It’s hard to imagine that any sequel to the two previous Thief games could possibly live up to the towering expectations of the legions of taffers out there. We got spoiled by two wonderfully original games that gave us an imaginative and completely different take on the Action/Adventure genre. I was absolutely captivated by the first game, which I picked up on sale on the off-chance that I might like it. And was it good! Then there was Thief 2, equally great. And then came the fan missions, which have given the series an open-ended lease on life long past the playing of the games themselves. But because my anticipation was so high, and because recent sequels in other game series have proven to be so disappointing, I really expected to be let down by Thief: Deadly Shadows. But, hope being eternal, and all that, I bought it anyway, in spite of the negative hype on various forums and in spite of my fear that it would spoil the series for me.
So how does Thief Deadly Shadows measure up? It measures up. Not entirely, not completely, it’s perhaps not as great as it could have been. And it isn’t quite as good as the originals. But it’s good, very good, in fact. The basic premise of the game is unchanged. Garrett still stalks the night, sneaking, stealing and annoying the Keepers. Missions are played, victims are blackjacked, statistics are kept, loot is counted, the Hammers are pompous, and the guards are buffoons. And from the sound of it, some of the guards are the same ones we already know and love. There’s lots of humour in this game, as in the originals.
The missions are for the most part good, solid Thief missions, ranging from looting a mansion on the coast to inching through a burned out orphanage/asylum that is most definitely a creepfest and should make everyone that loved the Haunted Cathedral pretty happy. As in the earlier titles, the amount of loot you have to find depends on the difficulty level you’re playing at, and finding some of the loot is fairly challenging. Garret is still his laconic self, and because the same voice actor was used, he really IS Garrett.
While the system requirements are pretty high, my trusty Geforce 4200 ti was able to handle the game smoothly and even without being able to play with everything maxed out, this is a good looking game. It handles pretty much the same as the originals, and even the interface is almost identical, so you’ll be off to a running start if you’ve played the others. More importantly, the game world still looks like Thief, even with the new graphics. The world is still a weird admixture of medieval architecture and Victorian technology, not to mention the oddball fantasy settings we know from the past.
There are significant changes, though. Between missions Garrett spends his time in various area of the City that open up as the game progresses, taking time to loot buildings, pickpocket or mug innocent bystanders and shop for equipment at various emporia. This allows the player to spend more or less time on the game, depending on whether your wish is to do a little more casual looting or just get on with the main plot. There are optional side quests for the Hammer and Pagan factions in the City, which can give you allies when you need them (and, of course, a bit more loot). You can also let yourself get arrested, for once, and that allows for another optional side quest that adds nothing to the story but allows for more sneaking.
The game allows for both first and third person perspectives. It’s kind of nice to actually see our anti-hero in action, finally, and watching Garret climb up a wall, with his shadows being cast as he passes a torch, is pretty impressive. Still, to me Thief is a first-person game – I find it more immersive. But having the option is a plus, and I even used it in certain situations.
The new lock picking interface was a bit confusing at first but I think it’s an improvement, in that it feels more realistic. It’s even possible to pick locks with your eyes closed, relying entirely on sound.
The mission areas are smaller than we’re accustomed to, but for the most part the level design was good enough and the missions were long enough that I didn’t feel short-changed. There is a load point in each mission that takes you to another area of the level, so there is some compensation for the limitations of what I assume relate to the requirements of having multiple platforms. However, there are no great sprawling missions that take you through myriad city streets and above the rooftops, and nothing as long and labyrinthine as the Bank mission in Thief 2. There weren’t a lot of back passageways and secret doorways. Given how nice this new world looks, and how good the game is, that’s a real shame. Still, I didn’t get the feeling that the game was limited in scope to nearly the same extent that Deus Ex 2 was.
There are a few things that detracted from the game. First off, it’s unfortunate that Garret is given a pair of wonderful climbing gloves, which in my opinion are far better than the buggy rope arrows, and then has very little to climb. The gloves just aren’t exploited enough.
While having the ability to keep your remaining equipment when a mission ends is fine, the ability to purchase anything you need between missions means that the inexperienced taffer might rely on the equipment instead of using stealth and skill, and that could significantly detract from the game for someone new to Thief. One of my favourite memories of Thief 1 was my first time through the Lost City with two health points left, Fire Elementals roaming around, a very small supply of water arrows, and no health potions in my inventory. In Deadly Shadows you can always start a mission with the maximum number of everything, which takes away much of the challenge (if you let it). I would prefer to either have the ability to keep remaining equipment after a mission, or have merchants that supply very small and varying numbers of each item, depending on difficulty level. I like starting a mission knowing that there will be situations in which I won’t have the easiest solution at hand.
Finally, there is apparently a bug in this game that resets the difficulty level to “normal” when you reload or enter a new loading area, and a patch is forthcoming. I do know that some areas of the game were enjoyably, even fiendishly, difficult (especially for ghosting), and others seemed remarkably easy, even on Expert level. While this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game much for the first go-round (in fact, I had no idea until close to the end), having a real challenge will be good for the replay value. The hard-core taffer might wish to wait until the patch comes out, though.
In spite of the warts, this is an extremely enjoyable game. Most importantly, it’s true to the series in most respects, and many of the changes are improvements. The story arc is continued faithfully, and the legend lives on.
No fancy-pantsy Elven dagger-twirlers. Just tough guys.