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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thief: Deadly Shadows is Surprisingly Good

There are two things I've been persistently hearing about Thief III: Deadly Shadows for over a decade: first, is that it's an inferior disappointment compared to its highly-regarded predecessors, and second, is that the Shalebridge Cradle level is so good that it completely makes up for all of the game's shortcomings. Upon completing the game, I feel like I've been somewhat misled all these years. There's a ton of notable detraction from the precedents established in Thief and Thief 2, but it's really not a bad game at all, or even a bad Thief game. The Shalebridge Cradle, meanwhile, is a really well-designed level, but it didn't impress me nearly as much as the constant years of hype led me to expect. 

There are merits for both arguments -- I can agree with both, to an extent -- but I feel like people have been exaggerating the extreme positives and negatives of this game for years, when Deadly Shadows is just kind of an average game all around. There's a lot to criticize in this game (and indeed, I'll be doing a lot of that below), but there's some really good stuff at work here, too. It's a pity that the game had to compromise so much for a new platform and a new audience, and that some of its more brilliant ideas didn't work out like Ion Storm intended, because I actually kind of like Deadly Shadows, despite all of its flaws. 

I absolutely hated the game at first, though. Everything about it felt horribly wrong, because just about everything was different -- usually for the worse. It's as if, in the process of moving to a new studio and designing the sequel for a new platform, the development team took the successful, proven blueprints of Thief and Thief 2 and threw them out the window, electing instead to reinvent the wheel, only to end up with some kind of octagonal contraption. Sure, it vaguely resembles a wheel, and it does roll if you push it, but it's really bumpy and just not very good.

Garrett's bedroom in his apartment.

A lot of the changes seem to stem primarily from consolization. Because of the original Xbox's inferior memory capacity, levels couldn't be as big or as open as they used to be, resulting in more compact level design broken into multiple loading zones. And because console audiences were perceived as more casual than the PC audiences that played Thief and Thief 2, levels in Deadly Shadows are a lot more linear, and valuable loot sparkles brightly so that it's easier to see. The tutorial is particularly disappointing, with its glowing footstep trails that show you exactly where to go, and its full screen text prompts that pop up to tell you exactly what to do. It's important that a game explain to you how things work, but that much hand-holding up front was almost insulting to me, and the text prompts and glowing footsteps were completely immersion breaking.

It really makes you wonder if anyone at Ion Storm had ever heard of the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Thief 1 had a perfectly fine, if simple, tutorial section where you got to play as Garrett going through his Keeper training. It was basically an obstacle course with an on-screen character talking to you, explaining how things work and issuing commands. It was both thematic and immersive, and most importantly, it could be skipped if you already knew what you were doing. I can only assume Ion Storm made the tutorial a mandatory part of the first mission, and made it so heavy-handed, because they had little faith in console audiences to figure stuff out on their own, or to actually play the tutorial if it wasn't mandatory. The first mission, then, is utterly bland and annoying because of the tutorial.

Movement has to be the absolute worst thing about Deadly Shadows, though. Whereas movement felt smooth and responsive in Thief 1 & 2, movement in Deadly Shadows is a clunky, imprecise mess. As the first game in the series to be playable in third-person, Garrett needed a complete body model with a full range of animations. To make the first-person perspective work with those animations, they plugged the camera directly into Garrett's head, which leads to a lot of clunky head-bobbing and awkward delays when you try to move or turn a certain way and find Garrett's body pulling the camera away from where you expect to be.

Surveying the situation from the rooftops. 

When you start moving from a stand still, the camera delays for a split second and then sort of zooms forward to catch up, and when you come to a stop, the camera lurches forward slightly and then pulls back. When you jump, the camera seems to stagger, and when you go up stairs it bounces almost like it's being dragged up the steps. If you turn around and then move forward, Garrett will spin out a short distance, running a small semi-circle, because his head is turned further than his body, and pressing forward causes his body to move forward and then turn to catch up to his head. Leaning has a slow, rigid feel to it -- you release the button and have to sit there and wait a full second or more for Garrett's animation to move him back into a normal upright position. Even strafing against walls, and thereby bumping into them, causes the camera to jerk and spaz unpleasantly.

A lot of actions actually lock the controls up on you, which can be a significant immersion-breaker. When you pick a lock, the game zooms in on the lock and doesn't let you move or look around until you disengage from the lock. When you pick up a body, the camera takes control and locks your movement and camera control while Garrett kneels down to grab the body. When you blackjack a guard, the controls and camera lock up while Garrett executes the attack. The same happens for getting on or off of a ladder, or when you jump in or out of wall-climbing.

The result is a movement system that feels clunky, awkward, unwieldy, and imprecise. Part of the reason Thief 1 & 2 were so good is because the movement system felt snappy and responsive; it was easy to do exactly what you intended to do and made you feel like you had a tight kinetic control over Garrett's movements. Deadly Shadows makes Garrett's movements work at odds with your intentions, often leading you to fall off ledges (and die) or to bump into things (and alert guards), and just generally making you feel like you're controlling a bumbling, drunken buffoon, which shouldn't be the case for a so-called "master thief."

Don't turn around the corner. Nothing to see here good buddy.

Melee combat was also changed for the worse, perhaps in an effort to emphasize the stealth system over combat. I criticized the combat in Thief 1 & 2 for feeling clunky and sluggish, but at least it had some good ideas; more importantly, once you got the hang of it, you could actually fare pretty well based on sheer skill. Garrett's sword has been replaced with a pitiful dagger in Deadly Shadows; you can't block attacks anymore, and you can't aim a certain way for different types of attacks. All you can do is mash the attack button and flail wildly at an extremely close range. Any time you go into combat, you're guaranteed to suffer a ton of damage because the system is just so terrible, which means any time you get caught by guards, you have to run away or else reload a save file.

It's especially problematic because now, in order to execute a stealth KO with the blackjack, you have to be directly behind an unaware guard. It used to be that you could knock out a guard from any angle, as long as you were close enough to hit them and they didn't notice you. You could even run directly up to a guard in a well-lit room and hit him from the front, if you could catch him by surprise by getting to him quickly enough. Knocking guards out felt natural in Thief 1 & 2; it was intuitive and enabled you to do whatever made the most sense in the scenario, whereas Deadly Shadows makes it feel artificially restricting. Consider that, if a guard is sitting in a wooden chair at a dining table, he's completely invincible to knockout because his back is protected. If you whack him in the back of the head, he brushes it off like a hit from rolled-up newspaper, and turns around to kick your ass.

Then there are all the weird technical changes and issues. There's no setting in the options menu to adjust mouse sensitivity, and you can't even get to the options menu while in-game; you have to save and exit out to the main menu. The field-of-view is set uncomfortably low for a first-person game, and the menus and fonts look like something out of the early days of RuneScape. I also encountered numerous glitches, including countless times when Garrett got stuck in a jumping animation, floating around on the ground unable to do anything. I got stuck on the terrain countless times and clipped through walls on occasion. The physics are pretty wonky, too, with Garrett sort of floating in mid-air for a second at the top of his jump, and wooden barrels and boxes that frequently make colossal, thunderous noises when you lightly brush your elbow against them, and ragdoll effects that break NPCs' spines in half as they collapse backwards on themselves.

Ridiculous ragdoll effects, complete with atomic blue object highlight.

A lot of other features that had become staple elements of Thief 1 & 2 are inexplicably missing in Deadly Shadows, and their absence is immediately noticeable and off-putting. There are no more cutscenes before mission briefings; all you get is a menu screen that shows Garrett's narration in text form, along with his usual voice-over. You can still lean left and right, but they removed the ability to lean forward. Swimming is completely gone, thereby removing entire aspects of level design. Rope arrows are gone, replaced by wall-climbing gloves that come later in the game. Arrows disappear after they're fired and can no longer be reclaimed if you miss, and the different sounds your footsteps make on different surfaces seems to play a much less significant role in the stealth system.

With all of that stuff missing, what's been added in their place? There's the afore-mentioned climbing gloves, which aren't as fun or as creative as the rope arrows, while tending to have extremely limited uses. Lock-picking now involves a mini-game where you have to orient the lockpick along the four cardinal directions to unlock a series of tumblers, finding the right position for each tumbler. It's ok. There are a few new items, like oil flasks that you can throw to make guards slip on them (I never even bothered with these) and gas bombs that function like gas arrows, except thrown like a grenade. You can also press a button to press yourself against a wall, which is useful for getting out of guards' paths in narrow corridors or for finding that extra bit of shadow to conceal yourself in, but I forgot about it entirely because it seems like it only works in areas where it's specifically expected; almost any time I thought to use it, it didn't even work.

The biggest addition to Deadly Shadows is the semi-open hub that exists between missions. Instead of just going through a series of missions, starting at a menu screen and being dropped into separate maps, Deadly Shadows takes place in a persistent world that requires you to move through the city to get to each mission area. Additionally, there are merchants you can visit to sell your stolen goods or to buy extra thieving supplies, and there are optional side-missions you can complete for extra rewards if you explore the city sufficiently to find them. You can also pick the pockets of citizens as they walk through the streets or rob merchants and taverns as you see fit, all while keeping out of sight of the city guard, who will try to arrest you on sight as a known criminal.

Spotted by a guards in the city streets.

The fact that you get to stay in Garrett's perspective between missions enhances the immersion quite a bit, since you're in his shoes at every step of the game -- time rarely passes when you're not in control of Garrett, or watching him in a cutscene. It's also nice to get a stronger feel for Garrett's everyday life, in terms of seeing more of what the city is like and how his neighbors, fences, and suppliers talk to him. I also like all the extra freedom it offers for exploration, to find hidden areas and complete optional side-missions. The semi-open nature of the city hub even lets you choose the order you tackle missions in a few key areas, which makes you feel a little bit more in control of the game.

But while the city hub sounds like a nice addition conceptually, it doesn't work that well in practice. One could argue just as easily that it simply makes you do all the boring legwork between missions that the game used to cut out for you -- slowly trudging through the streets just to get to the next mission, and running back-and-forth across town to sell all of your junk to different merchants, since each one only buys certain types of items. The whole process is pointless, anyway, because there's never any reason to buy anything from the shops; everything you could possibly need is easily found within missions and sitting around the city streets, waiting to be picked up. The only thing you ever need to buy is the climbing gloves.

The option for somewhat non-linear exploration is nice, but the structured limitations get awfully annoying when areas are conveniently inaccessible until you need to go there. It was particularly bad when I overheard people on the street talking about robbing a museum by sneaking through an underground tunnel; I found the tunnel, and then was stopped by an invisible wall because I apparently wasn't meant to go there yet. Another section of the city is sealed off because it's supposedly under quarantine, but then the quarantine is inexplicably lowered later in the game, and once you're in there's no evidence of there having been a quarantine at all. And, in general, it's kind of difficult to feel like you're in a real city when everywhere is divided into tiny regions and separated by loading zones.

Selling goods to a fence. 

The presence of city guards in the streets is seemingly to maintain tension and stealth gameplay between missions, but their behavior is more annoying than anything else, particularly because of their occasional sixth sense for detecting you. How, for instance, can they differentiate the sound of my footsteps from those of the crowd around me when I'm walking behind them? You'd think I'd blend in with the sound of random citizens walking the streets, but they somehow know it's me and pull out their swords to apprehend me. In another situation I'm breaking into an apartment; I'm crouched, moving as silently as possible with the guards' back to me, and yet the moment I step into the apartment he draws his weapon and comes charging at me. In another situation I silently break into an armory and knock out the blacksmith; in the process of looting the place, a guard walks by outside and somehow knows I'm in there robbing the place, even though I closed the door.

It's equally ridiculous how, if you knock a guard out, another one spawns immediately to replace him, leaving you with five seconds or less to hide the body before the replacement resumes the post. I decided to test the limits at one point and gave up after knocking essentially the same guard out six times and dumping six unconscious bodies in an alley. It was kind of fun sneaking past guards in the streets at first, but it gets repetitive really quickly. After a while, you might realize it's faster and easier just to run past them, especially since they all get tired and give up chasing you so quickly. Then again, they seem to get frozen in time the moment you cross a loading zone. At one point I was in hot pursuit of guards and went through a loading zone. I then watched a cutscene in which an entire night passed, and then spent 20-30 minutes breaking out of the building, only to find the same guards in the same positions mid-pursuit when I stepped back outside.

Besides guards, there are also hammerites and pagans roaming parts of the city, who will attack you on sight unless you gain their favor through the game's faction system. From a thematic standpoint, it makes very little sense that Garrett would voluntarily seek to help either of these groups, considering he's been at odds with them at various times throughout both previous games, and there's little practical benefit to doing so. All it does it make them stop attacking you, which admittedly makes certain tasks in the city a bit easier, but it has no effect in missions; pagans and hammers you encounter in missions will be hostile regardless of your status with them. You can ally with both factions, so there are no consequences for choosing one over the other (no branching paths or extra opportunities), and getting on their good sides involves completely mundane MMO-style tasks. The whole thing feels kind of pointless, as if they wanted to do a lot more with it but just ran out of time. Or else, it was just a half-baked idea from the start.

This guy's really happy to be a hammerite. 

Deadly Shadows isn't all bad, however. Some subtle changes are worth praising and acknowledging, like how some guards now carry torches with them, adding a new layer of gameplay to the mix as you try to stay inside of their moving shadow, or slink away as your dark corner of safety is slowly revealed to the light. Guards are also more perceptive now; they notice when other guards or loot are missing from somewhere, and they'll start searching the area for trouble. They're more reactive to torches going out suddenly, and their idle banter with other guards, or the comments they direct to you, are generally more entertaining ("Anyone there? We're friendly and don't know how to fight. Bah, we're wasting our time."). Rats often scurry about the floor and squeal if you step on them, which can alert guards to your presence, so that's something else you have to be mindful of.

Where Deadly Shadows actually improves over its predecessors is atmosphere. A lot of this is simply because it was released years after the originals, and therefore looks and sounds a lot better, but there's a definite artistic stroke to the way Deadly Shadows' levels are constructed. The levels in Deadly Shadows may not be as open or as complex as those in Thief 2, but the hammer cathedral, seaside manor, Shalebridge cradle, and Wieldstrom museum are just about on par with the levels in Thief 2, and are actually some of the most memorable levels of the entire series.

The seaside manor may be my favorite level of any Thief game. The mansion itself is beautiful, but there was a rather tranquil feel to sneaking through it with the rain clapping against the roof and the occasional lightning cracks illuminating the rooms through the glass ceilings while thunder rolled in the distance. It was picturesque, and the soundtrack that plays in the level, with its melancholy piano, chimes, and strings. really brought out the emotive situation of the burglary. You're there stealing from a woman grieving over her deceased husband; she sits at the observatory balcony by herself 24 hours a day, surrounded by servants who come and go to take care of her, and yet feeling so very alone, while those very servants plot to rob her blind. After interacting with her directly, and hearing the voice message her husband had left for her, and hearing how her servants talked about her behind her back, I felt so empathetic for her that I actually felt bad stealing from her.

The opening shot of "Robbing the Cradle."

The Shalebridge Cradle, meanwhile, is alleged to be "the scariest level in any game, even putting Amnesia’s most frightening moments to shame." Others claim "it not only beats every other level in the game - nay, the series - it beats every other moment in every other FPS game I ever played. Sod that, every other game of any kind," and frequently tops the list in discussion boards for the scariest level anyone's ever played. Kieron Gillen wrote a 10-page article for PC Gamer that reviewed just that one level by itself, arguing that "it’s probably the scariest level ever made, an experiment in non-linear storytelling methods that pays off handsomely and is one of the towering gaming achievements of the past year." There has been immeasurable praise for the Shalebridge Cradle over the past 11 years, and its reputation is the primary reason I started playing the series; after feeling so disappointed with Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I wanted to play something truly scary, and turned my sights on "Robbing the Cradle."

And I was underwhelmed. Sure, it's one of the best levels of the game, but "scariest level ever"? Maybe it was at the time, but I felt more scared during moments of Doom 3, FEAR, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Obscure, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, and Pathologic, all of which came out shortly after Deadly Shadows. For an even more direct comparison, I found the "Return to the Cathedral" mission from Thief 1, as well as moments from System Shock 2 and Silent Hill 2 -- all of which predate Deadly Shadows -- much more tense and frightening than the Cradle. Most of the "scary" stuff in the Cradle is just part of the ambient soundtrack, or are scripted noises, all of which are completely harmless. The enemies look far creepier than the usual guards, but they're no more threatening than the guards because they function virtually the same. Basically, you're playing a normal Thief level but with spooky visuals and music pasted on top. The only time I felt remotely scared was when a physics glitch sent me through a wall and knocked half my health away.

So I didn't find the Cradle very scary at all, but it definitely succeeds at being one of the most immersive levels of the series. The tense, droning soundtrack with its ominous sound effects, along with the grim burnt-up appearance of the building and the various notes you find, all combine to set a really good tone for the level that can easily put you in the mood to be scared if your imagination permits it. The storytelling of this level is particularly good, with the way it steadily reveals details about its history through notes, objects in the environment, and the placement of enemies, and then the way it creates a story around you that makes you a part of the cradle's history. I know I'm perhaps too jaded about things, especially when it comes to horror games, so it should be considered high praise that I was able to appreciate this level for all of its artistic merits without even being scared by it. I'm just disappointed that it didn't live up to the hype for me.

One of the undead inmates from the Cradle.

The main story that happens over the course of Deadly Shadows is fairly interesting, too, and might be my favorite of the three Thief games.Whereas Thief 1 & 2's stories could easily be boiled down to a matter of "stop the bad guys," Deadly Shadows prolongs its mystery much longer, and thus made it more engaging for me to follow. I was much more curious about interpreting the prophecies, figuring everyone's motives out, and tracking down a killer in Deadly Shadows for the pure sake of the story; I played through Thief 1 & 2 mainly for the gameplay and almost didn't even realize there was a story going on. And the ending is really good, too; it brings the trilogy full circle in a way that truly resonates at the very end.

I also really like how Deadly Shadows moves away from Thief 2's more contemporary steampunk atmosphere and goes back towards Thief 1's darker, more fantasy-horror roots. As I mentioned in my Thief 2 review, this is purely a matter of personal preference, and I just didn't care for Thief 2's security cameras, automated defense turrets, and combat bots. All of that stuff is gone in Deadly Shadows, with more of an emphasis on monster encounters like zombies, fishmen, ratmen, tree beasts, and ghosts (though not as much as in Thief 1). Likewise, the towering skyscrapers, banks, police stations, and industrial factories of Thief 2 are replaced with more gothic castles, ancient temples, ghost ships, and haunted asylums.

The zombie-infested ghost ship, played in third-person.

I've spent most of this article criticizing the hell out of Deadly Shadows because there's a lot that's blatantly, and objectively, wrong with it. And yet, a lot of my early complaints dissipated as I got used to the game. Movement in particular bothered me to death in the beginning, I got used to it and it stopped hurting my enjoyment of the game. I patched out or adjusted anything else that bothered me enough, like the head-bob, sparkling loot, the display that shows the percentage of loot you've collected, the mechanical eye overlay when you zoom in on things, the ridiculous neon blue item highlights, and most importantly, the fog wall loading zones during missions. If you're going to play Deadly Shadows in this day and age, then you absolutely need to download and run the sneaky mod, which compiles a bunch of things into one download, including better textures and "the minimalist project" which makes it look and feel a lot more like the original two games.

So the bottom line is this: Deadly Shadows is a definite step down from the brilliant sophistication of Thief 1 & 2, but the core gameplay elements of the Thief games are still present with this game. Even as a bad Thief game, it's still enjoyable, and it even improves on the original in some key areas. Its reputation made me expect to be disappointed, but I simply wasn't; I actually enjoyed it more than Thief 2 in some ways. And the Shalebridge Cradle is a really good level, but it's not nearly as good as the hype led me to believe.

4 comments:

  1. If I recommend a thief game to someone it would be thief 3, as thief 1 and 2 are kind of hard to get into and thief 4 is pure garbage. So thief 3 is the nice middle-ground.

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    1. I might have to agree with you here. I'm playing through the new Thi4f reboot and it's so shitty I could never recommend it to anyone. Meanwhile, I could see people being put off by the antiquated presentation of the original two games, even though I feel they hold up extremely well. Thief 3 is probably the most accessible of the series and a decent starting point for anyone new to the series.

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    2. I think this is actually the first thief I finished. I started with the dark project on my ancient PC, but I was a teen then and the undead got to me, so I was kinda scared to progress. Later got a new PC and wanted more modern games so I finished Thief 3 and loved it, then went back to 1 and 2. And yeah I didn't even have to play Thief 2014 to conclude how bad it is, watching youtube and reading was enough to turn me off. That one is mindblowlingly inferior to Thief 3 which in turn is inferior technically and mechanically to Thief 1 and 2. Just sad... I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that Thief 3 is a bad thief game. I thought it was a great story and ending and it definitely deserves to be called thief. I don't get it why some thief fans renegade it.

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  2. as thief 1 and 2 are kind of hard to get into and thief 4 is pure garbage.

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