Thief was well received critically, and was one of Looking Glass Studios most commercially successful projects. The game was highly influential in the development of later stealth games, and has often been hailed as one of the greatest games of all time.
The gameplay in Thief takes place in discrete levels known as missions. In contrast to many first-person games of the time the levels are not contiguous. The player does not advance by moving through a level. Instead they must achieve a goal and make it to the exit before being taken to the next. Thief missions consist of an individual location or area that the player must enter, complete a series of objectives and usually must make their way out again.
Prior to embarking on a mission players watch a mission briefing. These are video clips mostly comprising animated ink-on-parchment style artwork and narrated by Garrett (voiced by Stephen Russell). Briefings are where Garrett explains the present situation and the task ahead.Players then see the objective screen where they can select the difficulty level for the mission from normal, hard or expert. Changing the selected difficulty alters the objectives for the mission but also makes changes in the mission itself, such as guard numbers or placement and opening up new areas to explore (a concept borrowed from GoldenEye 007). The difficulty level also alters the options the player has for violence towards NPCs, with 'hard' difficulty generally stipulating that no non-combatants can be killed and 'expert' difficulty requiring that no humans be killed.
The loadout screen follows this and here players can spend whatever loot they have found or stolen on weapons and tools. Loot can only be spent on an upcoming mission and any amount remaining does not carry over to later missions, so players are encouraged to spend up. On completing a mission players can also view a statistics screen which displays a count of events such as the number of times the player was spotted, the number of times bodies were discovered by enemies, knockouts, backstabs, damage dealt, damage received and so on.
Thief's story takes place in what is best described as a steampunk world (specifically fantasy steampunk). Thief's setting is a conflation of late medieval society with early industrial revolution technology and magic in a dense urban environment.
Guards wear metal armor and are armed with arming swords and bows. Cobbled streets of half timbered houses and stone mansions are lit by electric street lights. The classical elements of earth, fire, air and water naturally form into crystals that can be bought or found around the levels and used as tools. Characters in the game generally speak using modern English (with some exceptions; see below) in variations on British and New England accents. The game also has unique fauna such as Burricks and Craymen (see Opponents).
Thief's narrative is elliptically told, leaving much of the detail regarding characters, events and the game world to be inferred from observation and documents found in the game. The story is progressed through the briefings, several elaborate cutscenes and the missions themselves. In the missions players can read books and scrolls, overhear conversations and Garrett himself often makes comments. The core plot of the story is told via Garrett's narrow perspective, which rarely describes things that aren't of immediate concern. However external aspects and influences on the story are constantly being alluded to. Three groups from Thief society are of particular importance: The Keepers, The Order of the Hammer and the Pagans. The Order of the Hammer features in the game itself, but neither the Keepers or the Pagans are ever explicitly described. They are known primarily through the long quotes that open each briefing video. These quotes are presented as excerpts from the writings of each group and, though not always relevant to the mission, are effectively incluing players in general.
Some in-game documents show characters using the same dialect, indicating that the Pagans have not been completely overridden in the City's culture.
The notion of assembling scraps of information by seeking it out, stumbling upon it or being presented with it is key to Thief's narrative structure and gameplay.
The essence of playing Thief is sneaking around somewhere unfamiliar that you are not allowed to be and doing so largely unnoticed. By design Garrett is not a particularly effective combatant; the game manual advising players to remember "You are not a tank", and playing to Garrett's strengths is important for success. As such the gameplay experience is often one of moving quietly from shadow to shadow, avoiding opponents or knocking them out while on the hunt for loot. In difficult circumstances players often find themselves crouching unnoticed and observing the activities of non-player characters (NPCs) for some time, deciding how best to proceed (see Reception).
Thief missions are variously populated by the following:
The Trickster's force also employs Fire Elementals, two types of Craymen and regular Giant Spiders.
Other important items include flash bombs, which blind opponents and damage the undead, explosive mines and eventually lockpicks. Holy water can be used to temporarily turn water arrows into powerful weapons against the undead. The combination of the mantling ability with the rope arrow creates enormous opportunities for climbing and many of the missions cater to it.
The game opens by telling of Garrett as a youth living on the streets of the City. One evening he tries to pickpocket a strange man standing in an alley, who catches Garrett in the act. He is a Keeper and the fact that Garrett can see him at all is unusual. The man offers to take Garrett in and show him the Keeper ways. Garrett accepts and enters into Keeper education for some time, but instead of staying with the Keepers, Garrett leaves to put his skills to other uses (The Keeper Annals state that Garrett left out of the "folly of anger". The nature of this anger is not explained).
Some time later Garrett is working as an independent thief in the City. He steals an expensive scepter from a noble, breaks into the Hammerite prison to spring his fence (who dies while still in prison) and ventures deep into the catacombs looking for treasure. Shortly after this thugs working for the local Warden, Ramirez, attempt to kill Garrett for non payment of tribute. Garrett turns the tables, escaping and going on to humiliate Ramirez by looting his mansion. This brazen display of skill attracts the attention of Viktoria, a somewhat mysterious independent fence. She contracts Garrett to steal a magical sword from the eccentric nobleman Constantine. Upon successfully returning from Constantine's bizarre mansion Viktoria reveals that she and Constantine are old associates who were testing Garrett. Constantine offers Garrett a fortune for the job of retrieving the gemstone known as The Eye.
Getting to The Eye means Garrett must venture through the abandoned and walled-off Old Quarter of the City to the old Hammerite cathedral. A mysterious catastrophe, rumored to involve great fires and many undead, caused the area's abandonment decades ago. Garrett finds the cathedral sealed, but the Eye itself tells him of an old Keeper library hidden nearby. Writings there tell of where the talismans that open the cathedral are hidden and how the Keepers almost revealed themselves in order to assist the Hammerites in containing a great evil. The first pair of talismans are found in a place called the Lost City, the ruins of an ancient civilization buried beneath the existing city, its entrance hidden by the Keepers. To get the second pair of talismans Garrett enters a Hammerite temple in disguise. Successful, he then returns to the cathedral and collects The Eye from amid the many undead, escaping with the help of Hammerite Brother Murus' ghost.
Garrett visits Constantine to hand over The Eye and collect his payment. Instead of paying, however, Constantine reveals himself to be the fabled Trickster (aka The Woodsie Lord) and Viktoria, his consort. They bind Garrett in vines and pluck out one of his eyes, using it to seemingly activate The Eye stone, and leave him for dead. Some time later two Keepers find and free the unconscious Garrett from the vines. The Keepers then leave Garrett to escape by himself through the caverns beneath Constantine's mansion and amongst some new and strange beasts. Once he reaches the surface Garrett decides the only thing to do is visit the Hammerites and tell them about what has happened. He heads for the temple but discovers that the Trickster's minions have gotten there first. Venturing inside he finds the remaining Hammerites in a hidden sanctuary down in an underground cavern. With stealth being the only hope against the Trickster's army, the Hammerites provide Garrett with a booby-trapped copy of The Eye. Garrett descends into the Trickster's realm, where he finds the Woodsie Lord performing a ceremony with the Eye. Garrett stealthily swaps the Eye for its trapped copy, which then explodes, thus striking down the Trickster as he attempts to finish the ceremony.
The coda shows Garrett walking back to town alone through the snow. Life appears to be returning to normal. A Keeper approaches. The two converse and The Keeper warns Garrett, telling him of a book he should read. Close observation reveals Garrett now has a mechanical eye. Garrett rejects Keeper 'help' in his life and says to tell the other Keepers that "I'm through. Tell them Garrett is done". He then walks away into the city streets. The Keeper says quietly "I will tell them this: Nothing is changed. All is as it was written. The Trickster is dead. Beware the dawn of the metal age." [Note: This foreshadows the title of the sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age.]
Thief: The Dark Project was very well received by critics on its release and remains one of the more highly praised and respected PC games. Thief garnered consistently high scores and numerous outright raves with reviewers calling it addictive, unique and, when compared to its first-person-shooter peers, revolutionary.
Thief is without a doubt my Game Of The Year. Where other games like Unreal and Half-Life promised revolutionary gameplay, Thief delivers.- John 'Gestalt' Bye, Planet Quake Released so close in time and with both games attempting new things in first person immersion and story-telling, Thief is frequently compared with Half-Life and often favourably. Reviews repeatedly mention the game's attention to detail, original style and high production values. In particular many note the game's achievement in making stealth-action, a counter-intuitive concept for some, a tense, rewarding and enjoyable experience.
I can't really explain how this worked on me. Five-minute waits for anything drive me crazy, yet I was content to stay in the corners and slink my way toward victory.Brett Todd, Games Domain The game was also praised for its potent immersive qualities, with some reviewers calling it a look at the future of gaming and virtual reality. The most prominent factor in this immersion and the most lauded aspect of the game generally is its audio system. Critics consistently noted the game using sound to an unprecedented degree as a gameplay element. The fidelity and artistry in this department allowing players to accurately determine their own audibility and the location of enemies as well as being a major contributor to the game's atmosphere.
However, Thief's graphics received a mixed reaction. The game used 8-bit colour textures at a time when PC games were moving up to 16-bit colour. It is also dark and low contrast, making it difficult to play in lighted rooms. Raising monitor brightness harms the visuals and arguably damages the experience of the game. Its character models and environments were lower in polygon count than other first person shooters of the period. Few reviewers found this an outright negative, many not mentioning it at all. For those that did notice, it did not harm the game; rather it was simply not up to the standard set by its other aspects.
The game's content occasionally drew criticism also, some reviewers feeling that after establishing an excellent premise in stealth thievery the game failed to follow through, with missions too often straying into traditional fantasy fare of dungeons, catacombs and monsters. Such enemies confused the gameplay for some. Although all enemies can be treated exactly the same with regards to stealth in Thief, the inclusion of zombies and the like implied a need for combat to some players.