Review by Mochan

"Thieves Unite!"

I was so happy to find a game which let me play the role of a thief. In the game, you play the role of Garret, a master thief who, as a child, was taken by the Keepers, a secret association of thieves who manipulate things from the shadows. Garret was a prodigy, truly gifted in the thieving arts, but he left the Keepers because of a disagreement in opinion, and he's been using his skills for a living (i.e. - robbing rich people blind) since. Little does he know that powers beyond the ken of mortal men have taken an interest in him....

First Person Shooter (FPS) fans who are looking for a different style of gameplay, this is the game to try. Fans of old first person classics like Ultima Underworld and System Shock, which deviated from the action emphasis of the genre, will also want to give this a try. I would also recommend this game to people who enjoy ''survival horror'' games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and even the PC-native Alone in the Dark. Also, if you enjoyed console stealth games like the Tenchu series, you may feel right at home. And finally, Role Playing Game fans who like playing thieves, this is a must for you, even if it technically isn't an RPG.

If you are the type looking for fast action in a first person game, and are used to (and want to) whacking all monsters in sight, this game may be disappointing. Also, if you are faint of heart, you may want to skip this one.

GAMEPLAY

Few games ever give the thieves distinguishing gameplay. Role-playing games are notorious for reducing thieves into weak fighters with some special quirky abilities. Enter Thief, whose gameplay was born and bred for thieving. When you play this game, you will feel like a thief, every inch of the way. And it's not just the gameplay that lends to the thieving feel. Story and setting play a huge role in making one feel like a thief. You can't very well feel like a thief if the story is about demons invading through some gate and shooting them all. No, Thief has a story that is thief-like from ground-up, and it really shows. Now, let's talk about gameplay.

Thief is basically an FPS game. It's a 3D game in first person, like Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal. Game structure follows similar conventions -- the game is divided into several levels, and each level has certain goals. At the start of each level you get to spend whatever cash you stole in the previous one to buy equipment. Also, between levels, some of the story is revealed through mission ''briefings,'' which sound like a thief's musings as he plans on how to raid a particular house or establishment. You are usually given a small scrip of paper with a general sketch of the area -- your automap. While this is not the most informative mapping system I have seen, it serves its purpose, and it would be no fun to have a full automap feature recording every step of your progress; you're a thief, and thieves should have sharp minds! Remember where you're going in a level! There are also various cinematics between levels which detail the story, and these are done simply, but well.

However, unlike the latter FPS games, where you have an huge arsenal of offensive weapons and an even larger menagerie of beasts and critters on which to use them on, Thief has an arsenal of sneaky weapons and a huge menagerie of critters to *avoid*. The basic rule of Thief is as follows: ''Avoid contact, or die.'' The game is all about sneaking past enemies, and your weapons and items are designed to help you do just that, not to whack the enemies. Of course, a fair share of whacking goes on, but in general you do your whacking by ambushing your opponents, in contrast to, say, Halflife where it's usually the monsters ambushing you. Fighting head-on in Thief is a quick way to die.

Of course, some, er... 'enterprising' thieves will have the reflexes and skill to whack all the enemies they see head-on, but this really isn't recommended, as it defeats the purpose of the game entirely. In fact, on the harder difficulty levels, you are expressly prohibited from killing anyone. This may scare some gamers who like mass killing sprees, but as I said earlier, if you're that kind of person, this game is not for you. Sneaking is what you do in this game, and the game engine is geared to that goal. The stealth aspect is somewhat similar to console game sneakers like Tenchu or the Metal Gear series, but on a totally different level, owing to the first person perspective.

Areas of the map are darker than others. In your view, at the bottom of the screen, there is a ''visibility gem'' which lights up or dims depending on the light level of your surroundings. When it is perfectly dark, you are invisible. As you crawl around the levels littered with patrolling enemies, you must move from shadow to shadow, avoiding the eyes of your enemy. If you are seen, enemies will usually chase after you, and unless you have complete master of first person melee combat, you will likely be injured or even killed by even the lowliest critter.

To help you avoid your enemies, you can ''lean'' ala Rogue Spear to the left, right or forward. To further add depth to the sneaking experience, floors are made of different kinds of surfaces. Some are soft and gushy, making no noise when you step on them. Others are hard and firm, and give off a noise which is audible to a nearby opponent. Some floors resonate loudly if you tread carelessly, and enemies will hear this. Sneak carefully! Moving faster makes more noise, forcing you to change your pace depending on the proximity of the enemy and the flooring beneath your feet.

Enemy AI is tweaked to give you the maximum sneaking experience. The AI can be quite dumb, like the AI in Tenchu. Apparently, the AI model is based on the stereotypical 'dumb guard' which you will find in James Bond or ninja movies. Each enemy typically will patrol a certain area, and it has a certain range of vision and hearing. Enemies ''off-guard'' will see only on their own level, so if you are sneaking on a ledge above them, you will normally not be seen. Their field of vision is quite limited; often you can sprint right in front of them, and they will not notice you. However, their hearing is not to be underestimated. While the guards are half-blind for the most part, their sharp ears will hear even slight disturbances, and they will search the area where the sound was heard.

Further, enemies have ''alertness levels.'' At the start of a watch, most guards will be so bored that they slack off, and they will less likely to notice you. But as signs of your passage are detected, they gain become more alert, making it easier for them to catch you. Enemies may even run off to warn others, increasing their vigilance as well. Enemies will also typically run away to call for help when you injure them to the brink of death. Sometimes, a fleeing opponent will run smack into a wall while trying to get away from you, and will keep running while his face clips through the wall. This also happens at times when they pursue you.

Still, the minor AI flaws aren't really much to complain about, and their scripts were obviously done to simulate how a 'dumb' guard would react. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I believe it still adds to the thieving experience. For instance, when you make a slight error and the guard sees or hears you momentarily, he will typically mumble some excuse like, ''Must have been rats,'' or ''These old houses are so noisy,'' to downplay his paranoia. Small details like this really heighten the atmosphere of sneaking immensely. Dumb guards make for good sneaking, after all!

Your weapons and items are built for stealth. Your trusty sword, the default weapon, will probably be your least-used weapon. While using it to backstab opponents will kill them in one strike if you're unnoticed, killing is often taboo in the harder settings. You will more likely rely on your blackjack, a small pouch of leather weighted with sand. Using it to whack other people from behind will knock them out instantly. Your other main weapon is the bow, fitted with a large variety of arrows. The normal broad-headed arrow is designed for killing, and if you can ''backstab'' an unaware opponent, you can kill with one shot. But again, you will more likely be using the other arrows, like the water arrow which douses torches and washes away blood (if a guard comes across blood, he or she will become alert), the moss arrow which provides a soft carpet of moss for silent sneaking, and so on. Again, the focus of the ''weapons'' is not to give you firepower, but rather to help you sneak around.

All these elements may seem tough to swallow for someone used to playing pure killing action like Quake, but Thief also has a very good tutorial level which fits perfectly. Few tutorials are as good as this, explaining all relevant game mechanics AND working into the story.

This great sneaking engine would all go to waste if the levels were too small or too uninspired. However, the Thief team went above and beyond the call of duty to provide huge, well-designed levels that will challenge your stealth skills. While level design is linear in that you must do things in a particular manner, you have free run of where to go, and the huge levels give you a lot to explore before you reach your goals. There are also usually ''secret'' paths which bypass the harder situations to sneak through. Levels are fairly dynamic, as enemies patrol around.
Different difficulty settings will change key object settings for replayability.

All in all, the level design is superb, and if you don't like it, you can always download fan levels from the internet, because Thief Gold includes Dromed, the editor used by the developers in making levels.

Another important detail is the atmosphere. More on this later, but in terms of gameplay, the game usually provides two kinds atmosphere. The first is a ''thieving atmosphere.'' For instance, in the first level, you are hired to steal a sceptre from a rich noble's manor. Your task is to get past the guards. The thrill of trying to remain unseen is so strong, it can be overpowering.

However, the second kind is what console gamers call a ''survival horror'' atmosphere. There is a hefty dose of undead and the supernatural in this game, and some levels really make heavy use of them that it can be terrifying. Killing such opponents is often very difficult, and the first time around these enemies are shrouded in such mystery that they are just horrifying; you are often put at your wit's end in order to just survive. It's like the feeling in Alone in the Dark when you were trying to kill that thing in the bathroom, but don't know how. Those zombies... urk.... I'm sooooo scared, waaaaahhhh.... The thrill of stealth suddenly gives way to a primeval fear which grips you as you pray they don't sense you. Whoever said Resident Evil was scary? Compared to Thief, that game looks like a walk in the park! Unlike most survival horror games which rely on shock value to scare you, Thief adds a psychological element which defies reason. You simply just have to play it to feel the gripping terror.

Considering the unimaginative, repetitive FPS genre that Thief exists in, it is truly a revolutionary game. Thief has deep, engaging gameplay which forces you to do some strategy instead of just mindlessly plowing through the enemies.

STORY

All of these powerful gameplay elements are pefectly put into context by the incredible story and setting. Thief is set in a quasi-medieval world where people live as they did in the Dark Ages -- hordes of peasants and commoners supporting a wealthy aristocracy. Public education is virtually non-existent, which gives rise to a very superstitious mindset. These things aren't specifically mentioned in-game, but you get the feel of it just from the richly developed setting. The medieval nature is further strengthened by a strong belief in legends and mythology, given credence by rampant supernatural occurences like the undead. The Keepers even have their own scriptures, as do the Hammers, an artisan's guild with very powerful religious overtones. This is world building at its best in a game. This setting goes hand in hand with a very convoluted story of intrigue and deception, where conspiracies are laden thick. I won't get further into it, so as not to spoil any twists in the story.

GRAPHICS

Thief has some of the best graphic design I have ever seen. At the time when Thief: The Dark Project was released, the graphical engine wasn't terribly advanced, but the graphical design more than makes up for it by looking very real and detailed. Sure, the character models may look a little stiff and blocky, but are very convincing. Sure, the cutscenes may use a lot of static pictures, but they are done so well that, even if they are not ''full motion video,'' they work a lot better than most FMVs in more recent games. Sure, that zombie may look like just a stub of blocky flesh, but when its walking around waving its arms at you with its sinister wailing, you'll be hard-pressed not to freak out and notch a fire arrow to send it to oblivion. This is done through effective use of gothic graphical trickery (dark shadows, perspectives), combined with strong sounds. I have never been so immersed into the first person environment as I have here.

Most people today will say that Thief's graphics are dated and don't look too good. But these people are ignoring the incredible graphical design, which make what is otherwise a lackluster graphics engine into a scintillating environment. Take Lord Bafford's Mansion, for instance. Once you go inside, you'd feel like a professional interior designer had furnished the place. The textures, while only 8-bit and pixelated, are very rich, and add character to the level design. As a comparison, I'll invoke an old example. Doom had a very inferior engine compared to Rise of the Triad. But the graphical design of Doom was so much more effective, that it was infinitely more thrilling than the dull textures and design of Rise. It's the same with Thief, which has a relatively old and plain 3D engine, but excellent graphic design. So much so that I would dare say it still looks better than more techincally advanced games like Unreal Tournament.

I'll just say this: graphics engines become obsolete in a few years, but good graphic design never becomes obsolete.

SOUND

Thief has some of the best sounds I have ever heard in a game. This, perhaps, owes to the game's design: sound is an integral to this game, more than any other. How to say it? A thief, who is physically weak, must rely on his wits and awareness to survive. Much of that awareness comes from listening carefully. Hear the sound of boots striking across the cobblestones, and they're not your own? That's a sure sign for you to lay low for a while, because a guard is likely just around the corner. If you were deaf, you would just walk right into that guard, and likely get slaughtered. That's what I call 'sound integral to the game design.'

For someone who typically looks down on voice-acting in games, I was quite impressed by the voice-acting in Thief. I never thought I would say this, but the voices are the best part of the sound in this game. It's a matter of completion, really. Thief has full voice acting for everything; no corners were cut. Every single line is voice-acted. Of course, completeness would be meaningless if the voices were bad. All in all, Looking Glass should be commended for a cast that is more than adequate for the roles. The voice of Garret is arguably the best voice I have ever heard in a PC game. It's not just a pretty voice that's pleasing to the ear; Garret's voice has character. The way he sounds so cocky and sure of himself, sounding just a bit condescending and yet obviously harboring a kind of grudge to the rest of the world, it is perfect characterization. I have to lay my hat down to Steven Russel, Garret's voice actor.

The only real limit is that, despite a ton of guards in this game, they all have the same voices! This can be quite repetitive, but realistically, it is a logistic hurdle that cannot be overcome at this point in time. Yet, this is better than most other games where voice acting is inconsistent -- only some characters have voices in all modes, and not even all of that character's speech is voiced-over. I find such voice-acting to be terribly superficial, obviously just tacked on as an afterthought to attract people who simply must hear some kind of voice acting. If you're gonna do voice-acting, do it all the way like Thief, or at least be consistent in the specific game modes!

Also, the voices are essential in completing the thieving atmosphere. One's sense of hearing is directly tied in with the gameplay; take the voices out, and you lose a big chunk of the game. This is opposed to games where voice acting is really just extra icing added on for cosmetic effect, where the voices are not really necessary at all for the game to function. Heck, that practically describes all other games on the market. Thief's sound is truly revolutionary.

As for sound effects, they are also very good. Your footsteps sound different depending on what surface you're on. Grass sounds dewy and squishy, and scrapes across the tough leather of your sole. Cobble is very solid and resounding, but doesn't reverberate like the metallic clang of a rusted sewer grate. Very convincing footfall sounds.

Other sounds are also atmospheric. Crossing swords with a patrolling guard gives a very distinct clang of metal on metal. Zombies and other undead continuously wail a chilling sound, one of the reasons why this game is so scary. Sometimes, when you walk into a room, even if there are no monsters, you will be haunted by eerie chattering, and it sounds like the dead souls from hell cheering you on to join them. It can be really terrifying at times. When I first approached the Haunted Cathedral, I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I learned I didn't have to go in! Just walking towards it I was scared out of my pants. Imagine my horror when, some levels later, I had to revisit the place and go in. The crescendo of chattering almost drove me crazy!

The only real downside to Thief's sound profile is the music. Or the lack thereof. Thief has a grungy, techno feel to it at times, reflected by the occasional metallic techno-music which you hear during cutscenes. But aside from that, there is almost no other kind of 'real' music to be heard. Typically, you have some kind of ambient ''music,'' like wind whipping through a long, empty cavern, or the sound of cicadas on a spring evening. This isn't necessarily bad, and it certainly adds to the eerie atmosphere of Thief. It is up to you to decide whether you find that kind of music as good or bad. I would think that a more traditional soundtrack would have detracted more than given to the stealthy atmosphere of the game.

REPLAYABILITY

The three difficulty levels do swap around some key items, add extra objectives, and make the game much more challenging. Worthy of playing at least more than once, and if you like the gameplay enough (as I sure did) you will not mind playing the huge levels over and over again! If you want more, download the fan levels found around the net.

BUY IT

Buy, buy, buy! This is one of the great classics on the PC! Get it just to have the cool-looking box in your cabinet or display case. These days, it goes for under $20, so that's a great deal!

THE GOOD: Very innovative sneaking gameplay, incredible graphic design, superb sound and vocals, a superior story and story-telling, and the ability to really play as a thief

THE BAD: Blocky graphics engine, atmospheric but otherwise absent music, no real role-playing elements, and the game is quite hard and might scare the socks off of some

THE GORGEOUS: Even after all this time, this game still looks, plays, and sounds good. Superior design will always take precedence over techonology, especially if it integrates all three aspects (sound, graphics and gameplay) of the game into a perfect package.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 06/02/01, Updated 06/02/01


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