Garrett Makes His Triumphal Return
Garrett’s back! The personable thief, yet again voiced by the talented Stephen Russell, is as much of a badass as ever. The series that made popular the pattern of gliding from one pool of darkness to the next, snatching up loot along the way, and laying a guard low with a blackjack when he unsuspectingly wanders into Garrett’s path. It’s all back again, with some welcome fresh technological touches.
Arguably, the biggest change is with the visuals. Thief: Deadly Shadows is powered by a modern Unreal engine, the same engine that powered Deus Ex: Invisible War, optimized in this game for torches and pools of darkness to hide in, and boy is the engine demanding. If you have the hardware to keep the engine roaring, though, the payoff is enormous. Dynamic lighting makes the gameplay in Thief shine, and it makes snuffing out the many torches with water arrows almost a crime. The way that shadows dance on the far wall is reason enough to pause, as is how you can see your shadow while you’re creeping up behind someone, blackjack in that dark shadow’s hand, raised at the last moment to strike. Oh yes, the visuals are something to behold, that much is certain.
Hand in hand with those visuals, is the new ‘body awareness.’ Look down, you’ll see your legs, look from side to side, you’ll see your arms, weapons in hand. While climbing a ladder, scaling a wall, and all that jazz, you’re very much aware of where your body is at all times. Being able to see your own shadow is something you get used to pretty quick, but body awareness…now that’s something novel. Far from being distracting, it’s just one more method of keeping track of where you are, in a game that puts a lot of emphasis on being in the right place at the right time, so you can go unseen by the passersby. This kind of awareness is something I ache for in Valve’s Source engine, and I hope it’s not limited to Thief 3 as time goes on.
Now we come to something that really shines in this new engine – the level design. With the enhanced color palette, and the increased ability of the engine being used (no offense intended to the wonderful Dark engine, which powered the first two games), level design has reached a new height in the Thief series. Buildings made of stone actually look made of stone now, and rear up impressively. The soaring towers are reason to pause in your thieving, and the level designers made full use of what this engine is capable of. Unfortunately, the city levels are broken up into smaller sections, and each mission is generally made up of two areas linked together. More on that bit in the ‘Bad’ section, but aside from the minor annoyance that this level segregation brings, it fortunately doesn’t distract from the level design all that much. All in all, the level design is breathtaking at times, which is something I didn’t expect from this game. One of the levels in particular, Shalebridge Cradle, is also one of the spookiest I’ve had the pleasure of wandering through in a game, even factoring in the hair-raising Ocean House mansion in Vampire Bloodlines.
One great thing about the Thief series has been the sound in the game, and most notably, the voice work. Overhearing conversations has been a highlight in all three games, and many of the old voices are back again. This is one very good thing, as something familiar and as well done as ever is very nice in the light of all the other changes to the game. A conversation is still a delight to come across, and the sounds of the level are as capable of setting the mood as they ever were. Since much of the game is spent in darkness, and hiding, a great part of survival is simply listening to your environment and the enemies within it, and this game doesn’t slack when it comes to letting you use your auditory senses to keep Garrett in one piece. Sometimes the sound is a little TOO effective, as Shalebridge Cradle again brings to mind. That level manages to show off the game quite nicely, though it comes at a later point in the game.
Ahh, gameplay, isn’t that what Thief has always been about? Graphics were certainly never the main draw, and the amusing conversations have just been a bonus. No, the Thief games are all about making a profit as Garrett the Master Thief, while being given motivation to steal through well-written pre- and post-mission briefings, as well as a potent story advanced mostly through nicely done cutscenes. The cutscenes themselves are very close to how they’ve always been, and mission briefings are still narrated by Garrett, though the briefings have changed, which I’ll get to in a bit. The loot that you can pick up is now highlighted by a timed ‘glinting’, and while this happened to throw me off at first, when factoring in how rich the game world is now it’s a very welcome improvement. Even with the loot glinting, I still had to keep a sharp eye out in order not to miss any loot. Knocking out guards is still as fun as ever, and being able to see your shadow while doing it just adds that extra bit of cinematic feel, bringing you in even closer to the action. Gameplay was transferred intact to this new game, and is all the better for the changes that have been made.
An interesting touch is also the inclusion of walking around the city, getting to your mission areas by actually travelling to them on foot, and selling the loot from the previous mission along the way. Stopping by a thieving supply store, of which there are many, is also part of the game now. What this manages to do is bring life to The City, of which we saw in some missions in the previous games, but never really got much of an impression of The City outside of them. The City is definitely well-represented here, if it does seem a bit cramped. An element of realism has been placed, and it’s done nicely.
Oh, and my personal favorite touch – no more spiders. While not terribly afraid of them in real life, the spiders in the first two Thief games were...a bit much, for my taste. Hissing gigantic spiders that take up the whole screen, no thank you, sir!
Well, for one thing, the pre-mission briefings no longer have their still-image cutscenes to go along with the narration. While not something that adversely impacts the game, it’s still a disappointment, as this was one hell of a touch of class for both of the previous games. That Garrett is still Garrett, and that he does the narrating, helps to make up for this, but the change is still there.
As mentioned previously, the levels are split up and segmented. Strangely enough, the city levels suffer from this more than the missions themselves do. Maybe it’s the amount of traveling that you will do in the course of the game, but the city segments feel a little off somehow. While it didn’t take much out of the game for me, the loads between Old Quarter and The Docks are definitely where you’ll ponder your feelings about the level segmentation. I’m sure there was a reason for keeping the levels split up, most likely performance-related, but it’s still one of my main complaints.
Swimming has been removed, and replaced with climbing gloves. The gloves feel gimmicky to me, and though I did manage to find several places to use them cleverly, I do wish that swimming had been able to be implemented in this new engine. Again, nothing game-breaking, but when you die the first time you encounter deep water, you’ll wonder what happened to make Garrett lose the ability to swim.
The Bottom Line
The Thief series has always been one of my favorite games, and Thief 2 is still a contender for my absolute favorite game, depending on the mood I’m in. When playing this new Thief, I tried to keep my feelings for the previous games separate from this game, but by the end, I had to admit that this is a true Thief game. Changes have been made, but overall, they seem to have been for the better.
If you’re a follower of Garrett, as I am not ashamed to admit being, then this game is worthy of your attention. If you have no idea what I mean by that, then all I have to say is to check out the first two games, and then consider this game again. Much of the storyline has attained closure at the end of Thief 3, storyline that has been developed through two previous games as well as this one. A fantastic storyline, at that.
At the end of the day, Thief: Deadly Shadows is a good game, possibly more if you let it be. While Thief 2 will remain this reviewer’s favorite of the series, Thief 3 has shown itself to be worthy, and because of that, I can’t recommend this game enough.