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Thief: The Dark Project, Looking Glass, 1998

Style. Innovation. Atmosphere. Cleverness. Replayability. Moments of terror, moments of satisfaction. And not least of all, plain old fun. How can one game have it all? Thief has all of these attributes in such quantity as to put every other game on the market to shame. The people at Looking Glass have taken a stagnant genre, the first person shooter, and created something entirely their own: namely, a first person sneaker, as the manual puts it. Thief is one of those rare games that actually examines the conventional structures of computer gaming, and discards the stale ways of playing, substituting instead new ideas and new approaches. However, after having said all this, I must go on to say that Thief is not perfect. Among other complaints, I had some major grievances with the game balance in the last few levels. Also, I don't consider the game's CD-case insert to be a proper manual. And, in general, I suspect that not everyone will enjoy playing Thief as much as I have. If Looking Glass could describe their target gamer, the person who would agree most with their design philosophy, that would probably be me. Even my complaints are a fan's complaints.

Garrett is a thief, the thief of the title. He sneaks into heavily guarded mansions and steals all kinds of expensive stuff. Why? Well, it's a job. According to the opening sequence, Garrett was an orphan living on the street when he tried to steal something from the wrong man, a man who happened to be a Keeper. The Keepers are a highly secretive pseudo-religious order, with near-magical abilities at avoiding detection. That Garrett even saw the Keeper is reason enough for them to take him under their wing and train him. What do Keepers do? I'll talk about that in a minute when I get to the plot of the game. Garrett gets sick of the Keeper ways and strikes out on his own as thief and thus the game begins.

On a typical job, Garrett has a number of goals, which vary according to your chosen difficulty level. The main goal is usually to steal some valuable object, like a sceptre in the very first level. In that level, you (as Garrett) have to sneak into a mansion, and steal the sceptre despite all the guards patrolling the area. You have quite a few interesting weapons and tools, everything from a compass to a blackjack. The options that you have when faced with any particular goal or obstacle are what make the game so much better than its counterparts.

What are these options? Let's say you need to get past one particular guard. You can run like a madman. But this has a few consequences. Running is noisy. Sometimes it's hard to lose the guards when they're running after you, and you generally run into even more enemies trying to get away. Worse, alerting a guard to your presence effectively makes options 3 and 4 impossible (more on that in a minute). The second option is to sneak past the guard. But there are a few things that you have to consider first. Where is the guard looking? At the bottom of your screen is a handy device called a light-gem, and when the gem is completely dark, you are standing in such black shadow that no one can see you. Is there enough shadow to get past the guard? The next question is: what kind of surface will you be walking on? Carpet is virtually noiseless, but very few people can afford wall to wall carpet in this medieval-type world. Stone is quiet enough for sneaking, but if there's some marble or a metal grating, you'd better think again: your footsteps will be loud enough to alert any nearby guards. And sometimes you might need to depart in a hurry, and it's hard to sneak when you're in a hurry.

With the third and fourth options, things get really interesting. The blackjack can knock out guards, but only when you are right behind them, and only when they have not seen any intruders around the area. The blackjack has the virtue of being completely silent, and what's more, when you are playing on the highest difficulty level, you are prohibited from killing anyone. Also, you'd better be careful to move the unconscious body if there are other guards patrolling. Miss with your blackjack and you might be reverting back to option one. Or worse, going to option four, but that's generally not recommended for alerted enemies. Why? Option four is to kill. Garrett does have a few lethal weapons, like a sword and a bow and arrow. But they are pretty much useless against alerted guards -- you can only get a one-shot kill with the broadhead arrows if you have the drop on the guard. Killing creates problems of its own. A loud death-cry is bad when there's other people around. While you can still move the corpse, there is a bloodstain left behind (on certain surfaces at least) and to wash that away you have to use a water arrow. Generally speaking, any mission will require a mixture of all four options, although the game is heavily designed to discourage option four and I found myself preferring option three.

What's a water arrow? Garrett has arrows that are far more useful than the standard broadhead. Water arrows will wash away bloodstains and put out torches to create more shadows, among other functions. A fire arrow creates an explosion at impact and can start torches back on fire (which is sometimes necessary). The very handy moss arrow spreads out on the ground, creating a surface that is noiseless during the passage of a sneaky thief. A gas arrow is extremely rare, and can be used to knock out an enemy, just like the blackjack except at a distance. My personal favourite, the rope arrow, can be shot into any wooden or earthen surface. A rope then dangles from wherever the rope arrow has lodged itself, making a convenient ladder where there was none before. Best of all, the rope arrows can be recycled once you have climbed them. The last type of arrow is the noisemaker arrow, which I found I never used, preferring instead the simple broadhead arrow. Both are noisy enough to alert any kind of enemy when necessary.

Garrett gains a number of other useful objects. He starts out with a compass, of course. After a few missions, he gets two lockpicks, which make for more sneaky thief-type fun. What would a computer game be without a healing potion? The breath potion is perfect for those long underwater swims. I'll talk about holy water in a minute, and the flash bombs, mines, and gas mines are all self-explanatory. All of these are integrated nicely in the interface. The right button on the mouse is always your "use" button. When you have something active in your inventory, the use button will trigger that. When some object in the game world is "usable," it will light up and all you have to do is hit that right mouse button.

Looking Glass spent some time simplifying the interface. The use button is one example of that effort. Thief is a joy to play, in terms of controls, compared to System Shock. Who wants to be fighting the mouse and keyboard instead of strange mutants and zombies? Not me. Thief comes with a few different default settings for the controls, but I made my own quite easily. I use the keys ESDF for movement, and then a few others around that group for things like leaning (which is an extremely handy function) and crouching and so forth. About my only complaint with the settings is the quicksave and quickload keys, F11 and F12 -- a bit too close together for comfort! The defaults can be changed.

Perhaps the most original aspect of Thief is the use of sound. A thief has to sneak, right? So you better not make much noise. Unlike games like Half-Life, where you could make a huge racket without much worry, Thief makes you acutely aware of the consequences of your actions. As I mentioned before, you have to be aware of your environment at all times, like where you are walking and what you are doing. Fortunately, the other people in the game world make noise too, and that becomes the method of survival. Guards walk even more noisily than Garrett himself, and they talk to each other and then grumble to themselves as they move along their patrol route. "When am I going to get my dinner, that's what I want to know." When you hear that, you know a guard is somewhere nearby. Guards occasionally carry on a conversation that conveys vital information, which is another reason to pay attention. All of the non-human enemies have their own specific noise that they make, some of them quite scary. There were certainly other reasons to dislike the zombies (like the fact that they want to kill you!), but they were among the worst for spooky noises, so the sound design team at Looking Glass deserve praise for their work. You definitely know the ratmen are not your friends before you even see them.

A few words about the plot of the game. Garrett gets embroiled in a kind of religious or mystical confrontation. The Hammerites are religious fanatics, obsessed with law and order. They are mean, and also quite rich, making them a perfect target for Garrett's missions. The Trickster, or the Woodsie Lord, is the embodiment of Chaos, the opposite of the Hammerite Order. The Trickster and the Hammerites are in a perpetual battle for the upper hand. Thank goodness for the Keepers, who stand on the side of balance. As Garrett begins the game, he is only interested in minding his own business, but at about the halfway mark he gets a job from a man named Constantine. The storyline develops more rapidly after that, but I was not terribly excited or compelled by it. In fact, I found the later developments fairly silly -- I certainly won't reveal them in this review, but suffice it to say my extreme dislike of fantasy stereotypes had a workout. I think the final straw was a level name like "Maw of Chaos," the final mission of the game. Sorry, that type of dreck is over-used and boring -- just how many maws of chaos are we weary genre fans going to have to survive before somebody writes something better? The strength of Thief can rather be found in the way that the details of the game and gameplay are tailored to the character. As you are playing the game, you are completely convinced that you are a thief and you are doing your job. Everything about the game supports this reality. Maybe we'll get a better storyline in the sequel (of which there are already rumours -- the game certainly sets up nicely for a sequel with some substantial changes in background).

There has been a great deal of complaint in various newsgroups and online forums about the undead levels. A few of the missions in the game have no human guards to worry about, only zombies and worse kinds of creatures. Garrett has almost nothing in the way of weapons to destroy the zombies -- he can create holy water arrows by "blessing" normal water arrows at the appropriate shrines. But shrines are few and far between (and holy water potions even more rare), and the holy water effect only lasts 30 seconds. Fire arrows will destroy a zombie too, but they are also extremely expensive (and sometimes you need them for plot purposes -- don't use up your fire arrows on mission 6). Some of the complainers seem to have ignored all evidence about how the zombies behave. Zombies follow the same kinds of patrol patterns as the human guards. Zombies cannot see you if you are standing motionless in shadow. Also, zombies are extremely slow, and I found that I could generally evade them if they noticed me -- by running and jumping like a madman but my point remains. Yes, The Bonehoards was an annoying mission, but The Haunted Cathedral had more room to evade zombies and the Lost City was also spacious enough.

However, my feeling turned against the game in the Return to the Haunted Cathedral (where you first enter the haunted cathedral after previously casing the place). I've made a big point in this review of the way that game gives the gamer four options in any basic situation. In Return to the Cathedral, Garrett does not even bother to take along a blackjack. He has almost nothing in the way of zombie-killing equipment. Running is out of the question, as the place is crawling with zombies and worse. That leaves only one option, sneaking. And for the same reasons running is a bad idea -- cramped corridors, high numbers of zombies -- sneaking is almost impossibly difficult. This level is simply too hard. As I have talked about with reference to other games like Half-Life, when success in a game absolutely necessitates endless save/reload tactics, that's not fun anymore.

And one last complaint. Sometimes realism can lead to trouble. Overall, Thief is one of the best games in this regard that I have ever played. I loved the immersiveness of playing this game, from the rope arrows to sneaking in the shadows to going undercover in a Hammerite temple. But the attention that Looking Glass paid to the little details sometimes backfired when the structures of a computer game came into play. For example, Garrett has to be careful about how much noise he makes. But then he carries a near infinite amount of loot in his invisible knapsack, everything from gold cups to coins to wine bottles. Heavy, yes, but also very noisy. Even a small bit of explanation might have solved that nitpick of mine. A magical knapsack or some other typical but necessary item. A few other strange things happen in the game. For example, opening a door does not alert any guards, in terms of noise or motion. Furthermore, when you knock someone unconscious, they stay that way the rest of the mission (unless you throw them in a pool of water). I used this flaw to my advantage in a level where I had to carry a character named Basso the Boxman out of Cragscleft Prison. I definitely had some fun with this: poor old Basso, he got thrown out of a few windows, and down rocky slopes, and down some very tall ladders (it's easier to climb down a ladder when you're not carrying anything). All this happened without him regaining consciousness, and certainly without him suffering any fatal damage. I have read the online replies of various Thief designers, where they say that these three things (loot, doors, unconscious bodies) were implemented as they were for gameplay reasons. I can imagine that if these had been implemented strictly like real life, the game would have been too hard (especially with the doors, as they do muffle sound and it's hard to tell if a guard is on the other side). And I agree with the reasoning. Some of the levels were far too hard as the game stands now. But because the rest of the game is so well-realised, with so many fantastic details that other games simply don't have, these few oddities stand out.

Thief's 3D engine is not quite at the level of something like Unreal's. But, frankly, who cares? Maybe some people, but not me. Unreal was a boring disaster in terms of innovative gameplay, which the Thief engine is designed to provide. As usual, the minimum specs provided on the bottom of the game box are a bit of a joke, but most new or recent computers should be able to play the game.

If you can't get enough of the gameplay found in Thief, Looking Glass is collaborating with its splinter group, Irrational Games, on a sequel to System Shock, which should be out soon. Even though I'm busy replaying Thief on the harder difficulty levels, I can't wait. Fantasy can be fun, especially when it's as effectively portrayed as it is here, but science fiction is my thing. And if Thief was this good, how much better would the sequel to one of the best science fiction games of all time be? Looking Glass should be proud of their achievement with Thief, and the way that they have created something entirely new, instead of grafting a few lame clichés onto the same tired structure like almost all the other fantasy or science fiction games out there. I'm looking forward to their next effort. System Shock 2 is going to arrive with some extremely high expectations, and Looking Glass have only themselves to blame for that!


First posted: March 3, 1999; Last modified: February 24, 2004

Copyright © 1999-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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