Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thief: The Dark Project

Despite being critically acclaimed by the press and being told countless times by friends that I should play it I only got around to finishing Thief recently. After being blown away by the quite frankly amazing System Shock 2 I realised that it was high time that I should try this game out considering it was developed in tandem by many of the same team. Luckily I was able to pick up the Thief Complete Collection and I suggest anyone else interested in trying this game out should pick up this collection since it includes Thief Gold (a re-release of The Dark Project but with extra levels and tweaks), Thief 2: The Metal Age and Thief Deadly Shadows. So 3 critically acclaimed games for a very reasonable price, not bad.

First thing you’ll notice about Thief is that the game probably won’t run at all if you are using Vista or Windows 7, possibly even XP. If you are having trouble getting Thief 1 and 2 running I suggest you follow the guides on these sites which helped me out:

Thief has a strange but interesting hybrid medieval setting with slight steampunk and fantasy elements. The main political faction is the Order of the Hammer, or Hammerites, that worship technology and architecture. The Hammerites are at odds with another religious sect, the Pagans, whose nature worshipping beliefs clash with the beliefs of the Hammerites. There is another faction in the world called the Keepers that are secretive and rarely seen or heard of that clandestinely manipulate events from the shadows to prevent any outbreaks of chaos. You play as Garrett, a former member of the keepers that became disillusioned with their ways and left. He uses his skills at subterfuge that he learn with the keepers to become a master thief in the metropolis only known as the City. His only motivation is entirely selfish; to steal so that someday he can earn enough money to live a comfortable life.

Thief is played out in a first person perspective but despite sharing this perspective with the dumb first person perspective shooters of today like Call of Duty and Halo, Thief is a totally different game. While these games have you as a nigh on invincible soldier running and gunning down enemies as Garrett must rely on stealth to survive. In Thief the darkness is your best friend. Hiding in the shadows makes you completely invisible to enemies so that you don’t alert them. Garrett may have a sword to but he isn’t a great swordsman and it should only be used as a last line of defence. He can use a bow and arrow but he has a limited number of these, they take a long time to draw back and ready and are also difficult to aim since you have to compensate for the drop due to gravity. However killing enemies is not an efficient way to play the game. It’s noisy and leaves blood stains that can alert guards who are a lot harder to take down in an alerted state. The proper way to go about your thievery is to catch the guards unawares and hit them over the head with your trusty ‘blackjack’ club to knock them unconscious and then hide the body from any patrolling guards.

This unique stealth gameplay is what sets Thief apart and there really is no other game like it other than its immediate sequels. There are other areas that Thief really stands out in. Level design in this game is some of the best I’ve ever encountered in the game. Each mission is a sprawling non-linear affair that can take upwards of 90 minutes to complete. The range of environments is very diverse, from sneaking through massive mansions avoiding patrols and finding secret passageways, lost cities buried for year’s underground, swimming through mines to break into a prison or an old haunted church. Each level has numerous hidden passages and secrets often leading to small snippets of information that can help you piece together the complex story or adds context to the Thief universe. Missions usually task you with not only stealing certain objects but also with escaping alive so you better have an escape plan.

Garrett isn’t totally defenceless. Along with his sword and arrows he also has a wide variety of speciality equipment he can use to his advantage. Water arrows can be used to douse flames thus creating even more dark areas to hide in. Fire arrows can be used to light fires and cause massive damage to the more dangerous foes. Moss arrows can cover the ground in moss letting Garrett walk over even the noisiest surfaces without making a sound. And Rope arrows can be fired into soft surfaces leaving a rope that gives greater mobility. There’s plenty of other gadgets, such as noisemaker arrows, flashbombs, mines, etc. that can be used in creative ways to terrorise the guards.

One of most novel aspects of the game is how difficulty levels are handled. Instead of increasing the number of enemies or how much punishment they can take, Thief just adds new objectives. While normal will require you to steal an object and exit the area alive the same level on hard will require you to steal additional items in hard to reach places and leave with a large value of additional loot without killing any unarmed innocents. People playing on Expert are usually required to carry out these tasks without killing anyone.

Sound also plays a massive role in gameplay and level design and is some of the best use of sound design I’ve seen in a game. Hints about the mission you are on can be gathered from overheard conversations. You also have to watch how much noise you make yourself since it can alert guards and can make your life a whole lot more difficult, you’ll be constantly watching what you thread on. Grass and carpet will allow you to move effortlessly without a sound but you will feel dread when you come across a room you have to cross with a floor of noisy ceramic tiles or metal grating requiring you to slowly inch your way to your destination. Another level requires you to steal an artefact that produces music and you must use this to get your bearings by judging how close you are by how loud the music is and where it’s coming from.

Thief really is one of the best games ever made but it can be hard to get into in this day and age. For one thing the graphics really have dated badly. The ‘Dark Engine’ was revolutionary in its day, especially its shadow effects and AI, but is very much of its time. The models are all very low polygon and look very ugly. The environments come off a lot better despite looking very basic by today’s standards. They are quite detailed and have good art design helping them stand out and making each mission look realistic and lived in. It can take a while to get used to the unique pace of the game. Most people are used to modern FPS games but Thief is the polar opposite, requiring you to really take your time and be patient since it’s a much slower paced game. It’s also a very tough game so you’ll need to use that auto save button a lot. However there really is nothing else like it and it’s a game well worth experiencing if you can look past some dated visuals. The story is also very interesting, seeming like a few random robbery jobs but eventually coming together at the halfway point and getting a whole lot more interesting. If there’s one complaint I have to make it’s that in one or two levels the hard and expert objectives are too well hidden with no clues as to where they are kept and required a walkthrough to find but other than that it’s well worth experiencing this unique and brilliant game.


  1. I remember playing this when it came out, and just loving it. I have to say, my absolute shallowness is a problem, having gone back to it I'm finding the graphics a problem. My name is Karl, and I have a problem...I need HDR lighting...

  2. Well it took me a while to get into it as well because of those awful graphics but once you learn to live with them it's a great game. Those late 90's 3D games really haven't aged well graphically.

  3. It'd be cool to see such a non conventional first person game being taken on by the likes of Retro Studios, a company that made such a wonderful game, translating the pinnacle of sci-fi gaming, Super Metroid into the impossibly good Metroid Prime series, similarly first person, but not a dumb ass shooter.

  4. I'd love to see Retro Studios try something like this but I think that an FPS this complicated won't work on a console and more importantly won't have an audience that wil make up the sales the game needs. It's unfortunate that FPS games today keep copying the Halo and CoD formula but it's kind of a necessity since non-linear and unconventional games like Thief are likely to bomb in this market. Still Stalker showed that it is possible so I wait and hope to be proven wrong. Still I miss the sheer variety and experimentation of genres that the 90's PC gaming scene represented. At least the indie scene has exploded to quench that thirst for the unconventional!

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