I had a chance several weeks ago to spend an hour with Thief, and my hands-on session got me interested in the game. After watching the developers show off the game's prologue that leads up to the "city hub" portion I played at this week's PlayStation 4 launch event, I'm even more intrigued.
What catches my interest this time around, however, isn't the game itself. I mean, no question, it looks really good. I like first-person action, I like stealth; Thief lands at the intersection of those things and does so with style. No, this time around, I'm intrigued by Thief because it's the first game I've seen to make truly creative, effective use of the Dual Shock 4's new features: Its touch pad and its light bar.
The touch pad is probably the less surprising of the two innovations. As I mentioned in our PlayStation 4 hardware review, the DS4's touch element sits comfortably between the Vita's back touch pad and the Wii U's game pad and is honestly a lot more sensible than either. But as with so many unconventional input devices, we're going to see a lot of stupid, cumbersome misuses of the tech before developers either get a handle on it or ignore it altogether.
Of the PS4 games I've played so far, Killzone: Shadow Fall has made the heaviest use of it -- and there it really just amounted to a secondary D-pad. The touch pad allows Killzone players to determine the current command mode for their OWL drone by swiping in one of four directions. Simple, not too obtrusive, but also not especially exciting.
Thief, on the other hand, uses the touch pad to activate the player's weapons menu. Where the menu appears as a wheel on other platforms, on PS4 it takes the form of a rectangle -- one with the same proportions as the DS4 touch pad, as a matter of fact. Different arrows and potions are mapped to specific spots on the rectangular menu, and those points map directly to the corresponding place on the touch pad. You can swipe your finger across the pad to settle on the weapon you want, but the developers also claim that once you get a feel for the controls through muscle memory you'll also be able to simply tap the pad and instantly bring up the item you want. It definitely seems an improvement; the cumbersome operation of the touch pad was my biggest complaint coming away from my Thief demo session.
Much more intriguing, however, is the game's integration of what seems like the DS4's most superfluous element, the light bar set into the upper edge of the controller. Almost certainly an element added in because someone thought it looked cool, the light bar doesn't really seem to do much besides glow and occasionally shift colors. However, Thief's creators have tied this seemingly pointless function into the game in an interesting way.
Light and shadow play a major role in Thief, of course. Garrett is a creature of the night who sneaks around under cover of darkness, and stepping into the light usually amounts to a quick death for him. Garrett's current state of well-being is denoted on-screen by a gemstone icon linked to his health meter; the stone shines when Garrett stands in the light and grows dim in shadow. With the PS4 version of the game, the controller's light bar doubles up to serve the same function. When Garrett is safely hidden in the dark, the bar glows with its usual muted tones. Step into the open, however, and the light bar comes alive, shining with pure white intensity.
It's a surprisingly effective feature. While the DS4's light bar doesn't usually emit enough light to be distracting, its white setting is intense enough that it cast shadows in the demo room. There's no need to pay attention to the screen icon, because the room becomes flooded with illumination when you step into torchlight. It's a nice metatextual touch, and it's more or less guaranteed to work because Thief demands to be played in a dark room. It's one of the few games whose gloomy color palette makes sense, and because you need to play it in a low-illumination environment, the DS4 light bar works nicely.
Otherwise, though, the game looks more or less the same on PS4 as it did on PC last month. Given the negligible power gap between a high-end PC and PlayStation 4, I suspect more developers will look to unique hardware-specific features like this to help differentiate the various versions of their games. Thief has the benefit of being one of the first, however, and its clever integration of a seemingly pointless controller gimmick will hopefully inspire more smart innovation in the coming generation.