Eurogamer: Thief Retrospective

By John Walker on May 17th, 2009 at 9:44 am.

I stole this from Mobygames, like a true thief. Thanks, Mobygames.

With the announcement of Thief 4 (Thifourth) this week, it seemed an apposite time to go back to the very beginning and remember why this series was so special. Armed with a commission from Eurogamer, I snuck back to 1998 to play Thief: The Dark Project once again. It begins:

“This is a game where turning the difficulty up reduces the number of enemies you have to kill. Certainly it also increases the number of guards (but slightly and smartly, never feeling unfair or unrealistic), and repositions them into more strategic patrol routes. But it doesn’t make your weapons less effective, or raise enemy hit-points, or artificially hinder you in any ‘gamey’ way. It simply asks you to be a better, subtler, smarter thief.”

You can read the rest here.

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44 Comments »

  1. Thiefsie says:

    Oh man… must.play.through.these.again.before.thief.4 – shouldn’t be too hard… it’s a long way away!

    Then I’ll platy Velvet Assassin and be sorely disappointed :(

    They have to get Steven Russel back to do the voices (inc Garret) Otherwise it will just suck.

  2. unwize says:

    The sound! The scares! The vast collection of wonderful fan missions! The word ‘taffer’! Garrett himself!

    So much to love.

  3. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    Very nice. But I think you should have made more of the ludicrous inclusion of zombies and zombie levels. Down in the Bonehoard was a chore, and I cannot stand The Sword. Shudder.

    The level with the bizarre, through-the-looking-glass house affair was, however, a genuine delight. Assassins, I think?

  4. pepper says:

    Thank you! I bought the thief collection 2 years ago for 10 euro’s, only played thief 3 because the other 2 didnt work on XP, but now i can finally play them!

  5. JohnArr says:

    What Thief always needed: A button to put keys back on guard’s belts.

  6. skizelo says:

    I can’t think of a series which has managed stealth so well, without it becoming grating. One of my fondest memories of Thief 2 is completely cocking up a Hammerite level and running to the extraction zone pursued by a castle’s worth of angry, mace-wielding guards.

  7. Stense says:

    It was a truly fantastic game. Am I the only one who liked the zombies? Well maybe not Down in the Bonehorde, but the cathedral levels were great I thought.

  8. Pemptus says:

    Ah, Thief, I love you so. As I mentioned in one of the Thi4f posts – go play through the first two Thiefs (Thieves?) and then look for fan missions. Many of them are absolutely top-notch and even look quite good (added quality textures, objects and other assets). Years of quality entertainment, I’m serious.

  9. bob arctor says:

    The Sword was the creepy house. Unfortunately upstairs it was 100% marble flooring so you had to do the tap forward exploit to avoid stepping once.

  10. Mman says:

    “and I cannot stand The Sword. Shudder

    The level with the bizarre, through-the-looking-glass house affair was, however, a genuine delight. Assassins, I think?”

    That level IS “The Sword”.

  11. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    That level IS The Sword

    Cripes, I meant I couldn’t stand the one after The Sword, in that case! The one with the dead city leading up to the Cathedral. Urgh.

    Clearly I must replay Thief immediately, in order that I might refresh my memory.

  12. sbs says:

    An excellent read JOHN WALKER.
    The sword level will be ingrained in my mind forever, such a fantastically bizarre place…
    And in The Lost City, managing to do the strafejump from the roof of the tower, gladly skipping the way back that took me 2 hours going in :>
    aaah thief.
    And to think that I still not have played Thief II… It’s a great feeling to know that there is a whole game that I know is excellent out there, just waiting for me to play it.
    Aaah one of these days, I guess

  13. Captain Bland says:

    Stense: I completely agree. I’ve never understood the hatred directed at Thief’s zombies. They fit fine the world mythology and (In The Dark Project ) they have the most incredibly creepy selection of moans. They sound diseased, like they’re struggling to breathe and with my pathetic sword skills are damn near impossible to kill. Down In The Bonehoard isn’t great, but the use of zombies in the Cragcleft Prison job and the Haunted Cathedral was brilliant.

  14. Igor Hardy says:

    Sorry, for being nit-picky, but…

    “This is a game where turning the difficulty up reduces the number of enemies you have to kill.”

    I only remember one “kill X number of enemies” mission in the entire game and I believe it was a bonus quest exclusive for the Expert mode because it was a real pain in the ass.

    “But it doesn’t make your weapons less effective, or raise enemy hit-points”

    Oh yes it does. Unless you conveniently write those down under “you have less life points and your enemy has more”. Direct combat with even a single enemy becomes terribly frustrating on Expert. And rightly so.

  15. Stense says:

    Captain Bland: You are dead right about the sounds of the zombies. Hearing them (along with other ghoulies and nasties) groaning and shuffling around before you could see them really added a sense of dread.

    For me it was the sounds and music of Thief that really made the game special. From the Hammerites gently humming a psalm to themselves and the discontented grumblings of common guards to the weird, other-worldly noises from monsters, it all added up to a wonderful atmosphere.

    Plus the game has monkey-men in.

  16. Fenchurch says:

    THE HAUNTS. OH GOD THE HAUNTS.

    *Clanking of chains, spectral breath caught in their cursed throats* “Join us, join us, JOIN US NOW!” *Maddening laughter*

    It scared the bejeezus out of me when I encountered one in Deadly Shadows, totally unexpected, the scream they make is even more horrid.

    *Shudder*

    The Thief games are some of the most frightening I ever played.

  17. LewieP says:

    My Mum did a pretty kickass painting of Thief. Although that was a long time ago, and she is much better now.

  18. Fenchurch says:

    @LewieP

    Oh wow that’s very cool indeed! Second game inspired painting I’ve seen today. Thanks for sharing it. :3

  19. LewieP says:

    @Fenchurch

    You can see all of her work here. I think my favorite is either the ICO one, the Professor Layton one, or the Braid one.

  20. ...hmm... says:

    @LewieP
    wow, your mums a good painter. and she has good taste in music.. high mum five; i wish mine was as cool as yours lol.

  21. hungSolo says:

    The zombies seem to be a love-’em-or-hate-’em proposition. Me? I love to hate them.

    John’s tribute reminds me of a lengthy retrospective Matt Sakey wrote for Four Fat Chicks back when Four Fat Chicks was Four Fat Chicks. That got me to go back and play the first two when I really hadn’t given them a chance.

    And now I’m all thiefy excited again.

  22. LactoseTheIntolerant says:

    Loving those paintings, LewieP!

  23. Garrett says:

    @Pepper

    There’s some trickery involved but you can play Thief 1 & 2 on XP and Vista using the -lgntforce switch on the setup executable. I just installed and played Thief Gold on my Vista Home machine.

    Getting the cutscenes to play involved further trickery because of the Indeo codecs used to make the videos.

    I’m still amazed at how these games set standards in stealth mechanics and how no other game has matched the experience.

  24. Irish Al says:

    If you’ve never played Shadows Of The Metal Age, you’ve missed out. It’s fan made but stands up easily with the official games.

  25. Taill4f4r says:

    Favourite series of all time. Changed the way I look at games, and raised my expectations to a level where it ruined the experience of many subsequent ones for “doing everything wrong”. One of the very, very few games I truly have a passion for.

    It is sublime.

  26. Dean says:

    I found this tool, ddfix essential in getting it running on modern systems. In high-res and widescreen if you want too.

  27. Chis says:

    DDFix does NOT include the widescreen fix any more, see here for that:
    http://files.filefront.com/DarkWidescreen+v6r2zip/;12436180;/fileinfo.html
    Use it after applying DDFix on the Thief 2 executable.

    Ben Croshaw did a Zero Punctuation on Thief as well:
    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/544-Thief-The-Dark-Project

    I can’t even begin to think of what to say about this game. Thief has become one of very few games to truly colour my life, in such a way that I couldn’t imagine having a gaming career without it, and the many many fabulous fan-missions. Especially the likes of T2x, and the truly astonishing Rocksbourg series. We may not have the gaming equivalent of The Wire yet, but Thief has such a rich and enjoyable backstory and universe, I have no qualms in claiming it to be the closest thing so far to true gaming art. Along with System Shock 2, and possibly also Mafia?

    P.S. I would argue that Thief 2 is the weakest, purely down to the mechanists, and their creations severely breaking immersion with their mechanical creatures, and security cameras, often in overbright rooms where I’d find it difficult to believe Garret is capable of hiding anywhere! And zombies are fine, in fact the dark evils of the ghouls, and undeads and their masters were probably the most fascinating aspect of the Thief universe.

  28. Jonathan says:

    Years after playing Thief on PC, I tried Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell. While it had all the trappings of modern graphics technology, I remember being disappointed both in the stealth mechanics and the overall quality of the game. Looking back, Splinter Cell was actually a decent game, but nothing can compare to the original 2 Thief games. No one has done it as well since. (Thief 3 was good, but the tiny areas of the Havok engine made it and Deus Ex 2 inferior to the originals).

  29. Heliocentric says:

    Chaos theory holds a few prizes of stealth in my heart. Of course, instead of a blackjack you can stab people in the chest and cut their throats. But garret never had remote cams, sticky shockers or coop play. Chaos theory is the second real splinter cell game, the other 2 titles (pandora and double agent) are done by the b team. The third game is on its way as conviction,(i hope they abandon the social stealth to assassins creed.) and they keep getting better, io have given up on hitman for now. Thief 4 might be the next AAA stealth game we get to play.

  30. Taill4f4r says:

    This has me reminiscing. I remember the chats with the devs when they’d come on IRC. They’d joke around with us, tell us what they thought of the FMs, tease us with the tiniest bits of info. A couple even came in and personally informed us of LGS closing down. That’s partly why Thief 4 won’t live up to the legacy, it was more than just a game to me. Awesome people, awesome games.

    *Installing Thief Gold… Thief 2 is always present.*

  31. Sunjammer says:

    Thief 2 is a better game, but Thief scared the HELL out of me.

    Horn of quintus, down in the bonehoard.
    Ducking from cover to cover through the epic pillars of a zombie infested cave, with that lonely horn calling for me from the shadows.. Bloody hell. The sense of loneliness, going deep into a place where it’s clear nobody else is alive. If you die there nobody will know, nobody will ever find your body. It’s an immensely oppressive mission that continuously ramps up the tension to almost unbearable levels.

    The Thief demo was something i played multiple times a night for weeks. The whole first mission, with rope arrows, and considering how big the first mission is and how awesome the rope arrows were, i just can’t think of a demo that felt more generous, or more convincing. That the game itself turned out to be hours and hours and hours of MORE and MORE was almost daunting. And then Thief Gold came along and expanded it further. It was nuts!

    No movie can give us this feeling, no book. It’s uniquely immersive, inventive, the feeling of weight as you drop from a ledge onto the carpet behind a guard, biting your lip with anxiety he’s going to hear, and to be rewarded with not a clean assassination, but a clean bypass. The Thief series has never been bettered in terms of stealth. The sense of reward, risk, the feeling that if you mess up you do not DIE, but lost style points, it just makes you want to keep coming back. If only to knock out all the servants you avoided last time, and pile their sleeping bodies into pools or fires or off cliffs. Hahaha!

    Thief’s ugly graphics are offset tremendously by its immaculate sound work, the quality of its lore and the surprisingly believable mocapped animations. In a sense, it’s timeless, like a gaming casablanca, that just keeps looking fantastic in spite of its aged technology. The quality of the media on display is simply more powerful than its lack of polygons.

    I haven’t even begun to get into the quality of the sound work, the voiceovers or the soundtrack. How deliciously dark and horrific the world is, yet so inspiring and full of wonder.

    I wish Ken Levine would jump to Eidos for Thief 4. I wish Eric and Terri Brosius would do the same. And if they don’t get Stephen Russel they have already lost. Thief is more than the sum of its parts, but those parts need to be there nonetheless.

  32. JohnArr says:

    Wasn’t it soo disappointing when you went on to do Bafford’s Manor in the full game and you didn’t have rope arrows yet?

  33. whalleywhat says:

    If there was ever a project for Gametap or GOG, making the first 2 Thief games playable (hassle free) on new machines is it.

  34. Jonathan Strange says:

    @Heliocentric

    Actually Thief 2 *does* have remote camera, really, try the game. If you thought Splinter Cell was good then Thief will blow your mind with its earlier and yet more advanced stealth mechanics and genuinely free-form missions design.

    That was always my biggest complaint with the Splinter Cell games. Linear. Every once and awhile it gives the illusion of being freeform by saying ‘oh you can go through this air vent OR take the door’, but honestly, that’s about it. Whereas with Thief it was ‘here’s the level, here’s a map, have fun!’, and that’s brilliant.

    Thief is easily the best stealth series ever. I really, really hope the new game does well and sticks to the formula just so that a new generation of gamers will get to experience the best of the best!

  35. much2much says:

    The Thief games are some of the best gaming experiences ever.

    The difficulty levels are a mixed blessing though. I like the don’t kill difficulty constraints and the increased guards perception but those games were a real pain to find all the hidden loot which you needed almost all of to get for the hardest difficulties. It brought pixel hunting to 3d games.

    An option to have the harder difficulty without the excess loot requirement would have been excellent.

  36. whaleloever says:

    Ace article. Any plans to cover the other two games?

  37. Fomorian says:

    Curse you, John Walker. I had plans to play a lot of games this summer, you know – I planned appointments with Mafia, World of Goo, STALKER, Max Payne, Call of Juarez, Rise of Legends, The Bard’s Tale and Space Rangers 2. Now that I’ve read your superb article my Thief nostalgia kicked in and I shall not rest peacefully, until I replay that trilogy again. Thanks for nothing.

  38. Kieron Gillen says:

    much2much: One of the features which was cut from T:DS on release was the ability to do a System Shock style difficulty level thing where you could select how difficult you wanted it to be – so you could have it at HIGH AI, LOW LOOT and have a difficult but not obsessive game.

    Did they ever patch that back in? It was in the final preview code I played, but removed in the rush to get out the door.

    KG

  39. Stense says:

    I can’t recall it ever being patched back in. I seem to remember the lack of customisable (yes I know, I can’t spell that word) difficulty levels induced much rage in some thief forums.

  40. Ravenger says:

    I’ve been slowly re-playing through the Thief games. I finished Thief Gold a while ago, and have just finished playing Thief 2, and have started playing Thief 3.

    Thief 2 runs surprisingly well on modern hardware with the various fixes such as the widescreen hack. The graphics are primitive, but the atmosphere and gameplay are still excellent.

    Thief 3 is much better than I remembered, and I’m playing with a widescreen hack and John P’s excellent texture pack. Apart from some dodgy NPC models it looks surprisingly modern. The lighting works well, and of course a modern PC can run it at a framerate that was impossible to achieve when it was first released. The loading between areas is still a pain though, and it still doesn’t feel as nice to play as the first games.

    There is one big barrier to playing Thief on modern systems though: LCD monitors. The Thief series was designed for CRT’s with their incredible contrast. You really need to play it in a darkened room to make out the detail in the shadows. LCDs just don’t do black, and dynamic contrast doesn’t really work. The majority of LCD panels are 6 bit TN’s which just can’t handle the dark colours, showing dithering or distinct bands of colour, like you see on poorly compressed pictures, which makes the games look much worse than they did on CRT’s

    In fact I found Thief 2 so hard to play on my Samsung TN panel monitor that I bought a Dell S-IPS panel monitor instead, which though it still isn’t as black as a CRT, at least can do the dark colours and shadows justice. It’s 1000% better, and Thief 3 looks fantastic.

    One good thing about LCDs is their 60hz refresh rate. Thief 1 & 2 were designed for a max 60FPS (I imagine at the time they couldn’t ever conceive of it running at the framerates we can get today). If the frame rate runs faster than that the whole gameplay speeds up and you have to slow it down somehow. One way is to set the refresh rate of your monitor to 60hz. On a CRT that’s quite flickery, but it’s perfect on an LCD.

  41. Rei Onryou says:

    I wish I wasn’t such a scaredy cat. Can’t get further than the 1st level. Zombies!!!

    My history with the Thief games is silly really. I own them all, haven’t played #2 and on #3, my save became corrupted after the first level and I ragequit. Love them to bits, yet never further than the first level. Must grow balls…

  42. PC Monster says:

    @Johnathon

    I know what you mean. I had to listen to my younger console-owning brothers slavering over Metal Gear Solid on the PS1. “Look at the stealth, man, it’s AWESOME!! Watch me hide in my cardboard box – they can’t see me in here! Oh, and this guy follows me having heard a noise but forgets I exist once he’s half the way around searching my hiding place!”

    Needless to say my scoffing was mighty and persisted well until after their bedtime.

    I love Thief so much. The game, the play-style (I figure I’m a born sneak – I just adore the slow, patient pace of it all), the characters (Even Karras, who often sounded like an evil Deputy Dawg), the setting, the amazing levels, the unparalleled cutscenes…they’re in my soul now.

    Also, I loved being told for the first time (in my experience) NOT to kill anyone! And that choosing to play on ‘Expert’ meant exactly that; you’re a thief, not a murderer! Brilliant! SUCH a refreshing change after years of Doom, Duke etc.

    Game number 4 has a LOT to live up to. I’d far rather they didn’t attempt it than see them mess it up, but what if – ludicrous moment of hope coming up – they get it right?!? Oh, I’m going to be on absolute tenterhooks with this one!

  43. Alexx Kay says:

    Thief was my entry into the gaming biz, my first job as a QA Tester. It was a marvelous introduction!

    My favorite part about The Sword mission was being able to play it on Expert and kill 95% of the guards anyways. There are just so many ways to arrange ‘accidents’ with the death traps :-)

  44. much2much says:

    Thief making peoples monitor decisions for them! Awesome.

    @Kieron: Don’t think that made it back in but that is exactly what the games need. As much as Thief 3 is popular to bash I though the only thing that really sucks about it is that the default movement is running and you have to hold down a toggle to walk. This is annoying as these are the times you will actually be pressing a lot of other buttons. And the fact that your running footsteps are bloody loud and you can’t hear other people. A simple always run option like every FPS would have done wonders too.

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