Ten Years On: Thief: Deadly Shadows
Well, this is strange. The first two Thief games have always felt old to me. Even when I first played them they had an almost vintage quality to them, a combination of graphics technology that was creaky at the time, and their adoption of a slower, more methodical approach to first-person gaming when everything else was about shooting people wielding guns with much bigger guns. But not Deadly Shadows! That's the new kid on the block. It's fresh, it's funky, it's...ten years old this month. I am a wizened husk.
Upon realising this, I immediately installed the game and discovered to my horror that this new and exciting game isn't new and exciting anymore. Those lovely lighting effects that wowed me when I first played it are positively mundane, and those small sub-divided levels that everyone complained about at the time now really do feel constrained and claustrophobic. Time is such a bastard.
Complaining that an old game looks old is the second stupidest thing you can do after checking whether a mousetrap works by poking it. But it is nevertheless an odd and disconcerting feeling to suddenly realise that a game you don't think of as old has arrived at that juncture. Facts you were previously so sure of revert back into questions. "That's a great game," becomes "That was a great game" becomes "Does it still stand up today?"
When I started playing Deadly Shadows again, I honestly wasn't certain about the answer. One thing I've realised in recent months is that I am a very tactile player. My enjoyment of a game relies heavily on how a game feels, how the audio and visual components of a game connect in my brain to create an illusion of weight and solidity and presence. This is probably why I enjoyed the new Thief game more than many other critics. For all of its problems, and there were many, nu-Thief felt absolutely splendid under the fingers.
The same goes for the two original Thief games. While they might look like someone assaulted a clump of polygons with a blackjack, the incredible sound design combined with the way Garrett moves, the way his step bounces slightly and his feet clip-clop on the cobbled streets of The City, gives him and therefore the player a very physical sense of place.
Deadly Shadows doesn't quite pull this off, and I think this is in part because it's designed to be an optional first-or-third person game. Play it in third-person and there's a literal disconnect between yourself and Garrett. Play it in first-person and Garrett's movements feel ever so slightly off, as if there's a delay between your input and his action. There are other little things too, the bow doesn't feel right, and the bizarre implementation of havok physics results in guards and civilians crumpling as if they're made of crêpe paper when Garrett bonks them on the head with a blackjack. Ion Storm didn't quite succeed in translating Garrett's physicality from the Dark Engine into Unreal Engine 2.
Fortunately, although that tactility is important to an extent, it isn't what makes a Thief game great. Thief is ultimately a cerebral game, about careful planning and swift execution. It's about atmosphere and story over audiovisual satisfaction. Deadly Shadows nails all of these as well as any of Looking Glass' classics, and far, far better than Square Enix's attempt.