"Corrupt. A flawed gem, but nevertheless worth the taking."

A game based around thieving could take many forms. As the concept of theft is common to all of human civilisation to some degree, so the concept of a thief is - and so, such a game could conceivably be set anywhere, in almost any situation. The question in design is this: how to construct a game to give the best experience of thieving to a player? How best to involve and interest him? In what situation does the player practice thievery? You can see that there are myriad different possibilities in the use of such a seemingly simple concept; from the idea of your character sneaking around top-secret foreign locations, locating important documents, devices and information as some government-condoned covert agent and assassin; to the idea of having him navigate rooftops in a modern inner-city scenario, breaking into residences, stealing valuable commodities and evading the police with flash moves for bonus points, Jet Set Radio-style. Looking Glass Studios, the developers of Thief: The Dark Project, chose their setting wisely. Indeed, after playing just the first level you will certainly be convinced that any other way of theming this game would be madness. Such is the vision of the game's programmers and level designers that they have together produced a world that allows every aspect of the game's most important concept to be included, in a way that seems absolutely natural, and that maintains variation and atmosphere throughout the game, whatever type of thieving is afoot, and wherever.

Thief's world is richly designed, and no mistake. You play the role of Garrett, a masterfully skilled but renegade thief out for his own interests in a city, probably somewhere in Europe, wherein his trade is most profitable. The time period is seemingly that of the 1500's, as determined from the architecture and the attitudes and social structures of society. The nobility live well in large mansions, while the poor - your avatar included - are rather more humble. The ruling class are exploitative and complacent, paying each other, and the police, for favours, which is one reason for Garrett's cynical outlook on life. Another group of main players in the story is the Order of the Hammer, a system of religion not dissimilar to European Christianity of the equivalent time. The Hammerites are getting too big for their boots in the city and become the focus of Garrett's attention on more than one occasion - not least because they disapprove of him and his like.

Other groups and philosophies come to light as the story progresses, both in-game and by the use of detailed and atmospheric scene-setting movies between missions. These movies build on the picture of the situation as it develops (obviously), but also of note are the quotations from fictitious writings within the game's universe, which are given at the start of each. These increase your understanding of the characters within the game greatly, and are often genuinely frightening in their implications. The game's plot itself, and the way the story develops, is quite political if you will deign to suspend your disbelief and consider the groups and their agendas, and what they wish to achieve; suffice it to say that Garrett gets caught up in the middle of the conflict rather painfully, as a result of offering his services to the wrong person, and his seemingly perpetual bad luck. The scene is set admirably well when, in the first level, Garrett overhears a guard at the front gate of a manor declaring to his friends that he's ''going to the Bear Festival tomorrow'' and an hilarious conversation develops (your choice whether to stick around to listen or not).

As already observed, the game's setting and its environments are ideally suited to the task of a thief. Most levels are played at night time, to give you the benefit of reduced visibility, and this allows the formation of areas of light and dark, all over each map. The light levels and the areas that are lit are determined by the computer in real-time, detailed right down to small areas of the light let in by windows, and flickering torchlights. One of your objectives, then, is to remain hidden under cover of darkness for as much of the time as you can. Your foes will see you if you stand near sources of light, and especially if you move too quickly. In addition to this, and just as important, is the sound system; with the final update patch program, Thief embraces surround sound technology and allows you to hear all sounds reproduced most faithfully, including your own footsteps on different surfaces: carpets, polished stone, sheet metal... and of course, guards can hear those footsteps too... This gives rise to a method of gameplay for most levels in which you must move slowly and efficiently through the buildings and complexes, at times darting between shadowy areas and at others sneaking imperceptibly slowly across an echoing room towards the back of an unsuspecting guard.

Yes - the guards are not just to be avoided. Another side of the game is that which surfaces when you are suspected or worse, found on the job, where you shouldn't be. Those enemies who believe there is something wrong will come looking for you, their taunts warning you to keep still or frantically try to sneak away to somewhere safer without being spotted. The sound of a guard announcing ''Okay, you taffer, I'll find you!'' can be genuinely chilling at times. If they know your location, they will of course attack, usually with a sword, and you have your own with which to fight back. The game has a sword fighting mechanic which works extremely well, and is intuitive, though quite difficult to master. Realism in this field is, as ever, one of Thief's merits; you cannot act as the sole valiant swordsman fending off an army of foes, because they will slice and dice you with ease. Having as few as two men chasing you with the intention to finish you off is as good a reason as any to flee at top speed. To complicate matters further, on the higher difficulty level it is usually not permissible to kill the guards of the places you burgle (it's considered unprofessional); and so you are forced to take strenuous efforts to avoid detection, and if all else fails, knock pursuing guards out with a well aimed ''gas arrow'' (self-explanatory, I think). Several types of arrows may be employed, for offense or for other purposes; and in certain circumstances, unwary guards can be disabled by hitting them over the head with your cosh. However you render a guard harmless, of course, you will have to move his body to a dark corner or an unpatrolled room, so as not to alert others...

As you sneak around you will have to pick pockets, and locks (which makes a noise, so no doing it while enemies are around!). Lock picking is done by selecting an item, and using it while close to a door. To avoid detection, you'll use water arrows (which douse torches, but not the shielded electric lamps) and moss arrows (which pepper the floor near where they hit with growths of soft moss that muffle your footprints). Once you reach your objectives, you take them and go, as quietly as you arrived - but of course, there's all the other treasure in each map to target as well... This incentive to scour the entire map for valuable collectible items adds much to the game's longevity, particularly as you are given a tally of the loot you gathered - and failed to gather -after completing each level. What aspiring thief could fail to be chastened by the news that he managed to collect less than fifty percent of the total treasure in a location? Time to go back to work, perhaps... Of course, this is also a reason to play through the game again, as your loot total for the entire campaign will be tallied as well. To illustrate - the first time I played through, on the ''normal'' difficulty level, I gathered about 11,000 loot (no currency is used), but the second time - as an ''expert'' - I improved to the tune of 18,400. Finally on this topic, you'll be granted money to buy equipment for the next mission based on how much you stole in the previous one. You're not able, though, to stockpile items or money for use in later missions, and I for one support this policy as I agree that it keeps the game tense and urges the player on to continued high performance.

I have previously commended the level designers on their work - but I have been concentrating on the positive aspects of the game's design until now. In actual fact, the best levels are in a minority. These top quality levels are the ones which involve more sneaking, and are usually the more realistic with less use of magic and outlandish set pieces; those in which you thieve from the city's corrupt lords are the best. Other maps are less exciting - it is often as if Looking Glass were unsure of what type of map would work best, and were trying different things in equal quantities. Several levels involve far too much running around in caves, uninhabited passages and such for their own good, and the ''burricks'' (a lizard creature, a little smaller than a donkey, which breathes poison gas at you) do not add to the game and are merely annoying. Infuriatingly, the final level is of this type; but it is redeemed by several positive features, and so cannot be regarded as a complete disappointment. All levels are invariably large and detailed, but in some this is sadly more of an irritation than a joy.

There is also the matter of lighting - many areas in some levels are just too dark! It is possible to adjust the gamma settings in-game using the (-) and (+) keyboard keys, to quickly combat this when it becomes an issue, but raising the gamma to a level where your surroundings are visible in the dark causes the textures on the walls to look bleached-out and pixilated, which is an unpleasant compromise to have to settle with. It is a shame that more effort was not put in to making the levels slightly better lit where they needed to be; there are textbook cases throughout the game of developers prioritising atmosphere over ease of navigation. This is the only real graphical issue, however. Other glitches do annoy: one particular one, in which Garrett inexplicably develops at random an inability to climb up specific ropes, but simply lets go of them as soon as he grabs them, is guilty of the worst sin - causing me to die through no fault of my own. A note must also be made of Garrett's unfathomable inability to clear even some steps from a standing start - he must be travelling with momentum to manage them!

When Thief works, though, it is simply sublime; the patience you require comes naturally, and you'll sack the place completely while evading the guards skillfully and stylishly. When spied moving in the shadows or heard stepping across the stone floor, guards' cries of ''All right! Where are you?'' will stir you and prompt you to keep absolutely still, crouched in the darkness, while the guards look around - only to conclude that it was just rats afterwards. Each area is believable and designed well for its purpose, and has the correct atmosphere, from the Lord's manor which you burgle at the start of the game to the Hammer temple, which appears later. I found myself spending more than an hour and a half at a time on a level, just to perfect my technique in stealing all its loot while being detected as few times as possible. Once you finish the game once, it can be played through again on the higher difficulty levels, which offer slightly more to do on each level; a sensible idea also implemented is that you may mix and match - starting the game on ''normal'' difficulty does not preclude you from finishing it at the highest level, nor vice versa. The best levels are unquestionably worth buying the game for, crucially, and if you consider yourself any kind of considerate gamer, or connoisseur of exceptionally good games, then this is a purchase worthy of your purse. The more casual gamer or he who prefers fast action and explosive weaponry will not be so compelled to play for long; it is mostly for the high quantity of duff levels that my score is fixed at eight, rather than a nine or ten. Buy the thing, or you are missing out on a great deal of splendid and demanding sneaking... and glorious ''taffing''.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 08/21/02, Updated 10/31/02

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