In the late 90’s, a new, shadowy, gameplay experience was beginning to emerge, much to the excitement of many gamers. This new genre was predictably given the title ?stealth action’ and, while it was an appropriate name, only certain games within this genre would be well remembered.
Though everybody remembers games like Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, memory is not so clear towards, arguably, the most influential title in this genre – Thief: The Dark Project. While Metal Gear and Tenchu offered gamers the chance to control protagonists who had access to huge amounts of useful equipment with which to maneuver out of sticky situations, Thief made the player rely much more on watching, waiting and, more importantly, avoidance. In what is still, to this day, a rather intriguing twist to the genre, Garrett, the main character in Thief, just wasn’t a particularly good fighter. Now, after many years (and with a new development team at the helm), Garrett makes his stealthy return in Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Seeing as it was developed under the auspices of Ion Storm, expectations have been high for Thief: Deadly Shadows, especially when you consider that Ion Storm created the genre defying title Deus Ex and its PC and Xbox sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War. Upon loading and setting up a game, initial impressions can be very underwhelming. The first thing to be seen in Thief is a static goal screen which informs you of your coming objectives, and while it’s visually bland, the briefing spoken by Garrett is excellent. Next, the player is put through a couple of linear, yet enjoyable, training missions, with which to familiarize themselves with the control and items of the main character – the titular thief of the title. Although the training levels are nicely designed and ease you into the game at a leisurely pace, the control that you exercise over Garrett feels slow sometimes, which is a shame considering how nimble and agile thieves are portrayed as being. However, the actual control system is well mapped to the Xbox controller and feels very intuitive after entering the game.
As in Deus Ex, a lot of this title’s charm is derived from the somewhat open-ended structure of the gameplay, which affords you the ability to approach problems in several different ways. Should you try to gain entry to a building by brazenly dodging the guards and sneaking in, or perhaps look for another quieter, not so obvious approach? Ultimately the decision will be yours, and that is a truly wonderful element. Like in the previous games, Garrett’s equipment is rather low tech, consisting of a blackjack, dagger and bow – complete with several different arrow types, some of which are distinctly ?fantastical’. There are also various bomb types you can carry, including gas and flash. And, last but not least, where would a self-respecting stealth game be without a lockpick for those hard to break into buildings? The arsenal that Garrett has access to is reasonably sized and, throughout his quest, most of the equipment will come to good use. Perhaps the most valuable tool he possesses, though, is the light gem. This helpful tool is what the player will rely on to gauge just how well Garrett is hidden by shadow.
Thief is a very dark game (taking place entirely at night), and shadow plays an immensely important role. The lighting system in this game is not purely cosmetic – as Garrett cannot fight well, he will need to rely on shadow in order to carry out a lot of his work. If an enemy guard can be successfully snuck up behind, it is possible to initiate a one-hit ?kill’ so to speak, and the body may then be picked up and dropped off into an area of shadow – helping you cover your trail. Despite the game’s many rough edges, the stealth mechanic is perhaps one of the better working parts. It really is enjoyable to be able to walk up behind someone and knock them out before they have any clue what’s happening and then duck back, unseen, into the engulfing shadows.
While first experiences of the game are unimpressive, yet generally favorable, thanks in part to the straightforward nature of the training exercises, the actual game, as it begins to open up before you, will quickly introduce far more unfortunate situations – most notably the recurrently weak AI. It is not uncommon to open a door and have an NPC walk straight into it, should the door interrupt their predetermined route. Unfortunately, as they do so, their animation routine will still be making them walk. Usually they will do this for several seconds until the AI changes their path and allows them to walk freely out, or around, depending on the situation. In fact, clipping issues are among the more frequent annoyances that players can expect to see, as NPCs will frequently become hung up on the corners of objects and will pivot and twist helplessly looking for a way off. While this in no way ruins the game, it really helps ruin the mood that other elements of the game work so hard to create.
Despite these rather blatant problems, Thief: Deadly Shadows is blessed with some redeeming qualities. Mission structure is very good, and consistently helps in moving the game’s story along at a brisk pace. The missions you will find yourself on generally involve several common elements. For instance, you will probably be searching for a specific object (or indeed objects), you will also need to steal a predetermined percentage of the level’s valuables, and have to find at least one ?special’ item. There really aren’t many places where you’ll feel as though you’re wandering around with nothing to do, although the game’s extremely primitive (yet authentic for the setting) map doesn’t really help you in this regard. The map is merely a simplistic sketch, which has no real detail to it other than local landmarks within any given area. While this can be awkward (as there are, understandably, no ?you are here’ type icons), it can also encourage the player to explore. One of the more interesting gameplay features is the Faction system. Throughout the game, various organizations will try to secure your services, and depending what you do and for whom, your favor with these groups will rise or fall. While this does not directly impact the general gameplay, being looked upon favorably can prevent you from being beaten to a pulp by embittered faction members after you’ve knocked one of their friends unconscious and stolen their valuables.
Graphically, Thief appears to be very nice; Garrett’s character model looks menacing but, unfortunately, many other characters do not hold up to the same kind of close scrutiny, as they lack detail and can look rather oddly proportioned. While stationary, Thief is an attractive looking game, however, once it begins to move, the illusion becomes somewhat tarnished. The animation is very stilted, and has an unusually choppy quality to it, due in no small part to the unstable frame rate. This is a game definitely programmed with a PC in mind and, while doing its best to keep up, the Xbox can’t quite deliver the kind of performance a game like this demands. The lighting system is wonderful, however, and lends a very authentic feel to the pseudo-medieval setting. Torches flicker brightly against stone walls, shadows are well cast, and these effects all help to create a believable gaming environment.
Composed Crime, Laughable Larceny
Likewise, the sound is contradictory, too. The voiceover work for Garrett is superb, but the majority of the supporting cast is atrocious. The lines of the many NPCs are delivered with such bad accents and lack of pacing I caught myself smiling many times at the absurdity of the spoken dialog. While there is little music to speak of, the ambient soundtrack is excellent and has a wonderfully foreboding deep bass rumble. This is especially evident during missions; the effects are simply chilling as you stalk your way around in the gloom looking for your next item or stash of valuables. As long as nobody besides Garrett is talking, Thief’s atmosphere is palpable.
Light Fingered But Heavy-Handed
The open-ended nature of the gameplay should ensure that some gamers will come back to try to work out all the possible ways to achieve a given goal. Others may just be so disappointed by the journey that it’s not worth revisiting, especially considering the loading, which is fairly frequent and takes at least ten seconds to move you from one environment to another. This game delivers a very strange experience; some of its elements are so wonderfully engaging that the distinct lack of polish in other aspects makes it seem almost abysmal. It’s certainly a fun game to play and can easily take up a lot of time, but there are problems that simply should not be present in a current generation software title. Whether it’s too ambitious for its own good, or merely a painful reminder of what ?could have been’ is hard to say. Maybe, with some future refinements, the next Thief game could be THE definitive stealth title – as it is, though, Thief: Deadly Shadows is an enjoyable, if largely flawed, experience.