As a dedicated console gamer, I've never laid my hands on either of the popular Thief PC games, which are largely credited with pioneering the stealth genre. Thief: Deadly Shadows is my first foray into the series and after hearing so much overwhelming praise garnered by the first two games I expected to be thoroughly impressed. And while I was indeed impressed with the depth and artistry of its design, Thief is far from perfect. It is, at best, a well-conceived but flawed entry into the stealth genre.
In many respects, Deadly Shadows is a beautiful and engaging game. The atmosphere is vividly conveyed through brilliant architecture and impressive real-time lighting. I dare not give away the details of the intricate plot, but suffice to say it involves sorcery, warring factions and plenty of deviousness and deceit. Players once again take control of master thief Garret as he loots, plunders and kills his way through large, open-ended levels. A bevy of gadgets become available as the game progresses to aid Garret in his stealthy ways, but most of them are unnecessary. Much of the enjoyment of the game comes from the dramatic tension of the stealth gameplay, which occasionally builds to nail-biting heights.
Unfortunately, much of the game's conceptual ingenuity—nonlinear gameplay, branching narratives, etc.—is tarnished by flaws in the core gameplay itself.
Garret's animations, and particularly those of the enemies he encounters, are rather rudimentary and, while functional, lack any outstanding panache. Garret is also quite limited in his available moves, certainly paling dramatically in comparison to his modern counterpart in the Splinter Cell games. And the vast majority of the gadgets, items and weapons he acquires are mostly pointless. It's easy enough to sneak up on guards (Garret is always completely silent when crouched) and dispatch them with a lethal stab to the throat that many of Garret's diversion and escape devices are of little value. Besides, should the guards be alerted to Garret's presence and pursue him, the combat itself is so poorly done (with no depth to speak of in the melee combat and an annoying oversight that allows alerted enemies to easily spot Garret in dark places in which only moments ago they were blind to him merely inches away) that a botched mission is more enjoyable to simply retry from the last save point rather than attempting to salvage it through combat or a clever escape.
Deadly Shadows suffers from some rather glaring pacing problems, some of which are technical and some of which are by design. The levels, while expansive, are grouped into sections separated by unacceptably long load times. Frustration mounts quickly when reaching an objective requires quickly traveling between sections, such that the load times themselves are longer than the actual gameplay. Additionally, the most engaging and dramatic portions of the game occur in the later missions; yet to reach them, players must endure a rather drab set of early missions filled with simplistic stealth and boring item-fetching.
Thief's claim to fame is its nonlinearity, but I found it to be a hindrance rather than a boon. The map provided in the game is difficult to read, and with multiple available routes and tortuous corridors I found myself more often than not simply confused as to how I was to reach my next objective. Additionally, the vast majority of the time, the idea of multiple routes adds nothing to the gameplay. Garret can either enter through one door and sneak past the guards, or do the exact same thing from another entrance. Rarely does the idea of multiple paths add enough strategy to compensate for the confusion it creates.
The lighting is also underwhelming in its interactivity. Garret can use water arrows to shoot out torches, snuff out candles with his fingers, and… well, that's about it. I would like to have seen more interactive light sources in the game, such as windows, lanterns, and the like.
Finally, many of the objectives were simply unchallenging. Most areas challenge the player to steal a given percentage of loot, depending on the difficulty level. Rather than adding depth to the game, it merely becomes tedious to navigate the maze-like corridors for the trivial purpose of tracking down an extra gold cup or two. In fact, many of the central level objectives feel redundant and tedious. Most are, as one might surmise from the title, centered on theft. Usually, this means one primary objective that is broken up into numerous smaller item-fetching objectives.
Thief may have been at the forefront of stealth years ago, but nowadays its gameplay feels lacking. However, despite all of the aforementioned problems, Deadly Shadows excels in creating a gripping narrative that lends a strong contextual backdrop to the gameplay. It's just enough that it allows the flaws to slip by much of the time, allowing the player to become engrossed in the tense, foreboding atmosphere experienced in the game's finest moments. Conceptually bold but pragmatically flawed, Thief: Deadly Shadows falls under the weight of its ambitions, but accomplishes enough along the way to be well worth a look.