Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Looking Back at Thief: The Dark Project

I remember playing Thief II: The Metal Age about 10 years ago and enjoying it quite a bit. Alas, I only played a few levels before something drew me away from it. I mostly remember breaking into mansions, warehouses, and slinking through the city streets on my noble quest to liberate as much gold as possible from the city's aristocratic elite. I thought I knew what I was getting into by jumping back into the series where it at all started, with Thief: The Dark Project; I was pretty surprised, then, when I went into the first game and found myself descending into giant crypts and haunted cathedrals to sneak past and, more often, fight off platoons of undead zombies and skeletons, among other sinister, twisted monstrosities.

Developed by Looking Glass Studios and released in 1998, Thief: The Dark Project was a pioneer of first-person stealth gaming. Its design was years ahead of its time, with the advanced lighting and three-dimensional sound effects offering an unprecedented level of immersive feedback for would-be thieves trying to hide in the shadows and avoid detection. It's impressive, really, how well it holds up after all this time; games have come a long way in the past 17 years, and yet modern stealth games really aren't that much more sophisticated than Thief. It would not be that ridiculous to claim that no other game has handled stealth as well as the original Thief, with the possible exception of Thief II, but that's a discussion for another article. For now, it's time to take a look at Thief: The Dark Project (the Gold Edition, specifically) to figure out what's good and what's not good with it.

First things first: the stealth mechanics. Stealth in Thief works like you'd expect from any stealth game at this point; crouch low to the ground, walk instead of run, and stay out of patrolling guards' line of sight. Hide behind obstacles if need be, and lean around the corner to check if the coast is clear before you move. Toss objects in the other direction to distract guards. Sneak up behind an enemy and plunk him in the back for a non-lethal knockout. Carry his unconscious body to a corner somewhere so that other guards won't stumble on it and go into high alert.

Where things get a bit different in Thief is the lighting. Avoiding line of sight is important, but even more important is staying in the shadows; a guard can be looking right at you, but won't actually notice you if you're concealed by complete darkness. That's usually pretty easy to do, because the whole game takes place at night, with only scattered torches and electric lamps breaking up the darkness. Those lights create gradient shadows of their own; the closer you get to a light source, the more visible you become. From far away, a guard might not notice if you're in that grey area between light and darkness, but at closer distances, he'll be able to spot you. The game's iconic "light gem," displayed in the bottom center of the screen, progressively fills up with light as you move into the light, thus giving you constant, perfect feedback on your visibility.

Thief's other major twist on the now tried-and-true stealth formula is in monitoring the sounds your footsteps make on different surfaces. Soft surfaces like grass and carpet mute your footsteps enough that you can run up behind enemies without them noticing, while harder surfaces like tile or metal make your footsteps click and clank loud enough for guards to hear. You'd think that Garrett -- the game's protagonist, a skilled, professional thief -- would wear soft-soled shoes that would allow him to sneak around more effectively, but this is a case where gameplay mechanics take priority over logical sense, and the footsteps add so much extra depth to the gameplay that just isn't there in other stealth games, because it matters how you approach guards and avoid patrol routes in different situations, and it forces you to adapt your strategies to your environment.

One of the levels, for instance, has marble floors almost everywhere, with thin slivers of runway carpet running down the center of the hallways, broken up at corners and intersections. Guards patrol up and down the hallways, and it takes so much more timing and precision to take them out because there's so little soft ground for you to move upon. In one particular situation, I was sneaking up behind a guard in a grassy exterior planning to knock him out, and stepped onto a metal plate; the guard heard the noise, turned around, and caught me. The game punished me for not paying enough attention to my surroundings, which is just a wonderful feeling to know that the game expects you to be mindful of these things and make intelligent decisions about what you do.

As with most stealth games, Thief gives you several tools to assist with your sneakery. The most prominent of these tools are water arrows, which you can fire to douse torches or to wash away puddles of blood. Moss arrows can be fired onto the floor to create soft patches of moss that mute your footsteps. Noisemaker arrows create a loud, constant ringing noise that draws all guards from a wide radius to inspect the noise. Regular broadhead arrows are used primarily as a weapon for killing distant enemies, but can also be used to distract local guards by firing the arrow away from the guard's patrol route. Gas arrows knock guards unconscious on contact. Rope arrows can be fired into wooden structures to lower a rope you can climb to higher ledges. Additionally, you have things like flashbombs, gas mines, and speed potions in your potential arsenal, all of which should be self-explanatory.

With all these great tools, what challenge would the game be without a little resource management? In most cases, you don't have access to all of these items in a single level, and the ones you do have are usually in limited supply. There might, for instance, be 40 or more light sources in a level, but you'll have only six water arrows at your disposal. Getting through the level successfully, then, requires you to be diligent with how you spend your limited supplies. Each room offers a personal challenge that makes you think and evaluate your options: can I get through this without using my arrows? And when a guard suddenly walks into the room and you find yourself sitting in plain view of a fireplace, it creates quite the adrenaline rush as you try to figure out if you have time to move into the shadows, or if you should bite the bullet and spend a water arrow dousing the fireplace.

When it comes to stealth games, enemy AI needs to have a pretty specific balance of stupidity and intelligence. On the one hand, they need to be observant enough that they can detect you in a realistic, believable way, and to ensure that there's some element of tension and challenge in avoiding detection; on the other hand, they need to be lenient enough that you can make minor mistakes without blowing the entire mission or resorting to constant save-scumming. The guards in Thief strike that balance pretty well. They're smart enough that they'll take note if they see a body, or an open door or suspicious bloodstain, or if they hear you running, or if they catch a short glimpse of you, but they won't immediately go into full alert; rather, they'll start searching for you and give up after a short while. This gives you enough of a window to correct your mistakes, and also allows for a lot of tension as they try to sniff you out while you slink away in the shadows, mere feet away.

The game's use of three-dimensional sound is also a tremendous aid in helping you keep track of where guards are, even if you can't see them. When a guard walks down a hallway, you can hear his footsteps echoing through the building, and thanks to the sound design, you can tell where he is, how far away he is, and which direction he's going. Even without using headphones or a full surround sound system, and just running the game with basic stereo speakers, I was easily able to pinpoint left or right, up or down. The surface of the floor affects the sound of the guards' footsteps just as much as it affects your own, so that creates an equal an opposite reaction: soft surfaces help you stay quiet, but it also makes it a bit harder to hear guards moving about, and hard surfaces make it harder for you to stay quiet, but make it easy to tell where guards are. You can also hear them coughing, whistling, or muttering to themselves, or eavesdrop on entire conversations.

The game is broken into 15 missions, each of which places you in a unique map with a different set of objectives. Higher difficulties, in true old school fashion, concern themselves less with simply making the game harder, but rather add more objectives and change the level composition to instill a more dynamic, natural challenge while adding a ton of replay value. Before each mission, you're given a chance to buy extra supplies, like more arrows or healing potions, with the money you earned in the previous mission. Specific objectives vary from mission to mission, but one of your goals is almost always "steal as much stuff as possible." The fact that everything you steal turns into real money that you can spend to improve your thievery in the next mission gives you a lot of incentive to actually explore the maps as much as possible.

Even though the game is broken up as a series of completely separate missions, it does a pretty good job of conveying a persistent world and story. It helps that your earnings carry over to the next mission when you're buying more gear, but it also helps that the game has you revisit a handful of familiar locations over the course of its 15 missions. Walking about the city streets in certain missions, it's obvious that you're only ever playing in a closed-off section that only exists for the purpose of that mission, but it does give you at least a sense that you're part of a bigger scene. The story, meanwhile, takes a while to get going, but after the sixth mission, your objectives start to reflect an on-going, over-arching goal. And it's pretty neat how the game implements dynamic mission objectives that change mid-mission, throwing you for a loop on occasion and leading you in unexpected directions.

Most mission maps are somewhat open-ended, allowing you to choose how you'll approach your objectives and explore the map. Missions like the Bonehoard Crypt, the Thieves' Guild, the Haunted Cathedral, and the Lost City have huge, sprawling maps with a ton of places to explore; they're so big and complicated that it's a challenge simply figuring out how you get from one area to another. You get an in-game map for each mission, but these are always mere approximations of the level's layout; in order to navigate successfully (and not get lost, in the case of the larger maps), you have to use your compass to figure out how areas are positioned relative to one another, and pay really close attention to your surroundings so that you can actually learn the map's layout by committing what you see to memory.

Completing each of the "steal as much stuff as possible" objectives requires you to explore every inch of the maps, particularly on higher difficulties where you're expected to steal a higher value of stuff. It's here where the level design impresses most, because there are a ton of hidden nuances to discover, from secret rooms that can only be accessed if you notice that a section of a wall looks slightly different, or if you do something completely unexpected like crawling inside of a fireplace. In most cases, these secrets feel pretty natural; they don't stand out or call attention to themselves like in other games that want you to realize "hey, this is a secret area." If you're exploring a dilapidated ruin and see a crack in the wall, you might think nothing of it, but if you peer closer, you might just realize you can stick your arm through and grab a couple extra water arrows. Exploration rewards curiosity and tempts you to poke your nose everywhere you can. Being able to jump and climb freely offers you so much freedom to explore off the beaten path, and the inclusion of rope arrows gets you thinking even further outside the box.

Although many of the maps are impressively large and complex, some of them feel needlessly massive and convoluted. The sixth mission, when you infiltrate the local thieves' guild, takes place largely underground and has you navigating dozens of similar-looking, cramped tunnels and sewer systems that all lead to different areas and never let you see more than a few yards ahead of yourself at any given moment. It felt almost impossible to keep track of where I was; I spent over two hours doing what probably could be accomplished in 30 minutes, if you know what you're doing, because I was so lost that I was literally walking in circles. A lot of maps are apt to give you three-to-five branching paths, but you have no idea how far each one goes until you explore it in its fullest; you might arbitrarily pick one of them and eventually find yourself on the complete opposite side of the level needing an item you presumably would've found in one of the other paths if you'd gone that way first, instead, which can lead to a lot of backtracking and niggling doubt about what you may have missed. It can can get awfully tedious at times.

But man, some of the levels are just plain cool. The Bonehoard crypt with its dark, spooky atmosphere, the traps that keep you on your guard, and the cavernous chambers that overwhelm you with their sheer volume; Constantine's mansion, where you're tasked with stealing a prized sword, but as you climb higher into the mansion's upper floors you find yourself in a disturbing haunted house, with hallways that are literally twisted, rooms that are sideways or upside, optical illusions, false doors, doors that lead nowhere, and all other kinds of weird things; the Mage's Tower, where you first have to infiltrate the central complex and then ascend the four elemental-themed towers, swimming underwater, navigating underground tunnels, riding platforms through the air, and dodging volcanic lava plates; and the return to the Cathedral, with its terrifying undead enemies and unsettling sound effects, and the mission sequence in the second half where you're performing a ritual to put a ghost to rest.

As I mentioned at the top of the article, I wasn't expecting anything like this at all, which absolutely blew my mind as I went through the game and kept discovering all of these weird, crazy things. I mean, Thief II, from what I played, was all about fairly ordinary stealth scenarios, trying to sneak past and steal stuff from ordinary human patrols. There was none of this dark, supernatural stuff going on -- and yet, Thief: The Dark Project has you dealing with zombies and flying skulls as early as the second mission, when you're trying to infiltrate the Cragscleft prison through the abandoned mines. The very next mission has you descending into a haunted crypt. Later on, you're dealing with giant bipedal lizard monsters, humanoid crab-men, fire elementals, ghostly apparitions, and armor-clad skeletal warriors, The enemies get even more bizarre as even more outlandish things get introduced in the final levels.

The game is split roughly in half between missions that involve the typical "break into a guarded location and steal something" scenarios, where you're dealing exclusively with human patrols, and the more exotic scenarios that lean almost more towards survival-horror, where you're sneaking past and often fighting undead monsters on your quest to steal something from a more ominous, haunted location. Personally, I enjoyed the change of pace that came with alternating these types of scenarios, and the horror fan in me certainly appreciated the increased tension that came with the creepier atmospheres and more sinister enemies. The stealth gameplay works a lot better, however, when you're going up against innocent guards in a mansion; you feel more like a burglar breaking into someplace you shouldn't be, trying to leave no trace you were there, whereas the supernatural levels make you feel like a generic rogue in a fantasy action-adventure game.

I'm more inclined, for instance, to buy into the stealth gameplay and play peacefully, avoiding guards as much as I can and only knocking people out when I have to, when I'm going up against human opponents, because I'm not actually fond of murdering people in these types of games. In the supernatural levels, I have no qualms with killing zombies, or skeleton warriors, or acid-spewing bipedal lizard monsters -- it's my natural instinct, in fact. In the last few levels, when the game starts going off the rails towards its crazy demonic climax, I gave up on stealth entirely and just started killing everything in sight, because it was faster and easier than trying to sneak past everything -- in some cases, it was nearly impossible because of how damn many there were. And again, it felt like the more natural, appropriate thing to do, considering they're monsters spawned by a demon for the sole purpose of spreading destruction throughout the human world.

Whereas all of the stealth controls and gameplay feel incredibly smooth and responsive, Thief's combat really shows its age, and it hasn't aged well. There are some good ideas at work, here, like manually aiming your crosshair on either side of an enemy to do a left or right horizontal slash, or holding a button to hold your sword out in a parry stance and having to manually aim to block attacks, or how if an enemy attacks at the same time as you and your swords collide, then both attacks clang and miss. But the whole thing is sluggishly imprecise, and comes off feeling almost unbearably clunky. The delay between when you click to attack and when the attack actually goes through is enough that you have to fall into the classic routine of moving in and out of the enemy's melee range as if you're in a synchronized dance instead of a fight, and if you decide to click and hold the attack to charge up for a stronger hit, then the delay feels even clunkier.

Other elements of the controls feel equally dated and clunky. Cycling through inventory items is a chore, and I hate how the game "equips" items to your active use slot when you pick them up because of how often I would accidentally drink a health potion or fire a flashbomb when I was trying to open a door or pick something else up. Moving around the levels is, on occasion, troublesome; it's a little too easy to get caught on terrain, and you'll sometimes bounce off of structures you should easily be able to grab onto and mantle. Sometimes when you try to sneak up stairs, the game treats them like you're walking into a wall, and you likewise get caught all too frequently on enemy corpses, unable to walk over them. If you're sneaking up to an enemy planning to knock them out, every time you charge the attack will force you to stand up, and then you have to hit the crouch button immediately.

So, does Thief: The Dark Project still hold up nearly 20 years later? I played it for the first time ever and really enjoyed it -- most of its mechanics are solid, and it offers a genuinely exciting experience for anyone who's a fan of stealth games. I particularly enjoyed how much it made me think, and how it rewarded my ingenuity and penalized my recklessness. As a fan of exploration and horror games, Thief: The Dark Project scratched a few extra itches I wasn't even expecting. There's a reason this game (and its sequel) consistently appear near the top of modern "best stealth games of all time" lists; sure, it shows its age in a few areas, but the overall experience is timeless, and definitely worth playing if you fancy smart games.


  1. Great review. I just started the Haunted Cathedral mission. So I wasn't the only one overwhelmed with the size of the Thieves' Guild. Constantine's mansion felt tiny in comparison. I shit you not I passed that mission under an hour through sheer luck since I just happened to have gone to where the required item was first before going to where I actually had to use it. All I could think was, "Wow, I'm so glad I did that first."

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  4. So it turns out there's a second half to The Sword mission that I totally missed. Damn it.

  5. Just in the process of playing this game, made it to Level 3, but holy shit, is this game level design convoluted! Zombies and dinosaurs all over the place, a shitload of chambers and hallways and absolutely no idea where to go next. Truth be told, I'm beginning to doubt if I can actually beat this game at all (and I did beat the first Deus Ex on the hardest setting). Probably I will but I really can't spend playing more than an hour or so these days (too busy with life).