When most gamers think of stealth action, a few staples of gameplay come to mind. Infiltrating massive installations, acquiring items and information and eliminating threats are mere tools of the trade. But forget what you know about Solid Snake and Sam Fisher. Scrap what you think about patriotic causes as well. Instead, think about a truly clandestine title whose main character doesn’t believe in anything except making himself richer. An anti-hero whose sole allegiance is to himself. Grab a cloak and your quiver of arrows, because it’s time to enter Eidos’ Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third title of the stealth franchise.
Players once again step into the silenced boots of Garrett, cynical ex-Keeper recruit and Master Thief. A loner by nature, Garrett prefers to rob from the rich and give to himself, reasoning that he is his own needy charity. His stomping grounds are The City, a sprawling area of districts that are also home to some of the greatest riches in the world. However, while he tries to stick to the shadows and not get involved in regional conflicts or politics, he often finds himself reluctantly dragged into fights that threaten his livelihood and the security of the world as well. To this end, he’s squared off against a nature god, a demented priest, fantastical monsters and scores of factional cult members, while only losing an eye in the process. While knowledge of the previous titles aren’t mandated, you’re going to miss out on a lot of jokes, comments and other remarks made about the Keepers, Hammers, Pagans and other groups that live in The City. (If you haven’t actually played Thief 1 or 2, stop reading, track down your local bargain bin, and buy these two games now. These are classics and should be in your collection. Go on. I’ll wait for a good 24 hours of gameplay between the two. Okay, now that we’ve addressed that problem…) I won’t spoil the plot for you, but whereas the first game dealt with nature and the second was the rise of industrialization, Deadly Shadows focuses on a prophesied Dark Age with a threat more sinister than any of the previous factions combined.
Deadly Shadows makes a number of departures from the series, particularly in the way that Garrett handles his stock and trade. Gone are the somewhat linear storylines and gameplay that powered Thief and Thief II; instead, Deadly Shadows hosts a much more open-ended scheme for players to explore The City in its entirety. Garrett will have to physically traverse districts and their numerous neighborhoods to take on new missions and quests. Along the way, he can stop and enter businesses or homes by creeping through open windows or shutters, or he can simply pick the locks on the doors and let himself in. This lock-picking ability can also be extended to chests, further increasing his take of ill-gotten gains. Garrett can also choose to pad his pockets by lifting the purses and jewels off passersby as they walk through the streets. Unlike the previous games, where his plunder was automatically converted into money, Garrett now has to track down and sell his items to fences, who will move the stolen objects for handsome sums of money. However, this accomplice to your crime won’t be able to take all of your loot off your hands; specific people deal in artwork, gems or metals, so you’ll have to get friendly with a number of underworld associates to turn a profit.
Unfortunately, he won’t be able to prey upon the unwitting citizens of the city without facing some danger in return. Each attempt to pick someone’s pocket may be detected by the victim or another bystander, who may run off for help. See, while many of the townsfolk might not necessarily recognize you, the City Watch all knows Garrett’s face and have been actively looking for him. Any guard noticing suspicious activity or alerted to trouble will automatically start searching for thieves or assailants. Similar situations will often arise as Garrett crosses over and infiltrates Pagan or Hammer territory, as the two groups will often swarm to repel any invasion into their land. Once they’ve got Garrett in their sights, they’ll chase him no matter how where he tries to hide.
Fortunately, Garrett can often use the numerous shadows scattered through the city along with his tools to commit his deeds without being detected. A light gem at the bottom of the screen gives him an indication of just how visible he is; when it’s completely black, Garrett is cloaked in darkness, whereas when its bright yellow, he’s in plain view of everyone, illuminated by candles, lampposts or torches. While lamps can’t be extinguished, candles can be snuffed and torches doused by water arrows. He can also fire noisemaker arrows to distract guards from their posts, moss arrows to quiet his footsteps, fire arrows to ignite torches or oil slicks, or plain, broadhead arrows which he can use to snipe unsuspecting targets from afar. (Of course, he can always get in close and take enemies out silently with his blackjack or with his dagger.) Along with a myriad of other items such as health potions, flash bombs and explosive mines, Garrett can handle just about any potential situation that he’ll come across.
Of particular note graphically are the dynamic lighting and shadows that leap off the screen every time a character model passes a light source. Most immediately noticeable by the guards that pass torches on their patrol route, the detail of the shading on character’s faces and crawling shadows from their model impart a sense of realism. There are some rather nice details found scattered through the game, such as the supernatural monsters found sprinkled throughout the title. Cutscenes, which have an animated, graphic novel flavor to them, are nicely animated and convey the dark, brooding gothic essence of the game. Taking a page from Deus Ex as well, most objects have a definable mass governed by actual physics as well, meaning that heavier boxes and objects won’t be able to be thrown as far as smaller bottles or items. This extends to humans when they’ve been blackjacked or knifed, although some bodies wind up crumpling in extremely unrealistic ways…unless they’ve fallen off of a building somehow. Frankly, some of the knee bends and postures are impossible rather than actual skeletal collapses. You may also notice a number of other graphical flaws, such as a startling amount of collision detection that runs rampant with both NPCs and objects. Similarly, Garrett will often clip through or get attached to objects, making some of his forward progress during delicate quick moves harder than necessary. There’s also a surprising lack of detail for some of the NPCs and a number of stiff animations that both Garrett and other characters go through, which gives the game a much more rough edge to its execution.
Sound is handled much better than the graphical quirks, and easily could be nominated as one of the best of the year (up till now). Stephen Russell, reprising his role as Garrett, is just as sharp, cynical and acerbic as ever, and his delivery is simply perfect, conveying the disdain and annoyance with the world around him. You’ll also find a number of decent performances from the secondary players, including the lowly City Watchmen and peasants, who will break out some rather humorous lines if you stop and listen long enough. While there are only a few strains of music throughout the game, such as the familiar success theme when a mission has been completed, the ambient sound effects truly shine in this game. This is highlighted by the AI’s detection of sound when alerted, the echoing of footsteps on stone or metal, and other effects. But all of these pale in comparison to the supernatural effects that creep out of the TV speakers during some of the spookier missions. I won’t specify it, but the subtle noises and hair-raising sounds in supposedly deserted buildings are on par with those of Silent Hill and other survival horror scares.
These sound effects merely bolster an extremely sound plot, which is highly detailed and revealed only though completion of missions and exploration of levels. Notes, books and overheard conversations act as supplementary information to fill in additional holes in the story, and promote thorough investigation of each area of the city. However, there are a number of things that do manage to slowly siphon away some of the enjoyability of the game, items which weren’t an issue in previous versions. The first issue comes from the implementation of the fences themselves. While a creative idea, there are at least two problems with the inclusion of this “selling” mechanic. First of all, the fences are so scattered throughout the city that you often have to roam across three or more neighborhoods to sell off your goods. Considering that there are extremely lengthy load screens for individual sections of The City, this quickly becomes time prohibitive and extremely annoying. Even worse is the fact that some fences aren’t available to you at the beginning of the game without any specific reason, so you’ll wind up carting around plenty of loot from some of your heists without any way to sell it off until later. If you happen to be a particularly bad thief or you like using a lot of items on missions, you’ll find yourself struggling to equip Garrett because you’ll be broke, forcing you to roam neighborhoods constantly trying to find pockets to pick.
The inclusion of picking locks could’ve been a great feature of the game, were it not for the fact that it becomes so incredibly easy that you can sleepwalk through every door and chest. Sure, you’ll have to track down shopkeepers that own these items so you can practice with them in your apartment (a rather meager place for a Master Thief – I was thinking more of Sean Connery’s castle from Entrapment for Garrett, but I digress), but the tumblers for the locks correspond primarily to the cardinal directions, so you merely have to aim left, right up or down and feel which one vibrates the strongest. This isn’t actually a skill, but more of a limited mini-game that could’ve been much more, especially if it became more complicated based on individual lock you faced. Similarly, the open-endedness of The City becomes somewhat limited thanks to the “frozen” nature of traveling from one section of the world to another. Simply put, as soon as you walk through a portal to enter another neighborhood, every single person in that area is stuck in the exact same place. If you were being chased by the guards and manage to escape to another area, they’ll be right on top of you the very next time you return through that door. It’s unrealistic, especially if you don’t go back to that section of town for a long time. This, along with the aforementioned load times, makes the supposedly “massive” City seem incredibly cramped and small.
It’s also interesting to note that two of the items that weren’t included in this game are definitely noticeably absent. Garrett’s broadsword, which served him well in the moments where he had to fight (particularly the undead), has been replaced with an ineffective dagger. While you shouldn’t go out and specifically seek head to head combat, there are some situations where it’s simply unavoidable, and the dagger simply doesn’t cut it. Its reach is way too small and practically invites injury. Combine this with Garrett’s relatively slow speed and ineffective strikes, and you’ll get skewered way too frequently, especially on harder difficulty levels. What’s more, the rope arrows, which were used to scale other heights quickly and quietly, have been replaced with expensive climbing gloves, which don’t feel as effective. This feels even worse with the fact that you probably won’t even use a majority of the items you’ll receive over the course of the game. I don’t think that I ever used the flash or gas bombs I found, and it might have been rare that I didn’t rely solely on water arrows to traverse a level.
This actually wasn’t too difficult considering the surprisingly inconsistent AI when it came to overhearing certain sounds. While it was incredibly accurate in detecting footsteps or overhearing fired arrows landing in targets, most guards and NPCs were completely inept at noticing a fellow character getting knocked out behind them (or in a relative close proximity). In fact, it was only really possible to get into trouble with patrolling opponents in missions when you performed sloppy kills or missed your opportunity to silently take someone out. However, it’s also somewhat comical to merely run a short distance away, such as around a corner and duck into an alcove and be completely safe. The AI, which will often run out of breath chasing you down, quickly drops its alerted status and resumes its patrol, giving you another chance to club the guard and resume your mission in peace. It’s an odd facet of the game that can be exploited by simply being patient and avoiding the gaze of any other sentries that might walk by.
These problems aside, Thief 3 is overwhelming salvaged by three of the cornerstones of the franchise, an engaging, well crafted plotline, solid premise and impressive sound values. The newer features, while gimmicky and not fully implemented as well as they could’ve been, don’t destroy the gameplay, but are minor annoyances that you’ll pick up on as you sneak through the shadows collecting all the loot you can. If you’ve tired of the more modern stealth titles and can overlook a few issues, try treading in the medieval boots of Garrett.