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Gaming Retrospective: Thief: The Dark Project
Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.
With Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution bringing back Thief’s distinctive brand of stealth and a new Thief game coming next month, I decided to finally play Looking Glass Studio’s groundbreaking 1998 stealth game. I was expecting something dated and clunky. After all, the stealth in contemporary first-person sneaker, Deus Ex, feels a bit unpolished. Although it certainly has its rough spots, the first Thief is still intense and addictive 16 years later.
Thief: The Dark Project follows Garrett, a thief who is hired by an eccentric noble to steal a collection of artifacts from a local religious order. Most missions begin with Garrett outside of whatever mansion, haunted tomb or local business establishment he needs to break into and only a vague idea of where his target is. A lot of Thief’s ideas are commonplace in the stealth genre today. Shadows conceal Garrett from guards, while running or walking on certain surfaces makes enough noise to attract attention. It was released within months of Metal Gear Solid, but feels completely different. Metal Gear Solid plays like a gadget-filled, military-themed Pacman, with mazes designed to lead enemies to the player-character. Thief wants you to explore. It wants you to get lost and stumble in to interesting situations. It wants you to hunt for patches of soil and carpets to silently run away. Even the in-game maps are frequently nothing more than semi-accurate scribbles with entire quadrants lit up to indicate Garrett’s position. Thief’s levels are rarely intuitive to navigate, but are filled with so many neat puzzles, devious enemy configurations and strange areas that they’re a joy to get lost in. Garrett can grab on to and climb ledges, and even use arrows tied to rope to scale walls or to safely descend.
One reason the gameplay works so well is that every individual mechanic feels great. It’s not the sort of thing most first person games pay attention to, but Garret moves with real weight. When he crouches, his steps become longer and more pronounced, and when he runs the view bobs more and the steps are farther apart than when he walks. Every successful mantle begins with a sharp intake of breath, then a slow lift as Garrett hauls himself up. Garrett is athletic, but doesn’t move with the light effortlessness of an Assassin’s Creed character. He feels heavy, fragile and human.
Unfortunately, Thief does not always play to its strengths. While the stealth-heavy levels are engrossing and fun, many stages involve Garrett creeping through haunted tombs, or abandoned cities. The world design is as strong as in the other levels, but the tense stealth is replaced by frustrating, mercifully skippable combat sequences and overcomplicated mazes. Thief Gold, an updated release of the first game, adds three large stealth levels to the campaign, tipping the balance of fun to frustrating levels a bit more in the game’s favor. These three levels are stronger than anything present in the original release, and are clearly developed with a better sense of what works about the game and what does not.
It is also available DRM-free for $9.99 on Good Old Games, already patched to play on modern systems.
Recommended Mods: The GOG version comes prepatched with DDFix, which allows the game to run on modern systems and at higher resolutions, though the Steam version does not. After running into an early bug where a cutscene failed to play I installed TFix, which fixed the bug and let me keep my save game. I would also recommend HDMod, which adds HD textures to the game. This is a stunningly ugly game unmodded, with Quake 1 level visuals. Custom level sets for Thief, Thief Gold and Thief 2 can be played with Darkloader.
A new Thief game developed by Eidos Montreal, simply titled Thief, is currently slated for a February 25 release.
CORRECTION: Deus Ex was created by Ion Storm Austin, not Looking Glass Studios. The article has been updated to reflect this.