Review by Evil Dave

"Sneaking around has never been so satisfying."

For most games involving direct character control by the player, gameplay focuses on direct interaction with the game's non-player characters and environments. Typically, this design style will task the player with well-worn objectives like defeating opponents in some form of confrontation, such as straightforwardly attacking them as they occur in the game's environment. As gaming platforms have grown more powerful in recent years, though, a nascent genre has sprung up, turning the traditional blueprint for an action game on its head. This genre, represented commonly as ‘stealth games,' engenders a somewhat peculiar approach to the concept of the player's relationship with the computer-controlled characters he must face. Such games encourage or outright require concealment of the player's character for advancement, sometimes eschewing direct combat or enemy contact entirely. Though this may seem a counterintuitive concept, the idea has borne a handful of very popular game franchises, helped along by the continued evolution of modern graphics cards and game consoles.

Even within the stealth genre, though, the Thief franchise has always been unique. In this series, the player is cast not as a spy, nor an assassin, but in the role of Garrett, an exceptionally talented burglar, pickpocket, and all-around antihero. While many stealth games may have you playing to save the world or seek revenge, Garrett is simply a man out to make himself a living by taking anything and everything valuable that does not belong to him. Of course, his line of work occasionally gets him tangled up in the machinations of the dangerous groups that coexist in his hometown, the City, leading him to the adventures of the first two chronological Thief releases.

Thief: Deadly Shadows is the third iteration in the Thief series, and the first to make an appearance on a platform other than the PC, thanks to its simultaneous launch on the XBox. With the inclusion of some fairly open-ended stretches of time between missions that allow him to roam the streets of the City, the gameplay proffers many more opportunities for thievery than that of its predecessors. Thief fans will find that this new iteration still offers the thrills of the first two games, while simultaneously providing an audience beyond the typical PC user base a compelling reason to give the thoroughly unique franchise a try.

Visuals:

Plentiful darkness is the name of the game for the graphical style in Deadly Shadows. Everywhere you look – from your apartment, to the streets of the City's five boroughs, to the many locales you'll travel to and rob – dark corners and shadowy nooks abound. As any Thief vet will tell you, these shady spots are central to the basic gameplay, and to the look of the game; fortunately, those shadows are also essential to the game's look, and the developers have done an excellent job in making them feel just right.

The interplay between light and dark in Deadly Shadows is done as well as it has ever been in a videogame – so much so that it almost bestows a sense of how the game's Medieval-esque world might have actually felt at nighttime. Torches flicker illumination realistically on unlit areas, while in-game objects both small and large cast dynamic shadows on their surroundings. Since Garrett's success depends on his ability to seek out shelter in dark areas, it's extremely impressive that the game achieves such a polished feel with its lighting engine. It's worth noting, however, that there is noticeable slowdown when on-screen action picks up; there is very little direct combat during the course of the game, though, so you shouldn't encounter these hiccups very often.

Beyond the outstanding lighting engine, the game's graphics aren't terribly pretty on their own. Garrett looks excellent, and animates fluidly, but the same cannot be said of his foes. Non-player character models for humans seem blocky and disproportionate, and offer little in the way of detail. They move realistically through the game's environments when they're unaware of enemy presence, but once they initiate combat, they move about robotically, and they will also get stuck on environmental objects occasionally, both in and out of combat. Then, of course, is the matter of the game's rag-doll physics system, which in practice frequently results in unnaturally awkward (and quite painful-looking) death poses.

Most of the environments look good, and are detailed in a wide array of styles. The main problem with them, however, is that objects in the game world – and, in particular, objects that you can steal – tend to repeat themselves a bit too much. You'll feel like you've stolen the same candlestick, bowl, and cup a thousand times as you progress through the game, and aside from a handful of unique loot items in each mission, in terms of the actual graphics for those items, you will have. This doesn't diminish the pleasure of your pilfering, but it does hamper the illusion a bit.

Before and during some of the missions in Deadly Shadows, you'll see some pre-rendered cutscenes that help advance the plot. These are interesting to watch, as their rendition of the characters and locations in the game is stylized with strange, drawing-like coloring and movement; however, it can be difficult at times to tell what's going on, which constrains the effectiveness of these vignettes.

Most of the game may look decidedly average, but Deadly Shadows manages to absolutely nail the one aspect of its visuals that it needed to get right, and the gameplay benefits greatly from the results.

Score: 7/10

Sound:

As with any stealth game, sound is an important aspect of the gameplay in Deadly Shadows. You'll depend on your ears just as often as your eyes to steer Garrett out of his enemies' way – and thanks to top-notch production quality, you'll be able to do so with relative ease.

Most of the levels in Deadly Shadows take place inside, offering ample opportunity for all manner of sound effects to come into play. The game sports a good variety of them, so you'll always be hearing new noises as you creep around. While it's difficult to tell just how a steampunk-esque medieval castle might have sounded, the sound effects employed here are all very well done, from combat to environmental interaction to the ambient cacophony of nighttime in the City.

Just like the sound effects, almost all of the voiceover work is of high quality. Stephen Russell, who voiced Garrett flawlessly through the first two Thief games, reprises his role here, and his performance is as superb as ever. Most of the other main characters, as well as the random NPCs you encounter on the streets and the enemies you'll find during your burglaries, are all voiced well enough to be passable, although some lines of dialogue tend to repeat a bit too much. Deadly Shadows presents very little in the way of music, though what it does feature is excellent, despite its only occurring outside of actual gameplay.

The Thief series has always been known for its excellent acoustics, and Deadly Shadows is no different. From the voiceovers to the sound effects, every facet of the game sounds just about how you would like it to.

Score: 9/10

Gameplay:

As you may have gathered from the title, the main gameplay in Thief revolves around your character sneaking about and committing larceny on a grand scale. To this end, Garrett is equipped with a wide array of tools and tricks, all of which are simple to use whenever needed.

With darkness as important as it is in Deadly Shadows, you'll constantly be trying to ensure that Garrett is as inconspicuous as possible. Thanks to your light gem (a gemstone present on your HUD, and held over from the previous Thief titles), as you move around the game's various environments, you'll always have a visual representation of your concealment from your enemies' perspective. Between the spot-on lighting and this asset, sneaking between dark spots in each level is highly intuitive.

Of course, there are plenty of times when creeping about and hiding just aren't enough – and, being a consummate professional, Garrett comes prepared with plenty of toys to keep the scales tilted in his favor. The blackjack – a fan favorite, and staple of the series – returns as part of your arsenal, still capable of swiftly rendering foes unconscious with a stealthy whack to the back of the head. Garrett's dagger again serves as his main defensive mechanism, and can of course be used to perform a lethal equivalent to the blackjack's knockout attack. Beyond these, you'll also have access to an assortment of arrow types for your bow – fire and broadhead for use as offensive weapons, and moss, water, and noisemakers to assist in your surreptitious encroachment.

The combat system in Deadly Shadows is, to say the least, underwhelming to experience – it basically boils down to swinging your dagger haphazardly at an enemy until one of you dies. As with the previous Thief games, this is clearly an intentional design decision by the developers – the goal of which, certainly, is to force the player into playing covertly. You'll even be given a handful of single-use items whose sole purpose is to help you get out of dodge when you're noticed, so you won't have to go toe-to-toe with your more heavily armed foes.

You'll encounter a wide variety of those opponents, too, as Garrett will travel through some of the most notorious areas of the City during the course of the game. Each mission has its own set of objectives to pursue (usually to lift a particular item, or to uncover information), as well as secondary objectives in regards to the amount of loot you haul off with you. The missions themselves are terrifically designed – they offer enough open-endedness to allow you to progress through your objectives at your own pace, while always ensuring that you eventually come around to accomplishing what you're there for.

Thankfully, that mission structure – when combined with the pointed focus on stealthy play – adds up to a very enjoyable experience. Somehow, it's always keenly gratifying on some rudimentary level to sneak around, stealing everything valuable in sight, as you deftly avoid detection by the many guards patrolling about. The presence of some rare, difficult to obtain loot in each mission only sweetens the pot, giving you a real sense of accomplishment when you nab it.

Not all is perfect with the gameplay, though. All the traditional complaints about stealth games – enemy A.I. that can be seemingly blind and extremely forgetful, trial-and-error-style game situations, intentionally slow pacing – are definitely present in Deadly Shadows. If you have a hard time forgiving any of these, you probably won't be able to find much enjoyment in this game. At least the save system allows you to record your progress at any given point, so you'll never have to replay long stretches – which you won't want to, thanks to the glacial loading times.

Deadly Shadows is the first Thief game that gives the player an opportunity to move about the streets of the City outside of the actual missions. At first, this can be a very novel portion of the gameplay, as wandering around town, mugging and pickpocketing citizens as you go is as fun as any criminal activity in the game. There are even a handful of sidequests to do for some extra loot, although the game could have done with more than the pittance it includes. After you've made it a ways through the game, though, you'll feel like you've done everything you can in the City, and you'll probably just run through town to reach the beginning of the next mission, rather than bothering with any more criminal activity. There are some cool moments to be experienced in those streets towards the end of the game (when you're on seemingly everybody's hit list), but on the whole the City periods feel a tad underdeveloped.

While the basic gameplay in Deadly Shadows doesn't deviate too greatly from the archetype of most other stealth games, the inherent pleasure of lurking about and robbing everyone blind more than makes up for the game's flaws.

Score: 8/10

Story:

Deadly Shadows is set several years after Thief II: The Metal Ages, and its plot contains numerous references to the plotlines of it predecessors. Once again, Garrett begins the game simply looking for another payday, and soon finds himself wrapped up in the dealings of one of the City's mysterious factions. This time, it's the Keepers, who are now forced to rely on their ex-disciple to save them from a mysterious prophesied enemy referred to only as ‘brethren and betrayer.' The story is a little slow to develop, but it's packed with enough intrigue to keep you on your toes all the way until it reaches its climax – and you'll stay with it, too, thanks to how interesting Garrett's character remains.

Players who haven't played the previous two Thief titles will probably be a little confused by the machinations of the game's multiple factions, but the story is still engrossing enough that it should keep your attention throughout. Anyone who does have experience with the series will pick up the storyline somewhat quicker, and will probably find a bit more satisfaction in the game's ending. Overall, though, the plot in Deadly Shadows is excellent.

Score: 9/10

Features/Modes:

Deadly Shadows includes a typical array of difficulty settings, from Easy to the harshly challenging Expert, right out of the box. Outside of these, though, there is little else to do with the game, as the developers clearly focused their energy on building the single-player campaign. While some players may wish to test their skills by playing through again at a higher setting, it's disappointing that there aren't any other features to add some value to the game.

Once you've completed the approximately 15-20 hour main storyline, there is little else to do outside of replaying the game on different difficulty settings.

Score: 4/10

Total Score:

Thief: Deadly Shadows is admittedly not a game that everyone will enjoy. The Thief franchise has an unabashed cult following, and the gameplay genre it embraces is one of the most divisive styles of game design around. Still, any player who gets an opportunity to play Deadly Shadows should take it, as the game offers anyone who enjoys stealth games on a console a chance to finally take part in one of the most respected series in the field.

Any fan of stealth-action games, on either PC or consoles, should definitely pick Deadly Shadows up. Moreover, any XBox owner who is looking for an interesting and unique action game should give this title a try. Finally, any console gamer with even a remote interest in committing pretend grand larceny should give Deadly Shadows a whirl, to see if it can meet that particular need for you.

Score: 7/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/14/08

Game Release: Thief: Deadly Shadows (US, 05/25/04)


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