Thief III: Deadly Shadows

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I've pillaged around in the Thief universe's perpetual darkness again with Ion Storm's "Thief: Deadly Shadows," and while I enjoyed myself and the bag of goodies on my back fattened with each long, challenging mission, a few of its contents were frankly a pain to carry around.

"Deadly Shadows" completes the triumvirate Looking Glass Studios begat with 1998's Thief: the Dark Project and 2000's Thief 2: the Metal Age, PC-only titles that garnered high praise yet for some inexplicable reason, only modest sales. It's available for both the PC and the XBOX. I played the latter because I'm a moron and sold my gaming computer some time ago during a "money's tight" scenario and now, a few years later, I have all three consoles and a wife who disagrees that a second PC for games (The first can't play games and is for the Internet where I can read game reviews! Help me, I'm a dork!) would be a great investment.

Before Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake or Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher so much as snapped on his Codec for a mission briefing, Garrett had hopped the fence of many a pompous lord's estate with several of his prized possessions in tow. Many games across all platforms have since incorporated stealth into their respective mixes and some -- the repulsive and modern, white trash-themed "Manhunt," for example -- utilize it almost exclusively. Garrett, however, pioneered in giving players the "first-person sneaker" feel of being undetected in some arrogant fool's home or place of business, hidden in the shadows and with eyes on the prize from across the room.

I should say off the bat that the The Dark Project is my second-favorite game of all time and its sequel is in my top ten. Fans, including me, were concerned a third "Thief" game would never see the light of day (pardon the pun, as virtually every second of all three games unfolds after sunset.) Ion Storm answered the call after Looking Glass, which also created the much-heralded (and another personal favorite) System Shock 2, folded, and has brought protagonist Garrett back into action during an imprecise period in time in the world known only as "The City." Series newcomers needn't have played the first two to fully enjoy "Shadows," but the grumpy Hammerites, unnerving Pagans and enigmatic, conniving Keepers that populate his land sure have a history worth knowing.

Anyway, now that I'm back to my hideout fresh from my time in "Thief's" third itineration, let me rummage 'round in my loot here for the good stuff. Ah, yes...

No other game that I've played provides the immersion, the feeling that you're there doing these things, that this does. From the unskippable tutorial to the finale through the streets of the City, fleeing from a towering foe, I truly felt again like I was Garrett. That's important, especially in a game placed in a world so detached from our own that takes itself so seriously. One little anachronism could bring the whole thing tumbling. Don't bother with the third-person view option, a first for the series and doubtless a console crowd accommodation; any thief worth his salt knows that first-person is the only way to travel.

The level Shalebridge Cradle (which may be the building's name just to be able to call the mission "Robbing the Cradle," but who cares) is a perfect example of the you-are-there feel. You're skulking around, both in the present and past, in a monstrous, mostly vacant orphanage-turned-asylum in order to bring a little girl's soul to rest. The series' emphasis on sound providing the package was in full force here, and one scene as Garrett creeps up to the attic had me looking sheepishly around my dark game room like a schmuck!

Missions are usually large endeavors, and while in other games varying difficulty levels simply gives enemies more oomph, here they often give you more game for the money as harder settings require Garrett to accomplish more or avoid foes altogether. I've never understood the fascination with "fragfests" and the mindless twitch mentality that permeates the videogame industry and which tells me there are far too many people with ridiculously short attention spans. I enjoy what Thief brings to the table and feel it's a true breath of fresh air in a world teeming with rocket launchers and health packs spinning around in thin air.

Basically, it's nice to be given the option to avoid killing, whereas in other games I'm charged with mowing down wave after wave of lookalike grunts. Not all of us are wannabe space marines. Sure, Garrett has his broadhead arrows, but guards can take a few unless you catch them unaware. It's better to snuff that torch with a water arrow, distract the guard with a noisemaker arrow, or muffle your steps with a moss arrow (though I never understood why a guard tramping down a hall didn't notice the difference when he started walking on the moss pile the arrow left behind.) There is a bug in the game, however, that relegates the difficulty level back to normal if one is killed or stops to load a previously saved game.

Another main reason I'm so high on "Thief" games is that I simply love the game world itself. From the lowliest peasant's hut to the most resplendent royal mansion, from the bowels of the Pagans' underground chambers to the catacombs of the Hammerite cathedral, I simply adore the architecture and overall style these titles feature. I love simply how the pinwheels of light float around in the moonshine through a window. While the size of "The City" here pales in comparison to the first two games (no level of any game I've played compares to "The Thieves' Highway" mission in Thief 2, where Garrett makes his way rooftop to rooftop) both vertically and as the crow flies, Garrett usually covers all the square footage in any given building he's in during his covert operations. I do wish more buildings were "open for business," so to speak, but most doorways and windows are just part of the scenery.

And finally, there's the story itself. Some may just skip the exposition, told between missions in cutscenes, but then they're probably playing the wrong game anyway. I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say Garrett may simply want to steal for his own gain, but the powers that be ensure he's utilized to carry out their bidding whether he likes it or not. The Keepers brought Garrett into their fold at the series' outset and feature more prominently in this title. The main story thread involves their need to keep certain glyphs out of the wrong hands in order to keep the balance of power in the City.

Many of the vocal talent returned from past games including Steven Russell as Garrett. I'd be devastated if my favorite criminal was voiced by somebody else after all my mileage with this series. My favorite voice, though, is the drunken-sounding guard who says "What's all this?" when he catches me trying to sneak out the door past him.

Now that I've liquidated the valuables through my fence, I've gotta sift through the not-so-shiny stuff...

Who in their right mind decided that Garrett needed to buy his water arrows, health potions, flash bombs and such at a store?? There is actually a store Garrett can enter, between missions while running from the identical and annoying City Watch members, called "The Well-Equipped Thief." I cringed when I heard the proprietor introduce himself and his wares. Another storeowner is a sultry little lass who flirts shamelessly with Garrett and then excuses herself by saying, "Oh, you probably just want to shop" or something. Give me a break.

Oh, and how about those body contortions after you knock somebody out with your trusty blackjack?! Nearly everyone's body seems devoid of a spine after you knock him out or kill him (not that you should be killing anyone!!) and often folds into a backwards letter 'C'. It's ridiculous. I don't know if this occurs in the PC version but it didn't happen in the first two games.

The only other strong gripe I have is that the sound sometimes popped, stuttered and dropped out altogether. This occurred with three different game discs and two different XBOX systems. However, in no other review can I find anyone reporting this issue, so I guess I'm just lucky.

Loading times are somewhat long, and when you pass through the big blue warp zone that just screams "You're playing a game!", whatever was happening there when you left will continue uninterrupted when you return. If you thought you'd outrun the arrows that Archer Guard guy let fly as you fled South Quarter to the Docks, except them to slam into you upon your return visit through that portal. It rather shakes the immersion the rest of the game tries to achieve. So do the climbing gloves (!?), which replace the rope arrows that enabled you to reach those high ledges and windows.

Last but not least -- some may quibble that Garrett's apartment in the game is rather austere considering his years of pilfering from the rich, but then if everything in games had to make perfect sense then we wouldn't have games at all, would we?

Players tired of lugging around AK-47s, Uzis and rocket launchers in the cookie-cutter shooter assembly line should hop into Garrett's shoes. It's a slower game, a deeper game, a more cerebral game. If another is released, which is probably too much to hope for, I'd steal it...ahem, I mean, buy it, in a heartbeat.

 Final Grade: B+

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