SummaryNovelty and perfection
The GoodStealth has been an obscure, odd gameplay mechanic before Thief arrived and made it mainstream. Sure, there were stealth games, such as the groundbreaking yet nearly impossible Castle Wolfenstein or the interesting, yet arcadish and gimmicky Metal Gear. But nobody thought of making realistic stealth the core of gameplay, especially not in a first-person 3D game.
Thief is therefore a descendant of Ultima Underworld games and System Shock - revolutionary 3D games that used the capabilities of the engine to create immersive worlds and varied gameplay rather than focus on fast-paced action. Like those games, Thief is a masterpiece of game design, an essential link in an evolutionary chain that gave us some of the most advanced and beloved games of all times.
Thief is not just the first game to introduce full-fledged stealth-based gameplay in a 3D environment: it is the game that does it best. Its gameplay is so well-constructed that somebody out of touch with the history of video games would have sworn that its concept has been used countless times before and only perfected in Thief. In reality, it is one of those very rare games that deliver a new concept and a flawless execution of it right away.
The sneaking in Thief just feels right. Thanks to the generous level design, you never feel forced to do things a certain way. Yes, it is advisable to stay unnoticed, but you are not required to do so. You can incapacitate guards or simply try to avoid them. You can hit them with your blackjack and then hide their unconscious bodies. You can also try to take them on in direct sword combat, but be warned: even one-on-one fights are very tough, as they should be in a game where violence is the last resort. Most importantly, even with its strict concept, the game never feels rigid: you have freedom, you can dictate the pace. No solution is obvious, but none is obtuse. You can and should be creative, but even the hardest tasks are not frustrating because the game feels what you want from it, it is synchronized with your playing without being over-indulgent or artificial. That is something only very few games could pull off, and is one of the greatest achievements of Thief.
Your arsenal of tools is varied and impressive. The clever usage of the bow is one of the game's trademark inventions. Basically, your bow can act as a regular weapon in some cases, but it can also contribute to stealth. It is too bright in the hallway? Extinguish a torch with a water arrow from afar. Can't move silently on the pavement? Cover it with moss by shooting a special arrow. Feel the need to set something on fire? The appropriate arrows are at your service. There are also bombs and other cool little gadgets, as well as your trusty sword if things get too hairy. You can also grab, re-arrange, and throw different objects to distract enemies or for other purposes.
The game follows the fantastic GoldenEye concept of difficulty levels: the higher it is, the more objectives you need to complete in order to pass. This actually encourages you to play on higher difficulties to experience the game in a more complete form, and also means that playing on the lowest difficulty is by no means too easy: it is just less complicated. Also, a really cool touch is money management: you don't receive a salary or any awards based on your performance - you simply steal stuff which is then converted into money once the stage is finished. This further compels you to explore every corner of the stage in search of shiny golden things. Level design is perhaps the most crucial element in game creation, and that's why the best game designers pay so much attention to it. Thief has a stellar level design that is seamlessly and masterfully interwoven with the demands of the gameplay and plays a key role in the creation of the game world. In other words, it is an integral part of the entire experience rather than just one well-made element. To illustrate, the secret areas in old first-person shooters were fun, but you could enjoy the game without them. System Shock, on the other hand, was built around exploration; it would lose most of its significance if it were linear.
Thief doesn't have a huge interconnected world like that game, but each and every level is an impeccably designed large area that creates the illusion of being in a real world while at the same time directly serving gameplay purposes. That is, it's not just about a vast environment with optional locations, but it's also not about conveniently placed passages that are there simply as an excuse to use yet another trinket. Such is the genius of level design here that you never feel you are "in a game", yet everything has its use precisely for game-related activities. There is so much thought and care put into designing those levels that even simple shooting gameplay set in them would elevate the game above the masses.
Equisite details make us forget the merely adequate 3D engine: Thief is gorgeous and will always stay so, because art always triumphs over technological limitations. Despite the uniformity of the setting, the levels are refreshingly varied: interiors of a lavishly decorate mansion, a desolate underground prison, mysterious catacombs, nostalgically beckoning stone-paved streets of a quiet medieval town, horrifying otherwordly realm - each location is unique, and you'll want to explore it again after you have finished the stage. Detail is everywhere, and you'll find yourself standing in empty rooms just to notice everything the designers have created.
No wonder that this results in an incredibly atmospheric experience. Thief is among the most magically atmospheric games ever made, perhaps on par with System Shock in that respect. The setting perfectly captures the cozily haunting "vibe" of the Middle Ages, and the touch of industrialization gives it its own peculiar flavor. It is "gothic" meets "steampunk": two of the most attractive visual genres are united in one game. You won't forget this world once you see a glimpse of it. It has little to do with supernatural elements: the stages with monsters are actually less absorbing than urban areas. Particularly the interior locations are masterfully done. And let's not forget the impeccable sound effects that are vital to gameplay as well as enhancing the atmosphere.
Far from being just a "thief simulator", Thief is a plot-driven game with a cohesive setting, based primarily on mission objectives as dictated by the story. While being somewhat in the shadows (much like the protagonist himself), the plot, evolving in stylish cutscenes, is interesting to follow to the end. Overhearing conversations and reading occasional documents helps establish the tone of the story even better. Thief also boasts a unique world with its own background information, organizations, religious beliefs, and so on.
The BadMost games that single-handedly define a certain concept are repetitive. Thief is no exception. It didn't use stealth as a harmless gimmick, as yet another option for flexible gameplay: it focused on it as seriously and as adamantly as possible. If Doom could get tiresome with monotonous shooting, Thief could get equally tiresome with monotonous sneaking. You'll have to avoid enemies and try to stay unnoticed pretty much for the duration of the entire game. The tension is constant, and there is no relief. You never get powerful - that's not what the game is about. But it is also counter-intuitive to our most basic instinct. Thief courageously and ingeniously opposed our primeval violent urges, but the abstinence becomes almost unbearable. It is therefore best played in short sessions, savored in small doses like a delicious, exotic meal.
Thief can also get quite hard, even on lower difficulty levels. Quicksave-abusing is not uncommon when you repeatedly try to pass a tough section and fail. Particularly hard are levels with undead enemies, which are perhaps the game's weakest link. It is fun to shoot zombies with holy water arrows when you first meet them, but after a while you realize that simply running past them is a better solution. If they really wanted to give us a break from sneaking (which I would welcome) they should have made those enemies much easier to defeat.
The Bottom LineThief is much more than a seminal 3D stealth game that popularized a gameplay element everyone have been inserting in their games ever since. It is also, miraculously, a nearly perfect incarnation of its revolutionary concept that few managed to imitate, and none have surpassed. But most importantly, it is a magnificent piece of game design for all players, a genre-crossing beauty with fantastic levels, deep gameplay, and haunting atmosphere. It is an essential classic proudly standing in the stellar row of the medium's highest achievements.