Appearing in 1998 was a tough business for any PC game if it wasn’t titled Half-Life, particularly for other first-person shooter types. Better just leave off the groundbreaking new genres until next year, lads.
But the folks at Looking Glass Studios didn’t, and aren’t we all glad. Thief: The Dark Project is the ancestor of all stealth-based games, period. It also happens to still be the most fun. No game before (or since) has so single-handedly created an entire sub-genre of first-person shooters (Thief is often called a “first-person looter” for obvious reasons).
The concept is straightforward (steal things and don’t get caught), but the execution is quite complex. Your character Garrett has plenty of tools at his disposal to deal with guards, locked doors, and inconveniently-placed light sources, but supplies are limited and many situations require you to rely on patience and three-dimensional thinking (the importance of “up” cannot be overstated) to get the loot you’re looking for. Imagine that — patience as a mandatory element in a first-person shooter. I cannot stress enough how refreshing that is in a gaming world that mostly has the FPS genre constantly shouting “OMFG TIME-TRAVELING KILLER ALIEN ROBOTS FROM OUTER SPACE GRAB YOUR BFG9000!!1!”
Further, in an era of gaming where detailed graphics and physics seem to take precedence over immersive storylines, Thief puts others to shame with its beautifully-crafted cutscenes and brilliantly-detailed fantasy world full of intrigue, revenge and the undead.
Speaking of which — Thief is also one of the most absolutely terrifying games I’ve ever played, surpassed in its cardiac-arresting potential only by Doom 3. To illustrate, I’ll relate an anecdote from the early days of my career in larceny and graverobbing: I was wandering through the bowels of an abandoned mine, trying to find my way up to the Hammerite prison above, when what should appear in the darkened hallway ahead but a corpse, rotting happily away in a forgotten mining tunnel.
“Gross,” thought I, as I stepped over it and headed on down the passage.
Suddenly a decidedly inhuman groan blasted out from my speakers (Thief is best played at high volumes to increase your sensitivity to loud or unnecessary noises). As unnerving as that was, I still had the presence of mind to spin my mouse in circles, frantically searching for the source of the sound. Nothing to be seen, so I just crouched down in the shadows and waited, which is generally the proper course of action until you know what you’re up against. Unfortunately for me, I was facing away from the corpse on the ground nearby, which as you’ve probably deduced by now, wasn’t really a corpse in the strictest sense.
Well, a few seconds later, I heard another unpleasant moaning sound, this time from away left. As I twisted to face the noise, a sickening *crack* took my health bar down to about two hit points, and I was staring in horror at a zombie looking to OM-NOM my brains. And he did. Oh, how he did.
My reaction? Near heart failure. This was the case for me on all four of the levels featuring undead foes, particularly “Return to the Cathedral,” which induced complete paralysis. I was literally incapable of moving Garrett through the level for several minutes for fear of disturbing the Cathedral’s ghastly residents. All of Thief‘s various elements — story, music, ambient noise, lighting — combine perfectly to completely immerse the player.
Other comments: Have you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones in a video game? Thief lets you do that in several levels, and far more satisfyingly than any of the actual Indy titles. Thief also accommodates many styles of play through three genuinely different difficulty settings and sheer open-ended level construction. It has also given way to an enormous fan-mission and fanfic following, which you can take part in at Thief: The Circle. Thief: The Dark Project certainly isn’t the most influential title of its time, but it was without doubt one of the most innovative. A must-play for anyone who prefers mind-over-matter gaming.
So — why is it underrated? Well, as mentioned before, coming out in close proximity to one of the best-selling and most critically-acclaimed games of all time is rough, especially when your game is drastically different from that particular title. But in my explorations into the demise of Looking Glass Studios in 2000, I’ve heard that Thief‘s unjustly low popularity-to-quality ratio was also due to a simple lack of effective marketing. The game does enjoy favorable opinions from pretty much everyone I talk to about it, but a strangely small number of those people have ever actually played it or its sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.
So get out there a find yourself a copy. There’s a surprising number of supposedly brand-new copies on eBay at the moment, and the entire game consists of about 3 or 400 megabytes (insta-Torrent, anyone?), so you really have no excuse. With any luck, you’ll end up like me: aggressively shushing nearby friends who, with their noisy careless lifestyles, are sure to expose you to the heavily-armed guards around the corner.
5 stars of 5.