After being grossed out by Duke Nukem 3D (and posting an admittedly harsh blog about it, ignoring the statute of limitations on expressing shock over controversy that isn't a thing but totally is a thing) I decided I needed a palette cleanser. To which I sought out one of my favorite franchises; Thief.
For those who don't know, the Thief series is the granddaddy of "stealth 'em up" games including Assassin's Creed, Dishonored, Hitman and Splinter Cell, developed in 1998 by Looking Glass Studios (who are also responsible for System Shock).
The concept is deceptively simple; as the eponymous thief Garrett, players make clever use of light and noise, along with an arsenal of gadgets, to avoid detection and make off with every valuable item they can find in some exceptionally well-designed levels full of patrolling guards, traps, and secret passageways. While lethal options are available, the games encourage and reward methodical, non-lethal strategies. A good thief takes only loot and leaves only unconscious bodies. The best thieves rob the place blind yet never harm a hair on a guardsman's head, leaving them oblivious that the player was ever there.
While the focus is on Garrett, each game in the series deals with with various factions that contend for control over the City he lives in. The Pagans represent chaos and the natural world, while the Hammers stand for order and civilization. The Keepers fall somewhere in-between and claim to maintain the balance, ensuring no single group holds more power than another. Players learn more about the City and its people by reading passages in books Garrett can find during his missions, and from the various quotes that decorate loading screens. These little details, often no more innocuous than a nursery rhyme, give the setting a rich background that stands head and shoulders above its competitors.
One of the biggest tools in its arsenal is sound design. In gameplay terms, players use sound to detect approaching enemies and must be aware of the amount of noise their own footsteps make. The soundtrack is minimalistic and brief, so players can focus on the environmental noise, but creates a perfect atmosphere of creeping isolation and paranoia.
The voice acting is phenomenal. Stephen Russell voices Garrett and does an amazing job, telling you everything you need to know about him from nothing more than his dry, cynical wit. The Hammerites—a sect of uncompromising zealots who worship a god called The Builder and venerate machinery—speak in a formal tongue (interlacing their speech with lots of "thy's" and "thou's") while their rivals the Pagans bes speakings a strangesie tongue that bes both feral and lyrical.
The first two games—The Dark Project and The Metal Age—are considered to be the best of the series (with Metal Age being the best). Unfortunately, Looking Glass Studios fell into financial troubles during the production of Thief 2 and the release of the game did not keep them afloat. Eidos bought up the license and turned development over to Ion Storm, who tried to update the series' dated graphics. Some would say they succeeded, though the improvements necessitated splitting up levels into different sections with their own loading times. Breaking up the levels like this, and including a half-hearted open-world mechanic between missions, were poorly received by many fans.
Me, I loved Deadly Shadows. It was the first of the Thief games I played and owned, due to my PC being a smoking POS at the time. Despite its differences, the game remains true to its setting and story, and some of its levels—including the Shalebridge Cradle and Overlook Manor—are stand-out examples of the series.
You might be wondering what I think of the more recent, SquareEnix published Thief that came out in 2014. I have to be honest, I don't consider it a part of the series. The evidence suggests that 2014's Thief was published to compete with the excellent and far superior Dishonored, borrowing liberally from its gameplay and story elements why keeping only a few shallow ideas from the original Thief games. It abandons a rich and fertile background to create something generic and ultimately forgettable. That and the graphics intensity crushes the game's levels even further than Deadly Shadows, dropping the series' exploration aspect entirely in favor of a series of smaller "obstacle courses."
If you're a fan of stealth games or curious about dipping your toes into the stealth genre, I can't recommend the first three Thief games enough. The trilogy is cheap, available on GOG and Steam, and should work with most modern PC's. Check them out, share your favorite Thief moments in the comments, debate the validity of 2014's Thief as part of the franchise, or insist I can't express joy for a game because it came out 18 years ago and no one cares that I like it now. Whatever floats your boat, taffer! :D