Thief: Deadly Shadows

Review by Steerpike
June 2004

My Words Are Delicious

A couple weeks ago, I waxed glumly cynical in the Thief Retrospective about my low personal hopes for the third and probably final installment in the Thief series. Sudden departures from Ion Storm, obvious tweaks to benefit console players, and the catastrophic PC release of Deus Ex: Invisible War contributed to a somewhat doom-laden sense about this game. Truth is, for people who really love the Thief franchise, there was a lot of emotion riding on this one. Many gamers worried that we'd get little more than the same sloppy Xbox port that Invisible War was.

But every now and then, the glass really is half full. Though not without flaws, Thief: Deadly Shadows is a really good game, deserving of the Gold Star I'm giving it and a worthy addition to the Thief universe. The people who worked hard on it for four years should be proud of what they've accomplished, because they have produced a game that's not only a triumph in its own right, but one that is reasonably faithful to the franchise mythology.

This review is for the PC version, and—from the department of irony—it's my understanding that the Xbox port is scoring an average of twenty points lower in most reviews. Given all the Invisible War hubbub, that's a surprise, though not an unwelcome one. Being a PC gamer, I'd much rather the Xbox version sucked. Well, I'd rather neither did, but I'm selfish enough to say "better you than me" if it has to be one of us.

A warning: Deadly Shadows makes no attempt to fill newcomers in on the considerable intricacies of the Thief plots and characters to date. The first two games encompass probably two hundred pages of fiction, and you'll be expected to know who's who and what's what. You can still play the game if you don't know who Viktoria is or what the Mechanist Insurgence was, but it might be somewhat bewildering. This is probably one of the reasons that the Xbox version is getting more chilly reviews.

Second Time's the Charm

Deadly Shadows, like Invisible War before it, employs the mighty Unreal 2.0 Engine, made all the more powerful with the addition of Havok physics. A casual observer wouldn't see much Unreal beneath Deadly Shadows or Invisible War; they're not visually very similar. This is a tenebrous, grimy, and altogether less vividly day-glo environment than Unreal technology generally presents. In both of Ion Storm's recent games, heaping ladlefuls of shader-enhanced lighting and intricate bump maps are added. What's most impressive is that in the case of Deadly Shadows, the game not only looks astonishing, it's functional.

I have never seen a game use light the way Deadly Shadows does, nor have I seen such realistic environments rendered on the fly. For those who can get it to work well on their systems, this is an astounding visual experience. While the previous Thief games depended heavily on a very angular, stylized look, the decision to abandon that didn't seriously affect the Thief flavor. From an eye-candy perspective, Deadly Shadows looks like nothing you have ever seen before.

That said, a quick glance at any gaming forum—including our own—demonstrates that for everyone who's got the thing up and running, someone else has watched in horror as it brought a computer they consider reasonably powerful mewling to its knees. The minimum requirements are similar to what most wags anticipate will be printed on the DOOM 3 box, and some argue that the game can't be very well optimized if it calls for this much brawn. But they're wrong.

If you do meet the requirements, Deadly Shadows is a stable, admirable performer—I get a good framerate and have experienced only one or two crashes. With Invisible War, even those well above the recommended specs experienced a frame-a-week snailfest, and I for one crashed out without warning at least five times an hour. That's not true here; even with all the graphical frosting turned on, within-spec gamers should be fine. Plus the game is breathtaking—it's clear where the horsepower requirements go. Only Painkiller looks better, and the two are so visually different that it's unfair to compare them. The one gripe about graphics (two gripes) is that there is visible seaming where some polygons come together—especially on stairs. Also, Radeon owners can expect some blinking shadows if they're using the Catalyst 4.5 drivers—the 4.4s solve the problem, and no doubt the upcoming 4.6s will do the same. It's not a dealbreaker either way.

Developers are slowly getting the hang of Havok-enhanced physics, though they're not quite there yet. In Invisible War, if you brushed against a chair, it'd go shooting down the hall with the force of a bullet. In Deadly Shadows, you have to hurl yourself against a chair to get it to move at all. Perhaps a golden mean between these two can yet be found; still, Havok is so cool, and will bring so much to gaming, that minor problems with its implementation are just that: minor.

Through the Looking Glass

Deadly Shadows continues the adventures of Garrett, master thief and curmudgeon, as he plies his trade in the great mechamystical expanse of the City. He's approached by the Keepers, who need some stuff stolen but are far too holier-than-thou to do it themselves.

The Keepers, you may recall, are the watchmen, historians, and futurologists of the City, lurking in shadows and recording comings and goings. Garrett himself was trained as one but bolted before full initiation; it's his Keeper education that fuels his amazing stealth capability. Keepers are strictly observers and maintain a policy of noninterference, which to them apparently means that they interfere all the time in everything.

It would seem that they have stumbled on a threatening prophecy that warns of an impending Dark Age when all knowledge will be lost. This divination strongly implies that one individual, who may or may not be Garrett, will be the catalyst that triggers the end. More research is required before they can get a final verdict—they're not able to translate the whole thing when Garrett first hooks up with them—and part of the reason they ask for his help is to keep an eye on him.

But something is obviously wrong with the Keepers; a few of them are into something they shouldn't be. And not everyone in the society likes the idea of employing a dropout who's been as much a thorn in their side as an ally over the years. Add to that concern the fact that there's plenty of information that the Keepers would prefer he never know, information that might be at risk if he is allowed access to some of their more deeply hidden secrets. As you can imagine, Garrett somewhat inadvertently learns more about the City's dark underpinnings and even darker future than he was ever supposed to. At some point he becomes a liability, as the power struggle within the Keeper hierarchy threatens not just the organization but the future of the City itself.

As usual, Garrett wants nothing to do with any it but gets sucked in despite himself. The Keepers initially lasso him by making an offer so rare and so unthinkable that he can't refuse—but should—and he spends the rest of the game tumbling down an increasingly slippery incline leading straight to the maw of the looming Dark Age.

Garrett's fundamental problem is that he's a great thief but a lousy money manager. Every dime he makes on a job is spent buying gear necessary for the next job, so he's always broke, the rent is always late, and his apartment has as much charm as a toolshed. When he's hired for special jobs, he never wonders whether his clients are the sort who can be trusted to pay their bills. His chronically negative bank balance and confidence in his not-inconsiderable capabilities occasionally drive him to very ill-advised career decisions. Seems to me that a few minutes with a Fidelity Investment Planner would eliminate many of Garrett's frustrations.

The Dark Age problem is the major story thread, and it's very cleverly written by a team that's been with Thief since early on. There's a whole mess of parallel bad crap taking place in the City that Garrett (naturally) winds up involved with: a hideously deranged serial killer, a ship full of mostly-dead sailors, a haunted orphanage, and the usual criminal goings-on. Much of that is connected to the sharp, witty main storyline, and Deadly Shadows is a terrific narrative experience. This is thanks to both the delicious writing and the stellar vocal talents of the mostly-returning cast.

The Power of the Dark Side

The ability to switch between first and third person is new to Deadly Shadows, and some thought it would be a clumsy console-port hack. Turns out that this feature is gracefully implemented and actually quite beneficial. There are times when you're positioned in such a way that going to third person grants you the one thing that FPS games cannot: peripheral vision. It's a tweak that is quite welcome, that could have been done very badly but wasn't. Garrett's body is very much apparent in first person, too. If you look down, there are his feet. Look left or right, there are his hands. Most shooters don't bother with this, leading to a strange visual disconnect from the world and your character.

Thief has always been a very dark game, and Deadly Shadows continues that tradition. You can certainly crank the brightness controls, but that kind of ruins the point. Play Deadly Shadows at night, with all the lights in the room off. If you own a cat, see if you can recruit its aid in walloping you with heart-stopping shocks of terror by getting it to leap onto the back of your chair at the most tense moments.

It's obvious that Deadly Shadows went through a lot of playability testing, because several tweaks to minimize darkness-related annoyance are present. The gem that indicates how much light Garrett is standing in is much more sensitive. The movement of shadows cast by flame and people is simply stunning (look at the first screenshot over there), and despite the soft realism of the shadows, it's usually easy to tell where one ends and begins. Perhaps best of all, when in third person, Garrett himself gives off just a slight glow, as though he's bathed in moonlight—it's not too exaggerated, and it helps keep you from losing your protagonist in deep shadow.

Sometimes it seems that Garrett wears tap shoes when on a job; when he walks and runs, he makes so much noise that you have to wonder whether he might not be better off in just socks. "Creep," the third movement mode, is silent but so slow as to be pretty pointless. And there are bugs in the sound-making system: walk or run and Garrett makes too much noise, but he makes no noise at any speed when crouched or carrying a body. I imagine they'll fix this in the patch; with luck they'll also tweak his movement speed too, though you can do it yourself by manipulating the default.ini file in the game directory.

I neglected to mention the sound work of Eric Brosius for the first two Thief games in my retrospective, so his long-overdue props are given here. Thief has always sported innovative sound design, from the low, tonal beats that evoke a chilling spectrum of emotion to the spot-on 3D reverb effects. The ability of ambient sound to create and manipulate emotion is well-documented, and thanks to Brosius, Thief is one of the best at controlling the gamer's state of mind through audio. The one flaw in the 3D sound system is that in third person, directional sounds come from Garrett's perspective, not the camera's; thus, if you're looking at Garrett head on and you hear something on your right, it's on his left. Sound should always come from the gamer's perspective, not the avatar's.

The only serious Xbox-related gripe is the addition of loading zones: most missions are broken into two distinct areas, and various City neighborhoods are separated in the same way. It's not that big a deal, as the load times are relatively short, but they're really not necessary at all—not on the PC, at least. Plenty of titles *cough*Morrowind*cough* demonstrate that a PC game's world can be almost criminally big and require only the most infinitesimal of load times. Stopping to load a new section is jarring and technically unnecessary on this platform, and it should have been dispensed with. Like so many other courtesies to PC gamers, it apparently fell into the "why bother" box during concurrent development.

The load zones are delineated by a thick portal filled with oozing blue fog. It's sort of like having a big sign in front of each loading area that says, hey player up ahead is a loading zone so for the next thirty seconds please snap out of your immersion and remember that you're playing a video game. Come on, people, Thief is about subtlety. No one could think of a less suckerpunchy way to indicate zone separations?

But more serious than the above is that when you leave a zone, time in it stops. If someone shoots an arrow at your head and you hurl yourself into a new zone to evade the hit, congratulations. When you reenter, even hours later, you'll get hit in the face with an arrow that waited patiently for your return. This, and the inability of AIs such as guards to move between zones, damages immersion. It also damages emergent potential, since it eliminates your ability to take action in one zone and expect a reaction in another.

"Did Something Just Move over There?"

The game starts you off with a tutorial mission that walks newcomers through the basics of being the world's greatest thief. I like tutorials, but I like them skippable—not only is the tutorial in Deadly Shadows required, it's built right into the game story. It's just irritating enough to bug those who already know how to play the game.

Deadly Shadows is mission-based, though there's a little more flexibility in how and when you choose to do missions than there was in earlier Thiefs. Occasionally you're given a few at a time, you can begin when you want and can do them in whatever order you please. The world is persistent, so items you buy or acquire in one mission remain available in later ones.

I was disappointed to see that the pre-mission cinematics are gone from this game. There are some narrative cutscenes and short opening movies that brilliantly evoke the mythology of the Keepers, Hammers, and Pagans, Thief's major players as they existed in The Dark Project and The Metal Age, but the collage of Photoshopped stills accompanied by Garrett's narration that actually define the objectives and challenges of each mission are gone. I miss those cutscenes; they were very good, very well written and appealing, and it sucks that they're out. They're not as hard to produce as full motion video or rendered cinematics, and they added a lot to the atmosphere.

There are more difficulty levels available, and AI ratchets up considerably at higher difficulties. On the lower settings, guards will do their job if they see you, or if you leave an obvious clue like a corpse or a spot of blood. On hard and expert, though, they will note if a chair has been knocked over, if a light's gone out, or (God forbid) if some valuable item is missing from its assigned place. They can be relentless about hunting you down, too—running for help and then returning with bow-armed or torch-carrying reinforcements, poking into corners, and looking for other indications that there's an intruder.

In the past few days, news of a critical flaw in the difficulty system has trickled out: regardless of the difficulty setting you choose prior to a mission, the difficulty is reset to Normal if you reload your position in-game. In keeping with a long tradition of Ion Storm technical support, they’ve been somewhat ho-hum about this very significant gameplay bug: their official response boils down to “we’ll patch it if we feel like it.” I didn’t notice this bug during the course of my play, but I must admit that in retrospect it explains occasional schizophrenic behavior on the part of game AIs. Despite my references to patchable stuff throughout this review, gamers should be aware that given what’s going on in Austin there’s a chance that this and other bugs will never be fixed, and that Xbox players are almost certainly out of luck barring a major product recall.

Patience and great care are necessary for success in Deadly Shadows, but the levels and AI are designed well enough that you're never bored by the waiting. There is ample space in which to hide, and guards are not super-sentient—they will give up eventually even if you're spotted with your hand in the cookie jar. And you always have the choice of fighting your way out of a situation if you don't feel like melting into the shadows or hiding in a broom closet.

Surprisingly, Eidos—the publisher—has indicated that Deadly Shadows can be a much more violent, guns-blazing sort of game than its predecessors. Garrett, they claim, actually has a chance of fighting his way out of a tight spot in this sequel ... but I don't see how. If anything, combat seems more difficult in this than the previous installments. This game is high stealth through and through. If you wish to kill as Garrett, you'd better be sure that your enemy doesn't see you coming—as in the earlier games, an attack from the darkness will kill an unsuspecting opponent with one strike.

You Blew It, Baby

One of the major preview points of Deadly Shadows was the promise of a true, living City to explore. It should have been the most compelling, unique, emergent aspect of this ambitious new game. A huge City of pockets just crying out to be picked, of homes and businesses begging to be plundered, with an active nightlife and completely realized underworld. Alas, what should have been the most thrilling aspect of the game is in fact the one most desperately botched: the rest of Deadly Shadows is a solid nine out of ten. The City is a two.

It has been made very clear through two previous games that the City is an enormous place: a great, sprawling entity with a dark urban consciousness, packed with districts, neighborhoods, and landmarks. The City in Deadly Shadows is tiny—smaller overall than a single City level from The Metal Age. Worse, most of the buildings are not accessible. Only a handful of structures can actually be broken into or entered. The rest have doors that won't open.

City size is one of the biggest failures on the part of this game. It should have been massive, full of people and activities, with every single building mapped and filled with objects. And lest anyone go squawking that such a thing would be technically nightmarish, allow me to bring up Morrowind again. The technology does exist, it's existed for years, and because it's not implemented here, the City is a clunky between-mission irritant, rather than a portion of the game that players will linger in and enjoy.

It's a devastating visual miss as well. Buildings are squat and ugly. Majestic places like the Hammerite Cathedral that should reach triumphantly for the heavens instead crouch and brood. Little touches like gardens are either nonexistent or crammed into areas the size of a residential bathroom. Ugly 2D sprites are employed for shrubs and trees. And if you're hoping for a recreation of the joyously giddy, vertigo-inducing Thieves Highway from The Metal Age, forget it—not only are Garrett's scaling abilities impeded by climbing tools of truly soul-crushing crapitude, but what should be an awesome, sweeping, stone sky-field rooftop vista of a nightmare urban sprawl is instead a tiny, grubby drearville of planking and cobbles.

From an artistic standpoint, stubby architecture and no roofscape are nothing compared to the next crime: the bewildering shortage of the hideous technology that was the basis of the City's unique and redolent fiction. In the earlier games, it was packed with towering mechanisms whispering of the City's unnatural symbiosis of magic and technology, all roaring and rumbling and belching smoke. It was a grotesque manifestation of industrial madness. Streetlights didn't glow; they sprayed fountains of sparks into the air. Huge boilers that never seemed to do anything but boil crouched behind garden walls. Copper tines hurled fingers of blue electricity back and forth. Piping, ductwork, meters, and ticking gauges were everywhere. You couldn't go two feet without encountering a bizarre iron monstrosity born straight of Tesla's worst nightmares. In Deadly Shadows, the City looks utterly generic. It would fit into any bland medieval fantasy game, with just the odd pipe or electric lamp to imply the mechanism-gone-wrong that made it such a creative jewel.

There is ample history of the City to build plenty of great stuff. We're not short on landmarks mentioned or visited in the prior Thief games. Yet where is the Haunted Zone? Where are the Bear Pits? Where's the marketplace through which Garrett shadowed a renegade, undercover-Pagan constable The Metal Age, or the network of storm sewers from The Dark Project? Where are homes we recognize, the mansions of Bafford and Constantine, or the walled compound inside which thief lord Ramirez lurks? Where is the entrance to the Lost City, the Mages College, the casino fronting for the Downwind Guild, the Necromancer's Tower? There is nary a hint of these in this game, and as such the City has lost much of its consistency and become something quite frankly pedestrian, dull, and utterly disconnected from Thief mythology.

And those are just the problems with how it looks.

Everyone on the City Watch knows Garrett and will attack him on sight, an addition almost as outrageous as the decision to make the City the size of a Micronesian fishing village. You have to be as stealthy when running errands in the City as you do when robbing a house. It's absurd to imagine that Garrett has to creep through the shadows every time he wants to buy a gallon of milk. If the guards attacked only when they saw you commit a crime, or when someone reported the same to them, that'd be fine. Since they seem to know him so well, one wonders why it hasn't yet occurred to them to crash into his home and arrest the man during the day, when he sleeps. If Garrett is such a great thief, how is it that everyone seems to know what he does for a living?

Citizens and guards move and behave like special-ed flunkouts. The people of the City walk in tiny, predetermined paths, making at most an oval or figure eight. Why on earth couldn't they have more freedom to ramble? To leave work and visit a tavern for a drink, to go home or out to some gathering? With the exception of scripted events, people never deviate from their flight plan. It made me want to run down the streets screaming, "Where is everybody," surrounded as I was by mindless Stepford automatons that would blithely walk off a cliff if one got in their way.

The enormity of the ball-dropping committed by the designers in the matter of the City is less that it's grating and bland; it's how good it could have been. All I can think is how much more incredible this game would have been with a Vice City or Morrowind-type environment where the place really was your oyster, where you would want to spend hours dawdling between missions doing whatever you liked. As it is, it's your rancid and undercooked mussel, and you will run, not walk, to get your errands wrapped up so you can move on.

Sneaking Around

The City may be a monumental disappointment, but thankfully the missions are not. Each one is well and carefully crafted, with stern attention to detail and realism. They're all very well-designed and each has a unique flavor and environment—the so-scary-you'll-scream "Shalebridge Cradle" is a favorite of mine, though the sweeping interiors of St. Edgar's Cathedral and the looming statuary of the Keeper Compound are equally breathtaking. Most—not all, but most—take a good hour and a half to complete.

There's a nice mixture of the natural and the un-, too. You'll explore your share of haunted locales and hide, trembling, from your share of repellent monstrosities (though, sadly, none of my beloved Burricks). But there is also ample opportunity to go for the pure stealth appeal of robbing a house filled only with regular old people. It's very well balanced on this score.

Because the light and physics in Deadly Shadows are so drastically more advanced than those in the earlier Thief games, even veterans will find that there's a learning curve: Garrett casts a shadow now, and you've got to wrangle it. You must be aware of all the light sources around you, because what looks like a puddle of concealing darkness from one angle may be perfectly illuminated from another—and even darkness is only helpful if you've got that peripatetic shadow of yours corralled.

Most of Garrett's equipment is back. He's switched from a sword to a dagger, which makes sense given his penchant for tight spaces; the rope arrows have been replaced by moronic and awkward "climbing gloves" that work as though a preschooler designed them. They'd have been a fine replacement if, I don't know, they had worked in any but the most limited and controlled environments, but they don't. You can't round corners, cross material changes in stone walls, even clamber over the tiniest of lips. Frankly, the climbing gloves and the City are the only true and utter failures in the game—but they are failures of crushing and ridiculous atrociousness, bad enough to seriously taint what could have otherwise been a lasting classic.

Some tools have been given a needed polish: moss arrows distribute a lot more moss that's a lot easier to see; Noisemakers, which I could never get working in the other games, work fine in this one. You can also employ Garrett's mechanical eye to zoom in and out in a delightful sepia-toned effect. Flash grenades deafen as well as blind but are no longer a free pass to knock out a guard. Oil flasks, which can be used to trip up pursuers or start small fires, are also a welcome new addition.

The lockpicking is the most significant change to the world. In the old games, it was just a matter of switching between the two tools and holding the mouse button down. In Deadly Shadows, it's set up kind of like a puzzle, but a simple one. It's very well tuned and designed for a specific purpose: you want some suspense if someone is approaching as you're desperately trying to pick a complicated lock. And it works quite well.

"Loot glint" is the slight but obvious sparkle given off by valuables in the game, and it's a new addition to Deadly Shadows. It's in there because you can pick up plenty of mundane objects, and the designers decided that it was necessary to add some visual clue to call out items of value. At times it's unintentionally comical: watching fat people in the City with glowing ears and pockets and wrists is a little absurd. It can be helpful, though, especially when you're trying to meet a mission objective for loot and you're running out of places to look. There are so many worthless knickknacks that you'd be picking up and tossing away a lot of plates and candlesticks before you find an expensive one. The ability to turn loot glint off, however, is not present—purists are clamoring for it, so I hope we'll see this functionality in the patch.

This Just In

Deadly Shadows, despite two major flaws, is a great game. For those of us who expected the worst, our gameplay fears were unfounded and our consternation ill-advised. This is a meticulously crafted and largely solid gaming experience, and one that doesn't do anything to shame the revered Thief franchise. Missions, story, acting, graphics, sound, physics, engine, stability: all are a solid thumbs up. The climbing gloves are clumsy and so incompetently designed that they should have been left out; but it's the City that is the real disappointment, and oh, what a disappointment it is. Were it what it should have been, this might have been one for the history books. They came that close to the rank of near-perfect, and tripped a few yards before a finish line only a few dozen games have crossed.

Good as it is, I do not think that Deadly Shadows will become another Dark Project, played again and again long after its technology is long in the tooth. For the most part, I think gamers will play through Deadly Shadows and then, possibly, revisit it just once down the road, when they're waxing nostalgic about Garrett and his travails.

I have to wrap this review up with a somewhat bizarre piece of news. Deadly Shadows crept onto shelves nationwide scant hours before some very strange rumors began seeping out of Ion Storm. I mentioned in the retrospective that Randy Smith, the project lead, had left the company under odd circumstances about two months ago. Last week, the rumor mill began churning out stories of massive layoffs at Ion Storm—to the tune of thirty-plus people—one day after Deadly Shadows was released. It even looks like the venerated game designer Warren Spector is among the unemployed, though stories conflict as to whether he was shown the door or found his own way.

None of this—nothing—is confirmed; Eidos is insisting that it's all a big rumor. But there is staggering circumstantial evidence for all of it: the layoffs, Spector's departure, even the rumors that the studio will adopt a new name and devote itself entirely to console development or, some have implied, shut down altogether. What this means to the future of Thief I do not know. They've always said that this is the last Thief game, a fact made manifest by the ending, but it's getting good reviews and selling pretty well—which can change things dramatically. Eidos, not Ion Storm, owns the rights to Thief. In fact, it's been suggested to me that Eidos was actually only interested in those rights when it made the failed last-ditch attempt to bail out franchise creator Looking Glass Studios in 2000.

Ion Storm, I think, is finished regardless. We may have to endure an extended death rattle, but the studio was doomed from the start and it has apparently run out of grace. Failing a clue to what the future holds, I'll just thank everyone on the team for an imperfect but proud and fitting close to a genuinely magical series of games—games that will always glitter in the hearts of their devotees as the a lantern bearer of the profound and the powerful. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ion Storm
Publisher: Eidos
Release Date: May 2004

Available for: Windows Xbox

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System Requirements

Windows 2000/XP (95/98/ME/NT not supported)
P4 1.5 GHz or equivalent
256 MB RAM
64 MB video card, Direct3D 9.0, and Pixel Shader 1.1
DirectSound 9 compatible sound card
3 GB free hard disk space
4X CD or DVD drive (DVD required for European versions)
Keyboard and mouse

Where to Find It

GoGamer 34.90 (PC)
Amazon.com 49.95 (Xbox)



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