THIEF GOLD / Eidos / PC

Thief Gold is a re-release of Thief: The Dark Project, the first game in the Thief series. It basically restores a bunch of stuff that was cut from the original release - three new levels, some new enemy types and slightly altered level designs. I've actually had a copy of this game for like ten years now, but it refused to run on three different computers prior to this, finally I gave it a shot on the Valiant Lappy and it worked! Apparently the game has massive problems with anything beyond Windows 98, you have to install it by running x:\setup.exe -lgntforce at the command line (x: being your current CD drive holding the install CD.)

Thief is one of the pioneers of what came to be known as the "stealth" genre, along with Metal Gear Solid and Tenchu. Unlike the other two, however, Thief is a FPS rather than a third-person action game. In fact, it uses the same engine that would later be used in acclaimed sci-fi FPS System Shock 2. Thief, however, takes place in a very medieval world, infused with steampunk technology elements and plenty of magic and monsters. Players take on the role of Garrett, an innately talented pickpocket who gets recruited to join a sort of Knights of Templar protective order called the Keepers. Garrett gets fed up with the Keepers for some initially unspecified reason, however, and leaves, using their training to become a legendary burglar. The game starts with Garrett about his usual business of looting the houses of wealthy nobles, but soon one thing leads to another and you're involved in a power struggle between two crazy cults.

The game gets off to an impressive start. There's an optional training course that shows you all the basics of gameplay, then you're off to rob a Valuable Scepter from some jag-off nobleman's mansion. You start out lurking in the streets by the front entrance, where you overhear the rather large amount of guards having a detailed conversation about a place called the "Bear Pits" which devolves eventually into a lot of taunting of each others manhood. You're free to try to hack your way in through the front, but the easier course is to explore the surrounding streets until you find a well that leads to a basement entrance. The well is only guarded by one sloshed dood, easily knocked out, but as soon as the deed is done a foot patrol is heard approaching, so you have to hastily lift the drunk guy up and deposit his carcass in the shadows so the patrol will find nothing amiss. Diving into the well allows you to swim an underground waterway to an entrance to the nobleman's catacombs, where you infiltrate his manor complete with servants and even Moar Guards to work your way around.

The game exceeds MGS and Tenchu in a number of details, most of these environmental. Eavesdropping on conversations is done frequently both for fun and information, and the convos are much more detailed (and funny) than anything seen in other stealth games. There's also a wider range of environments that seem more real and genuinely inhabited. And as with System Shock 2, the sound work is the high point - hearing the footfalls, whistling and muttering of a guard echoing off the walls as they approach you from a direction you can't quite discern is a very genuine moment of tension and immersion.

Two things end up tripping it up, however - the FPS nature, and the increasing change over the course of the game from actual Thieving to something more resembling a survival horror game with zombies, floating flaming skull heads and various monsters. Indeed, the levels of sneaking through manors and keeps and pilfering are far outnumbered by those where you have to take on some small army of ghouls for some reason. And it feels like a bit of false advertising, considering the game's title and the first couple of levels and introduction, when the game abruptly sort of becomes Medieval Shock about halfway through.

As reviewer Conskill at GameFAQs hilariously summarizes it, "The game play ends up being more "Thug: The Whomping Project" then "Thief: The Dark Project." "Thieving" really just consists of picking up items here and there that are just lying around, in typical FPS style. You get to pick a lock here and there, but it's very simplistic. The vast majority of the game has you creeping from shadow to shadow, waiting for a dood to turn around, so you can crack him in the back of the head with your blackjack for an instant knockout. Now, I guess there's nothing inherently wrong with this, if you really get off on cracking unwitting dudes in the back of the head. The thing about Thief is that it's supposed to be a sort of answer to the mindlessness of the glut of FPS games that came out in its time ... but effectively it ends up being little more than a slow-paced FPS that has a medieval arsenal and emphasizes moving slowly and standing around for long periods of time just waiting on stuff to happen. I'm not exactly a frat boy Call Of Duty sort of gamer, but seriously, it didn't take long before I was wishing for a rocket launcher or something "mindless" and fun to spice up the plodding routine.

There's a list of other niggles. Some of the levels feature really awkward and bad platform-jumping segments, which the engine is not well suited to. Unlike MGS and Tenchu, there's no real consequence to getting spotted in a lot of cases - there's no "mass alarm" that alerts a stream of guards to your location, the only other reinforcements that might come running are guards within shouting distance most of the time. And they're really not very inspiring at combat in most cases, so dispatching them with your sword or some regular arrows is not all that great of a challenge. Granted, if you play on Expert mode, you can't kill humans, so that does negate the point a bit, but the game gets so heavy on monsters later that it only bails out a few levels. The game is also supposed to be compatible with USB joysticks and pads, but actually getting the buttons set up and working properly was such a nightmare that I found it unusable and had to use a standard keyboard FPS setup. Each level comes with a confusing scribbled map, supposed to impart more "realism" I suppose, but ends up getting very frustrating in the large mazelike levels with a lot of useless, empty terrain you have to comb to figure out where the hell you're going - levels that should take no more than an hour or so often get stretched out to two or more thanks largely to pointless wandering. And the game shares the janky climbing mechanics of System Shock 2, which is really hard to forgive here considering how often climbing is required.

I can see where people were impressed by this back around 97-98, especially PC-exclusive gamers who were missing out on MGS, Tenchu and Goldeneye and had no real "stealth action" comparison. I feel the game has really aged badly, however. Third-person is really a better choice for a stealth-focused game ... it's the sort of genre where you really need to be able to see as much around you as quickly as possible, and exactly where your character is in relation to everything, and that's much more limited in first-person. You also lose mechanics like pressing up against walls, grappling up to rooftops, and so on. I think the designers kind of came to grips with this in the middle of the project, and that's why it suddenly becomes a more combat-heavy monster-fest all of the sudden. What that leaves you with, unfortunately, is a game that is largely just a plodding FPS with a very limited weapon system.


Links :

* Thief Series FAQ - Technical Assistance
* Through The Looking Glass - fansite

Videos :

* Gameplay Video
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