Thief: Deadly Shadows has players slipping into the leather boots of Garrett, a thief who earns his living by slinking into the homes of aristocrats and pilfering their valuables. Played primarily from a first-person perspective, players must navigate the City, a sprawling medieval landscape filled with castles, mansions, cathedrals, dungeons, museums, and more. The goal is to sneak into these buildings without being detected, which means hiding in the shadows, snuffing out candles with well-aimed arrows, picking locks, and blinding foes with flash bombs. Garrett can also scale walls using special climbing gloves, which can be viewed onscreen at all times. The development team at Ion Storm (Deus Ex, Anachronox) refers to this inclusion as "body awareness," allowing players to see hands and feet while climbing, peeking around corners, and picking locks to suggest a sense of placement within the 3D world. It is also possible to switch to a third-person perspective at nearly any time, for an immediate sense of the character's place in his surroundings. Awareness within the gothic environments is important if not essential, since Garrett will have to deal with guards, thugs, monsters, and more during his pursuits.
Thief: Deadly Shadows is a terrific game. All of the stealth gameplay, intricate level design, Byzantine story branches, and delightfully larcenous action makes a welcome return in this edition. The godfather of stealth-action games is back. Unfortunately, while Thief: Deadly Shadows stands as an equal to any of the previous games in the series, it doesn't exceed them -- nor does it move the franchise forward as much as it was obviously designed to do.
Let's start with the game's graphics. Anybody who played a previous Thief can tell you that these have never been the best-looking games in the world. Deadly Shadows upholds that tradition with what is doubtlessly one of the ugliest games in recent memory. The Deus Ex: Invisible War technology that this game was built on was justifiably criticized for the squat, blocky nature of its graphic engine, along with its muddy lighting and annoying bloom effects that just made ugly graphics blurry. Thankfully, Deadly Shadows dispenses with the "bloom" and just lets the graphics stand on their own -- but even that doesn't help in the end.
Everything in Deadly Shadows, the streets, the walls, the windows, the tree branches, looks as if it's been slightly compressed in a car crusher, all blocky, unnatural angles and too many straight lines. I understand that compromises have to be made to insure graphic speed, but that explanation doesn't wash, as Deadly Shadows' graphics are pretty choppy. It's never enough to hinder gameplay, but when you compare the graphic performance of Deadly Shadows to any other action game, first- or third-person, this game comes up short.
Character models also come up short. First, all of the NPCs in the game look like wax dummies, an impression highlighted by the fact that there isn't any lip-synching in the game. Everybody in Garrett's world must communicate by telepathy, because I never saw a mouth open while a character was speaking. Their animations aren't a whole lot better. Following up on the "wax dummies" metaphor, characters in Deadly Shadows walk and run with a stiff, unnatural gait, and seem to glide on the cobblestone streets without actually making contact. The whole thing brought back frightening memories of animatronic characters in Disneyworld.
Then there's the artistic design of the world. Even the worst graphics engine can be made up for with inspired artwork, texturing, and architecture. Alas, these too are conspicuously missing in Deadly Shadows. Whether the culprit was the graphics engine or that someone stole all the artistic talent at Ion Storm, Deadly Shadows' architecture bears a mind-numbing sameness, an oppressive concrete realism that makes one think of Soviet buildings at the height of the Cold War. Areas that should soar and be beautiful, such as Hammerite cathedrals and the Keeper libraries, just ... well, don't. Areas that should be terrifyingly alien, such as Pagan zones, are just crumbling city graphics colored by green glowing balls.
On the other hand, the lighting engine is just spectacular. Given that hiding in shadows makes up most of the game, it would have to be, but credit where credit is due. The flickering lights of torches cast light of surprisingly different quality than small candles, electric lamps or the Pagan glowglobes. Different lighting areas do wonders to give areas different moods. The game's shadows are extraordinary, too, and there's nothing like moving across a lighted area and watching your own running shadow cross the door, praying that a guard doesn't notice you.
If Deadly Shadows' graphics could be considered uninspired, then the good news arrives in its gameplay. If you've enjoyed previous versions of Thief, you'll be happy to hear that all of the stealth/action gameplay made the transition from the late, lamented Looking Glass to Ion Storm quite intact. Creeping around other people's houses, forbidden libraries, Hammerite strongholds, and dank, murky caverns is as fun as it ever was.
The few additions to the gameplay don't really add or detract much to the experience. The climbing gloves that replaced the old rope arrows are fine, and much improved mantling makes climbing walls a much less painful experience than in Thief 2. Third-person mode, while inadequate for playing the whole game, is enormously useful for navigating narrow spaces or maneuvering around furniture. It's also a good makeshift substitute for the "spy globes" that didn't make it into the game. Shifting into third person with its free-floating camera lets the player peek around corners without the danger of exposure.
Enemy A.I. is much improved, as well. The first time I played the game on the easiest level, the guards were about as smart and predictable as they ever were in previous games. Crank up the difficulty, though, and your enemies gain the equivalent of spider senses, able to hear the slightest noises, relentlessly tracking down anomalies like missing items or blood, and in general creating very credible challenges for the Master Thief. I knew I was in trouble the moment I accidentally moved a chair half an inch and a guard in the next room rushed in to check on the noise. Players who can beat the game at its highest levels of difficulty might want to consider applying for a job with the CIA -- or Batman.
Gameplay is divided up into linear level missions with a list of goals Garrett has to achieve and loot he has to acquire, and a new section -- the city streets -- where gameplay is more freeform. The linear levels are great, easily the equivalent of any of the best in previous editions, and far better than some of the clunky zombie missions in the first game or the horrible endgame level of Thief 2. In fact, the big zombie mission in Deadly Shadows, a ship crewed by undead that Garrett has to sneak aboard, turned out to be far more fun than I was expecting.
The street levels, on the other hand, rapidly became an annoying obstacle course that I ended up running through while trying to get to my next mission. The idea was good: sneak around an open city, finding opportunities to burgle houses, mug citizens, pick pockets, and sell your loot at one of several fences that operate within "Red Hand" districts. In execution, however, I found that actually burglarizing and mugging people and spending any time at all on the street quickly sent the entire region into an uproar that I just couldn't avoid. Once the "Faction" system kicks in and I saw the streets teeming with Hammerite soldiers, Pagan killers, and the City Watch -- all of whom were hunting just for me -- the city street levels stopped being fun.
There's also the unfortunate concession to developing simultaneously on the PC and Xbox: level divisions. During the game, many of the levels are divided by fog-filled doors that signify loading zones. This leads to a number of annoyances. First, it means that levels are much smaller than they could be, resulting in a tight and claustrophobic feeling to the game that previous editions never had. There's no Deadly Shadows equivalent to the brilliant (and huge) rooftop missions of Thief 2, and they're sorely missed.
Second, moving from one area to another freezes time in the section you've left. If you duck out of one area, neatly avoiding four Pagan daggers, those daggers will still be falling when you return, making for some nasty surprises or long, circuitous routes to avoid it. Third, load times, while not that long (I didn't clock any at longer than 15 seconds), are still annoying -- especially when they're totally unnecessary and unwelcome on the PC.
One interesting aspect of the game is that unlike previous Thief games where Garrett (like main characters in most FPS games) was just an arm with a weapon, the new Garrett in Deadly Shadows is a real, 3D character. Even when playing from first-person perspective, the game continues to animate and manipulate Garrett's body. This contributes to head bob as the game works to keep your perspective aligned with where Garrett's actual head is. It also contributes to a slight delay in response time as the game's engine reacts to commands by setting a series of animations in motion that take more time than most FPS (or Thief) fans are used to. Whether this is an issue with the game or not is dependent on whether or not a gamer can get used to both of these elements, as they can't be turned off. I eventually got used to it and it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the game, but your mileage may vary.
Finally, there's the two strongest aspects of the game: sound and story. The Thief series has always been groundbreaking when it comes to sound, and this edition is no exception. The game's sound effects are stunning: directional audio, EAX, reverberations, and all the other technical bells and whistles the dev team tossed in certainly do their job. Deadly Shadows creates a soundscape that simply must be heard to be appreciated. The creak of footsteps, whispered voices in another room, and the crackle of fire all sound exactly as you'd expect them too and the direction where they're coming from gives the player vital information that's key for any would-be thief who wants to live to spend Garrett's loot. Special mention must be made of the voices -- all of them are brilliant, especially Stephen Russell, whose voice so embodies world-weary character of Garrett that it's virtually impossible to imagine anybody else in the role.
Directional sound does lead to one unexpected problem in third person, though. Playing with this view and swinging the camera to an angle that's not directly behind Garrett's head doesn't change the directions of the sounds the game plays. They continue to be produced as they're originating from Garrett's position, not the player's view. That means that if the camera is pointing directly at Garrett's face, a footstep to Garrett's right will be produced to sound that way. Unfortunately, from that perspective, Garrett's right is the player's left. This caused me to run in the wrong direction more than once.
Storywise, this is another strong entry in the series. Garrett's world is a fascinating place where science and industry, in the persons of the fanatical religious sect called the Hammerites, are waging a constant war with their deadly foes, the Pagans, bloodthirsty adherents of the old forest gods and the last refuge of magic. Maintaining the balance between them are the Keepers, master manipulators and Garrett's personal scourge. This time out, we get a more detailed look at the internal politics of the Keepers and find out they're not as neutral and detached as we've been led to believe.
As with previous games, Deadly Shadows story is played in fascinating snippets of overheard conversation, stylish cutscenes, and book and scroll excerpts. It's also full of the moral ambiguity, deadly betrayals, and shocking twists that are a hallmark of the series. Bravo for game writer Terry Brosius! (Deadly Shadows is yet another example of my frequently made -- though usually unlistened to -- point that good writing is one of the keys to a good game.)
As this is the first Thief game from Ion Storm, it was perhaps too much to expect that it would move the franchise forward. Indeed, it's a credit to the developer that, despite the game's problems, it still managed to craft a title that's at least equal to any of the old Looking Glass games. One would hope, though, that the team could look at the mistakes made on this version, move forward and create the incredible five-star game that this franchise is definitely capable of producing. In the meantime, Thief: Deadly Shadows marks the welcome return of Garrett and while a few years have passed, Garrett's moves are as sharp as ever.
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