Thief: The Dark Project (1999) Gold edition review

Rated: 4 / 5

This is a game I’ve been interested in trying for years now.  Back in the early 2000s, a few friends of mine tried to get me into it, but to no avail for a couple of reasons.

1.) Every time my mother or father had purchased a computer, it was never one capable of running modern games.  That was fixed when I personally bought the components to build my own computer, but that was a decade later.

2.) I was a fucking idiot who didn’t understand the appropriate way to play, nor did I fully appreciate the pacing and playstyle, or the intelligence.

Cut to about a month ago, and I see a Youtube video (yes, as much as I hate Youtube, there are too many good content creators using that platform to ditch it) which discusses the problems with AAA gaming today.  Long story short, the problem is style over substance, too much repetition, too much hand-holding, too few chances taken.  AAA games today are made more for profit than they are for longevity and creating fans who will continue to revisit such a game decades later.  Because think about it, of all the AAA games that have been released over the past, um, let’s say from the X-Box 360 and PS3 and Wii generation of consoles and onwards (roughly 2006 to the present), how many do you often revisit?  Why do you revisit them?  What is it that makes them appealing and stand out from all the other games of the same genre and playstyle?  What makes one Call of Duty game different from another?  What makes open-world games so unique and appealing?

Well, many of them suffered from similar problems that I was aware of subconsciously, but couldn’t put into words or fully comprehend.  Then watching the above video, and after playing the game, I am now aware and can comprehend why the status of many games today is totally fucked.  It’s the same thing that made The Witcher 3 tiresome for me after a duration of time (despite how much I wanted to love that game more than I do), the same thing that plagues The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim, and many first-person and third-person shooters.  Map markers, mission markers, waypoints.  Whether it’s on the main screen or on some mini-map at the corner of the game screen, they do the same fucking thing.  They distract the player.  They dumb down the player and the experience.  It makes the player focus more attention on the marker and moving from point A to point B completing one objective after the next and being guided while doing so rather than thinking for themselves.

The version for taffers.

But it’s not the hand-holding alone that makes it bad (well, ok, maybe it is, since it promotes laziness and practically letting the game play itself; more on that later).  In fact, it could be used as an optional hint/cheat for players who are lost in the game who don’t want to be challenged in that way (pussies).  Rather, it’s the hand-holding combined with the distraction.  Players more often focus on the waypoint rather than the world itself.  The environment, the buildings, the people, the conversations, the subtle indications that are sprinkled in various areas (assuming that much attention to detail was given).  Whenever I play Skyrim or Witcher 3, or any such game similar (hell, even Jak II and III is guilty of doing this, but it’s more justifiable in those games because the open-world environment is less interesting than the destination of the waypoint when you do start platforming and shooting), my attention is focused more on the dot/arrow/icon that indicates what direction to move in rather than anything else around me.

Playing Thief: The Dark Project (aka Thief: Gold, which I’ll refer to as just Thief from now on; and don’t you dare confuse it with the 2014 version, fanatics of the old franchise will sneak into your house and murder you in your sleep for that), it got me to see why it is those waypoints take away from the game.  Which seems contradictory if you think about it, adding in elements to a game actually taking away from the experience; sometimes less is more, even in videogames.  Without waypoints to guide me, I was forced to try remembering portions of the level, utilize the map to some extent, as well as the compass to determine where I am and where I should go.  You also may not even want to reference the map or the compass ever.  In this way your attention is held entirely on your immediate surroundings.  You are forced to memorize the level up to a point.  You are forced to look for your goal(s).  And there are details worthy of your eyes.  Not just the shadows to hide your presence, or the types of floors which are safe to walk/run quickly upon vs. those that make too much noise.  No, there’s also the subtle story elements.  Not just the books you come across, I’m talking about the items and materials strewn about around the map.  They give indications as to what the place is like, what the occupants of the place are like, how things are run, hints at some room being the optimal location for riches to loot; plus the occasional secret door to come across.  Not having a waypoint ultimately allows one to be more immersed in the game world itself.

This isn’t to say its not without its headaches.  One can get easily lost in a level once you get to mission 4 and onwards (out of 15 main missions).  It may take you longer than your patience allows to find some obscure item necessary to complete the level.  Hell, there were a few times I had to resort to looking up youtube videos and/or game guides on gamefaqs.com to figure out how to get myself unstuck (I probably could’ve figured out how to get through it if I put enough time into it; but when I started clocking in at 3 hours on one level, that starts to make me think about what else I could be doing with my time).  Many games from 1999 and earlier suffer from similar situations, even the first Doom game from 1993.  But while the frustration is there, it also accomplishes something else I hadn’t felt in a while.  A sense of accomplishment.  While I did utilize guides at some points, later on I forced myself not to for the sake of trying to complete it all on my own.  And at some points, I succeeded.  This sense of discovery and solving the puzzle, getting through the maze, is more invigorating than simply being guided from one point to another.  Plus it adds to the length of the game.  15 levels, where you’ll be spending anywhere from 1-5 hours on each level depending on how good you are at this sort of thing, or if you’re replaying it.  You won’t feel like the game is too short to say the least (hah).

Which brings me to another point.  The whole getting lost in a level and learning your way around the place.  It does something else.  It makes the level memorable.  It makes each level feel like its own stand-alone experience.  Where the enemies are placed, how they patrol, what enemy types there are, the look of the level, where the lights are and whether or not they can be extinguished, certain areas you can use the rope arrow at (if anywhere), learning the paths to take to sneak past enemies, or how you can knock them out one by one until you have free reign of the entire area.  On that latter point, I found it hilarious in the context of this one level where I had to infiltrate this opera house (to steal shit of course).  I could’ve tried doing the level without knocking anybody out and hiding their bodies somewhere.  I could’ve, but considering I’ve been knocking out pretty much everyone I came across in previous levels, why stop know?  So I ended up knocking out most of the security guards, all the ballerina dancers and opera singers, and all the upper class nobles who came to watch the play.  I couldn’t help but chuckle at this, considering the context.  It’s a great moment that the game doesn’t force onto you.  It’s something you can choose to do of your own accord, without even being told it’s an option.

And on that note, this is a game that’s a stealth-thriller.  You’re not meant to just go in and butcher everyone because the sword-play aspect of the game is intentionally fiddly, and just about everyone else can wield a sword better than you can.  If you try to fight a bunch of guards, you’ll most likely get killed.  In fact, on the highest level of difficulty, the Expert difficulty (which is the level of difficulty I recommend to all, it’s the way Thief was meant to be played), you’ll automatically lose a mission if you kill anyone (well, anyone who’s human anyway).  So you’ll be forced to play like a thief.  You’ll be forced to feel like a thief.  You will be encouraged to play in such a way as to stick to the shadows and avoid combat wherever possible.  However, the last 3-4 levels eventually do away with this.  You are eventually allowed to let loose on these monsters and undead that wander around.  You can still sneak, to be sure, but there are some places where combat becomes unavoidable in later levels.  In some cases, it becomes mandatory to kill off certain enemy types.  It does offer a change of pace, but its subjective as to whether or not it’s a welcome change.  Some like it, others don’t.  Personally, I was just ho-hum about it.

So yeah, there’s more than just regular humans in this game.  There are undead and supernatural beings in this, and they become relevant to the plot, and are foreshadowed in documents and discussions, should you choose to read/listen to them.  And the undead make an appearance as early as level 2, so they are established as existing within this world early on.  Despite that, the game sticks closer to stealth-thriller rather than stealth-horror, up until you reach this one level titled, “Return to the Cathedral.”  Once you get to that level, holy Jesus-aged-titty-fucking-Christ almighty.  That level is one of the scariest fucking things you’re ever going to experience.  The game suddenly turns into a survival-horror game in that level.  You will want to hide not just because you don’t have the means or the ability of wiping out these demons that show up early on, but also because they are scary as fuck.  You hide because you don’t want to encounter these things.  And if they spot you and chase you, God help you, even though it’s likely he won’t considering how often you’ve stolen religious artifacts and desecrated holy sites.

Outside of that, there’s this other level called The Sword, which many state is their favorite level in the entire game (it’s not my personal favorite, by I can see why it is for others).  It starts out like a normal mansion level, until you go deeper and deeper into the mansion where the level design gets bizarre and unnatural.  One would wonder how it’s possible for someone to construct a mansion like this.  There are documents you can find in the level that indicate how it could be done, but it doesn’t fully explain everything witnessed in the most logical sense.  But it makes more sense later on when you learn more about the owner of the mansion.

Like I said, each level has it’s own unique and memorable aspect.  It’s something that can be overlooked if one were left focusing on a minimap and/or waypoint.  But there’s also an aspect that, well, I won’t say is unique to this game, but isn’t utilized anywhere near enough as it should be.  Sound.  Listening to the footsteps of guards to get a general idea of where they are and how far away they are, if they’re coming closer or moving further away.  Using sound to determine if it’s safe to come out of hiding, or if you should stay hidden for a while longer.  This is a very crucial element of this game, something that makes it work as well as it does.  The only other stealth game I can think of which utilized something like this is Alien: Isolation.  Other than that, most of the time, games go for visual cues rather than audio cues.  I mean, look at how the Uncharted games evolved between Uncharted 3 and 4.  Uncharted 3, yeah, you could sneak around and knock some foes out before having to get in a shootout.  Sometimes you could clear out an entire area stealthily, though it’s optional to do it that way.  Uncharted 4, fairly similar, except it’s easier to sneak around and take people out silently.  It becomes easy because you can mark your targets, and always see their location even when they’re not in your line of sight (because you mark them with waypoints).  Games today prefer visual cues rather than audio cues, and it cheapens the experience.

All these elements make this game stand the test of time precisely because of how much it does with what little it provides, though it is most likely intentional that they left some things out, restricted what the character is able to do, precisely to make it more realistic.  Because realistically, people can’t mark targets and then always know their location just by marking them visually with eyesight, as opposed to listening for their footsteps.

Most modern AAA games sacrifice immersion for more bling, more waypoints, more handholding, etc.  Open-world games somehow tend to be the worst of this.  Sometimes they offer the ability to turn off waypoints, but then you run into another problem.  Some games aren’t designed well enough to work without the use of waypoints.  Which is another thing that allows games like Thief to stand the test of time.  Level design.  While they can be headache-inducing, they at least offer challenge and actual exploration (moving to an objective via following a waypoint/minimap is not exploring, that’s riding an escalator).

As for the specifics to that game, you play as a thief named Garret, who is trained by a secret organization known as The Keepers, learning the tricks of the trade when it comes to thieving, but decides to abandon the organization and go independent.  Then he has occasional run-ins with other thieves and the organization known as The Hammers.  His way of life isn’t easy, as he needs to steal constantly and attempt to avoid being double-crossed and cheated, just to pay the landlord, nevermind having suitable living conditions.  But as the game goes on, his skills become noticed by devious figures who want him involved in their schemes.  In the end, he goes on missions he doesn’t entirely want to go on, including those pitting him against the undead and some mages.  But the potential reward is worth the insane risk.  But then he begins to realize he has underestimated what he’s been getting involved with, how supernatural things he put off as superstition end up being real, and begins to suffer for it.  By the end of the game, he wants nothing to do with the Keepers, the Hammers, or anyone else that big.  Only for it to be indicated that he is still being used for some organization’s purpose, as he had been used during the second half of the game.  The narrative is subtle, but good.  There are some plot elements (and/or treasures) you may have overlooked on a first playthrough, which encourages a second playthrough.  While Razorfist (see video above) doesn’t care for this game as much as the others, I found it to be just fine.

The game comes highly recommended.  Rough around the edges, sure, as anything from 1999 is likely to be.  But it does more things right that should be taken for granted, but have been tossed away through the years.  One of those things includes being a game that doesn’t insult your intelligence and try to lead you like a sheep.

Mods

Oh, right, there’s 2 mods I can recommend for this game, one of which is mandatory.

TFix

An unnofficial patch the fixes some bugs, and makes the game more compatible for modern engines.  This is the mandatory mod.  It’s less of a mod and more of a fix, though you can’t use the next mod without this one.

Thief Gold HD Texture Mod

If you think the graphics look too dated (ie too 90s), then there’s this mod.  It’s not going to make it look like a modern graphics game so much as it makes it look 1 console generation better in terms of graphics.  Works for me.  The only things I found iffy were the gas cloud effects of the gas bomb.  They looked too good for this game.  They stood out too much compared to the other special effects.  I prefer the graphics to be consistent.  It’s more of a minor nitpick than anything else, as the pros far outweigh the cons.

PS: Now I’m eager to play the sequel, The Metal Age.

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