By Nathan Grayson on June 17th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
E3 is chaos. In its worst moments, it’s a swirling maelstrom of poor planning and slip-sliding schedules – a thumping videogame Valhalla that feels like it was designed with techno-ravers and cosplayers in mind, not journalists. I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes you have to interview Thief‘s developers before playing their game. Optimal? Not really. But it still made for an interesting conversation – just between Eidos Montreal and its own game, not Eidos and myself. The question: was Thief’s E3 demo able to live up to what lead level designer Daniel Windfeld Schmidt told me about it mere moments before? The answer: Errrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Frequency And Potency Of Combat
What Eidos Said: “We have people who played that way, and they ran into walls. There’s an army of trained soldiers right there, and you’re not a trained soldier. You have some mechanics you can defend yourself with, but that’s not what you’re there for. So if you get a guard – maybe two – you can defend yourself, but that’s it. If you have more than that, you kind of have to look at your options. People who try to guerrilla their way through usually die pretty fast. You can. This is a few hours into the game, so it’s a pretty tough level. I could probably pull it off, but enemies would probably never actually see me. They’d just start disappearing one at a time.”
My Experience: After a flawless tippy toed dance right over the mansion level’s first courtyard, I hit a snag when I dashed out from behind a bush a bit too soon. Almost immediately, I found myself face-to-face with not one, not two, but three fairly miffed electro-club-wielding guards. I hadn’t figured out how to block yet, so I just kind of weaved in and out while walloping one in the shoulder repeatedly.
To my shock (and, let’s face it, horror) this tactic proved exceedingly effective. My three highly trained foes just kind of stared on in confusion, halfheartedly taking swings like someone playing whack-a-mole after hearing that their childhood pet box turtle just bit the big one. A few well-placed strikes (shoulders are the seat of all the most vital human organs) felled each of them – a simple step-forward, step-back hokey pokey formation scrambling their years of advanced combat training into mushy, cold eggs.
Admittedly, I did take a couple hits, and a third definitely would’ve finished me off. Garrett’s still no titanium-bodied man-tank, so he wheezes into his grave without too much pushing. But again, I spent half that battle entirely incapable of blocking. Kind of a big handicap, right?
There is, however, a much larger reason I don’t imagine we’ll see too many players turning this into Thief: Night Of A Million Furious Bonkings. Put simply, the combat’s terrible. There is no weight. No heft. I understand that Garrett’s got noodle arms and twig legs, but come on: it felt like we were sparring with toothpicks. The system’s also incredibly simplistic, with basic swings and blocking pretty much forming the whole of it. Entering focus mode (more on that soon) allowed me to deal slow-mo, location specific blows, but that was the only real curveball. Arrows from afar and stealthy takedowns up close all the way. I know it’s Thief and all, but there’s no excuse for melee that’s this creaky.
What Eidos Said: “I don’t want to say that verticality is a dominant strategy in our game. We have verticality – quite a lot, actually. But a lot of the game is about being grounded. We have different types of guards, some of which are crossbow men. They have tactics to get you down. Also, it’s not just one continuous path. You can’t just go up there and then proceed through an entire level. You have to go up and then – oh – go down and then up and then over. So it’s much more back-and-forth. It’s kinda like you get up there and feel safe for a while, but then you have to look at what your options are to take it from there. There’s not this overt, interconnected, artificial network of marksman areas. We want to keep it so that you still have to think about the consequences of your actions.”
My Experience: This comment actually aligned with reality quite well. Even the first area – which contained a giant, courtyard-spanning wall that may as well have bellowed “CLIMB ME” – forced me to briefly pop down into guards’ patrol path before climbing stairs into the next area. Successive portions of the mansion’s outside and inside more or less proceeded accordingly, with the option to scale objects presenting itself fairly often, but not as thinly veiled rainbow paths through the skies. Instead, I tended to use walls, crates, and the like as vantage points – both for shooting out torches and getting a bead on guards’ locations.
It was in these moments that Nu-Thief truly shined, allowing me to dart and duck between the highest highs and lowest lows, blending with the shadows and meticulously plotting my way through each maze of guards and poorly trimmed shrubbery. During a few moments of particularly successful distraction and deception, it was like I really was the darkness, spreading to whatever surface I pleased and reducing grown men to frightened children. Despite the E3 build’s countless rough edges and general glitchiness, Thief was pretty tough in places. When I bent my surroundings to my will and ghosted my way right past particularly well-positioned opposition, I felt like I’d really earned it.
I do have to point out, however, that guards seemed physically incapable of glancing even a few degrees upward. I was in what appeared to be plain sight on multiple occasions, but since the surface was elevated, the po-po just pranced right on by without a care in the world. But then, that was hardly the worst of my law-upholding nemeses’ crimes.
Guards, Artificial Intelligence, And Lack Thereof
What Eidos Said: “There’s several factors to what we can do now that we couldn’t do [in earlier Thief games]. Hardware’s better, so we can do more barks, a better blend of animations, better readability of the AI. They can act in groups, so like, ‘OK, you go and check it out. I’ll stand guard here.’ They won’t just all hop around one place. In combat, they’ll start taking positions and make it harder for you to just run away. It’s a really big balancing challenge for us. It’s really hard to make AI feel like a human, because humans are super complicated. But they still have to be fun to play with, because if they were super smart, they wouldn’t shout out their intentions. We need to kind of merge that reality with the game.”
My Experience: Nope, nope, nope, nope. Guards proved respectably eagle-eyed in a few cases, but stultifyingly blind in just as many others. My favorite was when I found myself right outside the mansion’s basement entrance in a labyrinthine mess of crumbling walls, barrels, and dog cages. I used a water arrow to put out a torch on the other side of the, erm, expansively constrained area as a distraction, then slyly rounded a crucial corner while a guard struggled to understand what could possibly make all the pretty lights go away. Mistake. I miscalculated and nearly slammed mascara-ed-eye-first into two more guards. ‘Welp,’ I figured, ‘that’s curtains for me, then. May as well see how far I can get before they bop me into festive goth ribbons.’
They never did. I just crouched and weaved between them, nearly brushing against their engorged wallet sacs (Garrett views human anatomy a bit differently than the rest of us) as I passed right by, almost entirely undetected. One shouted, “Hey, did I just see something?” after I’d almost made it all the way downstairs and into the basement. He, of course, proceeded to do absolutely nothing (meaningful, at least) about it. Admittedly, my light/darkness HUD indicator told me I was well-hidden, but I refuse to believe that even Garrett could find a way to be that invisible while mere inches away.
Another time, I accidentally hopped down from a wall just as a guard was patrolling right up to it. Again, I braced for certain discovery and subsequent doom. But, same as before, nothing. It was actually pretty funny: the second we locked eyes, he lackadaisically spat out one of his idle barks, basically complaining to me about the sad state of his profession. He just had to tell someone, I guess. It was tearing him up inside. I kind of felt like we had a moment, he and I. We managed this magnificent heart-to-heart between all the thievery and bloodshed – a fleeting second of all-too-human understanding. Then went our separate ways.
Seriously though, it was bad.
But there were also positives – glimmers of diamond choked by rough. At one point, I accidentally stumbled right up to a dog cage and had a whole area’s guards fanning out to find me in seconds. I huddled in a corner while an avalanche of footstep sounds pounded my ears. Were they coming from the left? Right? In front? Behind? …Beneath? And all the while, that damn dog wouldn’t stop barking, like a wailing emergency siren with much bigger teeth. It was actually kind of terrifying. My heart was pounding, and for just a moment, I forgot all about the plague of practically game-breaking problems I’d encountered mere minutes earlier.
It was those rare moments of NPC competence paired with Thief’s already excellent sound design that revealed potential for brilliance – however slight. That said, Eidos Montreal’s AI programmers still have a whole, whole lot of work ahead of them. Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen. Godspeed.
Level Design And Options
What Eidos Said: “Yes, you want to give players all these options, but the more you give the harder it becomes. The key is to find a good mid-balance of saying, ‘Where do we put these choices so that they make sense?’ Because if they don’t make sense, then nobody can find it. Nobody’s gonna make a logical conclusion of discovering it. So we want to make this middle path where it feels really open, but you can still have a good experience without getting lost. If you want to take a faster approach, you can enable navigation markers.”
My Experience: By and large, the mansion – both outside and in – felt fairly natural. As I mentioned earlier, refreshingly restrained verticality paired with devious guard placements to make for some seriously suspenseful moments. The demo wasn’t quite a shining paragon of level design brilliance, but it wasn’t some hyper-linear funnel into the gaping maw of Call-of-Duty-dom either. I came in fearing that the wispy gothic paradise would end up feeling like A Videogame Level and not a living, breathing place, but – if nothing else – it straddled the line between the former and the latter well enough.
There was, however, an oddly repetitive element to its many stone-hewn dimples and curves. Areas frequently opened up to reveal multiple paths – for instance, water control rooms beneath a giant fountain or various halls, bedrooms, and quarters within the mansion – but they’d always funnel back together for the main objective. So I was able to explore and maybe choose my way around some guards, but eventually I’d be forced to skulk past (or place arrows between the unibrow hairs of) a specific group of three-or-so standing directly between me and the next objective. Previous choices, then, ended up feeling a bit artificial.
Level design was also a major place where focus mode ended up coming into play. Much of the time, areas were straightforward enough, but when they weren’t, there was no intrigue to it. A quick flash of focus mode’s blue-hued, important-object-highlighting overlay almost always did the trick. That applied to both loot and key points like climbable pipes and some enemies, too. The only thing that really kept it from delivering a series of organ-skewering precision blows to game balance was scarcity. Focus didn’t auto-replenish at all, and recovery items were few and far-between.
Linear, Action-Heavy ‘Escape’ Scenes
What Eidos Said: I didn’t actually ask Schmidt about these bits, as I was unaware of their existence before I played the demo. Another Eidos Montreal dev briefly described them as “rollercoaster-like” and said that they provide moments of vastly different pacing.
My Experience: I’m all for reboots and reinventions breaking outside the box. In fact, I encourage it. If I wanted to play old-school Thief, I’d just play old-school Thief.
That said, goodness gracious great balls of fire, what were so many great balls of fire doing in my Thief game? The scene I played saw the mansion collapsing, with rivulets of fire slithering across my path while larger conflagrations mushroomed up all around. The obvious objective? Run for your life. Run or die. Run run run run run run.
This section was essentially on rails, and sneaking wasn’t even a factor. I dashed over burning bridges, stumbled across collapsing rooftops, and watched entire sections of mansion crumble into the tar-black waters below in sloooooow mooootion. Trial-and-error came fast and furious, with various sections nearly requiring death and a subsequent restart before making sense.
There was also a fair amount of third-person during this section. I didn’t hate it or anything, but any sort of climbing basically was Assassin’s Creed – right down to little animation details like the way Garrett swung his leg to build momentum before bigger leaps. Far more egregious, meanwhile, was an insta-death QTE involving a loose chunk of wall and a quick button-mash to give Garrett’s grappling line a life-saving toss. I mean, really? In Thief? Why? Why at all?
After the entire mansion sloughed into churning waters and I escaped at just the right moment, the demo I ended. I won’t lie: I didn’t leave the room particularly pleased.
What Eidos Said: “Well, with a reinvention, it’s always gonna be a little different. And what people remember [varies from person to person].”
Also, in response to rumors of serious trouble behind the scenes:
“There have been some changes in personnel. The project’s been going on for a while. We were trying to get the DNA right – the essence of the game. It took a while because we tried a few things that just didn’t really fit. And hopefully, you’ll play it and see that we have a solid product. You know, rumors are rumors.”
My Experience: I am conflicted. As you can very obviously tell, the new Thief rubbed me the wrong way in quite a few places. AI and combat, especially, were well off the mark, and that’s definite cause for worry. Oh, and let’s not forget the linear, QTE-ridden escape scene, which felt completely at odds with pretty much everything ever – especially common sense, stealth (or even stealth-action), and the year 2013.
Thief’s level design, however, was solid, and I could see it meshing quite well with competent though basic systems and smart enemy placement if the AI gets stolen and replaced with pretty much anything else. No doubt about it, Thief needs some serious work, but I think there’s still potential. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was an absolute joy, and I can almost see the murky silhouette of a similar miracle skulking around in Thief’s gutters.
Also, there is still tons I wasn’t able to see. Other areas. More open slices of the world. Secrets (of which there will apparently be many). Fuck, The City itself. I’m also crossing my fingers for the story, which is still shrouded in a sooty smog of mystery.
Still though, a release date of 2014? Let’s hope it’s very late 2014.