One of the many reasons why 1998 was such a groundbreaking year for gaming is Thief: The Dark Project, a game that helped invent what's now commonly referred to as the stealth action genre. Though two other noteworthy stealth action games were released that same year--Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins--Thief's brand of stealth was the most convincing, and it went on to become the most influential. The original developer of Thief and its similar sequel is unfortunately no longer in business, but Eidos and Ion Storm thankfully snatched up the rights and have finally delivered a new chapter in the series that's suitable for longtime Thief fans and newcomers alike. Like its predecessors, the new Thief: Deadly Shadows features a memorable protagonist, a great setting, and some very interesting missions. It also happens to suffer from a variety of miscellaneous, minor flaws. These are unfortunate, since Thief: Deadly Shadows is great game, for the most part.
The master thief Garrett returns, and once again, he'll be knocking foes out cold and robbing them blind while unraveling a web of intrigue.
At its core, Deadly Shadows sticks very closely to the formula of the older Thief games, which are first-person perspective action adventures in which you must carry out a series of high-risk, high-reward missions as Garrett, a self-serving master thief living in a cold, surreal, medieval world. As in previous Thief games, the gameplay in Deadly Shadows primarily revolves around having to retrieve a bunch of special trinkets (and other riches) from assorted heavily guarded establishments--and doing so by hiding in shadows, waiting for unsuspecting guards to turn their backs, and then blackjacking them so that they remain unconscious for the remainder of the mission. You'll have a wide variety of other gadgets to help you, including lock picks, water arrows for dousing torches and other firelight, flashbombs for temporarily blinding opponents, and more. There's always a compass onscreen to help you navigate the sometimes mazelike environments, and you'll also be paying close attention to the onscreen "light gem," which changes color depending on how well-concealed you are. This interface feature has always worked great in the Thief series.
You'll be treated to an intriguing story, which is narrated by an even more intriguing protagonist, whose particular brand of cynicism isn't nearly as unwelcome as cynicism tends to be. The story gradually and surprisingly unfolds during the course of what's a decidedly lengthy single-player adventure. Due to the open-ended nature of the game and its four available difficulty settings, average playing time should vary quite a bit from one player to the next. However, it's safe to say you're not going to get through this one in a weekend, unless all you did was play.
The story of Deadly Shadows is gleaned through overheard conversations, cutscenes, and Garrett's own monologue, but you'll also be doing a good bit of reading memos, notes, and pages of books for clues. No previous experience with Thief is necessarily expected or required, but the plot is deeply interconnected with and contains many references to the previous games (for those who played them). For instance, the game features all of the Thief world's unique and interesting factions, including the Keepers, a shadowy group of sorcerer-scholars who once helped Garrett hone his talents; the Hammerites, religious zealots devoted to industry and order; and the weird, druidic Pagans. And while this isn't a high-fantasy world with elves and dragons, you can expect to square off against inhuman foes, like the undead, an ancient aquatic race, stone automatons, and more.
Ironically, the few detours Deadly Shadows takes from the series' blueprint are likely to annoy diehard fans of the series, while those who've never played a Thief game prior to this one will probably get caught up on issues that are, in fact, conventions of the series. As far as the annoyances are concerned, Thief fans will likely be dismayed at the absence of rope arrows in Deadly Shadows, which, in previous installments, could be used to create rope ladders, yielding access to otherwise inaccessible areas. Deadly Shadows replaces these with a pair of climbing gloves that Garrett can purchase, which are a far less interesting solution to the same types of problems. Furthermore, the climbing gloves aren't well implemented, since the mechanics of climbing feel clunky, and you rarely even need them. Lock picking has also been changed--and not for the better. Garrett will often have to pick locks, but most locks merely require you to move up, down, left, or right and then press a button to unlock from three to six tumblers. Unfortunately, this a process that can be learned quickly and neither requires nor rewards finesse. A few locks dare you to try the diagonals, but they are still completely simple to undo. As a result, this is either a perfect simulation of being a master thief, or it's just plain boring.
Deadly Shadows is more open-ended than its predecessors (let alone most action games), but this loose structure isn't entirely a good thing.
Another questionable design decision is that in Deadly Shadows, unlike in the previous Thief games, you actually get to sell all the loot you steal. You can then use these funds to purchase new equipment, which carries over from mission to mission. Let's not dwell on the ramifications of having to buy stuff from stores in a game called Thief, and let's not speculate about why a master thief like Garrett lives in a total dump of an apartment, for some reason. Instead, we'll just point out that in the previous games, your limited supply of equipment was replaced after each mission, which was a deliberate gameplay contrivance implemented to urge you to use everything at your disposal to accomplish the task at hand. By contrast, in Deadly Shadows, you'll end up hoarding your rarer items, like noisemaker arrows and fire arrows, by saving them for a rainy day that never arrives. As well, since you'll make a ton of money (being a master thief and all), you'll be able to afford a vast supply of healing potions, which are the most useful items in the game. Unfortunately, this diminishes some of the game's challenge--at least at the normal difficulty setting, in which most foes can't hurt you too much with a single attack.
Other aspects of gameplay will be very familiar to Thief fans but will take some getting used to by anyone not previously acquainted with Garrett and his world. For one thing, while you usually have access to a map of your immediate surroundings, these aren't the fancy GPS-style automaps you may be familiar with from other games. Instead, they're fairly crude, hand-drawn diagrams that aren't terribly useful. This may seem frustrating, but not only is it an authentic touch, given the pseudo-medieval setting, but also it's defensible from a gameplay standpoint, since it encourages you to actually explore the gameworld rather than spend more time looking at the map.
You'll square off against--or, rather, creep up behind--a wide variety of foes, but they're all basically identical in practice.
Another potential surprise is that Garrett's pretty slow, even when he's running, and he's weak in a toe-to-toe fight. It's not just him though. The game's melee combat is lousy, and it simply involves readying Garrett's dagger (which replaces his sword from the previous games) so that he can repeatedly hack at his opponent. Meanwhile, you have to hope that Garrett's opponent dies before he does. Of course, if you're playing Thief properly, then you shouldn't be going toe-to-toe with anyone anyway. You'll be spending most of your time creeping up on unsuspecting characters, and this type of action is handled very well by the game. Garrett automatically raises his blackjack or dagger when he's in range to strike, so your job is to quietly get close enough so that you can hit the button when it's time. It's a process that doesn't cease feeling risky.
The thing about Garrett is he just doesn't come across as particularly athletic. He's basically invisible when standing in shadows, but you don't ever get the feeling that you're controlling some sort of incredibly lithe and dangerous character. In short, Garrett's not a ninja. But part of the appeal of the Thief series actually stems from the fact that you really are a thief in these games, rather than a one-man army. You're quite vulnerable and have every incentive to stay out of harm's way. Other stealth action games make you feel like you could easily overpower your foes in single combat, so having to use stealth almost feels like a limitation. But in Deadly Shadows, you're often stalking things that are much stronger than you.
Staying out of harm's way actually isn't very difficult for Garrett. The entire game takes place at night, and shadows always abound, even indoors, which creates ample opportunities for sneaking around. Should you be detected, just toss a flashbomb (or a gas bomb, an explosive mine, or an oil flask) and run for the shadows. Or, if you don't want to waste a flashbomb, just run until your enemies run out of breath.
Including enemies that can run out of breath while trying to chase you is actually pretty entertaining. The enemy artificial intelligence in Deadly Shadows has a few other such neat tricks, in addition to some eventually obvious limitations. For instance, blackjacked foes fall with a groan as their weapons clatter to the ground, but in gameplay terms, all this happens silently. So if two guards are walking down a hall and they're five feet apart, you can blackjack the one at the rear, and the one at the front probably won't notice. Also, Garrett can flatten his back against walls, which is an ability that's far more useful than it should be, because it makes guards completely incapable of detecting him (in most cases). But then, guards who discover something suspicious--say, like a pool of blood or a body--will sometimes run to get some other, nearby guards to help investigate, which is a nice touch. So are the ways in which guards will notice doors that you've left open or things that have gone missing. There are also various states of alertness for guards. They might catch a glimpse of you from a distance and think nothing of it if you manage to duck out of sight quickly enough. They'll often stop and listen as you're creeping up behind them, which actually works out very nicely. You'll also hear your foes' various comments as they search for you, and despite there being some repetition in the speech, there's a lot of variety to it.