In the years since Looking Glass created the stealth genre, it's gravitated more towards action, with Splinter Cell
, and Tenchu
always leaving the option, however small, for a "guns blazing" scenario. Thief: Deadly Shadows
, however, is not stealth action. The pace is gradual--so gradual, in fact, that if I hadn't been reviewing this game, I probably would have given up after a few sessions. I'm glad I stuck with it, though. The goodness creeps up on you. It takes a while for Deadly Shadows
to get going, but once it does, it will grip you.
This Thief continues with the usual cast of characters--the Hammerites, Pagans, and Keepers. Garret is a former Keeper-in-training, and his former colleagues call upon him to "acquire" a few items for them. The Keepers are concerned about an apocalyptic prophecy, but are keeping their cards close to their chest, as always. Garret is asked to do a few more favors, and next thing you know, he's drawn into the midst of intrigue and plot twists and impending doom of a most mysterious but spooky nature.
After you finish the training mission, you'll start in your apartment in South Quarter, which is one half of the "hub" area you'll be navigating for most of the game. It's an open-ended but claustrophobic city, thanks mostly to the high walls and narrow streets. Neutral citizens and hostile City Watch guards wander around and patrol, respectively, and you'll be sneaking around stealing things for missions, or based on overheard conversation. You'll also need to visit a fence to unload your loot and a shop to buy more gear. The fences and stores are a little thin on the ground, however, and spread a bit too far apart, making wending your way around the City Watch a hassle. It got to the point where I just run and hit 'em with a moss arrow when they got close enough. Plus, certain fences will only take jewelry, others will take artwork, and yet others will take precious metal. It gets to be a little tedious, doing the rounds after a mission in order to unload and get more gear.
The variety of gear makes for some pleasing tactical versatility, however. Besides your broadhead arrows, there's the fire, water, moss, gas, and noisemaker arrows. I found the gas arrows to be especially helpfully, as they allow you to silently knock someone out from a distance. Of course, they were hard to find, and I got most of them by spotting them in a nook and climbing up to the hidey hole. The city has plenty of little hidey holes where you'll find a few arrows, or a health potion, but it never feels artificial, like breaking open boxes left and right with a crowbar. You'll also have a few throwable to choose from, with flashbombs, gas grenades, and even proximity mines.
If there was anything I spent the most money on, though, it was water arrows, even though Deadly Shadows has roughly 50% electrical lighting. You can pinch out candles, but a torch will only go out with a water arrow. They were never absolutely necessary, but they sure did help. Fire arrows are also good for lighting up a dim area so you can orient yourself. It really does get that dark, and I had to brighten up the screenshots here so you could see what the heck is going on. In game, it's brighter, thanks to a faint glowing outline on Garret's body, like he's under moonlight--but that outline almost never shows up in the screenshots. In fact, you have to have almost complete darkness to play this game the way it's meant to be seen.
But oh, is that ever a double-edged sword. You see, for the most part, Deadly Shadows is not a "scary" game. It doesn't take the supernatural detours of previous installments, but you will traverse some extremely creepy hallways and cellars before you're done. Shalebridge Cradle in particular just has to be experienced to be believed.
I do wish Ion Storm had gone iD Software's route and handed the console version off to a separate, dedicated team, because I never quite shook the impression that DS's overall geometry was streamlined to fit under the Xbox's hood and that ended up slightly stifling the growth of both the Xbox and PC versions. The Hammerite church should be an imposing and haunting piece of work. The Pagan underground headquarters should be massive, with countless possible routes to your destination. I was consistently left underwhelmed with the size of almost all of the indoor environments, and was often confused by a few superfluous shafts and crawlspaces. And it's a good thing the story is good, even though it is, essentially, another "prophecy of doom" with a reluctant hero at its center. Because the gameplay itself becomes tactically repetitive. There are few enemies for whom the same set of moves doesn't apply. Once you get the hang of it, what you'll basically be doing is snuffing a torch and sneaking by, or waiting until the guard's back is turned, sapping him, tucking him away, and moving to the next room. Sure, you have moss arrows you can shoot at the ground to soften a landing, but I really never needed them. You have noisemaker arrows, but they weren't needed for much more than making the guard turn away from you sooner than he would have anyway. You have gas grenades, but I never tossed a single one. You have oil flasks, which you can throw at the ground and make a pursuer slip, and you can even light the oil on fire with a fire arrow. But it's much simpler to just hit the guy with the fire arrow, rather than going through the almost decadent process of tricking him into walking into a flaming trap. There are a few enemies who are immune to the usual tricks, but you won't see them enough for it to matter, and you can often just run past them. On normal difficulty, I also never bought a single health potion, although I was saving my game almost constantly, since sapping a guard didn't seem to work all the time.
Admittedly, it would be just as easy to throw too many different types of hostile NPCs at the player, forcing them to constantly changed their tactics, but I think DS erred too much on the side of sheer accessibility. As it stands, the act from getting from Point A to Point B to steal Foozle C is the least interesting aspect of the game. There also aren't a lot of alternate routes, seemingly another geometry concession to multiplatform development, as we saw when Rainbow Six 3 was ported to the PlayStation 2.
There are a couple of other flaws relating to the guards. First, the entire city is subdivided into numerous zones. There's maybe a dozen aboveground locales, and they're all relatively small. Not much larger, in fact, than the zones in Invisible War, but you don't notice as much because you're simply not moving as quickly. Anyway, the states of all the NPCs are frozen when you exit a zone. Meaning, if you hit a guard with a moss arrow as you're running to the Old Quarter portal and return a half hour later, he's still choking on it. If he was chasing you on your way out, he'll be right there swinging his sword in your face when you eventually reappear. The second problem is how quickly the guards' states will change. A moss arrow will choke a guard and render him vulnerable for about ten seconds. However, if you smack him with your dagger, he will be instantly fighting you instead of continuing to choke. It's the same with flashbombs. If you're lucky and dexterous, you can get behind them and sap them. But if you don't hit them right, you'll be met with a sword in your gut the next moment, even though they were supposed to be blind still.
These two problems wouldn't be so bad if hostile guards didn't patrol all over the city, slowing your progress unless you have some extra flashbombs and moss arrows. I never hurt for money, but I also never purchased more gear than I thought I needed at the time. Deadly Shadows is just as stringent with ammunition as with previous installments, although you'll be able to support yourself fairly well by stumbling upon small, tucked away caches and doing some extra thievery on the side. I was still annoyed at having to waste ammo on the City Watch (and others poking around for me) when all I wanted to do was get to my mission. I think the game would have benefited greatly from some secret tunnels, or more extensive use of a certain shortcut ability you'll get partway through the story. It's interesting to see the different factions interact with each other on the city streets, but it's mostly about the novelty of watching the dynamic AI in action, I think. The important thing to remember though, is that these flaws really only reveal themselves after extended and focused observation. What you should know about this game is that it will get its hooks into you, if you give it long enough. And for me, at least, it wasn't about the desire to acquire that is, ironically, central to the tone of the game. It's about the sound-drenched atmosphere, the mood, the creepy and looming strangeness of a cryptic prophecy, and the main character's struggle to set things right even as all forces seem to conspire against him. Thief: Deadly Shadows tells a story as well as a game can, given the free-form environment of computer games. At the same time, you can make moral choices.
During your missions, will you only sap guards, or kill only guards, or will it be guaranteed bloodshed every time you enter the room? Will you steal the money willed to the captain's suffering widow, or will you leave it and even bring her the bottle of wine no one will get for her, as she sits in the top room of the house, alone, singing to herself or talking to her husband's ghost? Will you steal the Kurshak crown, their most prized possession? Or will you just grab the magic key and go? The story is basically linear, but you won't be punished for playing it the way you want to. I was felled by a guard, and instead of being greeted with a FAILED MISSION screen, I woke up in a prison cell, without anything but my climbing gloves. I managed to get out, stealing some extra loot along the way. If I hadn't been taken down by a guard, I wouldn't have gotten into the prison and had the opportunity to steal a bunch of shiny stuff. I was actually rewarded for not quickly reloading my last save.
The visuals are actually just a small part of this, although they look excellent on Xbox, particularly when not in motion. When you put Garret point blank against a well-lit wall, yeah, it looks a little blurry. But the thing is, you'll never get close enough to anything brightly lit, unless you want to draw unwanted attention. The organic environments, however, are a little blocky, and the building architecture disappointingly undersized. Still, Thief: Deadly Shadows has much better texturing than the recent Deus Ex, though the female character models are surprisingly rudimentary. While the PC version has a general smooth framerate, the Xbox version is constantly sluggish and seems to never really find a comfortable framerate to rest on. It's no so much that it stalls, pauses, or gets choppy, it just plays as if the Xbox were just waking from a long nap, not at its full stride.
When it comes to Shalebridge especially, nothing brings it together quite like this stellar and haunting soundscape. Subtle ambient music, whispering noises, shuffling feet. I had to step away from my TV when I heard the sound of crying babies, in a building which I knew had been abandoned after serving as an insane asylum, and an orphanage before that. Hallway after hallway, you turn and expect to find something, the source of the noise, whatever, but the place is as empty as a tomb. Or is it?
The non-spooky sections of the game aren't too shabby either. Thanks to the fantastic positional sound, 300,000 words of recorded dialogue (so we're told), realistic lighting and dynamically reacting NPCs, it's very immersive, and the story arc--once it gets a full head of steam--becomes surprisingly compelling.
©2004, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved