Thief: The Dark Project – PC
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Release Date: November 30, 1998
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
If you want to have a good life in the City, you have to be ready to take matters into your own hands. Some people trust others to make their money for them, and spend their secondhand gains on the finer things in life. And then people like you sneak in after dark and level the playing field, hiding from the guards and slipping away into the night with the kind of money an honest man could never dream of. It’s why everyone hates “taffers,” as they call you, and if you’re caught, you’re lucky if they just cut off your hands and kick you into the street. But if you’re a master thief, being caught will never happen… or will it? Thief: The Dark Project is your chance to find out if your skills are as good as you hope they are, with thirteen complicated and deeply intriguing missions that test your mettle in every way, from stealing the impossible to escaping the inescapable and back. Put out the lights and stick to the carpet as we appraise this glittering gem close-up.
Thief: The Dark Project was created by our old friends at Looking Glass, future creators of System Shock 2. The decision to make a game based on sneaking around and avoiding detection didn’t come immediately to the foray, one of the original plans was a project called “Dark Camelot,” a twisted inversion of the King Arthur story where Mordred was the misunderstood hero trying to save the world from tyranny under the rule of the evil Arthur. Honestly, a really cool concept to begin with, but as the gameplay began to be shored up, and the guys working on it saw what was becoming of the gameplay, the eventual suggestion was “why not just have the sneaky bits be the whole game?” It was a very dramatic change of plan, and at the time, such an idea was almost unheard of. There wasn’t anything like Metal Gear Solid 3 or Batman: Arkham City to back up the idea of a game where you sneak around enemies instead of shoot them or punch them in the face. The decision to refocus the game toward stealth was a fateful decision, taking the Looking Glass team just about a year to implement before the final product was ready for the market.
The story of Thief: The Dark Project begins by introducing you to Garrett, the master thief. After being taught by a secretive organization known as the Keepers, he elected to leave them and use his talents to become not just a pilferer and cutpurse, but the best pilferer and cutpurse. His stomping ground is the City, a medieval steampunk kingdom that has electric machines and magic devices in the same breath. The first few missions introduce you to the way you play the game and prove your worth as a master thief, and once you get your bearings, you’re thrust headlong into the main story missions, starting with a commission to steal a magic sword from a man named Constantine. This success gives Garrett his chance at the Big One: The commission to steal The Eye, a dangerous mission that, should he come back with it alive, will make him wealthy enough to retire from his life of high-class burglary forever. But of course, it’s one thing to get the job, and another thing entirely to see it through…
One thing that defines Thief: The Dark Project immediately is in how it plays. The levels are sprawling, many-leveled, and multi-faceted, with no linear path to success, just a dizzying array of options for the clever thief to take in accomplishing his goals. To enter your targeted residence, you can pick the back door, climb up onto a balcony, or even ignore the street entirely and swim through the sewers to emerge in the basement. And once you’re inside, you can choose to sneak through gaps in the guards’ patrols so that you never need to arouse their attention, or knock them out with your blackjack and drop them off in a dark corner. This open-ended style added to the X-factor that is the game’s intelligent AI results in emergent gameplay, with each player’s experience completely a result of how they choose to play the level. Ask two Thief players how they go about playing a level, and unless they both followed the same walkthrough step-by-step, you’re likely to get two different stories with many different highlights throughout. Though one common element is that levels in this game are usually likely to take one to two hours, depending on how thorough and meticulous you want to play, so bring a packed lunch if you plan to take on multiple levels in one sitting.
That’s just a summary of how nonlinear this game is, though. What really makes Thief: The Dark Project stand out is its stealth mechanics. The bottom of the screen features a visibility gem, showing how easy it is to spot you, as well as an indicator of how much noise the surface you’re on could make. This is your best friend in avoiding getting caught, and will teach you vital survival skills like sticking to wooden floors and putting out torches with your water arrows in patrol areas. The shadows are a closer friend than your sword, but there are also the many other tools and tricks you have up your sleeve, many of them being trick arrows. Moss arrows, that coat the ground in a sound-deafening fabric; noisemaker arrows, that distract guards and lead them toward wherever you sent the arrow; rope arrows, that let you climb up to otherwise inaccessible areas and vantage points. Add these to an assortment of magical potions and thieves’ tools, and you have a lot of options to keep yourself one step ahead of whomever protects the ill-gotten goods you’re about to ill-get. The controls can be quite complicated, giving you many options, but if you know how to utilize all of them, your subtle decisions can really turn your fortunes and open up new avenues for you to move ahead.
A game like Thief: The Dark Project doesn’t stand out without exceptional sound and music, though in a strange diversion from my norm, level music is actually absent, replaced with local environment ambiance tracks and the occasional area music. Because of this, I can’t really link to the soundtrack and point out why it makes one area exceptionally memorable without going too far and removing the element of surprise that level deserves. The sound, however, is one of the most vital aspects of this game. The Dark Engine is made specifically to make every footstep echo and every heavy object ring out when it hits the ground. Even when sneaking, you step on a marble tile, it carries quite far, and then you can hear the dreaded challenge of a guard who heard you a couple of rooms away or spotted you walking under a lit lamp. “Intruder! Sound the alarm!” “You can’t just jump back into the shadows, boy!” When a servant is crossing the hall just outside the door, when you place one step too hastily, and suddenly your careful creeping is in danger of being undone, it’s an experience of raw fight-or-flight survival, all heightened due to the sophisticated way the game treats its sounds. There’s no reason to give it less than the best of attentions when it actively shapes how you play.
Normally, I would stop there, but there’s another element to Thief: The Dark Project that I believe deserves mention, and that’s pure instinct. The first missions are generally forgiving, but if you plan to be an expert, your objectives are made more complex and you have more hoops to jump through. During these missions, you’re figuring your way around the game’s complicated and nuanced control scheme, figuring out for yourself what are good ways to approach novel problems like knowing when to pick the pocket, observing the guard patrols, knowing what tiles are the loudest, and other self-taught thief lessons. But at a certain point, you pass the hump of not knowing how to go about playing the game. The muscle memory becomes ingrained and your eyes always keep track of that visibility gem, even if only subconsciously. Your biggest problem evolves from being “can I do it” to “how do I go about doing it?” No other game that I’ve ever played has such a subtle yet set-in-the-bone learning curve. You start off Thief: The Dark Project playing the master thief, but by the ending, if you can reach it, you really are the master thief, and I’ve not felt a gaming honor more fulfilling than that in all my years of video gaming.
In conclusion, Thief: The Dark Project has been hailed as one of the most influential stealth games ever made, and it’s a title that it deserves every step of the way. From your first snatched purse to your last triumphant climb up the rope arrow and away to safety, every level of this masterpiece is an experience that is yours alone to cherish, and your skills and instincts are what keep you balanced on the razor’s edge of victory and defeat. It’s certainly one of the most distinctive games I’ve ever played, and I’d play it again in a heartbeat, simply because of how the game makes me think and move just like a professional thief. If you’re the kind who likes to be REALLY professional, I would actually recommend Thief Gold, the enhanced version of this timeless classic, which features a lot of texture refits, level alterations, AI fixes, and even a few completely new levels to hone your skills on! You can pick it all up on Steam for a mere $6.99, and given how much time you’ll be putting into it and the satisfaction it’ll give you when you can reach the ending, you might even say it’s quite the steal…
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