Thief: The Dark Project
Thief is one of those rare games that is honestly something completely new under the sun. The original game was released in an era when pretty much every other game was trying its best to be a clone of the latest first-person-shooter (FPS) from Id Software. In contrast Thief really invented its own genre, adding not only elements of stealth to the gameplay, but genuinely turning stealth-based gameplay upside down. Think about it for a moment, and try and put yourself into the shoes of a publisher listening to a sales pitch. The developer tells you he wants to make a game wherein (1) even the weakest of enemies can kill the protagonist, (2) most of the missions involve little to no combat or action, and (3) there is no rocket launcher.
Ok, that last one was a joke, but, seriously, I have a hard time believing that Thief ever got made. And, in fact, it's almost hard for me to believe that I ever played it. I tried the demo several times, and I just didn't "get it". It didn't appeal to me. Why should I want to skulk around slowly and quietly when other games let me open shotgun-powered cans of whoop-ass on the bad guys? To cut to the chase, my mother bought a copy of the gold version as a birthday present for me in 1999. After a few bad starts with it, I eventually got into the game in early 2001, deciding to give it one more try before selling it outright. Read on to find out why I'm very glad I did.
For its day, Thief looked good. I came to it a bit after the fact, mind you, because of my own hang-ups with really "getting" the game, but even after taking my own sweet time, it still looks pretty darned good. The game is powered by the same engine that powers System Shock 2 (SS2), which means it's more than capable of getting the job done, as SS2 was a fabulous game in its own right. The environments are modeled very realistically, the textures are very nicely done, and the dynamic lighting is absolutely wonderful compared to so many other games with entirely static lighting. Honestly, it's so refreshing simply to be able to put out a torch that I've done it just for the fun of it! Ok, maybe I need to get out more.
At any rate, the only serious complaint I have with the game's visuals is with the character modeling. The animation is generally very good, which helps a lot, but it just isn't enough to counter the fact that the models simply look goofy. I don't think I've ever seen such a bunch of anorexic and triangular-looking knights, guards, and cultists anywhere else. I guess the developers either didn't have the knack of modeling human bodies, or maybe they were operating under some kind of limitation in the engine itself. Either way, the character models look kind of silly.
A second and less substantive problem is the relatively limited selection of resolution and color depth. I sure wish that I could play the game at a resolution higher than 1024 x 768 x 16 bpp. I'm sure that was probably overkill when the game was first released, but I typically play most games at higher resolutions and color depths these days. It's a pity the developers didn't render the textures at 32 bpp. The difference in quality would be really something. Oh well, maybe the inevitable sequel will fix this problem.
I should also add that the various cut-scenes are wonderful for two reasons. First, I love the artistic style employed. I don't know enough about art to know whether it has a name or not, but I know what I like, and I like the cut-scenes done in Thief. I think they are very powerful in setting exactly the right tone. Second, the overall direction of the scenes, the visualizations and conceptualizations of the various locales and characters, is really first rate. Thief is the only game that has ever creeped me out with a cut-scene, and though I don't wish to spoil the surprise for the new player, let me just say that Viktoria's response to Garrett's request for his payment was utterly shocking—in a good way! Suffice it to say that the visuals in Thief are more than adequate for the task at hand.
Compared to the more than adequate visuals, however, the audio is positively superlative. Seriously, Thief breaks new ground in game audio. Never before has such painstaking care been taken to make sure that footsteps sound as they should on a host of different materials. Never before has such amazingly good positional and environmental audio been implemented. Never before has a game had so many audio elements of such high quality play such a prominent part in the gameplay itself. In terms of the audio, Thief is, hands down, the most impressive game made to date for the way it makes the aural components important. I have no complaints with the audio.
The interface in Thief is both good and somewhat annoying at the same time. On the one hand, the interface does allow controls to be mapped, so that all of the various actions are available pretty naturally to someone accustomed to playing FPS games. But for some reason, I was always having trouble using my inventory items properly. On too many occasions, I ended up accidentally throwing, rather than using, something. On too many other occasions, I found myself fleeing madly down a corridor while desperately trying to select just the right inventory item. I really wish some other system for working with the inventory had been implemented. The ability to bind hotkeys to pretty much any item is as refreshing as it is welcome, of course, but I honestly can't keep all the keys straight. Some kind of graphical selection and equipping mechanism would greatly improve matters, I think, with regard to inventory management.
Of course, it should not be missed amidst that complaint that Thief is the first and only game to provide genuinely good feedback for stealth play. The indicator at the bottom of the screen gives useful feedback regarding whether Garrett can be seen or not, something which is missing completely from pretty much every other game I've played with any stealthy elements. I've noticed, however, that several games incorporating stealth since Thief are starting to feature such things. Perhaps the future for stealth-based gameplay is a good one? I consider it a step in the right direction, for whatever that's worth. The final verdict is that the interface of Thief is good, but it could be better.
The game mechanics are genuinely interesting, and this is where Thief really shines. After you get the hang of the interface—which took me a long time, if it can be said I ever really mastered it at all—the player finds himself with a wealth of tools to apply to any given situation. This is a hallmark of a certain school of game design that seeks not to put the player into a series of interesting situations with minimal options for their resolution, but rather to give the player an interesting set of tools to apply to various situations. The distinction is somewhat subtle, but the enhancements it brings to the overall gameplay are not.
For example, consider the case in which Garrett needs to slip past some guard in a well-lit area. He can try to sneak up on the guard from the side or behind and knock him out. He can shoot the guy in the head from afar and kill him, though this spills blood that will alert other guards if not cleaned up, which requires all-too-precious water arrows. He can try to use a rope arrow to climb above the guard and sneak past him if the architecture allows. He can use a noisemaker arrow or throw some bottle or something over into the corner, and slip by the guard while he's distracted and looking in the wrong direction. He can use an invisibility potion to walk by in plain view. He can be bold and simply run by the guard, counting on his ability to slip into any shadows he finds with the guard in pursuit. In short, there are usually a half-dozen or more different approaches one can take to the problems at hand. The relatively open-ended play possible in Thief makes it a very engrossing game indeed.
The money and equipment system in Thief is also truly groundbreaking. Other games let the player buy various equipment at the beginning of a given mission, but Thief stands out insofar as the amount of cash available is influenced directly by the number of treasures that one manages to pocket during the previous mission. This results in two important differences that set Thief apart from the rest of the crowd. First, it helps tie the missions together, making the game feel more like an integrated whole than a series of different maps to play. And second, it really gives the player both strong incentive and reward for exploration. It's not enough simply to accomplish the objectives of any given mission; the player really benefits from looking around.
Additionally, the changing objectives, while clearly hard-scripted and unavoidable, help enhance the open-ended feel to a surprising degree. Some of the very best missions, in my estimation, were those involving a sudden and unexpected change of plans. The "Song of the Caverns" mission in the gold version of the game is particularly good along this line. I really enjoyed having the objectives shift, and I found the subsequent events and possibilities very rewarding indeed. Of course, it can make it kind of hard to select the proper equipment at the beginning of a given mission, but the player should bear in mind that he will likely find any additional tools he may need along the way. The game developers were clearly very mindful of such things in their design.
Finally, the stealth model itself is almost perfect. In other games, I typically hate the often-mandatory stealth levels. Much of my dislike stems from the fact that too many games make being discovered an all-or-nothing proposition. That is, until you're discovered, none of the bad guys are aware of you; once you've been discovered, however, every bad guy in the whole place is now running toward you, shooting like a madman. Worse, with too many other games there is no grace at all. That is, if the mission doesn't end immediately in outright failure, you can count on the alarm going off for the rest of your time on that map. Thief is more sensible and more forgiving insofar as guards and other enemies eventually go back to their patrolling if you can give them the slip. My only gripe with the stealth model, really, is that I think it would have been more effective if the player could play from a third-person view. It's really annoying to be trapped in a situation where you have to count on dumb luck in your timing, whereas a third-person view would have fixed all such problems.
All of these factors come together with the stealthy aspects to grip the player in a powerful and refreshing way. That is, the player finds himself grinning with every new trinket or bauble pilfered from a guard's belt, a noble's purse, etc., just as he finds himself exulting in the near god-like power-rush that comes from knowing he is completely unseen by the guard whose life is, quite literally, in his hands. This really sucks the player into the game and makes it a very personal experience in a strange way. I don't know about others who will play it, but the gameplay elements really had me thinking like a cutthroat thief while I was playing the game. In summary, the game mechanics are simply wonderful.
The story is as unusual as it is intriguing. The game starts out with the relatively mundane, but it quickly adds elements involving the undead, the wacky Hammerite cult, the enigmatic Viktoria and Constantine, and ultimately a Satan-analogue in The Trickster. I found the story quite interesting and engaging. At the end of each mission, I was definitely looking forward to the next, and that's exactly what the story of a game is supposed to do. As I said previously, the pivotal cut-scene in the game with Viktoria and Constantine is particularly creepy, and it really left me shaken and wondering what would come next. It's a great dramatic twist, and I think it safe to say that the story arc will interest most players.
Thief falls down a little bit here, though the gold version does much to minimize any complaints. I think the original version of the game was a little light in terms of the number of missions. Granted, some of the later missions are quite involved, but some of the early missions are really very quick. The addition of more missions is welcome with the gold version, and the new missions are very long, involved, and interesting in my view. In the final analysis, I think the gold version provides a good value for the gaming dollar, giving the player a good number of different missions to play.
A more serious complaint, I think, involves the sorts of enemies one faces. As many players complained, I also thought too many of the maps were just stuffed rotten with the undead. They make for some interesting gameplay at first, but after a while they just grow boring. Similarly, the later levels are stuffed rotten with monkey men and insectoid beasts. They make for an interesting diversion when first seen, but I would really have preferred a bit more variation in the long run. I thought the last couple of missions were utterly ingenious in their scope and map design, but they were populated with what were, by then, some pretty dull creatures.
The artificial intelligence (AI) driving the enemy is also a mixed bag. On the one hand, most of the more substantive enemies all have clearly defined states; i.e., they are either on a regular patrol, on high alert, or coming after you in a big hurry! The states make sense, for the most part, and the transitions are relatively clear, if a bit labored at times. That is, I always found it odd that a guard who was just telling me I'd better come out and give myself up could somehow go back to walking around blithely, dismissing me and the arrows I had put in his chest as rats. I realize that the game has to be somewhat forgiving, and, as I've said before, this is a good thing, but I do think a bit more depth to the states would have helped. It's also a pity that I found enemies trying (stupidly) to walk into walls, rather than through nearby doors, and other such obvious glitches. Those things really break the mood. To be clear, however, the AI in Thief is generally more sophisticated than in other games, so these sorts of complaints are really the result of doing so much right that relatively small faults tend to stick out.
Overall, there is a lot of content to Thief. I really enjoyed the longer and more involved missions the most, and I was always finding new ways to use the host of different items. I'm sure I'll play through the game again, because there are simply too many other ways I might have played it. I've played through the very first mission about five times now, because of my various attempts to "get" the game, and I still don't find it boring. That's a good sign of a lot of replay value.
Since there is no multi-player aspect to Thief, there is little to say. This is one of those relatively rare games, I think, for which multi-player would simply make little to no sense. A cooperative mode might have made sense, and it might have been a lot of fun as well. Its "sister" game, SS2, allows a cooperative mode via a later patch, and that's a lot of fun. It's a pity that the developers didn't release a similar patch for Thief.
Overall, Thief is one of the most novel and enjoyable games I've ever played. It has a few flaws here and there, as I've noted, but I have really enjoyed its gameplay a lot. These days, the game can be purchased quite cheaply, and is thus a huge value. I highly recommend Thief to all but those who simply cannot stand stealth gameplay. If you have any kind of decent attention span, this game is a clear winner.
Reviewed by Phileosophos