|It being Christmas time and all,
Id been looking forward to indulging one of my personal holiday traditions: whipping
up a bowl of wassail and rereading Dickens Oliver Twist. After all,
theres something decidedly Christmas-y about any tale in which a destitute orphan
rises through ranks of urchin pickpockets, endures poverty, depravity and exploitation
only to get everything he wantsa mom and dad and free room and board. This year, I
thought it might build some character to put a new spin on the annual ritual and get a
more authentic feel for what goes on in the book. Yes, this year I would become
Twist and try to see the world from his point of view, bruises and all. Instead of picking
pockets and artful dodging, though, I grabbed a flaming bowl of plum pudding and sat down
with Thief: The Dark Project, Eidos latest action title. Of course, it became
clear from the very start that this game had little in common with Twist. Indeed,
while the world depicted in Thief is as creepy and sinister as anything Dickens
cooked up for Fagins den of thieves, there is nothing sentimental about it. Then
again, I dont think Dickens intended to offer his audience the Victorian-era
equivalent of one of the best written, looking and sounding multimedia action
gaming experiences ever released.
First of all, Thief--unlike most of the 3D shooters it might initially be mistaken for--is not a shoot-em-up extravaganza featuring some anatomically ridiculous hero who defies physics, the law of averages and karmic cycles while obliterating mutants, techno-monstrosities and civilizations in his wake. In fact, Thief holds little truck with games characterized by lots of noise and action, which isnt to say that it lacks these qualities. This game offers plenty of action, most of it of the sweaty-palmed, hair-raising variety. Yet Thief demands that players exercise stealth, silence and economy of action in order to proceed through the game. Players stand a better chance of sticking around if they choose the surfaces upon which they walk, proceed slowly, and stick to the shadows. In addition, Thief is one of the only action titles I can think of which rewards players for patience and thoroughness and encourages players to cover their tracks. So when players sneak up behind surly manor guards or fanatical zealots and blackjack them, for instance, it is crucial to dump the body--in a dark corner, behind a column, in the sewer--lest a passerby discover the crime and start screaming, literally, bloody murder.
On the other hand, if players can make it through the twelve missions by killing as few adversaries as possible, they stand better chances of successfully fulfilling their directives; the expert level of the game requires players to avoid physical contact with other characters at all costs. Players need to keep in mind, too, that they have very limited health supplies--and the difficulty of procuring healing potions lends this game a sometimes frustrating verisimilitude. The first few times I played the game, I met my end several times because I was sloppy and left evidenceopen doors, knocked-over goblets and up-turned dishes, cadaversin my wake. When I finally got in the habit of erasing my trail, however, I was disappointed to notice one of the only weaknesses of this game. Namely, after dumping a stiff into a wooden chest and closing the lid, I was chagrined to spy the victims arms and legs radiating from the container. It was as though the chest sprouted limbs; for a second, I wasnt sure if this werebox was a new species of villain to be blackjacked or not. As it turned out, this situation was simply the first instance of clipping problems that occur throughout Thief.
In Thief, players assume the persona of Garrett, a petty crime-committing street punk turned master thief who steals from the stinking rich nobility and merchants of the City and gives the wealth he acquires to himself. One of the most entertaining aspects of this game is the protagonists cynical personality, which emerges throughout play as Garrett offers his opinions on the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, the frightening zealotry of the religious-military-industrial complex (the Hammers), or the eerie supernatural currents that run throughout the story (the Undead, the Leaf-man). Upon entering a book-lined library in a lords manner, for example, Garret observes: "I wonder if he reads them, or if theyre just there for show." This intermittent editorializing enriches the game on many levels. It supports for players the illusion that the game occurs in real time in a real place. It also reminds players of the larger narrative of the spiritual war raging between the technologically puritanical Hammers and the chthonic impulses manifested by the Leaf-man and his minions that frame Garretts adventures. And finally, his voice sensitizes players to the sound of this game. At times, after lurking in silence and listening for awhile, Garretts wry voice shatters a players concentration to the extent that I often found myself running from or ducking in shadows at the sound of this characters speech. While unsettling, these unexpected asides provide a sort of hilarious release. Indeed, in the end, it is Thiefs sound that finally steals the show from Garrett.
Thiefs sound will blow away everyone who plays it; the way this game sounds stuns everyone Ive forced to listen to it. Anyone who plays video and computer games knows that sound and music can make a game either a maddeningly mind-numbing exercise in repetition or a reality-warping immersive experience. Thief belongs to the latter category. As players near the door of a city pub, drunken, boisterous voices float from behind the windows; while ensconced in the darkened crawl space of a tomb players can make out the plaintive moaning and halting shuffle of flesh-eating zombies. For some mysterious reason, other characters nonchalantly whistle at different moments in the game. While at times helpful precaution, its usually just downright creepy.
What makes this game so sonically convincing? Specifically, Looking Glass Studios 3D Dark Engine, an AI engine so sophisticated that it can "hear" how players move on different surfaces and "see" where they are in respect to light and shadow. A few players have complained that this engine lacks the stunning visuals generated by the Quake 2 Engine. I would point out, however, that Quake 2 and its imitators are much more visually oriented games; players assess their progress through the game by blitzing through levels towards a cumulative blowout. Thief, on the other hand, is not as linear. Not only do players have to cover their tracks, they often have to backtrack to finish their missions, relying on aural as well as visual clues to piece together the layout of a level or to get past perilous situations.All in all, while some players may find that Thief lacks the visual sophistication of other action/adventure games, it provides players with a beautifully textured and well rendered world pleasing to the eye. The sound in Thief, though, makes it amazing entertainment. I would buy this game for the sound and story alone. How often do you get to be the wise-ass Everyman sticking it to the oppressive establishment from the shadows? The fact that Thief also provides players with challenging missions and is a blast to play leaves me begging, along with young Oliver to Mr. Bumble: "Please, sir, I want some more!" -