Since technology has evolved faster than good ideas, it's easier than ever to be jaded about computer games. That being the state of things, you'll have no problem relating to Garrett, the antihero of Thief: The Dark Project who's so good at his notorious trade that he's not liable to be surprised or impressed by much of anything. Yet even as he takes on assignments that turn out to be much more than even he bargained for, so too will you find that Thief's brilliant design exceeds your expectations. It may look like just another first-person shooter, but its emphasis on stealth, strategy, and ingenuity, coupled with its strong narrative structure and excellent mission design, adds up to a game that's stylish, serious, rewarding, and unique.
Your priority is to stay unnoticed as you go about accomplishing your objectives within each scenario. Garrett can stand very still, and becomes effectively invisible if he stands in darkness. He's easier to detect if he draws his weapons or moves around, and even when he can't be seen he can still be heard if he makes a lot of noise. You can gauge just how noisy you are by listening to yourself, and how visible you are by means of a color-coded gem.
You'll quickly learn to love the darkness in Thief, even if that darkness makes everything look a little dreary. At other times you'll find some wall textures that are a little too loud, while some of the level architecture feels a bit too plain. But those moments are the exception: For the most part, the environments in Thief are enormous, fantastic, and yet plausible. Ruined cities, lost temples, gaudy mansions, almost-high-tech factories, foreboding cathedrals and much more help maintain a cohesive and creative visual design. And with its smooth frame rate, subtly beautiful lighting effects, and a host of foes whose movements are startlingly lifelike thanks to motion capture, Thief's look will quickly grow on you.
But if it looks good, Thief sounds incredible. Because you're always trying to stay silent, you'll find yourself cringing at just how conspicuously audible your footsteps are. At the same time, you'll smile from the shadows as you hear some lonely guard shuffling nearer as he hums some tune or mutters to himself. Each floor surface makes a different noise as you walk upon it, and all of your actions, from using lockpicks to quaffing healing potions, are complemented by vivid sound effects. Since listening to the environment is so important, and because the game sounds so good, you'll find yourself turning the volume much higher than you're used to while playing Thief.
First-rate voice acting brings the game to life. The cynical Garrett is never at a loss for smart remarks, but he knows to keep his mouth shut most of the time so that he can listen to guards bantering, religious fanatics whistling hymns, and more. Of further note, Garrett's subhuman foes, including all manner of undead and man-beast hybrids, sound positively terrifying. Thief also takes full advantage of 3D positional audio if you have the right hardware, which makes the game even more dramatic. There's no music during the missions themselves, but the pounding industrial soundtrack during the beautiful, stylized animated cutscenes perfectly suits the game's dark magic-and-machinery setting.
At some point you'll need to stop listening and get moving. He's careful not to rush, so once you become acquainted with Garrett's jogging speed you'll find that he is as dexterous as you'd expect of a master thief. For one thing, he can lean around corners to see if the coast is clear, which feels perfectly authentic and works extremely well within the game. For another, he can grab hold of and pull himself up onto ledges, a technique most useful in combination with long jumps.
Still, sneaking and climbing around won't be enough to keep him out of trouble; to that extent, Garrett is armed with sword, blackjack, and bow. Fencing feels pretty clumsy in Thief, but it's supposed to - Garrett's no swordsman. Although he isn't very quick with a blade, Garrett can rely on it as a last-ditch self-defense. But he shouldn't have to resort to self-defense in the first place, thanks to his blackjack. A blow to the back of the head from this small club will knock an unsuspecting foe senseless, without the unsightly blood splotches or cries of anguish produced by the sword. You can then carry the unconscious lout wherever you like, preferably to some point where his friends won't find him. Garrett is also an expert pickpocket, and he's a pro with lockpicks, which are neither simplistic nor cumbersome for him to use.
But Garrett's most versatile tool must be his bow. As with most every play mechanic in the game, archery in Thief strikes the perfect balance of great control and just enough realism. It takes a few moments for him to draw back the string; at this time it becomes difficult to move or turn, as Garrett is focussing his strength to keep the string taught. A few moments later, your perspective will zoom in closer to the target as Garrett concentrates on his aim. Unless you shoot the arrow soon after, Garrett will grow tired, his aim will falter, and he'll have to try the shot again.
The best aspect of the bow is the many different kinds of arrows you can use with it. The standard broadhead arrow can kill an unsuspecting target with a single shot, but your other arrows let you complete a job much more tastefully. Water arrows can be used to put out torches, allowing you to remain unseen in otherwise well-lit areas. They can also wash away bloodstains, and when infused with holy water, they become your best offense against the undead. Moss arrows release patches of soft vegetation on impact, and are best used on noisy floor surfaces that you can then traverse in silence. Rope arrows latch onto wooden surfaces, creating rope ladders wherever you need them. Noisemaker arrows, as the name suggests, can cause a strategic diversion. And fire and gas arrows make short work of several foes at once. You'll have a very limited quantity of all of these and knowing how and when best to use them, along with when to use your other items like speed potions and land mines, is an important part of your job.
You'll guide Thief's charismatic protagonist through a dozen missions, over the course of which a serious, surprising story will develop. Although there aren't many missions, most of them are huge, and more rewarding at higher difficulty levels because you'll have many more objectives to accomplish. There's further cause to want to try a mission more than once if only because the nature of the game is such that you can accomplish your task in many different ways, but in the end, you'll still wish the game was longer. You'll have a few complaints with Thief - the game isn't perfectly stable, and sometimes your foes won't act as intelligently as you'll expect them to. But between its novel premise, its artistic production, and its superb design and implementation, you'll find that those rare concerns fade from sight even faster than Garrett.