The master thief Garrett's triumphant return to the shadows of the City will be upon us in just a few short months with the impending release of Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the classic medieval stealth series. We recently met with Ion Storm studio head Warren Spector and got a chance to go hands-on with a feature-complete version of the game, which is now undergoing rigorous beta testing. Though our time with Deadly Shadows was brief, it left us rather anxious to experience more of the moody, suspenseful environments and situations created by the game's impressive combination of engine technology and good ol' fashioned play mechanics.
During our demo, we got to sneak our way through several of Deadly Shadows' maps in an effort to loot treasure and to escape the premises unseen. The game is looking quite solid at this point--we were able to move around the world freely and could use all sorts of stealthy maneuvers to further our goals. Indeed, Spector told us that the game recently underwent its first successful start-to-finish play-through, so the development team is now squarely in tweaking and bug-fixing mode as it works toward the game's upcoming release.
The gameplay we experienced in Deadly Shadows ought to be familiar, on a fundamental level, to anyone who's played other stealth games in the last few years. You sneak around enemy-filled areas, preferably under cover of darkness, in an attempt to complete your goals without raising awareness of your presence. However, unlike stealth genre standard-bearers like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, which, for some reason, both have a near-future military setting, Deadly Shadows' quasi-medieval universe will force you to be much more creative--and much more careful--to ensure that you stay hidden. In other words, it's a very different and admittedly refreshing stealth experience to enter a pitch-black area and have no thermal-vision goggles to reach for.
The two previous Thief titles, The Dark Project and The Metal Age, weren't exactly what you'd call FPS games, but nevertheless, they were played exclusively from a first-person perspective. Deadly Shadows, on the other hand, provides an option for a third-person perspective, and you can switch between the two at any time. Spector told us that initially he fought against the inclusion of third-person, but now that it's in the game, he recognizes that it was a valid design choice. After playing the game, we'd have to agree that it's definitely easier to get a sense of your surroundings, in addition to how visible you are, with the increased field of view the third-person perspective yields. Playing in first-person provides a much more immersive experience, but it's also a lot harder to keep track of what's going on around you and how likely it is you'll be spotted. Thankfully, there's an indicator on your HUD, in the form of a color-cycling jewel, that will let you know not only how visible you are but also how much sound you're making.
At one point during the demo, Spector pointed out the irony of the art team's efforts to imbue Thief's gameworld with such detail and craft, because, as a thief, you'll ideally want to spend as much of the game in darkness as possible and thus won't be able to appreciate those fine details. Indeed, almost all of the light sources in the game can be put out in one way or another. Garrett has water arrows in his versatile quiver that will magically rain down a small shower of water from their points of impact, so you can use these to extinguish wall-mounted torches, candelabras, and pretty much any flame that you can aim an arrow directly above. If you can manage it while unseen, you can also simply walk up to some smaller light sources, like candles, and snuff them with your fingers. Even if the darkness is absolute, you won't be completely invisible to enemies--they'll still notice some hint of movement and investigate the disturbance if you walk in front of them--but it sure helps.
The water arrows are hardly the only trick Garrett has up his sleeve. For one, his trusty blackjack will let you knock out an enemy unnoticed, assuming you can manage to sneak up without being heard in the first place. Garrett also has a bevy of other arrows to use with his trusty bow. The noisemaker arrow will draw enemies' attention to its point of impact, thus allowing you to sneak by while they investigate in the opposite direction. Moss arrows will blanket the area around their impact points with moss (obviously), which will mask the sound of your footsteps. This comes in handy if you have to drop down from a considerable height and can't otherwise avoid making noise when you land. Spector told us one of the game's programmers snuck in an additional effect involving the moss arrows that will come in handy if you've roused a guard. Specifically, if you manage to fire at his head, his mouth will be filled with moss, and his muffled cries won't be loud enough to alert his allies.
Of course, in addition to all these specialty arrows, you'll have regular arrows to kill enemies with as well, although if you don't score a lethal hit the first time, you'll only succeed in wounding an enemy and setting him--and his friends--after you. If this happens, you'll have a number of secondary items to aid in your escape. Our favorite was a sort of flash powder that created a bright light and temporarily blinded our pursuers, allowing us to run right under their noses while they fumbled about. You can also imbibe a health potion on the run if you've taken damage and need to make a quick exit. Spector told us that although Deadly Shadows isn't necessarily a combat-focused game, the design team wants players to have the option of fighting their ways out of a mess if they want to. From what we played, it'll be possible to escape a sticky situation through brute force, but it'll be pretty damn hard.
Much like Ion Storm's previous effort, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows will allow--and encourage--you to find multiple solutions to a given problem. Indeed, we accidentally explored this mechanic while we played the demo. In one level, we were attempting to gain access to a fortified keep while laying low in its shadowy courtyard. Spector told us that a cook inside the building had promised Garrett that he would open a side door if he saw Garrett's signal, so we proceeded to give this signal (which involved extinguishing a large torch in the courtyard with a water arrow), intending to sneak in through the back entrance. However, we happened to look away from the location of the door just before the cook opened it and were therefore unaware of its availability.
Spector chose to withhold this information from us, allowing us to fumble around and find our own way into the keep. Eventually, we ended up distracting the two guards who were posted at the front door with a noisemaker arrow and then snuck behind their backs while they were investigating. So while we had completed the requirements necessary to sneak in one way, we ended up devising an entirely different solution to the problem. And only after we randomly wandered out of the side door later on were we told that it had been open and waiting for us to walk through the entire time. At least based on this one example, it seems that this kind of free-form problem-solving will make Deadly Shadows a more-dynamic experience than you'd expect from games of this genre. Whereas other stealth games often give you a preset path and allow only one solution for getting from point A to point B, Thief will apparently give you many options.
We got to check out the PC version of Deadly Shadows, and at this late stage of development, the game is looking great. It uses the same heavily modified Unreal technology as Invisible War, and Thief features the wealth of impressive graphical effects that you'd expect if you played that game. Primarily, the dynamic lighting and shadowing give the gameworld a dark, atmospheric look that's both stylistically sound and also quite functional (since creating shadows will empower your sneaking ability). The game applies bump mapping tastefully to its levels and character models, which further enhances the texture and realism of the art design. Thief doesn't just rely on whiz-bang graphical effects--the visuals definitely have a degree of artistic personality to them, too. One map in particular which stood out to us had Garrett sneaking around some sort of subterranean area in an attempt to outwit a group of bizarre-looking humanoid creatures that resembled nothing so much as fish people. This area was full of crystals that jutted from the rock walls and cast a striking, bluish hue that nicely lit some parts of the area.
There's no firm release date set for Thief: Deadly Shadows, but as the game is in a solidly playable beta state, we'd imagine that it'll see the light of day in the next few months. Though we only got to try the PC version, Spector told us that the Xbox game will be essentially identical, with only a few differences in texture resolution and in some force feedback features. The game played great using a mouse and the standard WASD-style keyboard setup, and we imagine the controls will map equally well to the Xbox's controller. From what we got to play, we're highly impressed with the Thief series' third installment and can't wait to see how the final game shapes up. We'll bring you more coverage of Deadly Shadows in the coming months, so for now, you can check out our previous looks at the game, as well as a recent interview with Warren Spector on the game's media page.