The last thing we heard about Eidos Montreal’s Thief reboot before E3 was not promising. Rumour had it that infighting and egos were hampering development on the project, which had been restarted several times under a rotating cast of managers.

The first thing we hear once behind closed doors with Thief at E3 isn’t much better: we’re told the game – a reinvention of a long-dormant hardcore first-person stealth franchise – has been “changed for modern audiences”. While an actual gander at a pre-alpha build of the game running on a debug PlayStation 4 largely assuaged our fears as far as the game’s tone and intended audience go, other aspects left us somewhat concerned.

The playthrough we witness begins several hours into the game in a town whose populace are revolting against an oppressive regime led by a Baron. Player character Garrett hopes to use the distraction provided by the rioting townsfolk to steal a priceless family heirloom called the Heart of the Lion from the Baron’s Mansion.

E3: Thief preview

The level begins after dark in the gardens outside Northcrest Manor which are a typical English upper-class affair, featuring cobbled pathways, marble statues, hedges, and brick walls laced with vines, with pools of illumination provided by strategically-placed lanterns and torches.

We are told that any approach from full assault to complete ghost is possible, but the former is much tougher and besides which doesn’t really seem to be what the game is about. Therefore for the duration of the demo we see a play style that is much more towards the stealth end of the spectrum.

That means a lot of climbing atop walls and pillars to evade patrols, but also to get a better idea of the lay of the land. Garrett’s focus ability is handy in this regard: a non-regenerating resource, it shows the location of nearby interactive objects such as loot or climbable surfaces, as well as the location and calmness of nearby enemies. Picking poppies replenishes some focus, but these are few and far between. Health is similarly non-regenerating.

E3: Thief preview
E3: Thief preview

The player knows how far in the shadows they are thanks to the Thief franchise’s light gem overlay, which sits unobtrusively on the bottom left and glows when Garrett is in the open. A dark fringe effect around the edge of the screen also indicates how detectable he is. The equipped arrow type and number thereof are the only other UI elements, with most others able to be toggled on or off including health and focus levels, a mini-map, objective markers, and icons above guards’ heads that indicate how alert they are.

Garrett has the ability to hide bodies, something generally preceded by one-button takedowns from on high, during which the camera briefly switches to a third-person view. This is possibly a remnant from earlier prototypes, when the game was fully third-person as well as parkour-heavy. Following such a move, we see Garrett use his focus to locate a secret passage. Inside, he turns off a valve controlling a waterfall, and back outside he is now able to ascend it silently, bypassing two guards in the process.

While different surfaces such as grass and water emit differing levels of noise when crossed, Garrett does possess a dash move that presumably uses focus in exchange for a very quick, very short sprint that seems useful for ducking from shadow to shadow.

E3: Thief preview

He also has at his disposal a number of arrow types: a water arrow extinguishes torches from afar and sends guards scurrying this way and that, while a rope arrow creates a handy ascension point – perhaps to one of this fairly linear level’s many loot-concealing nooks and crannies.

Being a thief, Garrett can pick the pockets of anyone anywhere provided he has adequate patience. The time remaining before any loot of substance within a mark’s clothing is claimed is represented by small dials, although focus may be used to steal in a much quicker fashion.

E3: Thief preview
E3: Thief preview
E3: Thief preview

Garrett successfully swipes a map from a patrol captain’s britches and turns down the opportunity to shoot a fire arrow into a pool of oil two guards are thoughtlessly standing in, before throwing something to distract other guards and swoop down to the manor’s cellar entrance.

That three guards rush to and linger at the impact point of the distraction item isn’t the most encouraging sign, and the AI generally appears somewhat rudimentary at this stage.

We have been told that guards will search everywhere for Garrett once alerted to his presence, but they don’t seem to look up at all, and when in full shadow Garrett seems to be completely invisible to them, even when he's close enough to breathe on them.

While such things serve to break immersion somewhat, some promising touches draw the player back in. Garrett’s shadow is visible at certain points, and the hand animations when he leans around corners, clamors up ledges, or quietly closes doors are fluid and expressive. The environments and characters look great as well, especially considering the game is running on a modified Unreal Engine 3.

At the cellar door we see a lockpick minigame in action – yet another mechanic that is easier if a little focus is expended. Without that ability, it looks like a fairly standard circular search puzzle completed using the analogue sticks, but with focus Garrett can see inside the lock to the mechanisms he must align, which speeds up the whole process considerably.

E3: Thief preview

Inside the mansion things repeat as before, with the odd lever and button puzzle thrown in to mix things up. We only see enough of the game’s combat to learn that using focus allows the slo-mo targeting of attacks to a specific body part on an enemy for heavier damage, and that despite his proclivity for sneaking, Garrett is pretty decent hand-to-hand as well.

Unfortunately, following the acquisition of the Heart of the Lion things go somewhat downhill. The mansion itself is now aflame, and Garrett must make a daring dash for freedom through several collapsing structures, optionally gathering loot as he goes. While the player could gamble on being able to open chests before being engulfed in flame, what followed was a completely linear yet inadequately signposted sprint that looked somewhat light on challenges requiring any actual skill.

E3: Thief preview
E3: Thief preview

That’s perhaps the concession that has been made to the Call of Duty generation: put up with the stealth and we’ll give you some simple cinematic bits that look great but feel out of place. The sequence isn't awful by any stretch, but it does sully what has come before and is cause for mild concern – we don’t wish to see Garrett manning auto-crossbow turrets atop a horse and cart anytime soon, thanks.

So between that passage of play and the wonky AI, it’s with mixed feelings that we leave the Thief demo. So much here has great potential at the very least, but some work is going to have to be put in between now and next year for Thief to compete with the likes of Dishonored – games its forebearers heavily influenced. We also haven't seen enough of the combat to determine how much fun it is, nor do we know anything about the story. That said, Eidos Montreal has a stellar if short track record thus far, and so at this stage with some time on its side must be given the benefit of the doubt.

Thief is due out in 2014 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and "high end PCs".