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Thief preview: the first great next gen stealth game

The man who wasn't there

It's the self-awareness that stands out. Even watching somebody else play, Thief has a physicality that makes you acutely aware of your place in the shadows of its pestilent medieval City. This isn't a game in which you have a gun, arrow or other bit of sharp metal bobbing in a gentle figure-of-eight at the bottom of the screen, signifying that your chief interaction will be hurting people. As master thief Garrett, you lead with your hands.

They're in the foreground of cutscenes; delicately obscured by depth of field when peeking around cover; reaching out to slip through curtains; flicking in and out of view as you dash between cover; running over locks and containers. His legs are less obvious, but you'll see them if you look down as you edge across a beam or shuffle across a rooftop. The physicality is never intrusive, but it's always there.

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The acute awareness of the space you're taking up is complemented by audio that's somehow ostentatiously silent, the whistling of the passing guards and gossip of unsuspecting citizens ringing out through a mausoleum-like hush. You instinctively want to keep quiet, looking out for dark shadows, and scuttling past guards rather than cutting them down. You aren't peering through the goggles of an impossibly well-armed juggernaut, bludgeoning their way through a world of pop-up enemies. You're in the carefully-silenced shoes of someone who is trying really, really hard to go unnoticed by foes who are brighter than those you've faced before.

Sight of hand
This isn't a stealth game, it's the stealth game; the return of the brand that invented the genre. Thief: The Dark Project was born in 1998 at Looking Glass, the legendarily uncommercial studio that created classics like Ultima Underworld and System Shock, and incubated the careers of BioShock creator Ken Levine, and Deus Ex creators Warren Spector and Harvey Smith - the latter of whom went on to create Dishonored, the recent upstart that, Eidos Montreal ruefully admits, has stolen some of Thief's thunder with its stealthy take on a medieval world.

But this isn't a tale about the wronged, oddly mute hero mysteriously gifted superpowers, using them to bring justice to the land. It's about two characters: the first a sprawling, pestilent city, filled with secrets and asides, being dragged unwillingly into an industrial revolution. The second is a surly, antisocial loner who is exceptionally good at stealing things from it - and does so on the strength of his own considerable skills rather than magic.

While Corvo has his clockwork heart, Sam Fisher can rely on the results of billions of dollars of military-industrial research, and Agent 47 has his jar-grown smarts, Garret has got a blackjack and his world-beating wits. Progress through the filthy streets of the unnamed City is spent darting between shadows with a tap of A, peeking around boxes to overhear guards unwisely discussing the movements and valuables of their employer, and scurrying up and down buildings with graceful mantling or a new grapple-like claw device.

That's about as advanced as Garrett's technology gets; otherwise he's got a series of arrows - water-tipped ones for extinguishing torches and braziers, broad-headed ones for distracting guards (although a chucked bottle works just as well) or for triggering switches, and saw-edged ones which we don't get to see used but do glimpse at the top of the radial menu.

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Bring into Focus
More controversially, there's a Focus ability - Garrett's legendary abilities manifested in a rechargeable resource bar that can be used for things like guard takedowns, instantly clearing out someone's pockets, or slowing time to ensure you get a lock picked before anyone comes back. It has an unwelcome tang of Hitman: Absolution's highly-contentious Instinct skill, but stealth obsessives shouldn't retreat in silent horror. The aim, we're told, is to simply give more flexibility; to make it easier to think on your feet and play how you want to. Focus, like health, doesn't automatically recharge so you must be careful how you use it.

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