Summary: Garretteo, Garretteo, wherefore art thou a thiefeo? Well, it turns out in this installment of the franchise you get to find the reason for that (actually, I lied) and whole more more about Garrett than you knew before (not lying this time). But is Thief: Deadly Shadows a good game? Can a different developer ever recreate the experience that the fans of the originals want, while at the same time advancing the game?
I came into Thief: Deadly Shadows expecting a problem which didn't exist, finding no new others, yet in the end I came out feeling the game is lacking something. Let's sit down on the couch with the good doctor and explore the origins of that feeling.
The stars were aligned and the gaming universe seemed set to rights. Then Deus Ex: Invisible War was released to a massive backlash. It's not that it was a bad game, it's just that gamers resented the console-oriented nature of it, and it didn't really try to do everything like its somewhat overhyped predecessor did. Given that Thief was being developed at the same studio and using the same engine, concerns arose about how it would turn out.
Don't worry, it's not a console game. The only console legacy shared between Deadly Shadows and Invisible War is that Thief also has the levels which are broken up into smaller parts. Fortunately the designers limited themselves to two parts per level at most, with an exception for the City which spans multiple zones. Although the sections are no larger than they were in Deus Ex, and in fact not even as content filled, they do take longer to pass. After all, you're not running and gunning, you're sneaking by. The only time they become an annoyance is at the start of the mid-game when Garrett finds himself running back and forth across the City during the errand boy phase of the game.
In concordance with the title of the game, you play a thief. This generally means breaking into homes, taking valuable property, pickpocketing, knocking people on the head and other disreputable things. Ostensibly there is some freedom of action as Garrett now has some choice about in which order to do missions, but the destination is the same in the end and the routes don't vary all that much. Stick to the shadows, don't make noise, disable/distract/kill guards and get the goodies.
The linchpin of what freedom of choice the game gives the player is of course the City. Supposedly huge from what you read about it, in fact it's more like a hamlet. Even with load times, it rarely takes more than two minutes to cross it. Fortunately, the City has content of its own. In addition to the various locations to loot, each zone has its fences and thief stores. A fence will take goods off your hands, while a thief store will charge you ridiculous prices for your equipment. Garrett may be a master thief, but a haggler he is not. If a diamond necklace worth 100 coins can only buy him a simple broadhead arrow, our one-eyed friend should perhaps consider hiring the drunken bum in the street or perhaps a senile old geezer with advanced Alzheimer's to do his negotiations for him.
Disappointingly, the rooftops of the City are inaccessible to Garrett. Not because he can't get there - climbing gloves will bring Garrett to the top of many buildings - but because they don't exist (it rather ruins the suspension of disbelief when you can see beyond the game world. -ed.). It's a petty thing to complain about, but Garrett's not much of a thief if he hasn't figured out the Rogue's Road, the Thieve's Highway, so to speak. This is particularly disturbing in light of the endless supply of city guards and other potentially hostile factions who roam the city streets at night.
The AI is a step up over previous editions of Thief, but for the sake of gameplay, it still has some obvious holes. Kill the person somebody was talking with, they'll look around and chase after you, but quickly get bored or tired and simply give up, then act like nothing has happened. In fact, once you know the levels, the challenge is gone even on hard difficulty - just run towards your objective and run back to the exit and you're set. Similarly, Garrett, Master Homicidal Maniac has a much easier time of it than Garrett, Master Thief. If you kill everyone in the level, what challenge and believability the game has goes out the window.
Truth be told, Thief is only as good as the player permits it to be. If you play it as it's intended to be - stealthy, sneaky, paranoid, scared of anything that moves - it's a beautiful game. Lift up the outside coating however, and you can expose all the gamey tricks which make it a joke. Of course, it's those gamey tricks that permit players to escape punishment for their mistakes, but they can be abused to take the fun out of the game.
One of my own personal concerns was how ION Storm would deal with nonhuman entities. Previous games became increasingly reliant on the supernatural to give the player a challenge, to the point where it became an obvious crutch. ION Storm is more subtle about these foes in general. There are a couple of levels where they're Garrett's primary enemies, but for the most part they're a supplementary force and used with grace. You'll know what I'm talking about when you go to recover the Paw from the Pagans.
In fact, it's a lot easier to simply name the few places where the graphics stumble, rather than praise the whole package. For starters, Thief goes a little too far out of its way to highlight loot. Previous games would make loot somewhat brighter, Deadly Shadows makes it glow and twinkle in an obnoxious bright blue color. That same color is used to highlight items that Garrett is about to interact with, like bodies to pick up, doors to open and candles to put out.
Other weak spots bring the Xbox to mind, unfortunately. With its 733MHz Pentium III processor, the Xbox is obviously incapable of pushing as many triangles around as a PC is, and there are times this shows in Thief. The low-poly character designs aren't that noticeable in motion, but give someone a knock on the head, get close to pick the body up and it's obvious how few triangles are used on even major characters. Animations are generally smooth, but ironically as games get better at drawing human characters, we're starting to notice the many minor miscues which separate us from our digital brethren. The unnaturally stiff backs, the expressionless faces, the exactly repeated motions - these all become painfully obvious particularly in a game like Thief where the player often spends minutes doing nothing but looking at his enemy and planning a way around him.
Where we constantly have our minds boggled is when it comes to game performance. Why does Thief: Deadly Shadows run fairly slowly on a system at least twice as powerful as an Xbox? We're looking at Far Cry performance with Deus Ex graphics - there's no justification for that.
Deadly Shadows has really nailed its audio on the spot. ION delivered Garrett's voice once again, but also painted in all the subtle touches that made the first two games a joy. Footsteps are just loud enough to tell how loud Garrett is moving or how far away an approaching guard is. Locks rattle just right as you're picking at the right spot. The music is eerie and tense. Thief is really all about the ambience and atmosphere, which is helped immeasurably by prodigious though occasionally spotty voice acting, the guard conversations their muttered complaints as they trudge around on cold nights and generally talk to themselves a lot like insane people. Maybe that's a bad example, but yes, Thief: Deadly Shadows delivers in sound.
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