Five Things Thief IV Needs to Get Right «

 Way back in the misty days of 1998, the late, lamented Looking Glass Studios turned out the first Thief and accomplished nothing less than birthing an entirely new genre. Metal Gear and Tenchu each threw their stealthy genes into the mix that same year, but Thief remains probably the purest incarnation of a stealth game where patience, observation, and intelligence count for more than reflexes. After the release of two sequels, the series has been left fallow for nearly a decade while games like Hitman, Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed took the basic idea and ran with it. Since then, gaming as a whole has gone on to incorporate much of what made Thief so unique, from the sneaking elements of Skyrim to the ubiquitous and universally despised “stealth level,” which has since joined the “slippery ice stage” on the list of things everybody hates but always seem to end up in our videogames anyway.

Later this year (or perhaps next) we’ll be witness to a revival of the cult favorite, but Eidos Montreal will have a lot to balance if they’re to satisfy long-time fans while incorporating the modern conventions we’ve come to take for granted. Thief IV won’t just have to live up to its own legacy, but will need to catch up with the pace set by its own bastard offspring as well.

Garrett’s like, just this guy, you know?

Of all the elements that must be retained to preserve Thief’s quintessential… er, Thiefyness, foremost is probably the comparative vulnerability of its protagonist. Garrett isn’t exactly a squishy guy, but seen next to the bullet chewing badassery of the average FPS hero he might as well be made of wet Kleenex. The closest thing he has to any superhuman ability is a steampunk-y mechanical eye that gives him the incredible power to… zoom in his view a bit. No, it doesn’t even have heat vision. Deal with it.

This is what truly defines the game. Sure, Garrett can take out a guard or two when things get flushed and go swirly, but it’ll inevitably make a racket, alert more guards, and quickly ruin his day. Where Solid Snake usually has the option to just say, “Screw it,” and Rambo a room full of guys, Garrett needs to remain undetected lest he get completely worked over. It’s Garrett’s, and by extension the player’s intelligence that really determines success or failure. The result is a game that is more about presenting puzzles with multiple solutions.

A progression of unlockable abilities is something we’ve come to take for granted in just about everything lately, but Thief has always opened up its toybox practically from the beginning. We’ve always had to pick and choose how many of which gadgets and trick arrows to purchase for the next job, but they’re all on the menu after the first few missions. It’ll actually be surprising if Eidos doesn’t go with some kind of upgrade and unlock system, but if they don’t it’ll probably be for the best in terms of maintaining what has made these games so unique. Success hasn’t been about what nifty new weapon or ability you’ve unlocked so much as choosing the right tools and using them sparingly.

Thief also presents a morally ambiguous universe, with Garrett as a mostly self-serving everyman. He might prevent a religious fanatic from killing everyone in the city, but the reasons for his actions have been personal and mostly pragmatic. While Deadly Shadows offered the chance to ally with the forces of order in the form of a machine worshiping church, or with chaotic, forest dwelling pagans, these have been relationships of convenience. There’s potential for player choice and alternate plotlines there, but ideally we shouldn’t expect BioWare-ish black and white morality bars. Above all we should hope that the protagonist remains an average, if somewhat abnormally competent and agile guy who gets caught up in events as a consequence of just trying to do some business.

Open world style games were already starting to explode when Deadly Shadows came out, and that title dipped its toe in a bit by ditching the purely sequential mission format in favor of a central hub area. While not truly open in a GTAish sense, these city areas gave the player a place to play around in and pursue side objectives in between primary missions. It wouldn’t be completely unexpected if we see this fleshed out further, and the emergent situations Thief does so well would make for a good fit. Still, it seems more likely that we’ll see something more like what Eidos Montreal did with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with most of the game taking place in self contained missions with occasional breaks to mess around in a playground/hub.

It’s easier not to pick sides when they’re all jerkasses who worship jerkass gods.

Finally, an often overlooked but major factor in what made the Thief games such an enduring success was the inclusion of tools for players to craft and share their own missions. Thousands of these fan made scenarios provided hours of additional entertainment for fanatics who sought them out, and more than a few of them turned out to be much more elaborate and challenging than what was provided by the vanilla game. Looking ahead, this actually seems like the feature most likely to be passed over this time around. The possibility is there, but high profile games have been trending away from including mod tools for years now. It’d be nice, but we’re not counting on it.

Even if they manage to get all this right, Eidos has a tough task laid out. Fans of a series who have been carrying a torch for this long are notoriously easy to disappoint, especially when making concessions to modernity. It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out, but after the competence of last year’s Deus Ex revival we’ve got high hopes.

 

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