I have spotted a trend: Victorian brothels that conveniently epitomise the squiffy morals and gratuitous self-indulgence of society’s elite while you hide behind a chaise longue and watch are “in” right now. Thief’s House of Blossoms is populated by The City’s reprehensible, opiate-huffing upper classes as well as a slew of subservient, fully clothed women who sit on men's laps, pawing at fully clothed chests and giggling. Some of them are strolling around swooshing their technically impressive silk blouses, some are shovelling opium into a big ventilation system, some are huddled together in small groups joking about penises that they have seen. Overall, I must say that it is an excellent videogame brothel.
This is a new Thief, one that takes its sexless brothel-cues from a whole bunch of other games released since 2004’s Deadly Shadows, but one that also tries hard to keep one finger on its hereditary pulse. It’s shadow-hugging first-person stealth, but the camera pulls out into a third-person mode during Assassin’s Creed style climbing sections. You can play through missions entirely undetected, though the combat has been developed to include takedowns and limb-specific attacks. Flame extinguishing dry ice arrows can be used to create shadows, while a new focus meter will highlight objects of interest around the room. It’s old versus new, it’s cats sleeping with dogs, and with only a hands-off presentation being shown it’s difficult to begin to even guess whether or not Eidos Montreal can modernise Thief in a way that doesn’t tip Garrett fans into a ridiculous cartwheeling rage.
What they’ve unquestionably achieved however is a dizzying degree of technical fidelity. Thief is coming to the nextest of next generation consoles in 2014, which loosens the game’s spec-belt and allows it to produce some honest to bonkers lovely looking Unreal Engine 3 scenes. The City, Eidos Montreal say, is a character in itself, one mired in a creeping fog and “flow mapped” cobbled streets that accurately depict the running of rainwater along damp Victorian-ish brickwork. A tech demo showed Garrett moving through a burning manor, volumetric smoke rising from fog-belching bonfires and pooling on the ceiling, a dull-red smog snaking through corridors towards open windows. Ceilings collapsed into physics-enabled shards in a pleasing way, while the seamless transition from blazing interior to rainy exterior was demonstrated in a cutscene of Garrett being chucked out of the building as the floor beneath him gave way.
The burning building was an internal tech demo circus act, a scripted in-engine target for Eidos Montreal’s artists and level designers to aim for, and something for graphically deprived console owners to breathe heavily over. More interesting was the playthrough of the brothel mission, which takes place about a third of the way into the game. Garret’s there to steal a medallion belonging to one of the establishment's patrons, Theodore Eastwick, an architect, a noble and a friend of the game’s hidden antagonist, the archetypically evil, city-ruling Baron.
Over the course of a half-hour, pre-recorded demonstration we're shown the gameplay loop that forms the backbone of Thief's missions: a multi-pronged, option-saturated infiltration followed by the stealthy-or-shouty nicking of your prize and then one of multiple means of escape. Here’s the first ounce of weirdness to crop up in the Thief demo: to reach the brothel Garrett must first free-run across rooftops and duck into the love-shack before the stroke of midnight, like a reverse Cinderella, vaulting over waist-tall walls and scrabbling up ledges. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed though, the city isn’t open to explore, rather you’re sprinting along a designed chunk of the level, a strip of roofing the mission would really like you to use as a parkour track.
Even those players who aren't progress-wary series conservatives would find the sight of Garrett in a time-limit flap oddly jarring. The twelve seconds of heart-thumping urgency feels incongruous when the pacing and voice over remains otherwise relaxed, ponderous and thoughtful. Hanging over the demonstration is a caveat that what I’m being shown has been heavily adapted for demonstration purposes (the mission proper would take between 40 and 60 minutes to complete) and that, of course, nothing here is final. Things may end up way less flighty than this, or just as flighty but in a way that’s slightly less strange.
Fail to make it to the red light district in time for the lock-in and you’d have to find another way in. In our demonstration, we successfully arrived in time to spy our mark and his gold. Garrett makes use of a bodyguard’s dynamically cast shadow to slink in behind the group and infiltrate the brothel, where everything begins to make much more sense. You can steal from both kinds of people, debauched assholes and women alike, swiping coin purses from belts and fancy diamond earrings straight out of ear lobes. Garrett is like some jewellery mad ghost, spooking between shadows and crouching in rafters. He has a new ability to quickly slink in one direction, like a short range version of Dishonored’s Blink ability, which allows him to dart in and out of cover to evade detection by the few alert characters milling about bedrooms that resemble the interior of Hugh Heffner’s tumble dryer.
Focus is a limited resource and can be used to lift multiple objects from NPCs, such as in the one case I’m shown where Garrett snags both earrings and the necklace of a particularly numb-skinned woman. You’ll also overhear secondary objectives bellowed by careless bystanders or writ large upon walls: Madame Xiao Xiao will loudly invite her guests to leave any exceptionally priceless belongings in a lockbox in her office, while the opium ventilation room (that’s apparently a thing) hosts a giant sign warning users not to overfill the tank with too much opium, as it could very well render unconscious everyone in the brothel and thereby aid the escape of any thieves in the vicinity.
Moving through guard-populated areas seems to work as it did before, with each corridor posing a sort of human-puzzle element where men can be distracted by snuffed flames and thrown bottles. At one point Garrett shoots a door switch, trapping one guard behind a gate. At another, a guard walks by a pillar holding a torch while Garrett deftly skirts around the structure, sticking to the moving shadow as it’s being cast. Broadhead arrows can messily headshot guards, the blackjack can knock them out non-lethally, and, sometimes, such melee attacks trigger a neat third-person, Deus Ex: Human Revolution style takedown animation.
Lockpicking has adopted the 'cutaway tumbler' style seen in the likes of Skyrim, where individual pins must be pushed into place. Here, focus can be used to more quickly advance through the pins, which is useful when enemies are nearby. In the demonstration, Madame Xiao Xiao marched into her office mid-lockpick in order to berate a sex worker, requiring a focus boost to finish the job and retrieve a piece of special loot, a well-posh fabergé egg. This special loot, I’m told, appears on display back in Garrett’s hideout because he loves that sort of thing.
Beyond that, retrieving the medallion is a matter of finding Eastwick’s room on the client register, peeking through a peephole and soaking up a little exposition: the architect is searching for hidden glyphs in each of the bordello’s private rooms, making repeat bookings and drugging the girls to allow him time to search the walls. Using your focus ability (fiction-wise the item highlighting power is explained early in the game and has something to do with Garrett’s mechanical eye) you can see these symbols for yourself, and by plugging these symbols into the medallion (once stolen it’s revealed to be a puzzle box) you unearth its mystical, mysterious properties.
After flooding the House of Blossoms with opium fumes, Garrett opts for a combat heavy departure, making use of New Thief’s nascent fighting systems. Limbs and weak points are highlighted with glowing circles, and while it’s not altogether clear what practical difference is made by clicking on a one weak spot rather than another, the resulting animation is highly cinematic. So cinematic in fact, as Garrett pushes one guard backwards into another in a perfectly choreographed animation, that it’s hard to see where the player controlled fighting ends and the scripted sequence begins. Focus comes into play even here, allowing Garrett to slow time and spy opportunities to strike. Well, okay then.
The demonstration felt like a first draft, a partially staged display of what Thief will look and feel like but not necessarily be. The route taken through the brothel was not the only one, I'm told. There are other entrances and other exits, though it's not known how events would have transpired had the player used the opium pump early, or interfered with a main character in a mission-altering way.
The game has a whole lot of beautiful touches regardless: I liked that Garrett’s hands are always visible, pawing at the scenery as you grip walls and peer around corners (which leads one to wonder how the third person bits survived that decision to bring immersive body awareness into the game). The locations are densely detailed, the architecture is grand in scale and the world feels thickly atmospheric, but there definitely seems to be something extra missing here. Something special and different. Something that would really help you out if you had to describe Thief in a game of charades.
The game is standing atop the shoulders of the stealthiest giants of the decade that’s passed in Garrett’s absence. And that’s perfectly natural and acceptable, Dishonored borrowed from Thief, the circle is complete, share and share alike, your brothel is my brothel. What’s worrying is the fear that Thief might not bring much else of its own to the party. Arkane's game had whales and flare and weirdness. What Eidos Montreal are showing of Thief so far looks impressive, but by no means does it look very special. Thief's visuals are next-gen, but its ideas may very well not be.
There's a whole lot more to be revealed, of course. Thief could prove itself yet, and I sincerely hope it does.