" spinoff of first-person games.
Like previous Thief games, the player can judge how visible Garrett is thanks to a light meter in the corner of the screen. Khoury was keen to note, however, that simply ducking into the shadows wouldn't immediately make you invisible; if a guard passes right in front of you while you're hiding in the dark, you're still at risk of detection. Like the early games, there's a strong focus on sound, too; walking on different materials will cause varying amounts of noise, so you'll probably want to make sure you stay on sound-muffling carpet as much as possible.
Magic arrows and tools make a return from the previous games -- the demo showed Garrett using water arrows to put out torches as well as a rope arrow to escape from the baron's manor when the heist was completed. Garrett's abilities are supplemented with a new mechanic called Focus, however, which slows down time, highlights areas of interest, allows you to "look inside" locks while you're picking them and even provides the useful ability to visualize nearby sounds such as footsteps and see where they are coming from. Those who prefer to play Thief in a manner closer to The Dark Project and The Metal Age will be pleased to note, however, that it's possible to turn this mechanic off altogether and rely purely on your own skills -- well, that and having a decent sound system.
In true immersive sim style, each of Thief's missions will provide a number of different possible paths for Garrett to take. Some paths will be more direct but might put you in the path of more enemies, in which case you'll have to make use of the new "takedown" system to incapacitate or kill them; others may be longer and more convoluted, but will keep you away from the unwanted attentions of guards. It's important to plan your entry, says Khoury, and the whole game has been built around being able to avoid detection altogether if that's how you enjoy playing. That said, if you do happen to find yourself sneaking around enemy-infested areas, you'll have the chance to eavesdrop on some entertaining conversations between various characters -- something the Thief series has always been known for.
The game encourages exploration as well as careful planning. You can still grab miscellaneous items from around the places you're infiltrating, for example, and occasionally you'll come across a hand-drawn treasure map showing where something interesting is. You'll also encounter puzzles -- some of which require clever solutions such as looking through a hole in order to deduce how machinery works from the inside -- and picture frames that hide secret doors or other loot. Garrett also earns experience as he progresses through the game, allowing you to upgrade and unlock new tools and weapons as well as increase the capacity of the focus and health gauges, neither of which recharge of their own accord during gameplay.
All in all, Thief is looking authentically... well, Thief-y, which is good, particularly after the third installment took something of a different direction to the first two games. It's good to see that Eidos Montreal hasn't gone too overboard on the "reimagining" aspect; as it stands, it's looking like a solid successor to some classic games that will, at the same time, be accessible to newcomers. We'll find out if it lives up to its potential in February, when it'll be releasing on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.