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Thief: Deadly Shadows will still have you fearing the light some 16 years on

A Keeper

I was a little afraid of returning to this one. Not because I knew it'd mean returning to The Cradle, even though I was very intrigued to see if it would still work. But because I once scored it 90% in a magazine, and I really didn't want to be wrong. What if I'd been caught up in the hype of reviewing a massive title from one of the best ever developers? Then I'd feel silly.

Well, there are almost certainly (let's face, definitely) examples of this in my career, but thank goodness Deadly Shadows isn't one of them. My goodness this is a magnificent game. And it's so, so much more than just The Cradle. In fact, I'd say there are missions in there better than its infamous horror story. Or perhaps what I want from a sneaker has changed in the last sixteen years?

TDS serves to, er, triangle the circle of the series, bringing together the plots of the first two into a three-way battle for supremacy across the city between rival factions the Hammerites, the Pagans and the Keepers. The titular thief Garrett is torn between the three, sometimes forced to work for the Keepers, but in a smart detail, able to win the allegiances or hostility of the other groups by his actions throughout the game. And most of all, he's there to steal stuff. Fill his boots with every twinkling trinket, then take it to one of the city's fences to exchange for cash. Oh, and something about an ancient prophecy, mystic runes, and evil old hag who wants to destroy everything. But mostly stealing stuff.

Deadly Shadows was somewhat controversial on its release. In case you've ever wondered when gaming, and "gamers", became such a tedious lot, let me tell you it was ever thus. Because oh my goodness, I still bristle at the term "loot glint". What a tiresome whiny fuss was made about that tiny detail. "Oh but the treasure sparkles, rather than being a different colour like before which we were fine with for some reason." That and "OH BUT THE LEVELS ARE TOO SMALL BECAUSE OF XBOXES YOU SEE." Said, I venture, exclusively by people who hadn't actually played the game.

I've been back to the original Thief: The Dark Project (TDP) a few times over the years. I wrote about it (oh lord) eleven years ago for Eurogamer, but returned much more recently than that. Yet for some reason I don't believe I've ever been back to Deadly Shadows (TDS) since its 2004 release. And while if I ever got enough sleep I might be able to compile a strong article explaining why I think TDP is still the best game in the series, I'm delighted to have learned that with time, TDS feels far more like a part of a trilogy with the first two than it did on release.

Because yes, the levels are smaller, but they're not small. Yes it is somewhat differently presented, but it's still inherently, to its core, a Thief game. And yes, the loot glints, but dear God that's better than picking up every single cup in the game to stumble upon the shiny ones. With the benefit of a really upsetting amount of hindsight, Thief 3 now really feels like it flows naturally from Thiefs 1 and 2. And that's a comparison almost certainly helped by Eidos's rapidly abandoned attempt to revive the series with 2014's not-actually-that-bad-but-not-a-Thief-game 'Thief'.

Gosh it's just so brilliant being Garrett. I'm not sure I can think of a game character I prefer playing as. I mean, he's a proper dick - stealing from the elderly, the desperate, the victims of blackmail. Goodness me, Garrett is deeply without morality. But I mean more in terms of the sneakiness. Garrett stays hidden, slips through the shadows, and resents any direct contact with anyone. As a misanthrope, to me that's a hero characteristic right there. But more importantly, being Garrett redirects absolutely everything about a first-person game. You are not there to blast the shit out of everyone, nor to be the hero, nor to gain accolades and the love of all around. You're there to never be noticed at all. To enter a large, sprawling building, and leave without anyone ever knowing you were ever there. And when a game is designed from the ground up with the ego of the player character completely eradicated, it makes for such a more interesting experience.

In TDS, there's an attempt to take this even further, by introducing a different main character: The City. Of course all the games are set in various areas of The City, but here the living breathing nature of the sections of town are given far more character than anyone else. Each district has its own nature, population, and landmarks. And this time out, a good half of the game is spent moving around its increasingly open areas, yours to explore at your leisure, with hidden extras, side-quests to discover, and so many conversations to hear for clues or tips of items to steal. It could have been absolutely extraordinary. It, well, it never really is. But it could have been!

The City sections work so well in the first half. You're exploring new areas, reaching new goals, finding new shops and pubs and hidey-holes. You're heading somewhere new, and getting there via this intricate sprawling hub. But by the second half it's just a chore, a great long stretch of streets and corners you've walked so many times already, increasingly filled with guards trying to catch you, when all you want is to reach the next mission to continue the story. To find new stuff. And the old stuff keeps on getting in the way.

This is something that could have been so, so much better if they'd figured out rooftop pathways properly. It's so very odd. The game gives you climbing gloves instead of rope arrows (and yes, I'm with everyone who complained at the time, but the correct answer is: both would have been best), and then barely gives you anywhere to climb. Find a rooftop you can access, and you'll be damned lucky to find a route that goes very far. You're almost immediately restricted by artificial blockades, or the edge of the game world as you constantly climb to the rim of the skybox. If only rootop routes had been properly put into this, such that you could scamper your way from place to place without having to hide or blackjack every other guard along the way.

And while I'm moaning, I wish the blackjack weren't so pedantic in this. That's my favourite bit of Thief, and Dishonored, and all the other games in its wake. Sneaking up behind someone and bonking them on the back of the head, then adding them to my sleeping victims pile in a dark corner. But TDS makes such an odd decision to demand that blackjackings are executed at some improbably perfect angle, victims somehow immune if they turn their head 15 degrees as you swing.

So let's talk The Cradle. There are few levels that have received such attention, and it's certainly well deserved. Jordan Thomas and Randy Smith put everything into this one, years of Looking Glass know-how to craft a spooky level that finds horror in every tiny detail. I'm not going to add to the vast pile of articles about it, because frankly there's no point since Kieron's meticulous and ludicrous ten page magazine feature about it (pdf). Go read that. It's amazing. But I want to talk about my experience of it in 2020.

I wanted to see if I could not be scared by it. Two reasons for that. Firstly, I wanted to know how much had been hype, and secondly I didn't want to be scared because I'm exhausted by fear as it is. Of course the first part doesn't work in the slightest. I reviewed this before the game came out, and remember having to alt-tab out of the game to calm down at one point. I was terrified of it in isolation. So how about just going in with steely determine, knowing everything it had, knowing the gruesome twist revealed in the notes and narration, and aware that the ghoulish patient creatures can easily be downed with a couple of flash bombs. There's no need to be scared, it's just a game, and I've played it before.

Yeah, yeah, it's still very scary. My attempts to protect myself with cynicism certainly lessened the impact somewhat, but there's really nothing anyone can do about Eric Brosius's soundscape. It's one of the most awful, awful collections of sound effects anyone's ever put together, monstrously timed and gruesomely haunting. Crying babies just after you've read about the patient who carried her dead baby's ashes. The screaming, moaning, roaring. The backward masked mumbling. The sounds of panic. The chattering. The ticking. The goddamned clicking.

As I mentioned, it wasn't my highlight this time around. I mean, I can't pretend I didn't say the words "Shitting shit!" out loud at one point at the all-consuming horror of it all, nor grin like a loon that first time you see a patient in the distance, running wildly past a window. But I was here to steal shiny things, and Robbing The Cradle is about feeling scared while completing some fetch quests, across various time periods, while some fucking thing is clicking near you for goodness sakes. My favourite this time was The House of the Widow Moira, a proper old mansion level, with all manner of secret passages, hidden rooms, spooky backstories, and so many guards to put in fetching piles. This for me is Thief at its most Thiefy, and playing it is just sublime.

Which leaves me just one more thought I want to convey in this rambling screed: save-scumming. Thief's other joyful strength is the variety of ways in which it can be approached. I believe the Only Correct Way to play the game is to set out to completely ghost every level, but then improvise as soon as anything goes wrong. I don't do this. Because I want to live out the fantasy that Garrett is completely undiscovered in every heist, I incessantly reload the moment anything isn't perfect, and then execute it better. And yes, I know. There are those who look down on this. There are those who consider such behaviour treason. But to you I say this: Hush, I'm having fun. And I'm still better than the people who just kill everyone with arrows.

Deadly Shadows is such a fine close to the series. I do miss rope arrows, but if I'm honest, I prefer the smaller levels. In fact, nowadays they're positively enormous compared to what we're used to, so the issue barely registers. And this is something helped by a splendid mod, the Sneaky Update. Incorporating the Thief 3 Gold mod, it gets either the GOG or Steam versions running in widescreen, and even ultra-widescreen, as well as fixing all manner of bugs. There are all sorts of extra tweaks in there too, and it comes bundled with a bunch of other mods you can opt into should you want to, including improved movement animations for Garrett. I highly recommend installing Sneaky Update before before playing. (Well, actually, if it's the Steam version, after playing once, due to some issues.)

That said, it was still pretty buggy for me, Garrett often getting stuck in the middle of a jump so he hovered above the ground, and an awful lot of crashes to desktop. Hey, it's nearly two decades old, but be warned it's not stable.

It's a massive game, and such an interesting one, and while I think Thief: The Dark Project will always be the best of them, it's right up there. Shut the curtains, stick Blu-Tac over the lights on your monitors, and return to the sneakiest of all sneaky games.

Can I still play Thief: Deadly Shadows?

Yes. But get the Sneaky Update mentioned above first, that's pretty essential, and save often as it's prone to crashing.

Should I still play Thief: Deadly Shadows?

Oh gosh definitely. Play all three. But don't miss out on this one. It's glorious.

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