Most developers are well aware that if your game has one or more genuinely well-made character it’s more likely to succeed. Today we have a seemingly endless number of goofy platform heroes, plenty of generic action heroes, a slew of one-dimensional RPG characters, and who knows what else. Fortunately a few stand out from the crowd, and among those is Garret from the Thief games. It’s been four years since the second game in the series was released, a game that became an instant cult classic due to its atmosphere, story, and gameplay. In the third iteration Garret is back, but the developer has changed from Looking Glass Studios (RIP) to Ion Storm. Quite a few changes have been made, but for any fan of the previous games there’s just one question that needs answering; did Ion Storm ruin the excellent atmosphere? I’m glad to say they didn’t, but I believe the game would’ve been a bit different, and probably better, if it had only been released for the PC.
The story begins with Garret doing what he does best; stealing from the rich and giving to himself. The game familiarizes you with most of the mechanics in a fairly simple tutorial, but from there you’re basically on your own. It doesn’t take very long until you’re contacted by the Keepers, one of the three groups that control the city that Garret lives in. The Keepers, who you may know from the previous games, are what you could call old-school seekers of knowledge. They have reason to believe that bad things are on the way and you more or less volunteer to help out. I can’t talk much more about the story, but suffice to say it’ll pull you in different directions and as expected twist and turn a bit.
In Thief 3 you spend much of the time traveling across the city you live in, which is divided into a number of zones. Each of these is connected by one or more magical doors, if you can call it that. The city also has a short number of stores. These are typically spread out in pairs; one where you can sell certain parts of your loot, and the other where you can purchase arrows, health potions, locks to practice on, mines, and more. You will obviously receive quite a few missions during the game, and they typically require you to go from maybe your apartment, to a meeting point where you’re given the details about the job, and then you move to the appointed location, where your mission begins. You often have to steal a certain percentage of the loot that’s in the building, snatch one special item, and maybe fulfill some greater objective. The interesting thing is that there are typically multiple ways of doing this. The buildings you break into usually have several entrances, and to fulfill the main objective you can often employ different tactics. Additionally, you can pretty much make the game as hard as you want by the way you play. You could play as the ultimate stealthy thief, sneaking past every guard, and remaining completely unseen. If that doesn’t sound good then you could maybe try and take out enemies from a distance using your bow and arrows, or sneak past people and knock them out, or stab them in the back. Thief 3 offers a pretty decent amount of items to the player; like water arrows to put out torches, or moss arrows to let you run quietly over for instance a stony surface. You also have explosive mines, oil flasks (to make guards trip over), flash grenades to temporarily blind your adversaries, and more. It’s harder to play as a melee fighter this time, because your weapons just aren’t that effective that way, unless you attack by surprise. This is a good thing, because it makes you focus on what the game is about; hiding in the shadows, remaining unseen, and striking when you’re least expected. And finally, a few times during the game you’ll get, or be able to buy upgrades. I shouldn’t reveal what these do, but at any rate they’ll open up some new ways of playing the game that I’m sure both new and old players will enjoy.
The artificial intelligence isn’t too shabby either. When playing the game you will eventually be noticed by guards, and since you’re a wanted person they’ll chase you on a whim. It can be a lot of fun having a group of men chasing you while shouting obscenities, but if you manage to round a corner and hide in a shadow they might get confused, wonder what they’ll tell their boss, and keep running around a bit until they give up. The pathfinding works well too, so it’s not often that the NPCs get stuck in doors, or anything else they didn’t expect. The best thing is that most of them are quite context sensitive. If you snatch something off a regular citizen they’ll keep walking, and suddenly start wondering where their money went. Next they might run off to a guard and notify him, who’ll then start snooping around. Guards react more to sight and sound too, such as doors opening, you bumping into chairs, or whatever else. Their level of suspicion gradually increases, until they decide to investigate for themselves. The AI isn’t so good that it gets frustrating, because it doesn’t break any of the inherent game rules, but it’s smart enough to keep you on your toes.
Just as in the previous games Thief 3 is largely about hiding in shadows. In the middle of the bottom part of the screen there’s a jewel of some sort that glows when you’re in a bright area, and goes dark when you’re in the shadows. This has always worked well, but the nice thing about Thief 3 is that it introduces dynamic lighting and shadows to the series. Just like in Splinter Cell the dynamic shadows are useful for hiding, and noticing movement around corners. You can eliminate many of the light sources by using water arrows or other means, but some lights remain lit regardless of your efforts. The only downside is that at least using my Ati X800 Pro there were quite a few lighting and shadow errors; such as dynamic shadows that’d flicker when they weren’t supposed to, or parts of the lightmaps that’d just go from bright to dark, or dark to bright when they weren’t supposed to. The jewel on the bottom of the screen acts somewhat surprisingly at times too, so even though a street might seem entirely covered in darkness the jewel just might go bright, causing nearby guards to take notice of you.
The textures are both good and bad, at the same time actually. The object (everything except characters) textures tend to look very nice from a slight distance, but if you look at them up close they seem blurry and somewhat low-res. A form of bump mapping seems to have been applied to some surfaces, but you shouldn’t expect the same level as in FarCry. The characters look very nice too, with especially detailed textures. Their animations tend to be quite good, but the movement is a little choppy in some cases.
Thief 3 uses the Deus Ex 2 engine, and it shares a bit of the same feel. In my opinion Thief 3 looks far better, and for some reason it also performs a lot better. But make no mistake; this game does require a fast PC. You may be able to play it on a low resolution with a slightly old video card, but if you want to crank up the resolution and detail then you better have the proper hardware.
Thief 3’s audio is also of a very high standard. The Thief games have some of the best atmosphere in the genre, and the audio is a crucial part of it. To progress in the game you really have to use your ears and listen to your surroundings. You don’t have a lot of fancy gadgets to help you (the only high-tech thing would have to be your mechanical eye that lets you zoom in), but by using sight and sound you can survive most situations. The surround mixing is also very nicely done, and there’s support for various new EAX modes, virtual environments, and so on. The background music is also very fitting – there’s just not that much of it. It’s usually very ambient, but it always seems to fit the situation or mission. If you’re inside a large stony mansion you’ll hear careful piano notes, but if you’re being chased by goons through the streets then it’ll be much more dramatic.
Those of you who played the previous games obviously remember the hilarious comments the guards would spew out randomly. Many of the voice talents are back, so expect drunkards, people shouting 'taffer’ at you, or just chatting about the strangest things. There are a few cases where the voice-over didn’t fit entirely, or even changed depending on the scenario (like a drunk guard suddenly sounding perfectly sober when you’ve thrown a box in his face), but for the most part it’s excellent. Garret sounds as cool as he’s always done, but he probably couldn’t even sound uncool even if he tried.
There are a few things I could nitpick about though. Thief 3 lets you change between a first and third person as you please. Even though the third person mode looks quite good it’s not an alternative for Thief 2 purists like me. Also, the movement while in first-person has been made more “realistic”, or in other words it’s somewhat wobbly, or in other words far from games like UT2004. This was obviously a conscious design choice, but I wonder if the third-person mode had been implemented if the game wasn’t release for the XBOX too. The menu could’ve been far better too. It can take some time to navigate the objectives screen because the font is large, few lines fit on the screen, and you usually need to read the text that’s at the bottom.
Also, the citizens of the city walk around completely aimlessly. Each has specific routes that they follow, but it would’ve been very interesting if the NPCs acted a bit like they did in Gothic 1+2, where they’d go chatting with bartenders, wander around for a bit, and go to bed. This would probably have been hard to implement from a technical point of view, but if you were aiming to improve the realism then that would be a good choice.
Additionally, it’s reasonably easy to get stuck on things. I like to explore and try strange things when playing games like this, and I ended up having to load because I got stuck in things. And finally, a lot more in-game objects should’ve had physics properties. You can tip over a nice number of things, and the characters use ragdoll physics, but I would’ve liked to see lamps (and the light it emits) that responded properly to collisions. The physics engine has a nice number of bugs too, where for instance two objects with physics properties would bounce on and off each other.
I had my doubts. I really, really hoped my memory of Thief 2 wouldn’t be ruined by an “over-consoled” PC game, but right from the start I sat there smiling. The atmosphere is intact, the story is very nice, the graphics are well above par, the audio is very good, and the gameplay should be interesting both for new and old players. With a few more months of development this game would have been truly excellent.
And to top it off, this is actually a fairly long game, so forget about finishing it in a weekend.
Thief 3 won’t win the shooter of the year award, but it’s a must-buy for fans of the previous games, and should definitely be considered by fans of the genre.