Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004, FPStealth): The Netbook Gamer

One of the great things about doing the Netbook Gamer is revisiting games and memories from years past. The Thief franchise of first-person stealth-action games touches a couple of memories. I was given the first game as a Christmas gift when it came out in late 1998, at a time when having two children under two years old was pretty much all consuming and left scant time for computer games, most of which I spent on first person shooters. So a stealth game like Thief demanded me to change my basic approach to gaming.

I missed out on the second game for years, but was ready at day-of-release for the third entry Thief: Deadly Shadows. As you will discover, I really love the game, but there is yet another reason it stands out in my memory: my older son was at Children’s Hospital in Boston having kidney surgery just three days after the game was released. He was born with blood vessels wrapped around his kidney and ureter, and as he grew they began to choke off the kidney and make him sick … so he had to get his kidney re-plumbed. My wife was with him as only one of us could stay overnight, and my younger son was ‘on vacation’ with my parents, soI was in the hotel across the street from the hospital. Unsurprisingly I didn’t sleep much, always waiting for a call, so I played through the entirety of the game in my hotel room that week.

While I mention being ready at day-of-release, that doesn’t mean I was all that certain I would like it. The developer was Ion Storm Studios, and on the upside was largely filled with folks from the defunct Looking Glass Studios responsible for the original Thief games.

On the down side, the game was simultaneously developed for XBOX and PC, similarly to the Ion Storm Studios release Deus Ex: Invisible War released a mere six months earlier. That game remains at the pinnacle of my ‘greatest gaming disappointments’ list, as it had terrible performance, small and cramped areas, a lame rehash of how the original story did things, offered a ‘dumbed down’ version of nearly everything that made the original Deus Ex one of the greatest video games ever.

Last fall Thief: Deadly Shadows was on sale on Direct2Drive (and later on Steam, where I ended up with a second copy as part of a bundle deal!), so I grabbed it, and recently decided I wanted to get another look to see how it plays nearly six years later, so I installed it on my Lenovo s10 netbook!

Back in 2004 when the game arrived I was able to able to run it perfectly well on the same notebook that struggled with Deus Ex: Invisible War, so I was hopeful that Thief: Deadly Shadows would at least run on the netbook. It starts and runs properly, but even during the tutorial I could feel the weight of the dynamic lighting ans shadow system upon the performance of the system.

Thief: Deadly Shadows is a rather dark game as is to be expected – it is set in medieval times, and you are equipped with a blackjack, dagger, and a bow with a variety of arrows. You use your water arrows to douse torches, your blackjack to knock out enemies, and other arrows to either distract or kill enemies. Generally speaking, going ‘toe to toe’ with a guard is a quick way to die. You have a ‘light indicator’ in the center of the screen, showing how to what extent you are visible.

The Thief games are first person ‘stealth’ action games, and Deadly Shadows retains that quality while also allowing for third person views and the ability to press yourself against a wall to be less visible. It is a nice mechanic that works well with the games more action-oriented feel – not saying it is suddenly a FPS, just that it allows you to move a bit quicker, then use stealth to cover up, and so on.

One issue that came up repeatedly in discussions of the game I had back then was the rather daft enemy AI. Perfectly timed about a month after release, Tim Buckley drew a comic about it here:

Numerous other changes from previous games in the series are largely related to the game being co-developed as an XBOX release. Whereas levels in the first two games were large and sprawling, they are compact in Deadly Shadows. In the first real area you will be in a doorway looking down a hall and see what looks like fog – it is a loading zone. Yep, the game cannot contain an entire building in a single zone. Fortunately the areas are larger than the cramped Deus Ex: Invisible War areas, but the broken up feel does take away from the feeling of playing a thief exploring an area.

The controls work well and are a solid FPS setup, but replaying the original Thief reminded me of how many more options there used to be – you could easily sneak and sidestep and turn and peek around corners – and all using just your left hand! What you get in Deadly Shadows is clearly a compromise to work with the reduced console control options. It is adequate, but definitely reduced from the earlier games.

The question I have already been asked as soon as I indicated I was trying some more recent games on the netbook was ‘how does it run’? Let me be clear – this is one of those things you have to WANT to play on the netbook, because you really shouldn’t torture yourself like this otherwise!

If you look at my screens, the graphics are quite good even at low settings: the shadows and lighting are very detailed even on low settings. The issue is that they are major performance hogs. In fact, after the initial area, using my screenshot utility crashed the game on me, so I have nothing outside of that starting area.

One thing that annoyed gamers in 2004 was the ‘frob highlighting’ – the over-the-top blue highlighting of items you could interact with. You can see it on the door in the screenshot above. Things like chests, loot, doors, knocked-out bodies, and so on take on an unnatural blue glow when you are in a position to interact with them. Loot sparkles even in the darkness to make sure you can find it. For many it was a sure sign of the ‘dumbing down’ of the franchise … but for me it was helpful – but definitely too heavy-handed.

Also, for the majority of the game I could feel performance bogging down on me, but never to the point that I gave up trying to work my way through. I had my Lenovo set to ‘Performance’ and had my graphics set to 400MHz using the GMABooster utility, which helped a bit. There are numerous reasons I kept playing – the stealth action is fun, the music is great, and the game features one of the best levels ever made for any game … ever!

Eric Brosius – who brought us the excellent music for System Shock 2 and both earlier Thief games – returns for Thief: Deadly shadows and gives us his best word yet on the franchise. Once again we have the ‘music as character’ (I seem to like that in games), as everywhere you go throughout the game, Brosius brings a light yet ever-present soundtrack along.

Sound work in a stealth game is a tricky thing – it is important that you constantly listen, as your character needs to slip by at just the right moment. Yet total silence can get tiresome, so some thematic background is highly effective – and Brosius gets it all just perfect. Also – this is definitely a a ‘headphones’ game: I had played it that way originally since I was in a hotel room, but have since tried through a normal sound system and it just isn’t the same. The headphones give a sense of location and intimacy that is wonderfully immersive.

The gameplay tweaks – switchable first-and-third-person view and the ability to press against a wall – also add to the flavor of the experience. True, many guards are every bit as daft as implied in the comic above, but there remains plenty of challenges that require you to get to a hiding spot quickly without making a noise – and watching a guard walk by you in a darkened hallway pressed against a wall, then popping out and blackjacking them … very satisfying!

I remember when Half-Life 2 came out in late 2004 and there was a fuss over Ravenholm in terms of being scary … and I thought ‘huh? there are *2* scarier areas in games this year alone!’ One was the Haunted Hotel from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which effectively used music, environmental noises, ghostly appearances, and other imagery to elicit emotional responses in an area with absolutely no combat.

The other is one of the most amazing areas I have ever played – Shalebridge Cradle. Once an orphanage, later also used as an insane asylum – while it still housed orphans – it is a dreadful place, and your character comments “If there’s a way to cram more misery into one building’s history, I can’t think of it.”

The area is packed with spirits and other hostile undead, but you must free the ghost of an innocent young girl that is trapped inside. It is brutal and heart-wrenching and scary, and replaying it was just completely wonderful even on the netbook. I have since reloaded the game on my Alienware m11x and replayed yet again and with nicer graphics and performance it is even better.

Let me reiterate that this is NOT a game that is designed to work on a current generation netbook. Higher end nVidia ION systems will run it acceptably, but standard systems will struggle badly. If you do persevere, you will be rewarded with a very good game that has been largely forgotten over the last several years – it was not an attractive game for action-centric XBOX gamers, nor did PC gamers appreciate the compromises made for cross-platform development. In my opinion, getting to play Shalebridge Cradle alone makes it worth seeking this out and giving it a try – but I recommend NOT doing it on a netbook. At least not for your first playthrough.

RetroGamer Perspective: Thief: Deadly Shadows gets some RetroGamer points for being part of the classic Thief series, but is recent enough that it requires a decent computer to run. The game remains somewhat of a sticking point due to the rather un-optimized engine requiring heavy hardware and the console-centric design elements.

True RetroGamers will seek out one of the first two and work to get them running on modern hardware (don’t worry … I did that and those reviews are coming soon!). And since Thief: Deadly Shadows is ‘iffy’ on a netbook I would recommend skipping this as a netbook game.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – physical copies are out of print (game originally came on 3CD’s – which I still have – or single DVD), but digital version is available for budget prices at Direct2Drive, Steam, Impulse, and GamersGate.

– Installation Notes: The digital version install file is rather large but installs quickly and easily.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~2.5GB.

– CD Required to Play? Yes for CD / DVD version, obviously not for digital release.

– Control Considerations? Thief: Deadly Shadows uses a standard FPS control scheme, simplified from the original games to work with the XBOX controller. Controls can be changed either in-game or through configuration files.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? … I wouldn’t even advise trying.

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Again, performance will be awful.

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? Thief: Deadly Shadows was designed for Windows XP and worked great for me on all modern operating systems. HOWEVER, there are issues with both 64-bit gameplay and Windows 7 and many folks have had problems getting it to run at all.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? No, nor have I read of any ‘unofficial’ ports or success using Wine or Crossover games.

– Notes on the Digital Version: No issues noted with the digital version.

Conclusion: The Thief franchise is a classic of PC gaming, but many gamers were nervous in 2004 as the same studio that produced the disappointing mess of a sequel to Deus Ex was producing Thief: Deadly Shadows. Fortunately what landed was a solid stealth action game with some cool features, some not so cool features, one of the best designed levels ever in a game, and overall a very positive experience.

Sadly it pushes the boundaries of Netbook Gaming in terms of performance, so while it remains a game I love and recommend for anyone with a reasonably powerful PC, I cannot recommend this for my fellow netbook gamers. The experience will just not live up to what the franchise can offer, so I recommend trying one of the earlier games in the series – which I’ve been replaying and will review here soon!

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