Thief: Deadly Shadows

It goes further. Recalling the original System Shock, there's now a custom difficulty level allowing you to precisely alter mission components to fine-tune the experience. Everything from the amount of kills allowed (both innocents and combatants), to the percentage of gold in the level and the number and intelligence of the opposition can be altered to create a unique experience. Those extreme Thief-fans who favour 'Ghosting' levels (going through without a single detection) can set the game up to fail you unless you do exactly that. So, if it works, it will be simultaneously easier and harder than the earlier Thiefs.

We're still to come to the biggest single addition to this third game. While the originals were a linear series of missions merely connected by cut-scenes, Deadly Shadows places you in a living city and allows you to track down missions within it, assuming you don't get distracted by the many other lures that are ever-present. However, it's important to understand that once you head off on a mission, it's akin to the original games. The various buildings aren't actually integrated into the city proper. The city acts more like a linking hub between them. Equally, missions open up and become available at different times in the game. This does mean that at any one point it's possible to have several tasks open to you. For example, early in the game, The Keepers - the mysterious monk-thieves who trained Garrett - contact you with a couple of destinations, leaving it up to you whether you choose to head towards the Hammerite church or the Pagan underground first. At the point you contact the Keepers you are given a set of faction-related restrictions on your behaviour. A faction screen allows you to track your relationships with other factions, such as what the Hammerites and the Pagans think of you.

The city-hub itself is alive with sections where your decisions matter. Certain NPCs you meet in-game appear to be tied in with the plot. Depending on your actions - most obviously, whether you let them live or die - they'll resurface later in the narrative. The obvious comparison is to Deus Ex, allowing the player in a small way to customise the grand arc of the tale.

While having multiple approaches and optional sub-quests to gain riches is a Thief staple, the freedom you have in a city is something else altogether. While you know where to go to progress the story, anyone with a bad bone in their body is going to find themselves impossibly distracted by the jingling money bags of passers-by. Yes, you may be on the way to annoy the Hammerites all over again, but if there isn't time for a little pick-pocketry in the life of a thief, what's the point, eh? Some temptations are more elaborate than this minor larceny, with opportunities arising from snippets of overheard conversation which you can either ignore or investigate and reap the fiscal rewards.

Not that you're stealing for the simple joy of it. Dotted around the cities are an underworld of fences and shopkeepers. Locate the former to trade in your ill-gotten gains for hard cash, and head to the latter to stock up on items to expand your array of tools. Each has their own personality too. From cynical old-hands to fledgling girls with a clear crush on Tall, Dark and Sneaky Garrett.

It's in these shops you discover that there have been considerable alterations to your inventory. While many old tools have been kept, their utilisation has been expanded or altered subtly. For example, while the trusty moss-arrow still carpets the ground with a carpet of dank fibres to cushion your footsteps, if you aim it directly at someone's face they're left choking and stumbling. Equally, the trusty flash-bomb now appears to be less likely to go awry and hurt you. And while we've yet to get ourselves a pair, the rope-arrow has been replaced by a pair of climbing gloves, allowing Garrett to make his way up vertical surfaces. The lock-picks have been changed completely. Instead of simply applying each one in turn until the lock opens, it's now about a careful search with the mouse for a specific point. It's best thought of as a slightly more sophisticated version of what's seen in Splinter Cell. Oh yes - and your sword has been swapped for a stealthy dagger.

Opposition intelligence also seems to be a distinct step on from the previous games, with guards and housekeepers constantly vocalising what's on their mind. As with the Thief originals, they'll recognise missing items and speculate where they could have gone, worry about lights going out and not just go and find help, but also desperately explain that they saw the intruder somewhere around here... no, really.

So things look promising. Of course, there's still much work to be done, but we're assured that Ion Storm have been working day and night to ensure we get review code for next issue. While the technical compromises inherent in joint development are present, they don't seem to be as severe - play areas are larger than in Invisible War, and given the game's slower pace it's less noticeable - but only the final code will reveal whether this blunts the Thief scalpel.

So, still Thief then. But will it escape with the gold of critical respect? We must wait until it steps out of the shadows.

Thief: Deadly Shadows will sneak onto PC and Xbox come 11 June