Thief: Deadly Shadows
I don't know why they bother sometimes these PR people. I mean, what's the point of sending out a copy of a game for review a good three months after it has hit the shelves (or was it sat under your desk? Ahem - Ed). Just about everyone who was going to buy the game already has, except for a few stragglers. I suppose this review may come in handy for those folk, but otherwise it's a case of horses, stable doors and bolting. But I shouldn't really complain, as I get a free game to waste some time with. Even better when it turns out to be rather good, as Thief: Deadly Shadows has done.
Anyone with a knowledge of games will know that this is really Thief 3, but as it has been developed for the Xbox and its supposedly ignorant user base the marketing people have decided that this instalment needs a new naming convention. They did the same with Deus Ex, another sequel to a well-loved game that lost its rightful number in favour of a convoluted subtitle, complete with the now obligatory colon. The developers of both titles, Ion Storm Austin, came under a lot of flack for the concessions made to make Dues Ex: Invisible War work on the console. These criticisms seem to have both stung the team while having a positive effect. For the changes made to the Thief template are minor in comparison to the deep perversions that made the sequel to Deus Ex barely recognisable as the progeny of the original.
The joint PC/Xbox development process is still readily apparent in T:DS. For example, the menu screens are ugly in their simplicity, and the size of text in these screens and throughout the game belies the need for large writing for the television screen. The control system manages to translate very well to the PC keyboard/mouse set-up, far better then the fudge that was DE:IW. It's almost as if the controls were initially designed for a PC. Navigating through your weapons is done in the normal way; it's in using your inventory items that the console rears its head. You have to select the item using its correct hotkey, and then press the 'i' key to use that item. While this is a cumbersome way of doing things, especially when you desperately need to take a quick hit from a health potion, it doesn't aggravate too badly. I also noticed that the engine seems to have a built-in inability to register tiny movements. This is only noticeable when you try to make a small adjustment to your view, as the camera will lurch in the desired direction rather than smoothly track. Initially I found this very off-putting as it really jerks the player out of the sense of immersion that, as I played more of the game, I discovered was one of T:DS's greatest assets.
For this third instalment of the series you reprise your role as Garret, master thief and stealthy adventurer extraordinaire. Starting off with a simple yet informative and well-structured tutorial mission the story of T:DS is gradually introduced. It seems that Garret is mentioned in the prophecy of a shadowy, secret organisation. Not only mentioned but apparently he is the chosen one. So in between the usual thieving missions Garret is called upon by this group to carry out more specialised, risky assignments. The plot is exposed in a variety of ways, from appealingly stylised cut-scenes to scraps of conversation overheard by the master thief while out on a mission of acquisition. I found myself becoming engaged in the story, and even managed to recall the names of a few of the protagonists, an unusual thing to happen in a game where the hardest part can often be trying to keep the players and locations of the story in some semblance of order within your brain.
Graphically T:DS is quite the eye-pleaser. Considering it is using the ageing Unreal engine the rendering of Garret's world is impressive. Obviously the lighting is the most important factor and generally speaking it is very good. I did encounter the occasional ugly texture and in too many environments the shadows were broken, replacing consistent dark zones with flickering black polygons. The textures are also very low res, which is understandable for the Xbox but the lack of upgrading for the PC release smacks of laziness. The dynamic light-sourcing is atmospheric and an integral part of the gameplay. Candles can be snuffed out with a pinch of the right mouse button, burning torches extinguished with a properly aimed water-arrow. Take out a light source and Garret has an extended zone of dark comfort from which to sneak his way to success. The gameworld is full of character, with lots of objects to pick up and throw, as well as plenty of valuable objects that Garret can appropriate for himself. This loot is often indicated with a pulsing glow, although there are plenty of less obvious objects in each level that Garret will have to nick to get a 100% loot rating.
The character models are very good, displaying lots of individuality and a high level of detail. And while the animations themselves are good, the models do have an unfortunate tendency to skate over the ground. Getting garret to clamber up walls and over obstacles is often a very fiddly affair unless you drop out into the new third person perspective. However, even when given the chance to view Garret from behind getting around some of the more gymnastically demanding levels of the game can be a right pain. Clipping, however, is not a problem with this game, so dumping the lifeless body of an ex-guard into an alcove will not insult the player with any limbs poking through solid granite. Of course, there is the issue of everything being in the same dark hues and tones but that is going to be pretty hard to change in a game based on sneaking around in the dark. And after playing Doom 3, I don't think that the dark bits in the scenery, the shadows and gloom, are dark enough. Even when the light meter is registering zero you can still make everything out around you. Which makes the inability of a guard to detect your presence even though he is mere inches away from you unbelievable, to the point of spoiling the immersion.
The infamous bloom from D:IW makes a return, and while in DE it seemed to give everything a cartoony look here it works very well. By smearing the lines and textures the bloom makes things look that little bit more organic, thereby clawing back a good bit of the immersion that can be lost to the previously mentioned problems. It does remain a matter of taste however, but at least the option to turn it on and off is there. Throughout my time with T:DS I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with what the developers had done with the engine. I was willing to believe that I was creeping around real environments, and while the layout of some of the levels is bewildering their design and the architecture within is generally of a high standard. One thing that has suffered greatly from this detail, and this is an issue for which the Xbox must take full blame, is the scope of the individual levels. Not only are they overly claustrophobic but also they tend to be shockingly small in the amount of area that they cover. This means lots of loading screens, even in what should be a relatively small level. Fortunately the load times themselves aren't too bad, say 10-15 seconds, but they do break up the flow of the game. I'm surprised and disappointed that Ion Storm didn't find a way to stitch the levels together for the PC release.
T:DS seems to allow for a more gung-ho approach than was previously possible, although Garret is still about as hardy as a pagonia in a hurricane and will topple over dead after just a few quick thrusts of a guard's sword. The AI of the world's inhabitants is well geared towards group reactions. This means that you won't be able to take on guards in a piece meal fashion. All it takes is one guard to go from suspecting an anomaly to spotting Garret for an entire garrison to go into full search and destroy mode. As a result it is imperative that you avoid any tussles with the guards when playing the larger levels. Getting comfortable with the way the AI works and coming to understand the various fudges that are necessary for preventing the gameplay from descending into an impossible, anarchistic mess is a fairly long process. Characters will give you hints about their current state by the way they behave and from the snippets of conversation and solitary musings that you can overhear.
T: DS is a very atmospheric game which has just one too many small faults to make its gameworld a compellingly believable one. T: DS makes good use of sound but I experienced too many occasions where the placement of sounds coming out of my 5.1 speakers didn't match up to what was going on in the gameworld. Still, despite its numerous annoying faults and oversights I enjoyed playing T: DS. The Thief series made stealthy gameplay into the popular feature that regularly creeps its way into games were you wouldn't expect to see it. And while young pretenders such as Splinter Cell have taken the stealthy idea and incorporated it into a more action orientated style of game, Thief: Deadly Shadows delivers the kind of stealthy (in)action that fans of the series look for. A lot of time spent playing T: DS is spent not actually doing anything, as you try to suss out patrol patterns or wait for someone to move away from a window or chest. Even so, things can get incredibly tense, especially as you know detection could spell the end of Garret's career.
T: DS, like its two predecessors, is not the kind of game that will appeal to everyone. If, however, you like the idea of playing the role of a master thief caught up in events beyond his ken and you are willing to forgive some of the technical problems the developers were unable to overcome then you should be able to lose yourself in Thief: Deadly Shadows for many hours. And as a bonus, by the time this review finally hits the web, you may even be able to buy the game at a discounted price.