Genre: First-Person Stealth
Original Release: December 1, 1998 (Thief: The Dark Project), October 29, 1999 (Thief Gold)
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Platform: PC (Disc, Steam, GOG)
Played on: GOG
It’s not a secret that I’ve been looking forward to Gloomwood since I played the demo last year. It was immersive, atmospheric as all getout, and left me wanting more. What I didn’t know at the time was just how heavily it was inspired by Thief. And even then, I didn’t give it too much thought until an episode of Yahtzee’s Dev Diary showed off a number of different tools at your disposal in Thief, including water arrows.
So finally, I decided to look for a copy of Thief for myself. I don’t have a disc drive on my current computer and from my experience with games released in the mid-to-late-90s, they don’t tend to play nicely with modern systems without the use of compatibility mode. At least, the Steam versions don’t. So instead, I made the decision to purchase it on GOG, as – so far as I’m aware – the team works to update all of the drivers so that they work well on modern systems. It’s been the case with Heroes of Might & Magic II, Daikatana, and now Thief for me, so I’m inclined to believe the team updates everything.
Anyway, onto the game itself. Thief Gold is an expanded release of Thief: The Dark Project. It makes some changes to the levels of the original release and adds three new missions to expand on the story as well as Garrett’s skills as a thief. Our story begins with a young Garrett taken in by a mysterious organization known as the Keepers. His training serves as the tutorial, and afterward Garrett leaves the order, taking what he’s learned in order to better ply his trade as a thief.
The engine used in Thief, the Dark Engine, really helps make Thief stand out, ironic as that might seem. You’ll notice a small gem icon at the bottom of the above screenshot. That gem is your visibility indicator. Depending on the brightness of the light you’re standing in and whether or not you’re crouching, your visibility will change. Obviously the more visible you are, the easier you are for guards and passerby to detect and vice-versa. This might sound a bit silly to you, but the first time I ever saw a mechanic like this in action was in the movie tie-in game for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. It was very simplified there, but the idea was the same: Spider-Man could hide in the shadows in a level and then use that to knock out various thugs. In Thief, Garrett is not only able to hide in the shadows even as people walk right in front of him, sometimes bumping into him in the process with minimal consequence, but he can also ignite or extinguish certain light sources. Torches and open flames can be snuffed out with the use of water arrows, or ignited again with fire arrows. It’s more handy than you might expect.
That’s another thing I really like: Garrett’s toolkit is incredibly varied. Most everything you can use is more practical for sneaking around and navigating than it is for combat. Garrett himself isn’t some sort of combat prodigy, in fact it’s very easy to get yourself killed if you’re careless, so while you have a sword and some arrows you’re better off lurking in the shadows and waiting for a guard to either pass by or turn their back and then hitting them over the head with the blackjack. It has a very satisfying “thunk” sound to it and there was a period of time where every knockout was preceded on my part by “go to horny jail.” The trade-off there is that the blackjack requires your target to be unaware of your exact location to knock them out. If a guard knows where you are, for example, the blackjack won’t subdue them and they’ll mock you, claiming things like a baby bird pecked them. This game has a ridiculous amount of personality and I’ve started using “taffer” pretty regularly because of it.
In addition to the sword, blackjack, and the two arrows I’ve mentioned before, Garrett also has access to moss arrows that lay down a carpet of moss to muffle his footsteps, noisemaker arrows that create a distraction where they land, gas arrows to knock out guards and other folk in a specific area, and rope arrows that, when attached to a wooden surface like a beam or a tree branch, lower a thick rope that Garrett can use to climb to another floor or reach spots he might not be able to get to otherwise. You’ve also got explosive mines that work as you would expect and gas mines that work just like the gas arrows. Aside from your objectives, there really aren’t any rules or requirements to how you play, so whatever approach you take is entirely up to you! I personally enjoy going for a more subtle approach, knocking out guards and innocent passerby as I go rather than killing them. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that you can’t knock out a guard if they’re trying to fight you, so I ended up killing a handful of them with my blackjack. Suffice it to say I felt very silly when that happened. Still, it was a lesson learned.
Speaking of lessons learned, don’t rely on your map to figure out your exact location like you would in more modern games. There isn’t an indicator on any map for where you are beyond highlighting that section of the level in blue. Here’s an example from the first level:
Some might complain that it’s hard to read, but I would argue that’s the point: a map isn’t supposed to act like a GPS and give you your location moment-to-moment. Rather, a map is intended to help you get your bearings, which is what it does here. Garrett has a compass to properly orient himself throughout the level, and the shapes of the buildings on the map are accurate to their layout in The City. I passed by that arrow cache at the bottom a few times before I figured out its exact spot and when I finally did, it was like something clicked. I just sat there thinking “Ahhh I get it now.” Honestly, once you have a rough idea of where you are and where you need to go, using the compass will typically get you the rest of the way. At least, that’s most of the time. I present to you the second map I want to show you, with the explanation that my brother warned me about this one in advance:
So far as I’m aware, this is the only time in the game that Garrett finds himself literally off the map. It can be tricky to navigate through this one, but if you’re diligent and read every note you come across, you’ll find that there are markers you can follow. My brother’s description of this was comical, yet completely accurate. Like imagine yourself in this position: you’ve entered a sprawling tomb and find yourself in a network of tunnels excavated by some of the local wildlife. This wasn’t on your map. It’s understandable that you would ask yourself “where am I?”
And that’s the thing: most of the complaints that I have about Thief are completely justifiable when I stop to think about them. It makes sense that Garrett isn’t the best in a fight, he’s a thief, not a soldier. This was also used in Tenchu Z years down the road, where your character was a shinobi and thus relied more on the element of surprise to deal with the guards. It makes sense that the map can be hard to read at first, it’s a 2D image and encourages the use of the compass. It makes sense that some of the extra levels are longer and more complicated than the original set. The mage towers in particular threw more for a loop because I misunderstood a note about where things were found after an accident that had happened prior to my arrival and it tested my attention to detail. I failed that particular test and had to resort to a guide, but it happens.
If I were to give any advice for a first-timer playing Thief, I would have a few things of note: take your time, read everything you can, and maybe remap your controls. I found myself a bit disoriented at first when the A and D keys didn’t strafe but instead turned me left or right respectively. It’s up to you though! For what it’s worth I had a lot of fun playing Thief and I’m glad to have taken the time to sit down and do so at last. The character interactions are fun, Garrett is justifiably cocky given his talents, and it’s really neat just how many ways there are to reach your goals. With that in mind, I give Thief Gold a recommendation.
I take is as a good sign when I finish a game and it leaves me wanting to play its sequel immediately. Thief left me feeling that as well as the desire to play through it again on a higher difficulty. Maybe I’ll do that sometime down the road! For now, I’m just happy to have another classic experience under my belt.