Thief: Deadly Shadows Review
The legacy of the excellent early-90's game developer Looking Glass Studios continues on. Not only was this company responsible for the first two Thief games, but they also made the classic Ultima Underworld RPGs as well as the incredible System Shock. None of these titles were best-sellers even though they're some of the best games ever made. ION Storm's Austin offices have been the location of a recent Looking Glass revival, where the ex-heads of the company have been put at the helm of both Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows. Publisher Eidos is hoping that the classic gameplay will find a new, more accepting audience with the third Thief game.
Fans of the Looking Glass games are some of the most zealotous of any group you'll find on the internet, and their complaints clearly demonstrate that Deadly Shadows is not completely true to the gameplay style in Thief and Thief 2. Still, ION has made up for most of this with an excellent story and a beautiful, dark atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Deadly Shadows uses the same crappy engine that we suffered through in Deus Ex: Invisible War. It's got the same tiny levels, cramped hallways, and an overall claustrophobic feel that just irks me, especially when I know that this game could have been better if I could just get on top of a few rooftops (as in Thief 2). The reason for this is that the game was simultaneously made for the Xbox and PC, and the Xbox only has 64MB of RAM to work with - hence the tiny levels. The experience would have been so much better if we could have gotten a release that truly took advantage of the superior PC hardware that many gamers have now.
The frame rate is pretty bad in the PC version despite the rather hefty system requirements. I had better frame rates in Far Cry - and at least in that game I could see more than 200 feet in front of me. While the game does run like molasses, it's at least fairly stable. The lighting engine is also excellent, and that's pretty important for a game where you'll be hiding in shadows quite often. The textures are mostly sharp and many are bumpmapped, giving it an overall realistic feel. It's the way light and shadows behave in this game, though, that makes it stand out.
The interface is fairly well done in Thief: Deadly Shadows, and it doesn't feel so much like it was sloppily moved over from the Xbox version of the game (unlike Deus Ex: Invisible War). You'll get to pick your gear in between missions, and there are quite a few ways to configure your controls. For the serious players, .INI files can be edited to tweak the game even more.
One controversial addition is the third-person mode. Personally, I really like how both modes work, and they both have their own merits. The third person camera allows you some extra peripheral view, and it's handy for looking around corners with. It's also easier for me to place myself squarely into a shadow for hiding in. The first person view is also great, though, as it's more immersive to me. One nice thing about the first person mode is that I can actually see Garrett's whole body when I look down, not just a disconnected pair of arms manipulating weapons or lockpicks.
ION Storm has done an admirable job creating atmosphere in Thief: Deadly Shadows, despite the very confining attributes of the game engine. While no single area is really very large, there is plenty of detail through the game's winding streets, caverns, and buildings. The game is very dark, and while you can adjust the brightness to match your gaming environment, I still wouldn't recommend playing this game in a very bright room.
Garrett himself looks excellent as he climbs, knocks out his foes, and breaks into buildings. All of the animations are near-perfect, and his glowing eye lights up in the darkness. It helps make him seem more real, although it also makes him stand out from the rest of the game's characters who seem dull and robotic. None of the other characters have this same level of detail, and their animations aren't done all that well. The Thief series was never known that well for its graphics or animations, but this game still looks pretty good for its time - it's just the frame rate that I have a problem with.
In Deadly Shadows, master thief Garrett continues on his life of suspense and treachery amidst the Hammerites, Pagans, and Keepers. The atmosphere is thick in this game, and the story will pull you in - the way any classic Looking Glass game would do. It's a joy to play despite its numerous problems, and it feels like you're controlling the story rather than being led along by an overambitious game designer.
While ION Storm has made efforts to allow a more action-oriented player to actually succeed at this game, it still comes down to slow, methodical stealth winning out. Of course, for a game like this, that's exactly how it should be.
You'll start out in a tutorial mission that jumps right into the storyline, teaching you as you go. It's got to be one of the best tutorials I've played, as it really does feel more like a true mission and less like a tutorial. Not long after, you'll wind up in the city streets where you can plunder houses, pickpocket the citizens, and take on missions. The city itself feels alive, although the game is carefully designed to never show you much of it at any one time - it's a serious engine limitation, and I'm sure the developers had to spend countless hours working around it.
I was a bit annoyed that Garrett can never really travel through the city with much ease. The city guard is constantly after him, and as you go through the game, some other factions will also be hunting him down as well. Since you'll have to run over to separate stores to sell your stolen goods (and different types of items have to be sold at different stores) as well as other stores to buy items, travelling the city becomes a chore before long.
Garrett isn't much of a fighter, so the player needs to be careful not to alert any guards while he is stalking around. If the guards are alerted, your best bet is usually to find somewhere dark and hide there, wait for the guards to give up looking for you, then smash them in the back of the head with your blackjack. Sure, you can do some real toe-to-toe fighting, but it only really works in a serious pinch.
There are plenty of gadgets in this game - flashbombs, proximity mines, slippery oil to toss behind you, you name it. There are also several types of arrows you can fire with a bow, most of which are designed to distract guards or make it harder for them to detect you.
Thief: Deadly Shadows does include difficulty modes, and they affect far more than enemy health. The various guards and enemies will truly become smarter and will notice things they didn't notice on lower levels. They'll also have better senses of sight and hearing to go with the increase in brain cells. It adds up to an excellent way to increase replay value for those who think the lower levels are just too easy.
The only problem so far is that a bug has turned up that severely affects the Expert difficulty. Basically, it's almost guaranteed that on this setting, the game will revert itself back to normal difficulty as far as the game's AI is concerned. This pretty much ruins Expert mode, and it's also come to light that Eidos, the publisher, doesn't seem to have much of an intent to fix this problem.
Why is that, you might ask? Well, they've already restructured ION Storm to work on other stuff, and they've laid off quite a few of the game's developers. The official word from Eidos on this is that a fix might never happen. This bug is also present in the Xbox version of the game - which is not Xbox Live enabled - so it's pretty much assured the bug will live on there. It's quite possible for a simple patch to fix the PC version, though, so let's hope Eidos decides to actually do something about this.
I still have to question whether that many players will actually try Expert mode, though, and it's not like this game is no fun on Normal difficulty. You'll still be sneaking around, watching the guards for an opening in their patrol routes, dragging a knocked-out guard into a dark corner, picking locks, and quite a bit more. Throw in some great gadgets for dealing with other obstacles, as well as the new gloves to climb walls with, and Thief: Deadly Shadows is still a great game.
Sound has always been an essential part of the Thief games, and you'll need to pay attention to it in order to succeed. While most of the sound effects are immaculate and well done, the game suffers from another technical issue that makes the sound a bit odd. Specifically, the sounds always play from Garrett's own perspective. That means that in third person mode, if the camera is facing Garrett, a sound coming from his left side will play on the left speaker, even if it's on the right side of the screen at that moment. I understand that some might actually want it this way, but maybe an option to toggle between the two would have been the right thing to do.
The voice acting is still great, though; Garrett sounds as good as ever, and there are plenty of well-acted sayings by key NPCs, guards, and common citizens. The AI really shines when it comes to the sound, as enemies will often say what they're about to do before doing it. Not so great for the realism, but it's really cool to see them do these kinds of things. The ambient sound is top notch, and it blends perfectly with the mood-setting music. Other than the perspective issue mentioned above, the sound in the game is just plain great.
Thief: Deadly Shadows is a great stealth game that's limited quite a bit by a few bugs and the rather limiting engine it runs on. The story is engaging, though, and the gameplay and missions are unique and fun. Any fan of stealth games needs to pick this one up and try to look past the technical issues to the excellent gameplay and sense of style beneath.