Have you ever walked into a store with bags full of change to purchase something down to the last cent? That’s exactly how my brother and I bought Thief: Deadly Shadows on its launch date 15 years ago.
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I felt like a taffer, going into the GameStop with piles of quarters and nickels in little baggies. Perhaps I had just made off fresh from a local manor house, the worker there must have thought. In truth my family and I had just looted our own “manor.” It was necessary: Dad, you see, was out of town, and the only money we had was what we could find. We just barely made the $40 and tax to purchase the game we had eagerly been awaiting.
2004 was a time of unusual hype. Big-name games were slated for release, among them such hotly anticipated titles as Half-Life 2, Doom 3, and Halo 2. My friends were psyched about each of them. I, however, was completely alone in my excitement for Thief: Deadly Shadows. Even my PC-gamer friends had no idea what Thief was. I burst at the seems in my passionate explanation of it while they looked dumbly towards me. I swore that Thief: Deadly Shadows, or Thief III, as series’ fans called it, was going to become the best game that year. I had every reason to be so convicted: no game had ever encapsulated and inspired me like the first two Thief titles had.
No one understood me. So, I kept my Thief passion to myself. Come the night of May 26, I was ready to enter a new chapter in a world that had so won my heart and mind years back. My excitement was doubled given my family had a new PC to play the game on: a big, shiny Alienware Aurora, complete with an AMD Athlon 64 processor. The rig also had an ATI Radeon 9800 XT graphics card. Yes, these were also the times when ATI was not AMD.
I had tested some other games out on this fancy new build, namely Unreal Tournament 2004, but Thief III had the honor of being the first new game I would play on it. My family had purchased this computer mainly because our old one wouldn’t have played Thief III. Thus were our priorities.
That Feeling When You Start a New Game in a Beloved Series
After being shown what seemed like an endless amount of ads, in addition to the Eidos and Ion Storm logos, the Thief III menu finally greeted us. Now began the process of acclimation. This happens whenever you start a new game in a series you love: you notice the differences, usually the unwelcome ones, from the prior titles.
The first was the font. A substantial amount of text in the menus was in Papyrus. This was the cool font my brother and I used in PowerPoint when making Egyptian stuff. In PowerPoint it was cool, but in a commercially released game’s menu it seemed cheap and out-of-place.
We clicked New Game and quite suddenly were met by Stephen Russell’s now deeper voice. There was a jarring absence here: Russell’s voice was great, but where was the usual video intro? Each Thief mission in the original titles would begin with a sequence displaying texts from a writing or speech over an animation, followed by a moody briefing video of static images zooming and fading in and out while Russell, as Garrett, narrated. A few missions would feature a longer more detailed animated video. But the first mission of Thief III had neither. The briefing was only text. Russell still narrated, thankfully, but that was the only part that remained. The text briefing was part of a larger menu with the objectives and difficulty settings, which in the original games had followed the briefings separately. Our first impression of Thief III was a disappointed one.
This letdown continued. Foremost, the look of the game was odd. Thief III sat shy of the realism of Far Cry. Its shadow and light play was still impressive, but the rest of the game seemed muddy—blotched. Objects lacked the sharp detail of its predecessors. A bluish shade seemed to hang over everything.
In the original games, dark street alleys, Hammerite temples, Mechanist seminaries, haunted crypts, and lavish manors all looked unique. They each had their own visual character and colorful flares. In Thief III, every location looked the same.
Every location also felt really small. Each individual mission and the City hub between them was broken into different zones, separated by a load. These “load zones” chopped each area into small segments. Even without the loading times, levels were too small and easy to explore. Manor houses and crypts in the original Thief felt vast, and Thief II gave the City immense life with its rooftop mission. Throughout the original titles there was a grand sense of scale, with cozy areas worked in, that created a sense of exploration and wonder. Nothing felt vast in Thief III. The City was like a squat township. Even the last level, a grand museum, felt tightly packed together. All the missions seemed like toysets—that this is what you would get if you bought a Fisher-Price collection of different areas in Thief.
One of Thief’s greatest strengths was large levels filled with different areas and pathways, and not one load zone to divide them. The original’s engine, the Dark Engine, is perhaps one of the greatest game engines in history for this. Even today, Thief fans are crafting vast, intricate worlds without a single loading time within them.
Tight levels with load zones squelched exploration in Thief III. This was further hurt by the lack of rope arrows. The rope arrow is a very important tool in the first two Thief games that allows movement upwards towards window ledges, wooden beams, and anywhere else you can stick an arrow. Not only did Thief III not have them, but in their stead were awkward climbing gloves. This idea on its own isn’t terrible, but when executed it didn’t work quite so well. You might scale a wall only to be stopped by a small ledge jutting out. There weren’t many opportunities to use them. Whenever you did, there was also an awkward pause in the climbing animation: if you stopped as Garrett was moving his hands, both hands would freeze right where they were. You could look to the left and see his left hand frozen in mid air, and then tap the forward key to see it, bit by bit, move towards the wall, freezing in place whenever you didn’t press the key. Now, the rope arrows had bugs of their own—at times somewhat hilarious—but overall they were much more inspiring than these climbing gloves.
It didn't help that the movement was also clunky. There was an on-the-fly option to switch to a third-person view, so the first-person camera was placed on the face of a 3D model. You not only saw Garrett's body when you looked down, but also felt its every turn and stumble. Positioning Garrett's body on top of surfaces as you climb upwards or descend down makes you feel clumsy.
Another shortcoming was a disconnect from Thief II’s storyline. In Thief II, the game’s City setting had become progressive and Victorian. A major part of this aesthetic revolution came from the Mechanists, a religious group who invented new machines and devices. Part of the greater narrative was that the dark, medieval days of the City had passed and a new era of technology and elegance had come. In Thief III, there is almost no recognition that this era ever happened. The City is even more dingy than it was in the original. It’s as if every aspect of the Victorian style and technological progress in Thief II had been lost. One readable in the Hammerite Church references the Mechanists, but otherwise the Hammerites have apparently not adopted any of their machines and there is no trace of their prior influence.
There are other story threads from Thief II not continued. Two of them come from the ending of Thief II, both of which Garrett has apparently forgotten about. One of these is at least referenced in a letter Garrett receives from the pagan group in Thief III. Perhaps Ion Storm’s intention was that much time had passed and both Garrett and the City had moved on from the events of Thief II. But the sense of disconnect is nonsensical. There should have been satisfying continuation from Thief II.
Despite these disappointments, I still played through Thief III to the end. There was enough to keep me going: Russell’s voice as Garrett and other characters, Eric Brosius’ singular audio work, and the lore that was there. Some missions were spellbinding even with the game’s cramped design. The House of the Widow Moira was an enchanting mission, for example. Robbing the Cradle was a superb horror mission, and the story climax that centered on that mission was riveting. Thief III wound to an ending as effective as the first two, and very special for Thief fans. While not great, and disappointing as a Thief game, Thief III was still good.
Taking Thief III For Granted
Over the past 15 years, I’ve come to appreciate Thief III as a classic of its own. This is due to nostalgia, but there are a few other reasons. The fan community has created a patch for it called Sneaky Upgrade. This adds new options like widescreen resolutions or fan-made briefing videos, removes the load zones so each level is one space (aside from the City hub), and has other improvements and additions. Additionally, a fan-mission contest allowed me to better appreciate Thief III’s world.
In 2012, TTLG member Brethren held the “Thief Reloaded Contest 2.” This contest challenged entrants to use a preexisting mission as a base on which to build a new one. User “Child Of Karras” had recreated Thief III’s City in Thief II’s engine. Two of the four entries in the contest used this recreation as a base. Playing them, I saw Thief III in a new light: quite literally a Thief II light. I soon began replaying Thief III again, which I had only done once before since first playing it in 2004. Thief III’s sights and sounds had new value for me as I dove, once again, into its world after having experienced it through those Thief II fan missions. It had now become its own for me, a Thief title to appreciate as much as the first two. Replaying the Cradle mission, I was more horrified by it than I had ever been before. Thief III was now a classic.
Then, in 2014, the Thief reboot’s release gave me another reason to love the franchises’ third entry. As many problems as it had, at least Thief III had Stephen Russell’s voice, Eric Brosius’ audio, and some homages and connections to the original games. Thief 2014 had none of that. The Dishonored titles also helped me appreciate Thief III more, as those games’ scope are more comparable to it than to the first two Thief games.
15 years later, then, I look on Thief III as an old friend. My May-2004-era self would be shocked to hear such a thing. At the time, I was too sorely disappointed by the game’s shortcomings, and far too despondent for what it could have been. Time has changed my perspective. Now, much older and wiser, I can see Thief III as at least a half-full glass. It tried to be Thief. Nowadays games, even official Thief titles, don’t make the attempt. And the series that did, Dishonored, has died off.
What I wouldn’t do for an Ion Storm-developed subpar Thief title with Russell’s tones right about now.