The carriage makes its way into town on rickety wheels. The rain is pouring down and Garrett's ride comes rolling in like thunder: "I've been away but I couldn't tell you where". It's been ten years since we last saw him. This reboot is an attempt to modernise the concept while staying true to its origins.
The scene is a dark, wet metropolis, on the verge of an industrial revolution. A melting pot of pseudo-Victorian, medieval influences that oozes of social injustice. From the cart, the moral decay is easy to spot. Guards beat up members of the lower classes. A man with a noose around his neck is pushed out of a house and left to hang limp a few feet above the ground. Heavy rain clouds obscure the skies. The air is heavy with smoke and water. It sounds like a typical day in the City, the ravaged location that we've seen and been in during earlier entries of the series.
Narrative director Steven Gallagher is eager to show us the new Garrett, garbed in a redesigned black outfit, and The City itself, but he also wants to keep a lid on story details. We're told The City is governed by a man that goes by the name ‘The Baron', and aided by propaganda and a sizeable security force he rules with an iron fist.
The rich live a life of excess, while the rest of the population wallows in filth and disease. Garrett reflects on the situation, noting that something has to give as he peeks out from the carriage. There is change brewing, and as the player we're well aware Garrett will find himself right at the centre of the conflict sooner or later.
The level that is being demoed during our visit to Eidos Montreal is called House of Blossoms and takes place roughly one third of the way through the game. The objective is to locate a medallion that hangs around the neck of a man named Eastwick. First things first - locate Eastwick, something we achieve by eavesdropping on a couple of loose-lipped guards. Garrett scales a wall like a seasoned cat burglar, and, as in previous games, you mainly play from a first person perspective.
Steven Gallagher explains how they worked on building a sense of presence and how they've used Garrett's hands to this effect: "We have worked very hard on the connection to The City through touch and a sense of belonging in an environment. You won't fully appreciate an environment unless you feel you're a part of it."
If Garrett peers out from behind a wall you can see him brace against it with his hand. If you're searching through a bookshelf, his fingers will wander over the spines of the books. At times the perspective shifts to third person to show Garrett performing special moves such as climb sequences (similar to those in Uncharted or Prince of Persia), when he performs melee moves, and when he makes use of his new grappling hook - The Claw.
Garrett tracks Eastwick from a distance, along rooftops and in dark alleys. Mist crawls out of the corners. All of Thief is played out during night and the visuals have their foundation in light and shadows, darkness and mist.
We get to see how Garrett uses his bow to interact with his surroundings. You can push objects over to create distractions, shoot buttons to close doors, trigger traps and naturally shoot arrows at pesky, and likely underpaid, guards. However, Garrett isn't a real fighter. Stephane Roy, lead director, tells us you can engage guards at close quarters, but that it's not recommended.
"One guard is possible." He explains. "Perhaps two. If you face three or four you're better off running away."
As in the previous games, the focus is on stealth and remaining undetected as much as possible. It will be possible to make your way through the entire game without killing a single character.
Eventually we make our way to the brothel the level is named after. Eastwick disappears through the main entrance, while Garrett opts for an alternative route - something there's supposed to be plenty of. House of Blossoms is a decadent oasis for the well fed upper class. Men with varying lengths of facial hair amuse themselves with barely dressed prostitutes in dimly lit and velvet dressed rooms. They are way too occupied keeping their fat fingers busy to notice Garrett picking their pockets. The valuables you collect during your missions can be used to upgrade your equipment in between levels.
Thief features something called Focus - similar to the Instinct mechanic found in Hitman: Absolution. It could be referred to as Garrett's intuition. With the aid of Focus Garrett can see what objects are of interest and what paths he can choose from. You can also use Focus when picking pockets or locks. When Focus is utilised in combat, time slows down and downing your opponents becomes easier.
When asked whether the Focus system risks simplifying things too much, Roy responds that several of these features are there for those who may not have as much time to play games, but still want to experience what Thief has to offer.
"At the same time you have to manage the Focus you have and choose the right moment to make use of it", he adds.
Experienced Thief puritans may want to turn off some of the aids. In this demo the Focus mode helps Garrett to locate an office with a hidden door. Behind the door we find more evidence of the studio making you feel part of the world as Garrett uses his outstretched hand to slowly feel his way through the passage.
We reach a room and through a peephole we witness Eastwick drugging one of the harlots. When she's knocked out he starts to search for something. Garrett enters the room (for once using the door), knocks Eastwick out and grabs the medallion. It's covered by strange signs and symbols. To unlock it Garrett has to search for matching symbols in other rooms. Garrett barely finds them before Eastwick comes to his senses and alerts the guards. It's time to move on.
Garrett facilitates his escape by releasing opiates through the ventilation system, a choice that is left up to the player. The idea is to allow players to solve situations the way they want to. If Garrett had opted not to knock out Eastwick, but taken more extreme measures the alarm would never have sounded. With the choices we've made ladies of the night and their clients are dropping to the floor left and right. At the main entrance Garrett faces four guards with drawn swords. He breaks out his bow and fires at an object hanging from the ceiling, which drops down on two of them. The third guard eats an arrow, while Garrett makes a dash towards the final foe. The camera pans out and he is taken out with a volley of punches. The next moment Garrett uses his grappling hook to plunge off a bridge and signals the end of the demo.
Garrett's return looks promising, with dark, atmospheric environments to explore and lots of visual delights in the shape of dynamic shadows, particle effects and lighting. Overall, it appears true to its roots, with the emphasis still on stealth and freedom rather than outright action. Sadly we were not given a good overview on the artificial intelligence and behaviour of the guards, and they did not seem to react to the sound of footsteps. But then again we're aware this is just a first look at the game, which isn't due until next year. As long as players aren't force-fed hints, and the Focus system doesn't compromise the challenge, Thief looks set for a triumphant return and a worthy successor to the series.