The most important tools in any thief's arsenal are his or her hands, and that's certainly true of Thief's returning star Garrett. Pick-pockets need dexterous digits, of course, to lift prized possessions from victims' pockets and slip away unnoticed. But for Eidos Montreal, the studio heading up this 2014 return, that simple premise is only the starting point.
Not since Jurassic Park: Trespasser has a game been so obsessed with its protagonist's fingers and thumbs. Sure, you can see your hands in the likes of Bioshock and Dishonored, but there your palms are mostly just visual effects used to denote different powers and tee up the respective games' combat systems.
Mirror's Edge used Faith's visible hands as animation links for her locomotion, but the game never made a meaningful stab at world interactions outside of its parkour comfort zone. And while long-forgotten first-person adventure Breakdown tried to do more with hand/environment interactions, every spot - every first-person swig of a drink - felt stiff and unnatural.
But in Thief the hands are your gateway to The City. Garrett's hands are a permanent on-screen fixture; whether they're clutching his composite bow, or simply held out for balance as he perches on the edge of a rooftop and surveys crowds of NPCs begging to be robbed. And at every possible opportunity Eidos Montreal is using them to ground you in their fiction.
Our introduction to the new Thief is a cut-down gameplay demo of the game's House of Blossoms mission. The premise is eerily reminiscent of Dishonored's Pendleton Brothers assassination quest at the Golden Cat brothel, only with a different end goal: you start the level in the streets, you must make your way through the city and sneak into the brothel unnoticed, and you must perform your task from the shadows and slip away, preferably without alerting anybody to your presence. Instead of an assassination, however, your goal is to pilfer a golden medallion belonging to The City's main architect, a man named Eastwick.
Right from the off, your hands play a part. As Garrett silently crouches in a cart being wheeled through the city streets he rests his hands on the wooden slats in front of him for balance. It's immediately clear that both Garrett and his hunting grounds have been changed by the years.
Garrett is gaunt and pale with not even a hint of roguish handsomeness left on his face. Clad in leathers he's half way between Assassin's Creed II's Ezio and Soul Calibur's gimp-man Voldo. And the once-steampunk city he calls home is now a straight clash of medieval and industrial eras where the beauty of the Renaissance never took root.
Thief is to decaying streets what Crysis 3 is to jungles
Men are wasting away in stocks and swinging from ropes after being hanged for civil disobedience: The City's a hostile and unwelcoming place, albeit one beautifully realised with a heavily modified version of Unreal Engine 3. Eidos Montreal has paid special attention to shadowing and rainfall and fire propagation, and the interplay of the elements means Thief is to dark alleys and decaying streets what Crysis 3 is to jungles.
When the cart stops, Garrett slips out and hides behind a stack of barrels to eavesdrop on a pair of guards. As he does so he rests both hands on the casks to lean without toppling. Much later on, when he tilts around chairs and doorframes to spy on other NPCs, we see similar animations. He's always touching the environment and as a result he feels like part of it; not just a character dropped into a game world, but a character ingrained in The City's deepest roots.