The year the banner “Brit Pop” finally died. The Spice girls song “Goodbye” was fighting for Christmas number 1 against South Park’s Chef and his soulful ditty “Chocolate Salty Balls”. Jay Z turned a 1982 children’s musical number into a Ghetto Gangster theme tune with “Hard Knock Life” and Bewitched were still together and annoying the shit out of everyone. It was also the year movies had taken a rather solemn tone with the top ten films of the year including American History X, Saving Private Ryan and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels making the world seem like a far more dismal place than it really was.
Luckily gaming was beginning to take flight as a medium and began to shake off the stigma of being a “childish past-time”. Games like Thief, for example… Never has a game title been so ironic. It’s set up and mechanics have been stolen more times than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (noted for being some of the most shop lifted books in Britain). Thief was created in 1998 and originally came out on PC – no wonder PC gamers got to feel so smug when they had the lions share of genuinely innovative first person games in their library.
Developed by Looking Glass Studios it took the stealth game and advanced it beyond any other game of it’s kind at the time. Playing as an apprentice Pick pocket called Garrett, you had to negotiate around different environments to steal specific items in order to line Garrett’s bottomless pockets. The premise was simple but effective. Set in a Steam-punk style world (before steam-punk was the norm) it’s design was something not many people had experienced before. It’s art direction was only bettered by it’s own concept work. From the opening tutorial you realise you are not playing a typical first person shooter.
The voice acting was top notch for it’s time and each character, big or small contributed to the overall high quality of the production. Many mechanics were introduced in this game that have been utilised by a plethora of different franchises since. A light gem at the bottom of the screen would indicate how visible you were and keeping to shadowed areas allowed you to remain undetected. The ground, lighting and even what you carried depicted how inconspicuous you were to guards and workers. Making noise was a big “no-no” in Thief and so it was important to listen. This meant the levels were music free so that you could listen out for guards conversing, their footsteps and even traps. The 3D sound design was top rate and had a level for detail that made it just that little bit better than the rest (guards whistling, random conversations between the AI characters etc). Peering around corners was a big thing back in 1998 and the lack of an onscreen map meant you had to rely on your senses to work out areas much more than other titles. Patience was a key element as well as timing, it provided a real challenge to even the most hardened sneak masters.
Enemy AI was smart for it’s time and not much got past them that shouldn’t. Level design meant that it was non linear, surprisingly complex and almost maze like at points. Other games advanced the detection system but Thief had it’s own image of how guards should react and once you had been seen it was very hard to be…unseen. Of course it’s pacing is now a little disjointed in terms of plot progression and the start of each level was introduced with a flat mission sheet rather than a FMV sequence which feels dated now. The story does progress but it was still in a time where “levels” were still the norm and loading screens were still something of an endurance test. However, the hi resolution graphics, special environment effects and amazingly solid build allowed you to traverse the environment without a whole host of glitches ruining the immersion (of course there was always room for improvement and thus Thief Gold Edition was released in 1999).
It’s clever use of columns, corners and environment objects also allowed the player to return repeatedly to try and negotiate their way to the end in a variety of ways. If you wanted to take the direct approach you could try fighting your way through each room (although the combat was somewhat irk-some and messy) or distract and take out enemies silently (a far more favourable approach). A highlight for me still is the aiming with the bow. As you draw back on the string the camera zooms in and after a couple of seconds the zoom increases to a better depth. This allows for a much better aim and it feels so satisfactory to plant an arrow into the head of a guard. You can then take him away and hide him so his friends can’t find him. It’s something that hasn’t been copied by many games since which is a shame as it feels amazing to get a quality shot off.
Each level was familiar enough so that you could plot routes easily but had a good amount of variety that it wasn’t the same place every time. From Gothic castles, dank dingy cellars and exuberant mansions – the eye candy came thick and fast. Thief is a milestone in stealth based gaming. It’s smart level design, tight graphics, voice acting and play mechanics woke people up to the potential of the genre and broke a few moulds along the way. Even today you will have to remind yourself that it’s sixteen years old and without it the likes of Dishonored, Splinter Cell and even the Last Of Us may not be what they are today.
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Thief for review purposes by GoG.com The title was reviewed over the course of 4 days on a PC and can be purchased at GoG.com for 9.99 Here. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.