The best yet. It's still "Thief" though, so if you're not a fan, stay well away.
It is to Ion Storm's credit that they have created a game so faithful to the original series. So much so in fact that it feels like an homage to Looking Glass. I, for one, find this heartwarming, especially as many were concerned that the now-defunct company's extraordinary talents would be lost forever. Indeed, Thief:DS feels like it was made by both LG and Ion Storm. It probably was to some extent - I'm sure lots of LG members had a large hand in it, though I don't know for sure.
So this game has the usual LG hallmarks: Slow pace, slight 'fish-eye lens' viewpoint, advanced use of sound, atmosphere...but you can feel Warren Spector's influence. There are subtle similarities with Deus Ex. For example, Thief:DS has a backbone which was missing in the earlier games. Thief 1 and 2 were just one mission after the next, but in this, Garrett spends half of his time in one place: The City. It lends a structure to the game to always be coming back to the City to sell the stuff you've plundered or to meet friends or whatever. You can also roam the City at will and swipe things from people's houses, giving the game a more free-form nature very reminiscent of Deus Ex, if only because that was the first game to really implement such a system.
Thief:DS has real-time, dynamic lighting, which presents a whole new challenge. It's wonderful to knock a candle off the table without snuffing it out and seeing how the shadows alter enormously. You also occasionally see the elongated shadow of an enemy first and think that a 20' giant is around the next corner, when really it's just a man carrying a torch. Such technology is very processor-hungry however.
I actually bought this game on the hype surrounding one of it's missions. It's been frequently called "one of the greatest levels ever" in an FPS. The UK edition of the best-selling PC games mag in the country even ran a special 8-page feature dedicated to it (it might even be 10 pages, I'm not sure since I didn't buy it). It's the "Shalebridge Cradle" level, affectionately referred to as simply "The Cradle". And yes, it's brilliant. Perhaps a tad overrated, but still brilliant. All you should know is that it's an abandoned building that was once an asylum and before that an orphanage. To say anymore would spoil it. Cleverly, you only discover the bare elements of the story behind it, and it's left to your logic and imagination to piece things together. I have to admit being unafraid whilst playing it, (more on that later), except a few times. One time in particular was actually quite chilling. I define that as the kind of fear that creeps up on you slowly AFTER the event has happened, and makes you shudder in painful reflection. Games are rarely chilling.
I've said before that graphics don't mean a thing since they're improving all the time, but the difference between Thief:DS and Thief 2, is a lot greater than the difference between Thief 2 and Thief 1. The series has always had good textures, but here they're great, or at least most of them are. Some levels have a particular look. 'The Cradle' is perhaps the most beautiful level in the game yet it's almost monochrome, like you're watching a black-and-white documentary. I can't help but say it looks almost photographic at times, but I'll bet I'll regret that in a few years.
Finally, the sword has been replaced with a dagger. Because of the sword and the limitations of the Dark Engine, in the previous games you could face 3 enemies head on and beat them without barely receiving a scratch. This is no more, which is a good thing, but has brought problems of its own...
...namely the easy misuse of the quick-save key. Without a quick-save, this game would be hell. But considering you are now very likely to die if an enemy sees you and there's nowhere for you to run, you are forced to hit that key more often than you should. Especially because Thief:DS has inherited other faults of the previous games.
My problem with the series is its never-ending need for stealth becomes too draining. When you first start the games, you have a great time hiding in the shadows for 10 minutes waiting for an enemy to walk away. 8 hours later and it's getting pretty old, but the threat has only become greater. You have to hide MORE. It's an enormous pain slowly creeping across the whole city to meet someone, only to meet them and be told you have to now go back to where you came from. You just want to be able to walk there but you can't because of the ever-present threat of the City Watch. So you have to slide from shadow to shadow slowly. It's almost like playing Grand Theft Auto without getting in any cars, or Grim Fandango without ever using the "run" key. This is why so many people can't stand Thief.
The engine powering Thief:DS is very reminiscent of the Dark Engine and has included it's inability to handle large entities. You rarely meet an enemy bigger than a human for example. The Cradle is let down by it's enemies. You marvel at the psychological game it plays, and the beautiful architecture. You can almost feel the life pulsating within the walls of the building, like it's alive and is trying to steal your mind, and then you meet the poorly animated low-polygon enemies and it reduces it. You just want a Half-Life moment. You want the walls to bleed or a ghost to flash past your eyes but it never happens. The engine isn't capable.
The sound is well used as I mentioned earlier, but there is a lot of 'fake' sound throughout the game which simply detracts from the atmosphere. I hate to bring System Shock 2 up AGAIN, but you only have to play it to see how it should be done: with immense subtlety. Silence is so powerful, it should get used more often.
Thief:DS starts badly. The pre-mission cutscenes have been removed, so there's no opening cinematic, just Garrett reading to you, and you aren't told what's going on. It's unimpressive. The story was confusing to me as well.
The thing with Thief is that it almost requires an aesthetic appreciation of it's use of sound, graphics, etc. to be enjoyed, because a large part of your game time is spent doing nothing. You have to enjoy simply being there. This is the pinnacle of the Looking Glass design philosophy - experience and immersion. If you're the type of person who plays games while talking to people in the room and listening to the radio, you won't like Thief. SS2 was different because it blended the Thief aesthetic with proper FPS action, and could be enjoyed even if you're playing it outdoors on a laptop in summer. Another reason why Thief is non-commercial. Thief:DS does not buck the trend.
Also those damn moss arrows have remained. They have a use which isn't mentioned in the manual, which makes them not entirely worthless, but still...why?
The Bottom Line
Thief:DS is just more Thief. If you've never played Thief then pick up the first game and play it, because this is the same thing at heart, and you'll be saving money.
This one is certainly the best of the bunch though.
Pity 'The Cradle' is by far the best level. It's no wonder it was left till late in the game.