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Thief sneaks back into the spotlight

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Thief (Credit: Square-Enix/Eidos Montreal)

You can’t keep a good criminal down.

Despite the lack of a number in its title, Thief is formally the fourth game in the vaunted stealth franchise. It’s a name that should be instantly familiar to gamers of a certain age and persuasion, as the prior Thief games pretty much wrote the book on first-person stealth. The next game, which is due out in 2014 for the PC and next-gen consoles, recalls its former glory while borrowing a few pages from a more recent stealthy hit, Bethesda’s Dishonored.

Set in a grungy Victorian town called simply “The City,” the game stars series mainstay Garrett, who is out to stick it to The Man by scurrying about the dank streets and mercilessly pilfering from the jerky powers-that-be. Mostly that means sneaking past guards, picking locks, and escaping with goodies. You can’t exactly fault Thief for looking and sounding a lot like Dishonored -- a game that itself owes a great deal to the early Thief games -- but from its dark, claustrophobic setting to its core gameplay mechanics, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities.

Where Thief strikes out on its own, however, is in its more grounded approach to stealth. Over the course of a half-hour demo shown by publisher Square-Enix and developer Eidos Montreal at last week’s Game Developer’s Conference, we watched Garrett employ a variety of more typical thieving tools to get the job done.

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(Credit: Square-Enix/Eidos Montreal)

[Related: Thief screenshot gallery]

Several different arrow types let Garrett snuff out flames, unlock doors and distract enemies from afar. Though he’s equipped with pointy weapons, Garrett uses a blackjack to thunk heads silently. Even the game’s primary nod to mysticism, the ‘Focus’ ability, simply lets Garrett pick locks more quickly or target an enemy’s soft spots. You won’t magically blink into someone’s bathroom.

Instead, you’ll roam about on rooftops and generally try to avoid detection, as the game is skewed more towards being unseen than summoning plague rats to do your bidding. That’s not to say it’s without action; one heart-pounding sequence in particular felt like it would have been at home in a parkour game like Mirror’s Edge. By and large, though, Thief is more about peeking through keyholes than poking holes in bad guys.

Whatever chicanery you’re up to, it’s bound to look pretty good. Thief is built on a shiny new engine (a “pimped out” version of Unreal 3, according to the developers), and from its impressive flame and smoke effects to its spot-on lighting, it certainly looks like a next-gen offering.

Let’s just hope it plays like one, too. Our early-look demo was marred by what appeared to be low-functioning AI, to put it charitably, as Garrett would sneak past characters undetected despite traipsing around right in front of them in brightly lit rooms. That’s a big deal for a game all about stealth, though perhaps we can just chalk it up to first-look jitters. With release still a full year out, expect to hear more from Thief in the coming months.

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