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Blog & Cultural Criticism

To Catch A Thief: Revisiting Deadly Shadows, Thief 2014, and Dishonored's DLCs

Once a year, I'll get an overwhelming urge to play Thief, either the original Dark Project or The Metal Age, it doesn't really matter. Both come from the same golden age of Looking Glass Studios, still the best development house in video game history, and the choice of one or the other is one of the degrees: Dark Project has some better levels, Metal Age has some better mechanics, but they are essentially interchangeable. I'd for love someone to port Dark Project's levels into the Metal Age engine so you could just play both in one sitting. That's because Thief is more than just a great game: it is, like all Looking Glass games, a wonderfully complete world with an unparalleled atmosphere. The hollow, ambient music, the exquisite sound design, the script and lore, and especially its main character, Garrett.

Stephen Russell's performance as Garrett is one of the reasons I became an actor. His weariness, his confidence, his knowledge of when he's in over his head: he's the perfect anti-hero. When I get that urge to play Thief, I'm really getting the urge to be Garrett. It's the same reason I go back to Wing Commander & Mass Effect: not because I love those games, which I do, but because I love Christopher Blair and (my) Commander Shepard.

So, in the spirit of cleaning my backlog and One Game At A Time, I decided that instead of playing through T1 or T2 again, I should really try and give the rest of the series one last shot. And yes, I am including Arkane's excellent Dishonored series as part of the Thief continuum. Arkane has built literally their entire company off refreshing the Looking Glass classics and I'm all for it. They even went ahead and just cast Stephen Russel in Dishonored 2, making the homage official.

Thief: Deadly Shadows

When Looking Glass folded in 2000, Warren Spector brought a lot of people over to John Romero's new company Ion Storm, where they would continue the Looking Glass legacy for a time. Spector, of course, hit the ground running with Deus Ex. Deus Ex changed games forever and I've always seen it as the ultimate Looking Glass game: it has the all the world building, tension, storytelling, and mechanical depth of the great LG titles.

Ion Storm also brought over most of the Thief team and a lot of the concept for Thief III. However, despite Ion Storm's rockstar developer mentality, they were still living in the same industry that killed Looking Glass, and that's how we got the Thief: Deadly Shadows that we did: a clunky, buggy, poorly-optimized mess that was jointly developed for the PC and Xbox. 

I ricocheted hard off Deadly Shadows when it came out. I hated how small the levels were, it ran like shit on my PC, and it looked like shit, especially compared to Splinter Cell which took everything I loved about Thief and Metal Gear Solid and turned it into the game my 17-year-old self had always wanted.

Fans have put a lot of work into Deadly Shadows over the years, culminating in the Thief 3 Gold upgrade which is easily downloadable and comes with a handy installer. Gold includes the famous Sneaky Upgrade which, among many improvements, removes the mid-mission loading screens, returning one of the best things about Thief to Deadly Shadows: those huge, sprawling, labyrinthine levels.

So playing Deadly Shadows in 2018 is a much more pleasant experience than it was in 2004. The best thing about it and the thing that no other game on this list has is that it's just so fucking Thief, man. The atmosphere, the storytelling, the watercolour cutscenes, the Keepers, and the Hammerites and The City and fucking Garrett are all here and they are just as good as they are in the first two games.

The City hub is the best innovation and it recalls the best missions in T1 and T2. Wandering the City streets, avoiding the Watch, eavesdropping on people for tips on loot and ripe, fat targets for burglary, Deadly Shadows has the best sense of immersion in a series that is known for immersion. The hub City is also the best thing about the 2014 reboot and if there ever is another proper Thief game, it needs to be this: What Cyberpunk 2077 is doing to Deus Ex, someone needs to do for Thief.

So I definitely enjoyed my time with Deadly Shadows a lot more this time around, but I didn't get very far into it before I had another hard rebound. For all the fixes that Gold and Sneaky Upgrade bring, the game is still buggy and rough. I encountered a massive bug in that very same hub area: for some reason, everyone in the world was not only totally aware of where I was but hostile to me and to each other. This led to pure chaos and violence on the streets which, while admittedly kind of cool, made it impossible to progress and forcing me to start over. While I'll give it another another shot soon, I decided instead to cut my losses and try...

Thief (2014)

No one was expecting Deus Ex: Human Revolution to be any good. I didn't even buy it, my friend Josh, who got me into Thief in the first place, (We did a project on it in English class. We went to an art school.) Actually bought it for me on Steam. I was expecting an action-heavy, watered down experience. I was totally wrong. I couldn't believe someone had made a first-person stealth game in 2011, so much had the genre moved towards the third-person action thrills of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid.

I was really looking forward to Eidos Montreal's attempt at a new Thief, as I'm sure was everyone who enjoyed Human Revolution. Sure, HR had some rough edges, but it was a really confident statement, and a much greater improvement on the Deus Ex formula than Invisible War was. Despite being, narratively, a prequel, it feels like the follow-up Deus Ex always deserved.

Thief 2014 is not the follow-up Thief deserved. While Deadly Shadows was able to hold onto a lot of its spirit in its transition to consoles, and Human Revolution proved there is a market for slow, steadily paced first-person stealth RPGs, Thief feels like a step back. It feels like it should have come out before Human Revolution.

There's some good stuff in here, for sure: gone is the optional third-person view, returning to the series that unbeatable first-person tension. The console-first development focus allows for one major innovation over its PC-first predecessors: vibration-based gameplay mechanics. Thief 2014 has the best lockpicking mechanic in any game, vibrating the controller as you find the sweet spot, and I love that you can look around while you pick a lock, watching with held breath as that guard inches closer down the hallway to you, before you set the last pin by feel alone and swoop into the room. This feedback applies to finding hidden switches behind picture frames and in bookshelves. It's great.

The swoop mechanic is another fantastic addition, possibly borrowed from Dishonored, giving Garrett a quick, silent, dash in any direction. It's not invisible and you won't be silent on broken glass, metal, or through water, keeping it from being overpowered. It speeds the game up but can also get you in trouble: it's easy to swoop out of one guard's way and right into anothers, or to accidentally cover too much ground and end up in bright light.

Speaking of Dishonored, I wonder if the team at Eidos Montreal got a cold feeling in their stomachs when footage of that game started surfacing. Dishonored's Dunwall is a fantastically well-realized world, a decidedly Steampunk vibe with a heavy influence of whaling culture and the oppression of a city under quarantine. Much like the prior Thief games, the fantasy elements are pushed to the margins and when they are brought to the forefront, they are more occult than mystical. Thief 2014 flattens the world of The City, going for a more direct steampunk vibe, and a lot of the character of the earlier games is lost. That Thief 2014 took one of the most intriguing worlds in video games and turned out this generic, too-dark Steampunk world is especially egregious considering many former acolytes of Looking Glass had, in the interim, created some of the most memorable spaces in gaming, not the least of which was BioShock: Infinite's Columbia, which came out a year prior to Thief 2014.

For everything Thief 2014 does right there is something it does wrong, and the account ends up feeling unfinished, as many reviewers have said, but there are lots of things that should have been nixed in pre-production. The game's hub world, which sees Garrett breaking in and out of buildings to get through the City, is a great idea, but it's married to a terrible minimap. This is a particularly bad bit of design because all three prior games had much better solutions: static, hand-drawn maps and an on-screen compass. This small-scale Hub was handled much, much better in Eidos Montreal's next game, the criminally underrated Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

So the official follow-up to Thief has its flaws, what about the spiritual?

Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall and The Witches of Brigmore DLC

I loved Dishonored and I have no idea why I never played these two DLC episodes. I guess I never cared much for Daud as a character? These extra episodes, narratively, are actually a lot more satisfying after playing Dishonored 2, as they do a much better job of making Delilah Copperspoon a fully realized character.

The best thing about both of these episodes is playing as Daud, who is 100% a killer, even if they do make his motivations clear and understandable. It's always liberating to play a character who has no moral quandaries about killing, it's the whole reason Trevor is in GTA5, but leave it to Arkane to also make the 'rampage guy' a character with enough depth to be worth exploring. Doing a "high chaos" run as Daud fits the character but also the situations the player is put in: when the Overseers invade your hideout, there's really no reason to be shy about killing them all.

If nothing else, Brigmore adds some great levels to the Dishonored toolbox and it definitely worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre or the series.

Colin Munch