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"'Thief: The Dark Project', a
Personal, Unabridged Review"

Thief was reviewed with a Celeron 266 overclocked to 448MHz, 128MB RAM, Voodoo2 @ 800x600, and Turtle Beach Montego.

To make it brief, since most computer game reviews are required to start off this way, the first-person shooter genre is the driving force behind the progression of the computer gaming industry right now. With a rich history of games like Doom, Quake, Quake 2, Unreal, and most recently, Half-Life, first-person shooters have pushed hardware to higher standards and have made multiplayer gaming a reality, and even a necessity, for today's computer games. First-person shooters have caused college students to fail their classes, they've been banned from many corporate and academic networks, and they've enticed people to buy the latest 3D cards, even though they're only really used for gaming. Quite an effect. Even the military has examined Quake and Doom, and Apple is using Quake Arena as perhaps its main bait to get gamers to switch to the Macintosh.

But first-person shooters have been produced in such great numbers that the market is diluted -- people have lost the interest in just seeing three-dimensional worlds from a first person perspective. The emphasis, now, is on games with storylines and plots, characters and character development. But I guess you could say people have always been complaining that that's been missing in games. But now it's negatively impacting the first person shooter genre.

Looking Glass is a company which has a reputation to uphold -- it has created a handful of games that have met the criteria above, typically held by the most picky of gamers. Games like System Shock and Ultima Underworld have been developed by Looking Glass, a company which excels at making fresh what is popular at the time. System Shock was stuffed full with atmosphere, complexity, and depth, and Ultima Underworld converted Ultima into the first person.

Alright then. Here's Thief: The Dark Project. Now, Half-Life and Baldur's Gate are hogging the limelight, but I have no problem with that. They're both excellent games that will contribute much to the minds of the developers of future games. But Thief is a game that has painfully not received much acclaim and press. It was doubted before it even came out, because it was a game that awarded the player for his stealth and patience instead of his wh00pa$$ deathmatching skills. After it came out, it received a respectful but soft-voiced nod of approval from those who could have given it the press it deserves.

A lot of people I know are tired of the first-person genre. I myself still love it. Here's why: I want full control over my character. I want to be able to look in every direction, coordinate different movements at once, and get comfortable inside an environment. I want to explore, and I want to interact with things. Granted, many games do not make their environments very interactive, but the first person genre should be able to do it very easily. From a first-person game, one gets the closest thing to a virtual reality.

More on this later.

Thief is the adventure of a thief named Garrett, which takes place some time right before the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, Garrett says himself to be wary of the coming age of industrialization. It will change things significantly, particularly for thieves. Times are changing, and old-style thievery will soon be outdated. Garrett takes contracts with people around town to explore and break into places he shouldn't be, making as little noise as possible, collecting gold and antiques and other treasures along the way for himself. A thief is not well-armed, and not prepared for heavy fighting, so he cannot march into a well-guarded room and expect to live. While a warrior is not hurt so much by being surprised, the thief must lessen any surprises and be the one dishing them out, or else he'll easily be killed. The thief is thwarting the law and everyone is his enemy. He has no loyalties and no one has any loyalties towards him.

The thief's life is a life of shadows and duplicity, always remaining unnoticed, whether he's in a busy city street or in a king's castle.

All these characteristics are crucial to understand as the developers of a game like Thief. You cannot produce a successful spy/thief/hacker game without understanding that their lives do not work like most. I think Looking Glass understands the thief. It shows.

Every element shows a successful effort to make the environment something a thief can actually use. The sound in Thief is perhaps one of the best uses of sound I've ever seen in a game, with footsteps making degrees of noise based on your speed, and different surfaces such as carpet and stone making more noise than others. The guards and monsters you are avoiding can be pinpointed exactly through Looking Glass's implementation. You can be sitting in the shadows around a corner, but you know there is a guard moving at yea speed in your direction about ten feet away from you.

Obviously, lighting is crucial to Thief as well. There are degrees of visibility based on where you are standing in relation to the light, or the lack of it. Shadows are your friends, and you must keep them to avoid being discovered. If it is dark enough, and if you remain still enough, guards can walk right by without noticing you. It takes much discipline to stay in the shadows throughout a whole mission, waiting for the guards to pass you, waiting for the right moment to move. This is no occupation for the impulsive and impatient.

Garrett has an arsenal appropriate to his trade. My favorites are his lockpicks. There's nothing like the rush of emerging from the darkness to pick a door, having to switch lockpicks periodically to get the door open, when the patrolling guard could come around the corner any second. Garrett carries a bow, with which he can use water arrows (good for putting out torches from a distance), fire arrows (for lighting torches and torching enemies), gas arrows (for knocking people out), etc. Garrett's main tool is his blackjack, though, which he uses to slam people over the head, putting them to the ground immediately.

When you combine sound, sight, and thieves' weapons into one, you get Thief. You get the experience of entering a large foyer, crouching in a dark corner, firing off a few water arrows to extinguish the light, then sneaking up behind a guard to off him with your blackjack. You get the experience of picking up the body and carrying it to a place no one will find it at. You get the rush of realizing you forgot to take care of one guard, and now he's poking around in the darkness for you, seemingly coming straight for you, until you think he's seen you, and you bolt away, only to run into other alerted guards.

Aww yeah.

This is what it's all about, baby. I love leaning around corners, scoping out the place before I slip in, distracting guards with noisemaker arrows, grabbing some loot for myself before finding a powerful (and valuable) relic.

Yes, Thief has all of this, AND it works. I couldn't believe it either. Thief is such an amazing game. It was a complete surprise, and this was right after I had completed Half-Life, 1998's adrenaline kick in the ass of the year.

I have never been so absorbed in a game before. Anna watched me play through the whole thing and she dug it too. We ate, slept, and dreamed about...okay...being together...but we played Thief for a whole week or two. Half-Life is much different from Thief -- it's just eye and ear candy. But Thief is extremely well-integrated, and you literally have to turn out the lights, turn up your speakers, and insist that no noise be made, just so you can make your way through a stronghold without any guards noticing you. And when you run into those situations where you've lost place of where the guards are, or when you're forced to flee into a new area, you get nervous and jumpy, unable to decide what to do, unable to think straight.

And this is no accident, something that happens in other games. The guards and monsters are quite intelligent (that is a misleading term in computer games, but never mind that), and most importantly, they're quick. They will look for you if they're suspicious, and they will alert their friends if they're sure they saw or heard a thief. They can run as fast as you (something missing in other games) and they will continue to pursue you. And they don't reset to their previous positions afterwards. You have to be stealthy, because you don't really have any tools to take people out immediately. The enemies in Thief are believable, and they make you jittery and scared. loonyboi, one of the big Quake community people, wrote an article about how Thief scared him shitless. I agree. Every step could be Garrett's downfall. But perhaps guards should take it more seriously when a torch goes out, or when their buddies disappear. They shouldn't sit idly by.

Thief also has a strong story running behind it. It has set up a world of the Keepers and of the Hammerites, but I'll leave that for you to see. I have not read of anyone commenting on the style and hipness of the videos inserted between missions and at the beginning and ends of the game. I guess they're playing the warez version. When I first saw the intro movie (the demo did not have any movies), I thought it would be cheesy because it had an industrial music sound to it. But as the movie progressed, I saw that it was completely appropriate, and made it even more cool. Whoever designed those things deserves major fucking kudos. Looking Glass got this game RIGHT. The movie shows clips of a thief flinging an arrow straight through a guard's neck after extinguishing a water arrow near him, shows a thief sneaking about in the city, all with a Millennium-ish grit in the background. After every mission, you are privileged to watch another video detailing Garrett's pursuits. They're all extremely well-done, and very captivating. You really get into the role of the thief. My only complaint is that on my system, the music in one of the missions' videos was so loud that the dialogue was hard to hear. Unfortunately, it was the movie that detailed the turning point of the game. I stopped playing after that mission and looked at the movie on the Eidos demo CD (which also has movies for Daikatana, Omikron, and other cool games coming soon), and I was blown away again. GET THAT MOVIE. I'd burn fucking copies for those who wanted it, if I could. It's one of the most engrossing movies for a computer game I've ever seen. I dig thieves.

Also, the game starts out as just a job by job affair. But then you're stuck with the same general mission for the rest of the game, and I didn't like that so much. I like hunting for different relics in different snobs' abodes. I like working contract by contract, not having to contend with new super plant-beasts who are taking over the world. I felt the same way about Rainbow 6, a game which had to remain honest to the book, and so you end up with a story that doesn't really expand any, but just fill in the blanks. Bleh. This is not fair of me to say, though, because I think that it still turned out good. The missions can last from one hour to perhaps two and a half hours, depending on how thorough and sneaky you care to be (I was probably more violent and bloodthirsty than I should have been, and I must've blackjacked dozens of guards), so when you DO complete a mission, you feel a real sense of accomplishment without the burden of having finished something overly tedious. And this was after Half-Life made people want games that had no pauses and no separate missions, but one continuous flow of a game.

It's about fucking time someone made a good thief game. I want more games like this. I want more games which emphasize furtiveness, like some of Goldeneye's missions and particularly like Rainbow 6's silent break-in missions. Patience is something not needed in most games, but it's one of the things I find most engrossing about computer games, too. AI of course would be the other. And then maybe interactive environments.

The cathedral level in Thief is a delight -- a spooky one at that -- the skeleton guards patrolling the main room only need one clue of your presence and you're screwed. Luckily, I managed to use rope arrows to climb up to the higher levels of the room, so I could have free shots at the ghoulies below. The only problem was that they quickly went up the stairs (a long way around, I might add) in order to get me. So I had to use another rope arrow (strategically driven into a plank above) to escape! It may be a small thing as far as AI goes, but having enemies take a long way around just to get to you is something you don't see too often in games. You better get yourself elevated in that level, because those guards are going to have no problem slaughtering you as you try to open all the doors in the outlying cathedral rooms in your flight.

The game shipped clean of any obvious bugs, and I actually haven't really heard of any bugs for Thief. (there is now a patch, which you can find more info about at the highly-recommended Thief-DarkProject.com) The complaints I have read about have been with 1) graphics and 2) the lack of multiplayer. All I have to say about those is that the graphics still look great (I played on a V2 at 800x600), and the animation of the enemies and monsters was top-notch. If anyone disagrees, the graphics were at least BELIEVABLE and APPROPRIATE. I don't think Thief used the LithTech engine (Dark, maybe?), as some people have associated with it in their articles, but I don't have much respect for the LithTech engine anyway (Blood 2? Shogo? Bleh...). Thief looks great.

As far as multiplayer goes, I don't really mind. As one person put it, Thief multiplayer would be pretty fucking boring if everyone just logged onto servers and hid from each other. The developers of Thief opted for no multiplayer, which meant that all their resources were going into single-player development and testing. The end result was a game with a great storyline and no noticeable bugs. While I concede that multiplayer is a good thing, perhaps Thief is not the type of game for multiplayer. That is not fair to say, really, so I'll say instead that Thief multiplayer is something to be expected from Thief 2, when the engine and game has matured some more. Too many developers have spread themselves thin trying to work on single- and multi- player simultaneously. Just look at Unreal. I think Thief multiplayer has plenty of potential, with one team guarding a fortress and the other sneaking into it. The only problem is that the role of a thief is to strike when no one's expecting it!

One thing Thief could've really used was cooperative multiplayer. That would take the game to a whole new level, with two thieves cooperating to explore different floors of a castle and then meet up the next day in town, never having met each other inside.

But one thing I hate about reviews is that the reviewers online tend to get pretentious and full of themselves, and they tend to dwell on their petty opinions of how the game should be, instead of either reviewing objectively or pointing out that the goods of a game outweigh the bad.

So I am avoiding that trap, and moving on. Thief is a game that deserves far more recognition in so many aspects of its development than it's actually received. It puts the first person back in the first person shooter, and it takes advantage of the latest technology, all while remaining bug-free and exciting to play the whole way through.

Play this game all the way through -- you'll appreciate it. The last movie is worth the work.

And as far as piracy goes, I have heard that the retail CD is difficult to burn copies of. How appropriate. ;)

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