Review by Kobold Warrior

"What you don't know CAN kill you"

Shadows of the night conceal much that the daytime dweller would be loath to see.” - Excerpt from the Archival Keeper Council Transcripts, F.K. Modrian, Book IV, Chapter 7

Gung-ho violence and videogaming are familiar bedfellows. Even the most casual of gamers can easily deduce that a majority of games available today are testosterone soaked blast-fests that encourage you to tackle problems with all the subtlety of a Gallagher stand-up routine. Renowned protagonists like Master Chief, Ryu Hayabusa and Dante all seem to have taken a page from Arnold Schwarzenegger's book circa 1985, with their incredible knack for obliterating entire armadas of bad guys without breaking much of a sweat. Thief: Deadly Shadows stands as a stark contrast to this normal guns-a-blazin' attitude, due to its meticulous stealth-based gameplay that demands patience, strategy and more than a little ingenuity on the gamer's part. This uniqueness of gameplay combined with great presentation and engrossing story makes Deadly Shadows a true gem and a very worthy addition to any Xbox owner's library.

Deadly Shadows (henceforth Thief III) is actually the third game in a series, with the first two installments never making the leap from PC to console. The original Thief was one of the very first stealth games to ever be released, and is widely considered the father of the now-popular sneak-em-up genre. Like the first two iterations of the series, Thief III places you in the shoes of Garrett – a master thief who makes his living pilfering from well-to-do denizens of the gloomy, sprawling metropolis simply known as the City. Garrett would like nothing better than to be left alone to ply his trade, but as always seems to be the case with anti-hero types, he finds himself reluctantly swept up into greater events, which include ancient prophesies, a mysterious chosen one and the threat of an impending Dark Age. The story, which is told through spoken NPC dialogues, snippets from books you may find, and stylish cinematics, begins to take off about halfway through the game and ends in a way that will leave even the most jaded of gamers satisfied.

One of the reasons Thief III stands out from other stealth games on the market is the way it perfectly recreates that feeling of tense anxiety and fraying nerves when sneaking around somewhere you know you are not supposed to be. Part of this is because, while many stealth games like Metal Gear Solid allow you to effectively clash toe-to-toe with M1 Battletanks and Apache helicopters, Thief III makes besting even a couple of ordinary sentries a grueling task as Garrett's only melee weapon is a smallish dagger. Getting spotted by a guard can be quite the adrenaline rush since you can't simply bust out a ten-foot long battle-axe from your back pocket and eliminate the threat – you have to run like hell out of the area, find a dark place to hide and pray the searching guard won't find you.

Which brings me to another of the game's strong points: the AI. Guards walk around, mutter to themselves, greet each other when passing and perform all sorts of other actions that you'd expect sentries in real life to do. If you are in a room and accidentally make a noise by knocking over a chair, dropping an item, etc, guards in the vicinity will come to investigate. If you leave a door open, put out a light source or steal something obvious, guards will notice and become suspicious. If a non-combatant -- like a maid or noble -- sees you, they run immediately to the nearest guard for help. Here is an example of the AI at work: a maid spots me and she runs screaming into the adjacent room. I pinch out the lone candle on the desk and hide in the corner, behind the bed. The maid returns, now accompanied by a guard who has his sword drawn. “What? I swear to you, he was in here just a second ago!” she pleads. “Well, I might as well take a quick look around,” replies the guard. He does a quick walk through of the near pitch-black room, fails to find me and says, “Ahhh, what's the point? Whoever it was is long gone by now…” Both the guard and the maid leave the room and I continue about my thiefy business. Cool eh?

Equally cool are the nifty thieving accessories that Garrett has to aid in his pilfering. Can't sneak past that hallway because of an annoying flickering torch? Use your bow to fire an arrow tipped with a small vial of water to extinguish it. Want to walk quietly over a loud surface? Fire a moss arrow at the ground to cover it with moss (or you can fire it at someone's face to make them choke). And that small dagger that is so incredibly inadequate for face-to-face confrontations suddenly becomes much more effective when thrust into the back of an unwary guard (those with at least somewhat of a conscious can use a nonlethal blackjack to incapacitate guards). Other nifty tools Garrett has at his disposal include: a mechanical eye that allows him to zoom in and see in darkness, wall climbing gloves that can be used to scale stone walls, oil flasks that when thrown at the ground can cause pursuers to slip, sleeping gas bombs and arrows, flash bombs and much more. Probably the handiest of all Garrett's tools is his trusty lock pick, which can be used to open any locked chest or door in the entire game. Ion Storm (the developer) even implemented an inventive method for picking locks in which you use the analog stick in conjunction with the Xbox controller's rumble feature to find the “sweet spot” and crack the lock.

Another unique aspect of Thief III's gameplay is the nonlinear nature of the missions and the between-level hub area. After completing the initial tutorial level and subsequent mission, the game plops you down in Garrett's dingy apartment and lets you decide what to do next. If you'd like, you could go across the hall, pick the lock to your landlord's apartment and steal your rent money back. Or you could head outside and mug random passersbys in the street, break into neighboring houses or buy and sell items and loot from underground traders. After each mission you always return back to the main hub area, and because much changes in the City from day to day, traversing the hub rarely becomes a tedious endeavor. The only real downside to the hub is the fact that it is broken up into loading zones that can take a good 12-15 seconds to load. Like the hub, the missions themselves are extremely nonlinear, in that there are always numerous ways to complete them.

Thief III's visual presentation enhances the game's eerie Medieval/fantasy atmosphere splendidly, especially the lighting, which rivals Splinter Cell's as the best I have ever seen in a videogame. It's amazing to watch torch-carrying guards patrol through the darkness, their flickering light source creating hundreds of dancing shadows dynamically in the environment. While I was playing one particular mission in the game, two AI characters began to fight each other in an adjacent chamber (a normal occurrence when two AI characters are enemies). From my hiding position I could not see the fighters, yet I saw the entire duel take place – including the final slaying blow -- simply by watching the two combatants' shadows. This type of creepy atmosphere is a direct result of the game's brilliant dynamic lighting.

The game also features a fairly accurate physics system, in which bodies, crates, barrels and other objects interact realistically with other items in the environment. As you make your way through the game you'll explore places like a towering Hammerite cathedral, creepy insane asylum and ancient underground citadel, all of which are modeled with exquisite textures and plenty of minute details. The AI character models in the game are lifelike and animate believably, but often look a bit too similar too each other – especially the females. And, similar to in Dues Ex 2: Invisible War (Ion Storm's other Xbox game), the framerate never wants to stay locked at 30+, but the nature of Thief's deliberate gameplay makes this almost a non-issue.

As mentioned earlier, audio also plays a huge role in enhancing the game's unique gameplay and creepy atmosphere. Guards who are searching for you will utter colorful threats and even question your very manhood to try and goad you into a fight. Sound carries very realistically throughout the environment, such as the way muffled voices behind a closed door will suddenly become clear when the door is opened. Series fans will be happy to know that Steve Russell is back as the voice of Garrett, and his numerous monologues not only propel the story, but also help flesh out his character's quirky personality. The game's music is almost completely orchestral and often hauntingly poignant, but is also fairly unobtrusive so you can stay focused on the footsteps, guard mutterings and other subtle noises during your thiefy excursions.

There is no Xbox game, stealth or otherwise, quite like Thief: Deadly Shadows. It's the type of game that, after playing for an extended period of time, will compel you to sneak around the house, past dosing pets and alert family members, in an effort to snatch that last cookie from the cookie jar. Of course, you could have just walked into the kitchen and grabbed the cookie without anyone caring, but that hardly matters. If there's one thing that Garrett has taught us, it's that getting to the prize undetected is much more rewarding than the actual prize itself.

Final Score: 9 out of 10


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 06/03/04, Updated 07/01/04


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