After the dissolution of Looking Glass Studios a few years back, PC gamers were damned near despondent over the possibility of never seeing a final game in the Thief series. Now, six years later, Ion Storm has stepped up to the mike and finished the trilogy, while simultaneously bringing Thief to consoles for the first time.
I'd heard chapter and verse about the highly immersive and well-written world of Thief before now. Just the same, as PC gaming is a vast and uncharted spot on the map for me ("What is this… 'patching' you speak of?"), I hadn't really tried any of the games until the Xbox version of Deadly Shadows. I popped it in, expecting it to be a solid and polished stealth game, light on the action and heavy on the skulking.
I was right.
For those that don't know, the Thief series is the story of Garrett, the master thief who prowls the alleys of a massive steampunk metropolis only known as the City. His past adventures have seen him lose an eye to an ancient god of Chaos, and save the entire City from the schemes of an insane worshipper of the god of creation, while simultaneously stealing everything of any value that was not actually nailed to the floor. There are very few characters in video game history who define the word "antihero" more clearly.
In Deadly Shadows, Garrett is approached by the Keepers, the shadowy faction in City politics that, incidentally, gave Garrett most of his early training as a thief. At their request, Garrett embarks on a pair of missions against the Hammerites and Pagans, to steal a pair of major artifacts. In so doing, Garrett becomes part of an elaborate series of manipulations and doublecrosses, where the only person he knows he can trust from moment to moment is himself.
This is not an action game. Deadly Shadows is entirely based around evasion, stealth, and concealment, to a nearly unprecedented degree. You can backstab an unwary opponent with a dagger, knock them unconscious with a blackjack, or wield a variety of normal and elemental arrows to kill or knock out a target, but Garrett is by no means a fighter. If he's not attacking somebody when their back is turned, then he's probably not going to win.
(That particular quirk of the engine is occasionally infuriating, as the difference between a stealthy, one-hit KO and a really annoyed guard can come down to a fraction of a second's difference in the guard's posture. I don't expect a guy who's expecting to be hit to go down as easily as a guy who isn't, but it's still frustrating. Whether he knows it's coming or not, a guy with a broadhead arrow sticking out of his face should probably still be confronting some changes to his lifestyle.)
On the other hand, it's possible to get through the entire game without fighting at all. By sticking to the shadows, using distractions to your advantage, extinguishing light sources, and simply watching your environment, it's possible to get through every step of Deadly Shadows's ten hours or so by sheer stealth. It actually represents an interesting challenge, for your second or third trip through the game, especially since the game tracks your stats.
Between the game's ten missions, you'll be exploring the six districts of the City, which for the first time, has been made into a living, breathing world of its own. In the City, you can pick bystanders' pockets, fence your goods to one of four buyers, buy equipment at various thieves' markets, and, all the while, dodge the ever-alert yet easily-duped City Watch. (Garrett should really change clothes once in a while, or dye his hair, or something, so the Watch doesn't recognize him on sight. A few disguises would be an interesting refinement to the series.)
PC gamers' worries that the City would represent a vast difference in the gameplay – that you'd be able to breeze through the game by stocking up on equipment between missions – are mostly unfounded. Equipment is expensive, you can only carry so much of it, and the theoretically infinite money that you can cherry-pick off unwary citizens is vastly limited. When something as simple as a broadhead arrow costs a hundred gold, and you're lucky to score fifty by picking someone's pocket, you'd need a lot of patience to break the game via petty theft.
The City holds any number of subquests, from problems you can take a hand in to houses that can be burgled, as well as quite a few secrets. I'm particularly fond of the secret passages and rooftops that can be reached with a bit of effort, making it easy to pass through the streets without being seen or heard.
Deadly Shadows stirred up some mild controversy early on for the two major changes it makes to the Thief formula, which are seen as concessions to its simultaneous launch on Xbox. (I believe the word is "console-itis.") One is the ability to switch between first- and third-person perspective (done here with the Back button), and the other is the presence of "zone gates," portals of swirling mist that mark the boundary between maps.
The former modification is useful for those of us, like myself, who prefer third-person when skulking about in the dark. The latter is occasionally ridiculous, as passing through a zone gate freezes time in the district you just left, so if you return there on the same day, any pursuit you might've been trying to avoid will be right there, caught in mid-swing, waiting for you. The maps between zone gates are quite large, but they aren't the massive expanses that you might have come to expect from the PC games.
Deadly Shadows represents a chance to visit and interact with a richly imagined, well-acted, and especially well-written fantasy world, with a lot to see and even more to do. It's a bit light in the department of unlockable extras, but given as how every mission represents a variety of ways to get the job done (do I sneak in via the front door or scale the back wall? should I blackjack my way through the guards and hide their bodies, or totally avoid all contact?), you'll find it easy to play through the game more than once.
The biggest problem that the Xbox version has is that it, like Hitman: Contracts, is a remarkably buggy product that bears unmistakable signs of being rushed out the door. The most notorious glitch is, of course, the difficulty bug, which forces you to play on Normal regardless of whatever difficulty you chose. As guards on Normal, even near the end of the game, are amazingly ignorant of the world around them (since beating someone unconscious results in a horrific clatter as their weapon hits the ground, it's unbelievable when somebody else walks by a second later and doesn't appear to care), it can be argued that you aren't getting the full experience of the game without playing on Hard or Expert.
More importantly, Deadly Shadows has real problems with collision detection. I've found myself stuck in midair several times, when I accidentally slipped off a ledge and got caught between it and the building it was attached to. It's very easy to do that kind of thing, where instead of falling off a narrow ledge, Garrett will slide off whatever he's standing on, leaving the impression that he was never meant to stand on it in the first place.
There are a few other minor graphics glitches, too. Creeping too close to a wall will stick Garrett's arm into the bricks, as though he's trying to reach the next room via osmosis. While rotating the camera around Garrett in third-person perspective, you'll often be transported, as though by strange magic, into the center of his wireframe, hollow head, or watch in wonder as his head simply disappears. There's an important spiral staircase in Auldale that is a near-impassable barrier if you're trying to sneak up it, and if you run up it, you're probably going to get your teeth punched down your neck by the guardian creatures that're patrolling in the next room.
There's nothing wrong with Deadly Shadows that a patch wouldn't fix, but without Live support, that doesn't seem likely. I hope that Eidos and Ion Storm decide to fix this version's problems in future prints, or at least circulate the fix in an OXM disc, or something.
Until that happens, Deadly Shadows on Xbox is decidedly inferior to the PC version because the PC version will be fixed eventually. It's still a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy creeping around and beating people on the back of the head, but it's got certain technical issues that are impossible to ignore.
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