Thief: The Dark Project: Part 1: I Like Subtitles
About five or six years ago, my best friend came over to hang out and brought with him a few old PC games he’d picked up on the way over with his dad. These games included Red Alert 2, Rainbow Six: Ghost Spear, and Thief: The Dark Project. The only one we installed and played at my house while he was over was Thief. I played a bit of the first mission and couldn’t really get into it.
The main reason why was because I didn’t realize it was a stealth game (I guess the fact that it was called Thief didn’t quite clue me in on that) and so I decided to go Rambo on the guards and got torn apart. I wasn’t really drawn in, so I closed out and we went and played Sonic Adventure 2 or whatever stupid game we were obsessing over at the time.
He left the games at my house when it was time to go, due to some complicated scenario involving him going to his mom’s and not wanting his mom to know he bought violent video games or something like that, and he never remembered to pick the games back up. They ended up sitting on my CD rack for many years to come.
Fast-forward to 2010 when I first was introduced to what would soon become a massive fixation for me, Zero Punctuation. Once I had watched a few of Yahtzee’s videos and realized how hilarious he was, I decided to go through his entire backlog and watch all his reviews. And I was of course astonished after I watched his review of Thief. Wow! I thought. Who would have thought that the game my friend just happened to leave over was a game of such great acclaim, the game that practically invented the stealth genre? I mean, what are the odds?!
I knew I had to give the game another go, but sadly by that point the game was just too old for my computer. It installed just fine, but whenever I tried to run it it would freeze up within 30 seconds of starting. I sighed and shelved it again.
Fast-forward again to about two weeks ago. In my Fallout first impressions thing I asked people to recommend any old classics I should check out, and Shamus recommended a whole bunch, including Thief. I explained that Thief was constantly freezing up for me, and then another regular commentator of the site pointed me to a website that explained how to fix a lot of the problems with running the Thief games.
Turns out Thief doesn’t like it when you try to run it on multiple cores, so whenever I open the game I have to alt-tab out, ctrl-alt-delete the task manager up and uncheck three of my cores. Okay, that’s no big deal. Doesn’t take long. And once I do that the game seems to run just fine. Unfortunately the cutscenes don’t work so I have to watch them on YouTube, but again, that’s easy to do, so I don’t mind.
Finally, I can play the game properly.
I’ve played some stealth games before. Metal Gear Solid 1-3, Deus Ex, Velvet Assassin, and of course there are action games that have stealth sections. I hold the stealth genre to a very high esteem because it feels incredibly gratifying to defeat enemies much more powerful than you, not because you went and found the mystical MacGuffin or used some high-powered gun, but because you outsmarted them. Not to mention it makes me feel like a ninja (and if you haven’t figured this out already, I freaking love ninjas). But stealth is a hard thing to do right, and if you do it wrong the experience is likely to become tedious.
Having said that, Thief doesn’t really feel much like any of the other stealth games I’ve played. The game it reminds me most of in the stealth department is Deus Ex, I suppose. But Thief’s stealth seems a lot more advanced, which is weird, since Deus Ex came after Thief. In Deus Ex you were always silent whenever you crouched, and whenever you got caught you could generally go hide in a vent and wait about for about ten seconds so that the guards would forget that you ever existed.
Thief is a lot more sophisticated than that. You make different levels of noise depending on the flooring you step on (and it’s not like Velvet Assassin where you’re always silent except for those rare occasions when somebody inexplicably left a square of broken glass on the floor) and if the guard who saw you manages to reach another guard, he’ll go inform another guard, who will inform another, and soon enough everybody in the map knows you’re here and will be much more cautious and alert than they were before. So if you get caught by a guard and you don’t deal with the problem right away, that can ruin the entire rest of the level for you.
Thief isn’t just a game that encourages subtlety and caution. It’s a game that’s practically unplayable without subtlety and caution. And it’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.
Actually, that’s not always the case. In some levels the guards are very thinly spread and you can deal with each one individually. And taking on a guard in one-on-one combat is piss easy, what with the enemy AI being incredibly primitive by today’s standards. You can typically take on an enemy guard without getting hit once by simply circle-strafing him and smacking him with your sword until he falls over.
I’ve heard a lot of praise for this game’s level design, and I can see why now that I’ve played it. The levels are enormous, and very open-ended. Whenever I enter a new level for the first time I’m almost fascinated by all the different pathways and how they all lead to different places and intertwine with one another to form a big cohesive labyrinth.
There’s also a lot of creativity that goes into the levels. The one that really stood out for me was a mansion that seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Here, let me just show you a few rooms in that building:
Yeah, it’s pretty trippy.
Of course, the downside to these huge sprawling levels is that they’re very easy to get lost in. Without an intuitive map system, often times you’re stuck wandering around the same rooms over and over because you can’t find the one path that will lead you to where you need to be. Sometimes I really wish this game had a hint system, or a Bioshock-style objective pointer that you could toggle on and off, or something so that I wouldn’t be left yelling at my laptop “JUST TELL ME WHERE TO GO! FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I WANT TO GET TO THE NEXT LEVEL ALREADY!”
But while I still firmly refuse to accept any blame for Fallout 1’s shortcomings, I do have to admit that getting lost in Thief could at least partially be my fault. I mean, it could be due to the game’s unintuitive nature, or it could be due to the fact that I have the attention span and sense of direction equivocal to that of a blind rodent. I’ve known that about myself for many years.
Sometimes it feels like the game isn’t making the most of its enormous levels. Often times you’ll be stuck in massive levels with very few NPCs spread throughout, and so you’ll be wandering through empty pathways and rooms for something like ten minutes or so before finally you’ll walk into a room full of guards or monsters who will tear your ass apart, and let me tell you, this does not mix well with the lack of a decent autosave feature.
That might sound like a petty complaint, but it’s been driving me insane. Lots of gamers have their own personal pet peeves. Yahtzee has moral choice systems and cover-based shooting, Shamus has plot doors and quick time events. Well here’s one of mine: deliberately wasting my time by forcing me through the same content again and again. Or to put it more simply, badly done saving/checkpoint systems. This is something I’ve talked about before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again just because it’s so irritating.
And the odd thing is, Thief would normally get a pass from me in this department because it lets you save whenever you want. But the thing is, this game is incredibly immersive. One of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. That sounds like praise, and it most certainly is, but games like this need to have autosaving or checkpoints, because otherwise you’ll be so absorbed in the experience you’ll end up forgetting to save until it’s too late.
This isn’t a technological limitation. Half-Life 1 had autosaving and quicksaving, and that game came out before Thief. They definitely could have done it, they just didn’t. For some reason.
Anyway, I do think Thief is a good game overall. It’s very interesting and very different from the sorts of games we see nowadays. But it’s not without a lot of frustrations and annoyances.
I don’t know how long it will be before I actually beat the game (I don’t know how far I am, but I’m in some place called the Lost City trying to find keys to open a plot door if that helps any of you Thief fans in knowing how close I am to the ending at all). I’ve recently gotten my hands on a lot of games. Thanks to Ubisoft Week being on Steam last week, I just got three Splinter Cell games, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Far Cry. I also got Thief: Deadly Shadows. I still haven’t gotten the best equipment or beaten all the bosses in Terraria. And my friends have opened up a private Minecraft server and invited me to build stuff in it.
So I might have to put Thief on hold for awhile. Sorry, guys.