It shouldn't really be a surprise. Thief has always been one of the scariest games of its kind. Why should the wait for the sequel be any different? It's genuinely nerve-shredding, for reason upon reason, from the superficial (the name), to the fundamental (the third-person option); from the technical (level size) to the communal (post-Invisible War fan cynicism) to the industrial (the steady disappearance of ex-Looking Glass staff from the project). When it is revealed that Project Director Randy Smith has left both project and company as the game approaches its final bug-testing phase, you have to wonder whether this is a game in serious trouble.
It is on this day that the first alpha code (playable throughout, but riddled with bugs and lacking any polish whatsoever) arrives in the PC Gamer office. Finally, we can stop talking rumour and start talking about evidence.
While the game is installing, let's step back a bit and play catch-up. Thief: The Dark Project was released in late 1998, a direct contemporary of Half-Life. Its achievements were many and profound, but can be summed up simply: it invented the modern stealth game. Console-philes may cite Metal Gear Solid, also from this period, but Konami's action/adventure didn't explore the possibilities of avoidance nearly as expansively as did Thief's developers Looking Glass. Where Metal Gear was an action/adventure game, often allowing you to survive a frenetic action encounter - or, in fact, demanding it in its boss-battles - Thief was only about concealment. Long in development, originally planned as a sword-fighting game, you played master thief Garrett. Motivated by his own avarice, he accidentally found himself saving the world. And again in Thief II.
Garrett was considerably weaker than his foes. In a stand-up fight, a beginner would be taken down swiftly by a guard. Even expert players would be chopped apart if the numbers became unfavourable. However, by keeping in the shadows, your visibility was reduced. In pitch blackness you were virtually invisible, able to either work your way past foes or fell them with a swift blackjack attack. Thief's use of sound was unparalleled, from people reacting to your footsteps (which varied depending upon what surface you walked on) to the noise of item hitting item. You could use this to distract your foes, lobbing things down the corridor to send guards off on a wild-goose chase.
This may sound passe to a modern gamer. That's because, in one way or another, almost every single modern PC action game has looked at Thief and thought: "I'll have some of that." For a game entirely about theft, it's one of the most pilfered games of recent years. Nevertheless, it's sad that even with determined pretenders - Ubi Soft's Splinter Cell being perhaps the best example - no-one has managed to create a stealth-centred game with the subtlety of Looking Glass; all seem clunky and misshapen compared to Thief's organic analogue expression. Of course, quality didn't save them, as Looking Glass proceeded to go bust. Eidos handed development over to Ion Storm, fresh from their success with the first Deus Ex.
Like its sister-game, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows has been jointly developed for PC and console release. But where Deus Ex's expansive remit positively welcomes a radical redesign across the board, Thief's very concept resists tampering. Because Thief was a perfect game. That's not to say it was infinitely enjoyable - but rather it was based on the application of a 'perfect' set of rules. When questioned, Spector describes Thief as a scalpel compared to Deus Ex's Swiss Army Knife. That is, it has a single purpose and is precision-designed to perform it. This is true. This is also the problem. While a Swiss Army Knife can have all sorts of gadgets swapped around and altered without stopping it being a Swiss Army Knife, if you change a scalpel at all you risk it becoming utterly useless. So there's every reason to fear for Thief.
The game installs. A click on the Deadly Shadows Icon. The game loads.
And it's Thief.
While it's still too early, especially considering the plentiful rough edges of this early code, to predict whether Ion Storm have managed to pull it off or not, this isn't a redesign even a fraction as radical as Invisible War's. There are many nods to accessibility, but it doesn't turn Thief into just another action-adventure.
One of the alarm-bell-ringing things Spector has been quoted as saying in recent interviews is that he wanted to make combat a little easier on people, to allow those less skilled in fighting not to be punished too hard. Has he done so? We don't really know, as we spent our time playing it exactly as we play any Thief game. When hit, we seemed to die quickly, so we ran away a lot instead. Reaching for a dagger and attacking - why would we do a thing like that? We're playing Thief.
The word is 'accessibility'. Successful accessibility means lowering the bottom end of the game's difficulty to allow more people to become attracted to it, without removing the top end for expert players. This is partially achieved by a better training mission than any of the prequels, but it reaches further than that. One of the stand-out features of the series has been expanded considerably to serve both the novice and the seasoned bag-snatcher. Thief's difficulty system, which was always a cut above the rest, radically changed how each mission was played. For example, on Normal a mission might ask you to just steal a certain object and get out alive, but on Hard, you might have to do the same, but also get 1,000 gold pieces, a couple of other artefacts... and not kill anyone. The challenges it places on the player are radically different. So while lower-level players may be able to get into more fights without dying, the experienced are going to be under the same strict limitations as this game's illustrious forefathers.