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Thief - interim report
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
So, I got the new Thief game (Thief: Deadly Shadows, aka Thief 3). I worked on the original Thief game as QA, and it's one of my all-time favorite games. Any one who has worked in QA themselves will realize how unusual it is to see those two concepts in proximity :-)

This installment came out from a new company, with a new engine, and there was significant doubt in the fan community whether or not it would live up to its heritage. I spent about a day and a half playing it this weekend, and, while I am less than half way through (I think), I can say quite firmly that this is a worthy Thief game. Yes, there are many changes, but the core experience is very much intact.

As always, Thief is largely about "negative space" gameplay. Much of the excitement and tension comes during times when the player isn't physically doing anything, but just waiting. Observing patrol patterns. Waiting for someone to walk close enough to be pickpocketed (but hopefully not so close as to notice you). Waiting to see if an alert guard manages to find your hiding place. Eavesdropping on other people's conversations. In the newest version, waiting in shadow on the city streets until there's a gap in pedestrian traffic large enough to get you to your next hiding spot.

Yes, the game is divided up into "loading zones", which are generally smaller than the levels of the first two games. But these zones are still plenty big enough to capture all the important parts of the gameplay. Cathedrals and mansions still feel large and sprawling. They haven't got the huge scope of Thief 2's "Life of the Party" (rooftops of several city blocks, leading to a huge tower whose interior was also playable space), but that's not necessarily a bad. After Thief 2, I reached the conclusion that the optimal Thief mission should take about an hour, and most missions in the new game seem to be roughly that.

The AI is much improved. This makes the game harder (at least on the higher levels; AI awareness is toned down on lower levels), but in a good way. The verbal feedback has been significantly improved, so it's even easier to judge alertness states. Now, searching guards will sometimes even say things like, "Hm, maybe I better search near that crate" -- which is particularly thrilling if you are in fact hiding behind it!

The free-form "steal from random houses in The City" sections are well-done. They even keep score, after a fashion: the city watch posts bulletins of how much crime was done the previous night :-)

The story so far is very much in the Thief tradition. Lots of spooky foreshadowing. Garret is finally working closely wth the Keepers -- for the moment. When I went to bed last night, I was just about to hear an ancient Keeper Prophecy. My bet is that that prophecy will result in them deciding that I'm their enemy and have to be taken out...

There are lots of funny bits sprinkled throughout. "Benny the drunk guard" is a scene-stealer as always. One of my favorite moments was when I stumbled upon a crook hiring an imposter pretending to be my character to do a heist! Naturally, I did the job instead, and blackjacked the imposter for his troubles :-) Oh, and then robbed his employer, for good measure :)

The controversial-before-ship "loot glint" feature is actually enormously helpful and fun. Not only does it help prevent accidental picking-up of garbage items, but it can draw the player's attention to otherwise obscure spots. "Hey, I can spot a loot glint on the ledge way up that wall -- must be some means to get up there..."

Rope Arrows *are* misssed. I recently acquired the Climbing Gloves, which are more-or-less their functional replacement. They are nifty in their own right, but (at least so far) I feel like they're under-utilized by the level designers.

Gas Arrows and Bombs seem to have a *much* smaller radius than in the previous games. While it is theoretically possible to get multiple opponents with one (I managed a pair once, after about a dozen tries), it's significantly harder. If you try for a group, you're most likely to only get one, with the rest of them becoming alert soon thereafter, due to the presence of an unconscious comrade.

During the Tutorial, I was worried about the new lockpicking mechanic, as it took me ages and ages to figure out how to get past the sample lock. My mistake turned out to be very simple, though: you need to not only move the mouse in a circle, but you have to angle the pick outwards towards the edge of that circle. Once I grokked that, the lockpicking became straightforward and fun. I'm getting better at it, too. The mission I just finished last night was in a mansion whoseowner had clearly gotten a bulk deal on lockable chests. They all had the same model lock, and before long, I was opening them in slighty more time than it took to click five times :-)

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Thief is probably the only reason I still have for getting access to a Windows machine. The CDs are just languishing away on my bookshelf. IIRC, I was last somewhere after attempting to rescue Cutty from prison...maybe one level after that. So, plenty to go before I move on to Thief 2 or 3.

It is one of only two games that have startled me out of my seat...I forget the name of the other, but it was a mid-90s game where you're stuck wandering around a spooky empty house with pseudo-Cthuloid monsters around certain corners. Similar negative-space, negative-time feel -- not what you do, but what you are waiting to have happen.

Rope Arrows *are* misssed.

Interesting -- I hadn't realized they'd been cut. Any idea if they were taken out for design or technical reasons? I could believe the latter: IIRC, the rope physics code was a son of a bitch, a morass of special cases. Chris might have decided not to wrestle with that again, in a new engine.

I'm going to have to get this, and then play my way through finally. While I've played lots of random levels of Thief and Thief 2, I've never actually played either game all the way through enough to really internalize the storyline. Time to fix that, I think...

Technical reasons, unspecified. My personal suspicion is that the optional 3rd-person view had a lot to do with it. Take all the physics problems, then add in animation problems in on top of it...

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