Thief: The Dark Project was a revolution for the PC. It introduced elements of stealth and style that have rarely been matched. It featured semi-dynamic lighting, 3D graphics, a first person view, and an AI that could hear. No longer could you blast away at the enemy and not expect a response from the next room over. Garret, the games protagonist, was a dark hero who robbed from the rich to give to himself. The city’s corrupt nobility is your target and the shadow is your weapon. In the age of Doom clones where finding enough ammunition was your only challenge, Thief: The Dark Project was a smash hit.
Looking Glass Studios had created a whole new genre; the ‘first-person sneaker’. They followed up The Dark Project with Thief II: The Metal Age. Steamworks technology and magic intermixed in the second title as you encountered the fanatical Hammerites and their opposites, the Pagans, once again. This time you faced off against a new foe in addition to the primary factions, the Sheriff Gorman Truart. The good Sheriff wants you dead at all costs and seemed to pursue this goal with a zeal far beyond the repayment for a few lost trinkets. As the plot thickens the Mechanists separate from the Hammerites and begin to take over the city and influence the nobility…and you are caught in the middle. Your only allies are the decidedly neutral Keepers, a group dedicated to trying to figure out what these new factions are up to and how this Metal Age fits into the Dark Prophecy.
Unfortunately, this is also where a real life Dark Prophecy hit; Looking Glass studios went out of business. Fans of the First-Person Sneaker were left in the cold and the Thief series was all but lost. Fast forward to 2004 and we are back in the dusty leather shoes of Garret the Master Thief as we take a look at Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Ion Storm is the new keeper of the Thief franchise thanks to a recent purchase of the property by Eidos Interactive. Put plainly, the graphics landscape has evolved several orders of magnitude since 1998 and the original Thief title. Ion Storm still had some big shoes to fill however as a whole crop of great looking titles with stealth elements have come out since then. They couldn’t simply rely on the great gameplay of the Thief franchise, but also had to raise the bar in the graphics department.
Ion Storm kicked off their development of Thief: Deadly Shadows with the thought that it’d be designed for the Xbox as well as the PC. Throughout the development cycle they maintained this thought and worked hard to take advantage of the power of the Xbox. The net result is a visual feast built for a standard television complete with real time shadows, a living breathing city, and every bell and whistle Ion could squeeze out of the platform.
The funny thing about a game like Thief is that the graphics are a fairly small portion of the overall equation. You spend so much time creeping through the shadows that almost everything is a shade of grey. When you do step out of the shadows though it does look great. Yes, it is locked at 640×480 and the framerate does occasionally dip close to the 30fps range, but you would be hard pressed to integrate this many real time shadows, real time lights, characters, and environments into an area on a console and have it look this good.
Some of the sound in Thief: Deadly Shadows will sound familiar. Some of it was moved from the older PC titles into this game and that is a good thing. Since the first Thief title pioneered an AI that could hear you, sound was a huge factor in the gameplay. This title incorporates Dolby Digital technology allowing you to hear an approaching enemy and make the appropriate adjustment in your tactics. Sound becomes just as important as shadow when your are treading across a hardwood floor to blackjack a Hammerite. Move too quickly and the enemy may become aware of you and turn to find the source of the disturbance. Bump a box or table and you may find its contents have spilled onto the floor with an incredible clatter.
Ion Storm brought back Stephen Russell as the voice of Garrett. In fact, several of the voice actors of the previous titles have returned. This will bring back waves of nostalgia the first time someone speaks out to the shadows “Don’t worry, I’ll find you Taffer”. In fact, all of the voice acting in Thief from the first title through this one have been outstanding. The title features over 300,000 words of recorded dialogue helping to set the mood and immerse you into this living breathing world.
In this living world, guards carry on conversations amongst themselves, sometimes talking about rumors they have heard which could tip you off to a new mission. These same guards also give you little bits of wisdom about the underlying storyline. When you slip up, they will step up their dialogue to reflect their current level of suspicion. These can vary from “Did I just see that?”, “Better check over there by those barrells”, to “OOH NO! You’ll not escape this time!” accordingly. Civilians on the street will also talk amongst themselves and scream for guards if you try to mug them. Again, a well done affair that adds to the immersion as well as the gameplay.
Thief was born on the PC, so mouse and keyboard controls were the defacto standard for the series. Thief: Deadly Shadows is the first title for the console market, so the traditional mouse/keyboard controls had to be moved to an Xbox controller. The controls play out as such:
- Back button – First person/Third Person view
- A button – use world object
- B button – hug the wall
- X button – crouch
- Y button – jump Left analog – move
- Right analog – look/turn
- D-pad – zoom/lean
- Left trigger – use equipment
- Right trigger – use weapons
- White button – change item
- Black button – change weapon
The controls work well, and if you have played any third-person game you’ll be immediately accustomed to the way it works. The camera is fairly well behaved and semi-transparency does a good job of making sure you can see what is going on around you.
Ion Storm brought us Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War, one lauded as one of the best action RPGs of all time, the other its love-it-or-hate-it sequel. Warren Spector had a great challenge ahead of him, but thankfully retained many of the original ex-Looking Glass employees to help him recreate the magic of the originals. How do you recreate something that invented and redefined an entire genre and is lauded as the precursor to such smash hits as Splinter Cell?
Thief: Deadly Shadows starts us off with a basic mission that reintroduces us to the world that Garrett inhabits and how you function within it. Some of the same elements of the previous titles remain in this title including the staple water arrows used to put out torches. You’ll still start off with a blade, a dagger this time instead of a short sword, and a bow as well as your trusty blackjack. As you progress you’ll have the chance to pick up some old favorites including flashbombs, fire arrows, gas arrows, moss arrows and more. Sadly one staple of the previous titles, the rope arrow is gone. The rope arrow was replaced by the admittedly disappointing climbing gloves that you will receive later in game. It enables you to climb sheer surfaces which sounds very cool on paper, but rarely is used or required. You can certainly use it in times between missions as you help rid the residents of their heavy and expensive burdens.
As before you will be trying to remain as invisible as possible during your missions, so you’ll be making use of your blackjack extensively. As you approach an enemy Garrett will raise his hand preparing to club them over the head. A quick button press later and the enemy is enjoying a little sleepy time. You can then put them over your shoulder and hide the body in the darkness. You cannot fight while you carry a body so you will have to be careful to time things properly. Other enemies on patrol will comment that there was a guard here earlier and probably launch into an investigation of that guards whereabouts.
The story of Deadly Shadows takes you into the shadowy world of The Keepers, The Hammerites, and Pagans. Most of your missions involve some level of interaction with these three factions. You’ll engage in missions that you go out and find on your own in the beginning, but later missions give you a degree of choice in that you can complete side missions as well as continue the primary mission thread. As you complete these missions you’ll unveil more about The Keepers, The Hammerites, The Pagans, and Garrett himself. It seems that there is a Dark Age approaching and some feel that Garrett might be involved. Naturally you think this is entirely nonsense, so often you’ll be more interested in collecting a few artifacts along the way. It sets up a compelling and complex storyline so the game doesn’t degrade into an object hunt.
Since stealth is a massive aspect of the Thief series, knowing how visible you are is paramount. Whether you play in third-person mode or first-person mode, you’ll have a ‘light gem’ to tell you how visible you are. When it is dark, you are well hidden. As it becomes lighter you are less hidden. When it is bright, you are well lit and in the open. You can hit torches with water arrows to help stop that light source, but not all light sources can be dealt with in this fashion.
I honestly expected to spend a great deal of time writing about the first-person mode versus the third-person mode, but after playing games like Splinter Cell and Full Spectrum Warrior, operating in third-person mode seemed fairly natural. Purists of the Thief series will tell you first-person mode is the only way to play and that the new third-person mode is simply used to draw in the console crowd. I say that either way works, and both are well balanced.
Any good thief knows how to pick a lock. Garrett is a master thief so he can do it better than most. When you approach a lock on a chest or a door you’ll kneel and zoom in. You’ll see a left and a right pick as you pull the tumblers to spring the lock. You will move the left pick around in a circle using the thumbstick until it rumbles the controller and you see the visual representation of the lock tumbler jiggling. When you find this ‘sweet spot’ you dig around it with the pick until the lock springs. It takes a little practice and sometimes you’ll have to leave the shadows to accomplish it. I can recall a few tense moments where I was completely visible while picking a lock, hoping that the guards did not patrol past this room while I fumbled with a footlocker of theirs.
All this shadow-sneaking goodness is not without a price. Sometimes the AI in the game seems downright asleep. Other times the enemy is smart enough to go get help. Sometimes the enemy will hunt you in packs and without mercy, and other times they will give up their pursuit fairly quickly and ‘forget’ that they were ever looking for you. This spotty AI can put some rain on your parade, but it is never enough to ruin the experience.
There is a level of interaction that is absent from Deadly Shadows. The immersion breaks down when you realize that you can only interact with your environment to open windows or doors. It would be nice to have innovated with traps or some other level of immersion to allow the player to interact with the world more than Deadly Shadow offers. It just feels like an oversight that could have been easily corrected since this title has about the same interaction level as Thief: The Metal Age.
Another aspect of the title that might cause some heartache is the ‘zone’ loads. Many levels and the city itself are split into ‘zones’ that present themselves as a billowing smokescreen with nothing beyond. When you step into the area you are asked whether you wish to move into the next area or not. The load times are between 8 and 10 seconds in length, but are thankfully infrequent.
All in all, the gameplay is never overshadowed (no pun intended) by the sum of its flaws. Deadly Shadows has enough going for it to keep you engaged and immersed in Garrett’s world. A worthy addition to the Thief series.
Thief: Deadly Shadows is a fairly lengthy game for its type. In the status window it will tell you how long you have been playing and you’ll find that you’ve been playing far longer than you think. The variety of locations coupled with the great storyline makes for an engaging title that is sure to please. There are four difficulty levels that modify the AI to a minor degree, but increase the amount of extra loot you have to collect dramatically. You will definitely have to be a master Thief to get anywhere on the Expert difficulty level.
My complaint with Thief: Deadly Shadows is that it never really feels too challenging. There are parts that seemed like they might have been difficult if I didn’t have a truckload of money and an easily accessible supply of arrows, health vials, and more. The addition of multiple fences that will only take certain types of goods was a good idea, now if only the supply management of the previous title was more prevalent.
Beating Thief: Deadly Shadows once will completely reveal the storyline. This takes away one major aspect of why Thief is so fun to begin with. The second time through will be more to enjoy some of the well built levels and superb voice acting. Your mileage may vary, but I can’t help feel like the addition of Live for new mission downloads, or more challenge might have helped greatly.