Thief. Ahhh. Just typing it gives me a warm tingly feeling in my fingers. Thief. Arguably the first stealth action title. Thief. Shadows and fog, footsteps and silence, arrows and daggers. Thief. I think I'll type it one more time just to keep that tingly thing going on…. Thief. Oh, yeah baby…And if it ain't broke, don't fix it!
First there was Thief: The Dark Project, and its follow-up, Thief 2: The Metal Age. We met the Solid Snake of medieval times. The Sam Fisher of the King Arthur set. Moving swiftly and silently, taking from the rich and giving to… hell no, not the poor! As Mel Brooks once quipped about Robin Hood, "He stole from everybody and kept everything."
And let's call a spade a spade; Eidos needs a hit. After the Tomb Raider franchise crashed and burned with Angel of Darkness, the powers that be at Eidos must have realized they had a substantially better game series to follow up than the silicone-enhanced Brit bombshell. How could they forget Garrett? A sardonic cynic, looking for anything that will make his life easier, and more affluent. Don't get me wrong, the Hitman series is pretty cool, but not really up to the sneak-and-peek thrill of Thief.
Let's start at the top. Right after installation, Garrett starts talking. Stephen Russell's gravelly, snide voice catches the mood impeccably. And at this juncture in my symposium, I have to give mad props to Mr. Russell. He has voiced Garrett since the beginning, and has also lent his talents to Arx Fatalis and Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide. More game companies should focus on actors who truly understand the subtleties of voice acting, as Stephen Russell does. His Garrett is the perfect blend of the somewhat bored and detached film noir voiceover and the world-weary drone of Bogie from The Big Sleep. There's something about his intonations that unswervingly put you into the Thief world. It's a shame it took me five minutes reading the credits of people who probably brought coffee to the guy who brings the bagels before I got to the voice credits. I know this is probably a sore subject with a lot of production professionals, but as important as they are, I think voice talent should be given priority in the credits. Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds and Jenna Jameson were plugged (no pun intended in Ms. Jameson's instance) prominently in the press releases for GTA: Vice City, but who (besides critics like me who take the time to read the full credits of a game) has ever heard of Stephen Russell? After all, who would go to see Terminator 4: Set Design by Melvin Schkleckner? I get the marketing gist, but, c'mon guys, let's give the nod to the people whose work is more intimate with the players' experience than the (albeit) genius who made Garrett's skin look so amazingly supple.
Everything about Deadly Shadows is instantly recognizable. Now that I think of it, comparing Deadly Shadows to Dark Project or Metal Age would be like comparing apples and apples.
This is where; depending on your point of view, Deadly Shadows either shines or sinks. As far as I am concerned, it shines like Telly Savalas' head in the Gobi Desert at high noon.
Graphically, Deadly Shadows blows its predecessors away. The lighting, the skin textures, the particle physics are all state-of-the-art. Stone walls look like stone walls, shadows of fire-lit sconces flicker on appropriate walls, and even the furniture is sufficiently detailed.
As mentioned earlier, the voice talent is way above par. Even the minor NPC's have a sense of reality in their speech that is much improved over the norm. I pointedly enjoyed the concept of eavesdropping as a preparatory weapon. While crouching in the shadows while waiting for a guard to finish his rounds, I was first privy to a conversation between the lady of the castle and her bodyguard, which clued me in to objectives present in the next level. This writing sews the missions together and presents a more cohesive structure to the game. The inter-palace backstabbing and power-playing makes the entire kingdom seem more realistic. Let's face it, even King Arthur was seduced by his half-sister. And he didn't even live in West Virginia! (E-mail all complaints to getasenseofhumour.com) ?
As far as gameplay is concerned, nothing has really changed as far as Garrett is concerned. He has his anachronistic mechanical eye which allows you to zoom in on targets from afar. The standard WASD control scheme is default, and comfortable. Mouselook is smooth, with no noticeable glitches even during multiple adversarial confrontations.
Now, let's talk about mood. The first two Thief games gave a first-rate sense of emotion, but for some reason, Deadly Shadows takes this to what I consider "Paranoia as high art." While playing, you shy from the light like Edgar Winter sans sunscreen.
The sound design works splendidly! Footsteps, voices, and environmental noises are rendered convincingly, and above all, directionally. (Wow… that's a lot of adjectives in one sentence) With (or without, for that matter) headphones, you are prone to look over your own shoulder when a noise occurs back there. (Do you get the feeling I like parenthesized thoughts?)
As far as level design is concerned, I have to give Deadly Shadows an A! The buildings look, and more importantly, feel like living, breathing castles. Kitchens are equipped with burning embers and copper pots, armories are replete with racks of finished (but alas, unusable) weapons, bedchambers are decked out with the finest silks, and the carpets are lushly patterned.
I obviously can't be the only fan of Garrett, since I hear that Deadly Shadows went Gold prior to E3! How cool is that?!
Now that I have rambled on about how Deadly Shadows is the similar to the prior Thief games, let's focus on the differences.
When discussing the upgrades, one has to focus on the enemy AI. In previous incarnations, the guards and patrolmen followed a much more predictable pattern: Move to (A), Move to (B), and Move to (C), repeat until combat. In Deadly Shadows, the guards remember where they have already searched, and if this is an area with no entries or exits, it is possible that it will be overlooked on the next round. This takes the utter predictability of rounds and turns it into something much more realistic.
What kind of thief would you be if you couldn't pick locks? The lockpicking routines are based around moving the mouse in a circle, and observing when the tumblers in the lock move the most. The tumblers are set in concentric circles, so the harder the lock, the more "sweet spots" you have to hit, while avoiding detection. Fortunately, once you have picked one ring, it stays picked, so you are able to pick a lock a little (Was that a lyric from "Oliver!"?), hide when the guard swings by, and then get on with the next step while he is not watching you.
Thieves are also masters of the pickpocket, and Deadly Shadows doesn't disappoint here, either. The same "sparklies" that connote loot on bookshelves also mark booty on someone's belt.
The weaponry is again instantly familiar. Water Arrows, Noisemaker Arrows, Broadhead Arrows and Moss Arrows make up the bulk of your distance weapons. Water Arrows are utilized to douse flamberges on walls, Noisemakers lure your prey to just about anywhere you want them to go, Broadheads are great for splitting unsuspecting guards' skulls, and Mossies create a carpet of silent moss on noisy metallic surfaces. If you hadn't guessed by now, Deadly Shadows is mostly based around not being seen. Your "up-close" weapons are the standard Blackjacks, Daggers and Swords. These are useful, but really glow during backstabs and ambushes.
In the previous Thief games, backstabbing was almost automatic. In Deadly Shadows, it is more vital to be as close to your target as possible before attacking. On more than 30 occasions (OK, I can be a slow learner) I took a shot at a backstab, missed, and was beset on all sides by pissed off guardsmen. Which leads me to my next point of interest: Do not engage multiple enemies. You'd be better off trying to hide a Krispy Kreme from Anna Nicole Smith.
I'm sitting here thinking and playing and writing and thinking, and while I know I love Deadly Shadows, I am concerned that more serious players may expect more from Thief in the four years since the demise of Looking Glass and Thief 2:The Metal Age. Part of me must agree. I would have liked a major face-lift, but then again, as I said at the outset, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
As far as I am concerned, it still works!
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