Away from parents and free to squeak by on the absolute minimum of effort, I ended up with a lot of free time in college. Between losing money at poker and getting caught up in more drama than a teen TV series, I took some time to check out lost PC games (the result of which solidified the JGR we have today). One of these games ended up being Thief. When I finally nabbed a bargain bin copy, I didn’t quite know what to expect. A week or two’s worth of bleary-eyed three A.M. sessions later, and I had come away with one of my all-time best gaming experiences.
Thief is a first-person game where you avoid guards and steal things. While it weaves a tale of intrigue through cutscenes and in-mission events, the concept ultimately goes no higher than that. But Looking Glass took this one-line idea and expanded on it, drilled into it, and thought it through until they had the most rich and detailed game about first-person thieving they could – the finest execution of the original premise that technology could allow. Forget about half-baked stealth sections in other games – if you ever wanted to play as a first-person thief, brother, this is the game.
You play as the enigmatic Garrett – a master burglar learned from an early age. Garrett was trained up to be a member of a secret order known as the “Keepers,” but after a falling-out, he left to pursue a nomadic lifestyle paid for through robbing the rich and powerful. He’s at one with the shadows and there’s no security he can’t break. After an initial heist, the plot kicks in – pitting Garrett against the mechanically-inclined Order of the Hammer, and the diametrically opposed, nature-worshipping Pagans.
You can’t peg Thief as the beginning of “stealth” as its own genre (that would probably fall to the MSX version of Metal Gear), but its decision to bring stealth into the first person view actually enhances the gameplay beyond simply being novel. Thief feels astoundingly “natural.” Movement keys (and combinations) let you move Garrett’s virtual body in nearly every helpful way you can think of, including leaning out from around corners, tilting forward to peer down on a landing below you, crouching in the shadows, or holding space to climb up short ledges. Objects you can interact with light up, allowing you to scoop up loot, silently pluck keys from the belt of a passing guard, or open doors and peek in.
Noise is also extremely natural and intuitive. Guards mumble their status to themselves (the oldest of stealth concessions) and their footsteps can be tracked across a very accurate stereo audioscape including panning and distance. Your own movement speed (creep, walk, run) determines the amount of sound created, forcing to you to gamble between speed and safety. Is this guard far enough away to sprint to the next room? Will he have turned around if I move too slowly? Floor surfaces also matter, with stone floors making a loud clatter, but rugs allowing you to move quickly and quietly. There’s even limited sound occlusion – guards won’t hear your racket through a few stone walls, and you can likewise lean against doors to listen for passing footsteps on the other side.
What’s not naturally intuitive is how visually hidden you are. With no ability to see you own body, you only have vague expectations that the shadowed area up ahead will be enough to mask you from sight. Enter the HUD’s stealth gem. This is a white rectangle at the bottom which brightens in relation to how visible you are, with a superfluous red/yellow indicator next to it to further drive home your risk of being spotted. A combination of the gem and the graphic engine’s deep, unambiguous shadows are almost assured to keep you safe. If guards are actively chasing you, however, they’ll see you regardless of how dark your gem is.
That’s not to say that your guard foes are particularly threatening, because honestly, they’re not. They will dutifully investigate any noise that grabs their attention, allowing you to bang your sword or throw objects to distract or direct them. They will only go on alert if they spy a dead comrade, a blood puddle, or a glimpse of you in the light. And the same AI concessions in modern stealth games are still in full effect here – they won’t react to a door that’s suddenly open, they won’t seek out their nearby buddy if they don’t see him for a while, and if you’re quiet enough, they’ll give up the search and lope back to their pre-planned patrol route. An un-alerted guard will literally walk right past you if you’re in deep shadow, even in the middle of a hallway. Therefore, the game really just boils down to moving from safe zone to safe zone, and danger only comes when you try to rush or mispredict a guard’s path.
However, there’s plenty danger if you are spotted. Any nearby guards will rush your position, and Garrett is intentionally rubbish in a fight. Your sword has simple strike and block abilities, but Garrett’s slow to move and essentially useless in anything more than a one on one brawl. Though you can snipe lookouts from afar with a bow, the harder difficulties require you to complete missions without bloodshed. This works, because Thief isn’t a game about fighting at all – in fact, the sword’s existence at all seems more like a concession to a broader gaming base that would feel underpowered without it. Instead, Thief’s real joy comes in marveling at your own cleverness and pulling off a perfect infiltration that never lets the guards even know you were there.
This may sound like an impossible task, but again, it’s never that difficult. The AI’s generous dopeyness is further enhanced by excellent equipment options. Levels have a specific item you’re supposed to steal – harder difficulties add additional objects – but there are always miscellaneous trinkets to grab. These are automatically converted to gold for use in buying inventory between missions. Gear includes flash bombs to aid escape, water arrows to douse torches or wash away blood, moss arrows to create a quiet patch on a loud tile floor, and distraction arrows to divert guards down hallways. You could theoretically buy your way out of most trouble, and if you can creep up on guards, you can systematically blackjack them with the same effects as killing (they don’t wake up) but no penalty.
Levels are usually open and non-linear, and crucially, you’re only presented with sketchy information going in. Maps are woefully incomplete, guard patterns must be sussed out during the heist, and there are multiple routes in, around, and to escape that you’ll need to discover as you go. On the one hand, this leads to killer moments like using a rope arrow to enter through an unwatched balcony, or the unscripted time when I escaped a guard by leaping into a courtyard fountain below.
Yet on the other, it introduces all the frustrations of having to feel your way around and come up with a plan on the fly. Loot is also exceedingly well-hidden, with no clues to guide you. The hardest difficulty will task you with nabbing roughly 75% of the level’s total loot, and you’ll be checking corners, under furniture, and cracks in walls to meet this quota. If you’re not prepared to observe from shadowed corners for minutes at a time, or wander levels looking for the last hidden piece of loot to advance, Thief’s not going to be your game.
Thief also goes off on a notorious tangent in a handful of levels, abandoning the core ideas for something closer to Indiana Jones. Garrett is required to head into some underground crypts, and while his climbing and creeping abilities still apply, he’s asked to use them against zombies and subterranean monsters. There’s endless amounts of trying to find your way through caverns with no map, and avoiding or shooting undead with limited “holy water” arrows so they’ll stay down. Thief Gold tries to rectify this by extending the story with three new “sneak in and steal” levels (with some extra focus on puzzles), and Thief II doesn’t make the same mistake. Still, if you play the first, you’ll have to deal with these weaker missions against foes who don’t particularly care how sneaky you are.
Graphically, the environments hold up better than the enemies do. As with System Shock 2, guards are low-poly abominations with jerky animation to match. Texture work is reasonably good though, and areas such as a dank sewer or an opulent manor generally look the part. The series’ steampunk/fantasy mashup art style comes across clearly. There’s no dynamic lighting here, but you do have the ability to turn shadows “off” and “on” by nailing wall torches with water arrows. Shadows also don’t blend quite as clearly visually as they do in the code – you’ll likely need to reference your light gem to determine areas of “partial” darkness.
No such issues on the sound side though, and what you hear seems in lock step with what enemies do. If your footsteps clatter too loudly, you can be sure someone else will hear it. Voice work also deserves a mention. Stephen Russell as Garrett is a perfect fit, delivering both cutscene dialogue and in-mission observations with deep, world-weary cynicism. And his comic mumblings as the ever-present dopey guard give some great reasons to stop and listen, well before No One Lives Forever made guard chatter famous. There’s no music during levels, as it should be, which allows you to listen for the crucial effects and indicators. Eric Brosius’ title theme is pretty bitchin’ though.
In short, Thief remains one of the best examples of the stealth genre there is. If you’re a fan of Splinter Cell, Hitman, Dishonored, or anything similar, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. Thief gives you all the tools you need to do the job comfortably – both literally and in terms of character abilities – while remaining brilliantly tense. You’re frequently rushed into action or an impromptu hiding spot, hoping it works, and finding yourself holding your breath as if it will help Garrett remain undetected. Missions are taxing enough that you may never want to play them again, but for that first time, cracking each increasingly impenetrable fortress never ceases to reward you with a smug smile.
The rules and your abilities just make natural sense. Light gem and excellent sound cues further maintain clarity. Balanced well – alerted guards are a real pain, while they’re not too difficult to sneak past. Expertly designed levels, and some decent shakeup in objectives and tasks.
The “zombie” levels. Requirements for the harder difficulties go a little beyond patience – if you’re not prepared to spend a lot of time in each mission, you’ll have a miserable time. Replay value also an issue because of this.
“Did you think those ancient phrases were mere words, Manfool?”