The Steam summer sale thingamy is continuing to offer some ludicrously good prices, as it happens. I’ve just spotted some for which there’s only six hours left, which should fill in some vital gaps on your virtual shelf. There’s Thief: Deadly Shadows for £2.09, BioShock for £3.49, and Titan Quest Gold for £2.49. There’s also Dragon Age, about 80 hours of game, for £11.99.
I can’t get over Thief 3 for barely more than £2. This is one of those games that come 2014 we’ll be writing ten year retrospectives about. If you never did, you absolutely must right now. Just for the heck of it, I’ve pasted my review of the game from 2004 for PC Format.
Thief: Deadly Shadows
There was a time when a blackout curtain was a warning of troubles ahead. Now, it is a sign that the person within is trying to play Thief during daylight hours. Because nothing, not even the vast orb of hydrogen and helium at he centre of the universe, should be allowed to interfere.
There is going to be something of a dichotomy between those who haven’t played either of the first two Thief games and are wondering why there’s a fuss being made, and those who have been looking forward to part three with the anticipation of a tartrazine-enhanced seven year old at Christmas. And then in honour of Mr Venn, there will be a large group of both, a bit disconcerted by the luke-warm reception to Deus Ex: Invisible War. Let it be our job to unite all, into one throbbing mass of enthusiastic happiness.
That slightly unsettling notion aside, we must begin at the beginning. Continuing the peerless mastery of Looking Glass Studio’s catalogue, Thief introduced a brand new concept to gaming: the sneak-em-up. Now of course commonplace via the likes of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, in its day the notion of deliberately playing a first-person game as slowly and carefully as you could was thought to be the madness of a mercury-lined-hat-wearing man. In 1998, as games were embracing the logic of the ‘always run’ option, Thief bordered on ‘always crouch’.
Sects And The City
The eponymous burglar is Garrett, master thief. Trained by the city’s mysterious hooded Keepers, he left their academy to pursue a life of more profitable ways, disinterested in their conspiracies and prophecies. However, fate has a way of holding onto people it finds interesting, and Garrett’s pathway inevitably led him back into their tales. Part one told us of the Pagans, part two about the Hammerites, meaning everything is set in place for the culmination of the trilogy. This time about The Keepers themselves.
It’s been four years since the last Thief, and six since the first, so with such a detailed history already in place, Ion Storm have faced the perennial challenge of finding balance between beginning and continuing, introducing and welcoming back. Normally one side loses out. Deadly Shadows transcends this. Careful writing has ensured that the important back story is mentioned whenever appropriate, always in context, and never awkwardly. The finer details for the lifer, throwbacks to levels in previous games, sarcastic asides, and old faces, will go unnoticed by the new, but at no detriment to their experience.
If there is any assumption made, it is that the player will be in the frame of mind for the style of play. There’s a Way of Thief, and it’s not something that can be expressed in the excellent and contextual tutorial level. It’s something that must be learned. For the follower, this will all come rushing back in moments. For the new player, this may take a couple of missions to arrive – so persist through that uncomfortable feeling – it will all begin to feel natural very soon.
After the tutorial and opening mission, the game reveals its most important new feature – the City. Thief has always taken place here, but never before have you been able to roam freely about its streets, alleys and rooftops. Carefully opening up as you progress through the game, the ever-expanding town adds a sense of logic and reality that few other mission based games could boast. When you learn news that there is an important item hidden in a the Hammerite church, how more gratifying it is to recall where that was, and head over there yourself, than for the game to airlift you there behind a loading screen.
But it provides a lot more than this. Loot collected in the previous mission (or from any crime you’ve committed in the city) can be sold to fences, and then the cash gained used to buy equipment from the various stores. What was previously an options screen between missions has now become a device to pull you deeper into the game’s world. This also means that equipment found or unused in an earlier mission remains with you for the next. At first you won’t be able to afford everything you might want… Do you spend the money on water arrows or flashbombs? Noisemaker arrows or health potions? How you choose to approach the challenges will influence your choices, and in turn, your choices will influence how you approach the challenges. (By the later levels, when perhaps too much money is available, you’ll already be so set in your ways that this slight imbalance becomes mostly unimportant).
Under the Influence
This is what Thief: Deadly Shadows does. It /influences/ you. The first three missions are perfect prologues – a neutral mansion, a Hammerite church, and a Pagan lair. If you’d never met these peoples before, you are intimate after completing their introductions. Their language, their mannerisms, their motivations, and their anger, are all expressed and explained. So it is at this point you are given the option to favour one faction or the other. This new feature allows the city to become even more involving, as you can now choose to take on tasks for either side, thus increasing or decreasing your status within them. Become allied, and they will tolerate you. Upset them, and they will attack you on sight. There is no easy alliance however – questions are being asked about both sides throughout, and all the while you struggle with the sincerity of the Keepers’ instructions. This may sound familiar as one of the weaker elements of Invisible War, but here the ability to favour either side at will is more clearly justified and understood. You have no intention of becoming Pagan /or/ Hammerite. You are always Thief. But this doesn’t stop all around from trying to influence you.
However, this influential nature extends beyond the storyline, and leaks into the very design of the game itself. The Unreal engine means that presentation takes a dramatic step forward from the previous incarnations, and the effective HAVOC physics engine allows the world to become far more believable. But it is the level design itself that stands out most strongly. The map sizes are slightly smaller than in the previous games, and there are load points within missions, but this really takes nothing away. The majority of areas feel sprawling, always explorable, and when necessary, tightly claustrophobic. But most of all, this city feels real. Almost alive. As you progress, the semiotics of the design begin to play with you. It teaches you that an alcove might mean you need to hide. Alcoves begin to suggest danger. Until eventually the presence of a good hiding place can send shivers down your spine.
Thief is a series built on the strength of its shadowy spaces, and Deadly Shadows’ lighting takes this further than previously. Bright lights become agony to stand in, unbearable and hideously dangerous. The palpable sense of relief when crouching down in a darkened corner is remarkable. And Garrett’s other foe, sound, is also excruciatingly real. From the atmospheric ambience, to the varying footstep noises of different surfaces, your ears are just as vital as your eyes. Soon snuffing candles and closing doors will be as second nature to you as the most electricity-bill conscious dad.
Cradle Will Rock
There are a couple of issues with clipping and bugs, mostly when you reach the city area Audale. This small section has a slightly unfinished feel about it, less polished than the rest, and becomes the game’s sorest thumb. But it’s impossible to stay angry about this. You may have noticed how little is said of the story in these pages, and that’s entirely on purpose. It’s best this way, believe us. However, it cannot go unmentioned that Thief: DS contains a level more terrifying than anything we’ve ever encountered before. It’s toward the end, and it’s good. It’s so very good. If you played Thief, it’s better than Return To The Haunted Cathedral. Yes.
Here is a living, breathing city. A city with a past, and one in the grip of its future. How you live in it is up to you. Are you a murderer, or an unseen ghost? A fighter for balance, or a man merely out to fill your pockets? This is Thief.
BOXOUT: Guards! Guards!
The guard’s AI has been enormously improved upon. With the excellent use of real physics, clumsily knocking over a candle stick will make a suspicious sound. If a guard is nearby, maybe the other side of an open door, he’ll pop in to take a look. If you manage to make a louder noise, or worse, get seen, expect the response to be much more ferocious. And just hiding in the corner for a bit might not necessarily be enough, as an alerted guard can now rush off to get help or even organise a search. This new intelligence also allows responses to spotting dead bodies (rushing to get others to see and respond), lights going out, or doors being left open. Turn the difficulty for a mission up high enough, and they’ll even notice when their friend isn’t on his usual patrol route. But to match this hike in enemy brains, T:DS also provides means of escape far more interesting than reloading. Flashbombs temporarily blind opponents, providing vital time for escape to hide until all calms down again. All without the frame-breaking gap of hit Quickload.