Monday, August 04, 2008

A review of the Thief series

Everybody's favorite thief is back on duty. With the Xbox360 subbing as an expensive paper weight (it's fixed now), the original xbox was fired up with the most recent version of my favorite game series, Thief: Deadly Shadows.

The original in the series, Thief: The Dark Project explored the experiences of the disarmingly cool master thief, Garrett. You are armed with a sword, a blackjack, a variety of arrows, and your ability to blend into shadows. You'll live and die by the light indicator at the bottom of your screen which indicates how illuminated you are. In complete darkness, Garrett can practically vanish, allowing guards to pass within inches of you safely. Firing noise maker arrows or tossing objects will attract the attention of sentries, and allow you to slip past guards as they investigate. Since you are a thief, you're not much of a fighter, and avoiding combat and detection is preferred. Stats at the end of a mission include the amount of times spotted, enemies knocked out, etc. Difficulty increases insist you find almost all the loot on the level (which meant more dangerous exploration), and required enemies only be knocked out. It was the first in a new genre of gaming; First Person Sneaker.

The story started simple enough, break into some fat nobleman's mansion, steal his trinket, and get out. However, Garrett quickly finds his exceptional skill has brought him to the attention of some powerful factions. As he tries to extricate himself he begins to realize that he has been in the middle of a pitched fight between gods, demons, and fanatics. The story is related through an interestingly animated series of cutscenes for which the Thief series has become known (and celebrated).

The gameplay was admittedly clunky, and unpolished. If you messed with the world enough, it would break. Objects would fall through the floor, doors would occasionally fly off their hinges when opened, and walls would fail to render. These issues were mostly cosmetic, and while distracting, were not distracting enough to get you to stop playing. There's a lot of what some gamers call tilt in this game. Playing through a mission, on your last save, and hoping that patroling guard won't hear your footsteps just before you blackjack him, spin around, and run you through, really increases the gaming experience. There are a lot of close calls, depending on how you choose to play or the difficulty at which you play. The first few missions have you ducking from shadow to shadow, distracting guards, and slipping by sentries unnoticed. The missions included expansive levels that were as much vertical as they were horizontal. Retrievable rope arrows that would stick to any soft surface made the game very 3d and opened many more options for completion of your goal or simply evading guards. Unfortunately as the game progressed, it turned from you skulking around large buildings, distracting guards, figuring out patrol patterns, and ducking from shadow to shadow, into you killing monsters while running around like a headless chicken. This change became very apparent when you came to a doorway with immobile monsters guarding it, with no way around it other than to simply fight your way through. Fail. However the game was so open, that the missions sans monster, were played at all difficulty levels, in different gameplay styles, with different self-imposed challenges, until every inch of each level, and every patrol pattern was committed to memory. In fact, I so loathed the idea of Garrett running around in circles swinging his sword at buricks, or trying to down zombies long enough to flee, I hardly remember playing those levels. The story developed nicely through the cutscenes, but playing those levels was a chore.

Thief 2: The Metal Age was probably that Thief 1 should have been. The series was back with even more plot intrigue and even larger, more open areas to play through. Full exploration of maps revealed sub-plots that develop in future missions through scripted events. Making your way across the rooftops to the far side of the cathedral, while encountering disturbances, or overhearing conversations, really gives you the feeling that you are in a world larger than yourself. Vague maps and smarter enemies make it more important that you safely explore the level so you can understand the internal structure of buildings or areas before you can complete your mission. Your missions get harder, requiring you to spy on conversations, and position yourself to pick pockets in order to find out exactly how you'll need to continue. Of course, these tips, and important moments are not on your map, and can only be discovered by exploring, problem solving, and listening at doors. The result is a more fluid gameplay where you must uncover the details of your mission while on the prowl. When you begin to uncover startling information on missions, and have to change goals, you feel more like you're experiencing Garrett's trials, instead of just participating in them. Getting from X to Y is rarely as easy as it seems, and will likely include some other nasty consonants.

Thief 2 continued to develop the factions introduced in the first game seamlessly, and sustained the plot twists and turns that kept you interested in the first game. Missions were no longer just about grabbing loot, and escaping, when you became genuinely interested in the characters, and their motivations. Tilt remained a huge part of the gameplay, and was increased by sections where Garret was not entirely safe, or you had to take a chance. Monsters are few and far between, and are usually avoidable (as they should have been in the first game). Minor technical issues arose, but were no where near prevalent enough to interrupt gameplay.

Thief 2 was, and still is an extremely good game.

Thief 3: Deadly Shadows was picked up by a new game developer, and would be released on a console and PC. I was sure this would be a problem. I was happily wrong. Thief 3 was Thief 2 and more. They were not afraid to explore new level designs, and really stretch to interesting objectives. Thief 3 was the first in the series to use active lighting. In Thief 1 and 2, water arrows could be used to put out torches to make static areas lit or unlit. But in Thief 3, light sources could be moved around, and would actively generate shifting shadows that required you to move to stay hidden. It also embraced more of a sandbox environment in the form of interstitial cities that you had to sneak your way through to make it to your missions. You were no longer quantum leaping into Garret's head just as he began each mission, because you had to sneak your way past city guards, and angry fanatics to make it to your mission. Developments in the plot caused different things to happen in the cities that kept you on your toes. Even having items ready for the next mission now required making your way to a fence to sell your stolen goods, then to a shop to buy your thieving equipment. Small side plots, and quests kept your trips through the city interesting, and helped you complete your objectives, while adding a realism that let you get lost in the experience. New game mechanics and mission types kept you wondering what to expect, and always kept things interesting. Thief 3 also began allowing you to play third person, which made it easier to look around corners since the camera wasn't placed firmly inside Garret's eyes, but I found that playing this was was FAR less immersive than playing first person. The only problem with this addition was that peeking around corners normally gave you limited visibility (visibility to your opponents, not visibility to see things), but in Thief 3, they seem to have skipped that part since peeking around a blind corner in poor lighting immediately results in guards on the other side coming to investigate. I suspect this mechanic was ignored or skipped because QA testers played in third person, and could look around every corner without threat by moving the camera around.

The entire series poured a lot of energy into sound. Sound is almost half of the games. The 3D engine applies specifically to sound, and listening to the varied volumes of nearby footsteps, throat clearing, of idle conversation gave you valuable information about the location of nearby guards, and their patrol direction. Beyond serving as a simple utility to locating guards, the sound has very subtle tones, hums, and some music that dramatically adds to the atmosphere of the game. Ghosts speak in echoing wisps, and frighten you while you're straining to hear patrolling guards. Disembodied voices unsettle you by disturbing what you previously knew your surroundings to be. Omnipresent hums and notes set a dramatic mood, and raise your anxiety level as you sneak from shadow to shadow, avoiding death by mere inches. Immersion is immense in gaming, and no other games immerse me like the Thief series.

So buy Thief 2 for PC, or Thief 3 for PC or Xbox, and give them a shot. They can be had for dirt cheap if you shop around, and if they're up your alley, they will pull you into Garret's world, and won't let go.


Anonymous said...

I hear this one's better.

Fletch said...


Awesome link! I laughed until my eyes watered!

Anonymous said...

i have deadly shadows, it is freaking amazing. the realism is so cool and realy gets you into the game and on this one you can form allies and sneak around in groups and go around stealing and pickpoketing random passers by. also the amount of side missions realy gets you to explore the city all while being put up for ransom so every guard wants you to either die or be sufficiently wounded to be dragged off to prison which you also have to escape from. this game is worth every penny.