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Thief: Deadly Shadows, Ion Storm, 2004

Thief: Deadly Shadows takes you into the life of Garrett, master thief, and denizen of a strange semi-medieval setting. The game gives you the tools necessary for such an unsavoury lifestyle and lets you loose in a world that is full of deserving targets. Along the way, Garrett ends up saving the world in his typical laconic fashion. The game is polished and fun, with a few nagging flaws that tend to grow more significant in retrospect.

The City is an old-fashioned place, with a mix of fantasy, horror, and steampunk. To make it more clear with examples of each: magic-casters (from various factions), zombies and ghosts, and steam-powered devices and political strife. Garrett has always just wanted to make some money (as has been pointed out, he's not very good at keeping it, but that has always seemed altogether plausible to me), but he keeps getting involved in local events. There's technology vs. magic in the fight between the Hammerites and the Pagans, and the Keepers stand for order while most of the others are quite happy with chaos. There's also the City Watch, who have a hankering to lock up a master thief like Garrett. All in all, it's an intriguing backdrop for the action.

The game starts with a tutorial mission: a nobleman named Lord Julian is at a local inn, carrying a bag that might have something valuable in it. Gamers who are new to the Thief games will get an idea of what is important to gameplay -- how to sneak, how to avoid well-lit areas, how to use a blackjack -- while those who are long-time Thief fans will be alerted to the differences in this new game (I'll discuss the changes later on in the review). If you follow the glowing footprints and follow the instructions, it's fairly easy to grab Julian's loot... and if you're paying attention you overhear a conversation about an even bigger haul at the Rutherford Castle. This castle also serves as somewhat of an introductory mission: it's a small castle, and while the guards are dangerous and alert, it's a good first solo step into the world of thieving.

After this point, Garrett has to make his way through the City to get to each mission. The promise of a living-city style hub to the game was something that got me very excited, but Ion Storm delivers very little on this promise. Imagine if Garrett could go anywhere in a huge area, break into any house if the coast was clear, get chased by guards and escape across the rooftops, follow landmarks, visit different neighbourhoods, interfere with other thieves who are encroaching on his territory, and so forth. The imagination runs wild, but there are various reasons why the game didn't include such a robust version of the Grand Theft Auto-style living city. The main one is that the graphical intensity of in Thief: Deadly Shadows requires much smaller levels -- with real time shadows, intricate detail work on most surfaces, and other goodies the graphics engine would have gotten overloaded in a big map. Current games that try this approach, such as Grand Theft Auto (real world) and also Morrowind (another fantasy), share many of the same flaws, often dictated by the lack of power in the current computer capabilities, but the next generation will hopefully be much more interesting if they follow in the same direction.

So, the City turns out to be more of a village, with approximately 2 blocks per area and only 4 or 5 areas in total. Each area has a mission or two attached to it, as well as a fence for stolen goods and a store for thieves to buy new items (arrows, health potions, etc.). For example, South Quarter has Black Alley where Heartless Perry will buy certain items from you but he'll tell you to go Black Market Bertha in Stonemarket to sell any gems. South Quarter is also the location of Pavelock Prison; if the City Watch ever catches you, you'll have to break out of the prison to get back onto the streets of the Quarter. One aspect of the living city that I found quite neat happens later in the plot: if you do favours for the Hammerites or the Pagans, the members of each faction all across the City will know this and help you if you've helped them (and vice versa).

Soon after exploring a bit of the City, the plot proper kicks in. The Keepers have a prophecy about the end times, and they think that Garrett is somehow involved. This means that he is sometimes in Keeper favour and sometimes distinctly out. Since the Keepers have many of the same capabilities as Garrett himself, it makes a perilous time. Garrett has to retrieve items from the Pagan and Hammerite strongholds (recapitulating the first and second games in some senses), investigate the Keepers themselves, and try to figure out what is going on. An ancient evil is back, Garrett makes some mistakes, and there's even some unexpected help depending on Garrett's actions. The plot is deep, maybe too involved, but it's worth following the twists and turns.

Garrett has some equipment appropriate for his occupation, and here is where I will start comparing this game to the previous entries in the franchise. In Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age, Garrett had a sword, a blackjack, several different types of arrows (including water arrows for putting out torches, moss arrows for creating soft landings, and rope arrows for climbing to higher areas), a light gem that indicated how visible he was, and lockpicks. Most of these things return in Thief: Deadly Shadows. Some are tweaked -- the light gem is now combined with a compass in a handy two-in-one. Others are swapped out with something else with no significant difference -- such as the sword becoming a dagger -- and some are changed drastically. The biggest of these drastic changes is that Garret no longer has any rope arrows, and instead has to purchase some climbing gloves midway through the story. And frankly, the climbing gloves are useless. I can hardly tally how much time I spent in the first two games shooting the rope arrow into various surfaces, swinging across alleys and roads in a lunatic (and sometimes suicidal) fashion, escaping the notice of guards by clambering into the rafters at the last minute, and climbing around in places where I wasn't supposed to be. In Thief: Deadly Shadows, the climbing gloves only work on flat stone walls and you can't climb around corners or up onto roofs. As a tool they are very constraining, while the rope arrows were the exact opposite. I think that the climbing gloves were born of the same necessity as the smaller levels, so my complaint is one against restrictions basic to the gameplay.

And the small levels here are a startling contrast with the levels of the first two games. If anything, Thief and Thief 2 had levels that were too big, too easy to get lost in. But at least they were memorable and they gave the player more freedom to go one way or the other through sheer size. The only level here that matches my Thief expectations is the last one in the game: Garrett has to break into a huge museum. He has some objectives, but there is a vast assortment of loot along the way, with a corresponding number of guards and ways around them. It's a perfect level for someone who likes using the blackjack as much as I do (amusingly, the level is called “Still Life with Blackjack”). Most of the other levels are intricately detailed but too small.

One other level is worth mentioning on its own. The Shalebridge Cradle was once an orphanage, then an insane asylum, and is now seriously haunted. I had heard from other people who played the game that the Cradle was a scary level so I had high expectations. I'm happy to report that Ion Storm made the small level work through pure intensity, a combination of spooky sounds, disturbing events in the past that Garrett learns about, ghosts, and an eerie atmosphere that's hard to describe. Excellent work.

As good as Thief: Deadly Shadows is as a game, it didn't save Ion Storm from some pre- and post-release turmoil. Is the franchise bad luck? Perhaps it has too much niche appeal and not enough trendy elements to bring in the big bucks. Certainly, that's what part of what I like about the games, as I've been less and less attracted to most of the games that out there now. It would be a poorer gaming world if there were never another Thief. I can only hope that the team members from Ion Storm keep up the good work, either at their current location or somewhere else (yet again).


Last modified: October 11, 2004

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


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