Silent and Deadly, Loud and Peaceable
Sometime during the course of evolution of electronic gaming, we got really fixated on violence. And we’re not content to settle for regular old action-movie style violence, with explosions and people dying right and left. No, video games have often become so violent as to be plainly absurd; bodies spew out chunks and blood dozens of feet into the air in scores of games. Indeed, at a certain point, we measured games not on the quality of play they offered, but rather on how many ways there were to kill our foes.
But there have always been developers interested in alternatives. Not just to develop alternative genres, such as puzzle games, but alternatives within the mainstream brands identified with excessive gore. One such developer, Looking Glass Studios, came up with this idea quite a few years ago: What if we took the ubiquitously violent first-person shooter game but encouraged people to exercise restraint. The result was the underground hit series of Thief games.
The newest installment in this series, and the first one not developed by Looking Glass, is Thief: Deadly Shadows. If you’re at all familiar with the series, you can tell instantly that Ion Storm, who picked up the project, feels a sense of loyalty to the original designers. Or, at the very least, they had enough common sense to not mess with a successful formula.
Deadly Shadows picks up with our familiar protagonist, Garrett, about to embark on a heist. From the equipment to the storyline and settings, this will feel like Old Home Week for fans of the earlier games. Water arrows extinguish flames, guards sound like high school jocks, a blackjack to the back knocks people out, and Garrett will cut in to provide cynical witticisms from time to time. Players new to the series don’t need to worry much, either, as the history isn’t so involved as to prevent jumping in with this game.
The major change from the earlier Thief games is the addition of the open city zones between missions. Previously, the player would take control of Garrett at the location of each mission and leave him at the exit. The mission briefing might recap anytime that passed between the missions, but you wouldn’t take part in any of it. Now, you walk him around the city between missions, selling your stolen items at various fences, finding assorted stashes of the much needed elemental arrows, and picking the pockets of assorted citizens. Unfortunately, these “open” city explorations quickly become redundant mini-missions you must get through simply to get to the more exciting objectives. As the city, and the locations of guards and goods to steal, changes little (or not at all) from day to day, it can get quite tiresome running through the same patterns over and over.
Also, the option to steal from regular Joes just feels a bit unsporting. I know a thief isn’t supposed to be a paragon of ethics, but pitting master thief Garrett against the poor citizenry seems like letting you field a street team (with realistic statistics) of your neighbors against a regular pro team in Madden 2004: it’s so unbalanced that the conclusion is foregone. It’s also not entirely useful as there seems to be no great shortage of cash in Deadly Shadows.
One other interesting addition to this game is faction-based hostilities. Early on, Garrett earns the ire of two powerful groups who control certain sectors of the city. He is then contacted by those groups with instructions on how to improve his relations with them. Obviously, no amount of favors will make them look the other way if you’re trying to steal their money, but it will let you walk around with a bit more ease. This gives you a bit of a choice—will you become the errand boy for these two factions, or will you deal with the increased difficulty of sneaking past their forces throughout the city zones. And options, really, are what this series has always been about.
A game like Wolfenstein 3D or Doom (two of the major pioneers in the first-person shooter arena) might offer you the illusory choice of right or left, either of which leads to blasting everything in sight. Right and left in Thief, on the other hand, might lead to two very different game experiences.
For instance, should you find yourself in jail, you’ll have a number of options (some more obvious than others) once you secure release from your cell. Will you attempt to sneak out without being noticed? Release all the other prisoners to create a distraction (and potentially kill the guards for you)? You might even want to play this game just like Quake, and just kill everyone between you and the door. You could even be successful in this attempt, though it would probably be one of the more difficult options available to you (guards, with their big swords and heavy armor, have a bit of an advantage in a toe-to-toe fight).
But the real question is, why would you want to kill everyone in sight? Whether it’s because of consumer demand or developer preconceptions (or probably both), even this stealth genre has been corrupted in recent years. After Looking Glass carved its new creation out of contrast to the blood baths available on the market at the time, a slew of software houses recognized the potential and the clones sprung up. Only unlike the original, the vast majority of these are centered on military or paramilitary organizations (Rainbow Six and the array of Tom Clancy games are the obvious entries here). So, instead of an array of options, the genre again gets reduced to just one: sneak up quietly, then kill everything in sight. So if that’s what you’re after, there are any number of other titles (generally featuring some secretive segment of the US military forces) on the market which will allow you to do this, and are designed accordingly.
Luckily, Ion Storm has picked up the mantle quite nicely. While the particular innovations they bring to this cult series aren’t terrifically notable, they do an excellent job of keeping the series alive. The story is as engaging as it was in the previous games, and the graphics are certainly up to date with modern games. Looking Glass Studios may be dissolved, but their legacy is preserved within this game in one fantastic element: choice.