Many action games put you in the role of a powerful hero who has to go out and fight all the bad guys. Not the Thief series, which was originally created by the now-defunct developer Looking Glass Studios. Though they look like first-person shooters, they aren't. Instead they're first-person stealth games in which your objective is to sneak past the guards and grab the loot while remaining undetected. In the Thief games, you play as Garrett, a cynical thief who wants nothing more than to pilfer his way to a cushy retirement. Somehow Garrett keeps getting swept up in much larger affairs. The huge metropolis in which he lives, known simply as "the City," remains under the control of powerful factions, such as the superstitious Pagans, the technology-focused Hammerites, and the mysterious Keepers. Garrett has had his dealings with the first two groups, and in the upcoming Thief: Deadly Shadows, he'll end up working for the Keepers. Despite his best efforts, he'll end up getting much more than he bargained for. It seems that this third faction consults prophecies for guidance, and the latest augury has stated that "the brethren and betrayer will bring on the end of words." Garrett must investigate this cryptic prophecy for his employers, though the paranoid Keepers later begin to suspect that Garrett himself is, in fact, the betrayer in question--which means he'll have to clear his name if he wants to survive.
We were recently able to see the game in action for both the Xbox and PC. Deadly Shadows is now very far in development and is feature-complete. In fact, the game is now playable from start to finish, so the team is working on tuning and tweaking it. According to Ion Storm studio director Warren Spector, Thief's control scheme and interface translate well to both a PC and a gamepad. This is because of Thief's singular focus on stealth-based gameplay. Essentially, Garrett doesn't have a huge inventory of weapons and other items because he simply doesn't need them. He's there to get in, accomplish his mission, and get out. As such, the game has a streamlined control scheme that allows Garrett to quickly switch weapons and active items; he can also lean around corners to see any oncoming enemies. Ion Storm and publisher Eidos recently announced that the game will also have a fully functional third-person perspective. It's one that, according to Spector, will be "fully supported" and carefully tested.
The multiple perspectives should come in handy while you scout out your next objective in the City. Ion Storm is attempting to make Garrett's world seem like a living, breathing place rather than a simple set of levels that have been strung together. For instance, the game will not only task you with 12 main missions, but you'll also be able to revisit Garrett's apartment, which is a secluded room at an inn where he can practice his thieving and marksmanship skills. It's also a place where he'll occasionally pick up new missions and can even clean house. Like many of us, Garrett pays rent, but he can actually break into his landlord's apartment and raid the place, as long as he stays clear of the local guards. And rather than simply going from mission to mission, he can also explore "City sections," which are free-form areas with heavy-pursed civilians who wander to and from their locked houses and store their belongings in strong boxes.
While it's entirely possible to complete the game without visiting a City section, Garrett can often use the extra loot he liberates from these areas to visit his local fence and pick up extra items, like explosive mines, smoke bombs, and flasks of oil that can trip up guards or set them ablaze. He can also pick up additional arrows for his quiver, including the damaging broadhead arrows. He can also purchase a variety of utility arrows, like gas arrows, which can knock enemies unconscious, or water arrows, which can either quench torches (creating shadows for Garrett to hide in) or clean up bloodstains from a fallen foe. Since Deadly Shadows has guards that actually carry torches while walking, advanced players (who enjoy messing around with the guards) will even be able to extinguish the torches that they carry by firing well-placed water arrows. This serves as only a quick diversion, but the confused reactions of the guards make this sort of trick worth the effort for some.
Anything That Isn't Nailed Down
Ion Storm is taking great pains to create realistic artificial intelligence for Deadly Shadows' characters, such as guards that keep watch over treasure houses and peasants that roam the streets. Like in the previous games, other characters will give clear audio clues about whether or not they see you and whether or not they plan to attack you. However, they'll also have different personalities and physical attributes. Guards who are wearing heavy armor may tire after chasing you down, so they'll have to catch their breaths, which can give you an opportunity to escape. Other guards may be cowards at heart who will turn and run for help if you wound them severely enough. In addition, the developer is attempting to make sure that while fighting head-to-head will be far more difficult and dangerous than sneaking past the guards, but it won't always be a losing proposition, either. According to Spector, balancing out Garrett's fighting ability against the strength of the guards is a tricky prospect. If Garrett is too strong a combatant, most players will probably just play Deadly Shadows as a head-on action game, but if he's too weak, then getting caught by the guards will result in a frustrating failure that will cause most players to reload their last saved game.
Fortunately, Thief: Deadly Shadows has an improved combat system that, according to Spector, will let you play Garrett as a formidable assassin. Like in the previous games, Garrett can sneak up behind enemies and can club them with his blackjack, thus rendering them unconscious so that he can drag their bodies in to the shadows and go on with his work. He can also stab his enemies in the back with his dagger. In fact, a well-placed blow will kill most unaware opponents instantly, though Garrett will need to hide the body and clean up any blood left behind or risk being discovered later.Then again, in a few cases, Garrett may encounter enemies that aren't even human--and he'll need to employ different tactics to defeat them (though if you're a fan of the series, you may be relieved to hear that Deadly Shadows will have no steam-powered robots whatsoever).
If he's well hidden, Garrett can also instantly drop an enemy with a broadhead arrow to the noggin, though this will alert any other nearby characters. Enemy guards will immediately begin looking for you, while civilians will run for the guards. Gas arrows can be used to incapacitate enemies, and fire arrows can be used to finish off helpless ones. Garrett can also use smoke bombs to temporarily blind his enemies, or he can lay explosive mines in his enemies' paths, thus causing them to get blown sky-high. Unfortunately, if Garrett is discovered, he must go toe-to-toe with his enemies. Skilled players can weave in and out of the path of an enemy's sword while also attacking with a dagger or firing point-blank arrows. However, if you need to make a hasty retreat, you can also toss a smoke bomb into a guard's path and then run while he's blinded, or you can wound him badly enough to make him pause or flee. It will actually be possible to complete Thief: Deadly Shadows by killing off every single enemy, though it certainly won't be easy. Fortunately if you do get spotted by the guards, you'll have other options besides just running in the opposite direction or hiding and waiting until they lose your trail. According to Spector, being stuck with just these two options "just isn't fun." Garrett also has plenty of other tricks up his sleeve, such as the ability to flatten himself against walls to better hide himself from view or being able to simply scale walls when the defenses around the front door are too tight.
We were able to see both the PC and Xbox versions of the game in action, and while the game is still in an early state, it looks quite good. The game features something that Spector refers to as "body awareness," whereby Garrett can look down or to his sides to see his own body and equipment, though you'll likely be more focused on the City around him. Deadly Shadows is powered by an enhanced version of the same proprietary game engine that Ion Storm used for Deus Ex: Invisible War, though it should have both shorter loading times and an improved frame rate over that previous game. The City itself is an anachronism. It's caught somewhere between a medieval European and a Victorian Age city, where armed guards wear chainmail armor and carry swords outside of buildings that are protected by steam-powered traps. Furthermore, it's in this City where a certain master thief has a prosthetic mechanized eyeball that lets him zoom in on his surroundings to help him case his next target.
Did You Hear Something?
We watched two different PC levels in action, which are currently named "Museum" and "Castle." In the Museum level, we watched Garrett scout out the perimeter of a museum by carefully walking across the flagstones in the courtyard outside. Deadly Shadows' game engine has the same sound propagation technology as Invisible War, so walking on cobbled stones will be far more noisy than walking on carpet or grass. We watched as Garrett carefully avoided the gate guards and downed one of them with an arrow to the head; then he finished off the others.
Once inside, Garrett began searching for his mission objective, which involved the retrieval of an important artifact that was kept in the heart of the museum. During his search, he also stole nearly every piece of loot he could find. In the early version of the game, picking up loot in a mission pulled up a brief text message that indicated how much loot you were carrying, as well as what percentage of the total loot in the level you had recovered so far. Like Invisible War, Deadly Shadows clearly indicates any items that you can interact with (or any loot that you can steal) by highlighting them with a glowing light when you face them. Garrett then picked a lock using the game's lock-picking system, which lets you fiddle with the tumblers of a lock while you are timed. If you're on the right track, you'll receive a visual cue in the PC version, and your controller will vibrate in the Xbox version. By sneaking past the guards, our hero was able to locate a master switch so that he could cut the power to the museum, thus temporarily killing the lights and giving him many more places to hide.
We were also able to see Garrett in action in a City section in the Xbox version, where he's generally treated as a normal citizen unless he's caught doing something suspicious. In these areas, Garrett can knock out and rob any citizen and can break into any house, as long as he isn't caught doing so. These areas not only serve as good sources of loot for keeping Garrett well-supplied, but they may also provide important clues about upcoming missions--or about especially choice bits of treasure for him to pinch. Garrett can pick up scattered notes with important clues in both missions and City sections, but he can also overhear rumors in City taverns. In this City section, we watched as Garrett broke into a random house. More specifically, he broke into a winery by picking the door's lock. He then snatched up all the loose bottles of wine.
Since Deadly Shadows is powered by the Invisible War engine, it features all of that game's fancy accoutrements, including dynamic lighting and shadows, as well as normal-mapping--these features help make the dank streets of the City and its network of pipes and roads look appropriately cold and dark. The game also features the Havok 2.0 physics engine, which not only allows for rag-doll death animations but also allows environmental objects to be manipulated in Garrett's favor (or against it). For instance, in the Castle level, we watched Garrett clamber up the side of a wall and then topple a huge barrel down onto a guard below to get him out of the way. However, the game's modeled physics will require Garrett to exercise caution as well. As Spector explained, Garrett might think that by sneaking across the table of a guarded room, he's committing the perfect crime--until his elbow nudges the chandelier above him and causes the light and shadows in the room to sway back and forth, thus potentially alerting the guards.
Deadly Shadows seems to be coming together quite well. Spector assured us that the team has carefully considered what went right and what went wrong with Deus Ex: Invisible War and is applying the lessons learned to the development of this new game. The game is also being developed with input from several former designers from Looking Glass Studios, along with voice-over from Stephen Russell, who provided the voice of Garrett in the previous games. Thief: Deadly Shadows is scheduled for release later this year on the PC and Xbox. Until then, be sure to watch our developer interview with Ion Storm studio director Warren Spector.