Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thief: Gold ~ DFB II

I spent the majority of last night trudging my way through mission seven, 'The Haunted Cathedral'.

So far, Thief is presenting opportunities for me to specifically fight from the shadows, and it's something I actually consider unique towards it as a stealth title. Different from the likes of Splinter Cell (the closet relative in this respect) and its brethren, this title actually provides some semblance of power from simply being in the dark. This is no doubt due to the balance of power and technique that has to be used in in this game. For all intensive purposes, Garrett is pretty damn weak, but the game sets up situations for him to manipulate to the player's liking. An example of this came halfway through mission seven, as I was making my way inside a small building. Immediately after stepping in the house, I was met with an extremely distorted garble of voices. However, there were no lights to speak of, so I slowly inched my way into the adjacent room. As I entered, I found the source of the weird voices, Hammer Haunts. These are skeletal and most likely undead versions of the guards that have been patrolling the game thus far.

I was already an inch from death, so if I made even the slightest move, chances are these guys would kill me. There were two on patrol and after studying their routes I used mines to dispatch them. Even if I had a full health gauge however, fighting them head on was not something the game was really inviting me to do, and through the sound, darkness, and the opposition, I was left feeling slightly empowered by my own weakness.

Number one was that I knew what they were doing and they didn't have a clue as to my location. That's not really an easy thing to set up in a game by default, but the potency of these moments is something Thief absolutely nails. That subversive position was complemented even more so by the tools the game gives me and that moment colored the Hammer Haunts with authority. That was key here (and most qualitative stealth titles), to show up these guys through indirect means despite their actual worth in battle. The odd sound effects and general silence of the game presses forth intimidation rather than simply being outstripped or outmatched. I have to really give it to Looking Glass here, as they let Thief become as 'open-world' as it needs to be without it becoming too damaging. An example of this would be how I use my rope arrows to escape contact once. Without even meaning to, I emulated a Spiderman tactic by shooting one at a roof and climbing out of the way while being chased by hammers. They rounded the corner and kept on going as I simply crawled down from the roof. That kind of freedom isn't present in any other stealth game I've ever played, even my own favorite series. I guess to avoid the implications of calling it open-world, I'll refer to it as 'free stealth' from here on out.

I debate two things regarding the sounds in this title (or lack thereof). First are the positive qualities granted by the silence, I absolutely love that. However, there is a drags it tends to hit while figuring things out. Thief certainly isn’t a title that needs some overly dramatic orchestral score, but it could benefit from some extremely low key ambient music. This is opposed to the rather ominous hums it usually has, as they become emotionally draining after a point. There’s a certain portion during mission three when the player comes up out of the water and is presented with taking fire arrows and a speed potion for access to booby-trapped chests. There’s a distinct harmony here that’s so fitting with that exact moment its almost interpretive in how the player can construe (in the best possible way) it as either music or ambient sound, it's their choice. Elements like the Horn of Quintus also help present this little novelty as well.

Looking Glass games also seem to have a distinct knack for creating an atmosphere of creepiness. This is partially due to the sound and how the enemies move. In this version of the game, I apparently encountered an exclusive enemy known as the flaming spirit. This guy breaks full speed at you when he notices your presence and it’s very unlikely the player will be able to outrun him. Another big portion of the tension created by this family titles is the use of First Person and not knowing what may or may not be just behind you.

The downside of that is that the sound design makes for a default intimacy with the character and place. I always find myself wanting more from the first person view. I’m not asking for Garrett to launch into boring dialogues, just more contextual releases. Grunts, breath, sighs (he already does it a bit when he lands from great heights and jumps)are small additions these game could benefit immensely from. I don’t want to impede the experience, but I want something that carries the contextual continuity a bit better. A benefit of this would be developing Garret more as a character, as that aforementioned intimacy sets the player up to be 'inside the character's head' in more than one sense.

The final thing I found slightly annoying about the last mission (mission seven) was how the fantasy thematic kept made me trip. It's not that I don't like it, but the universe that Thief sets up doesn't ease you into any instance at all. They slap you with zombies, undead, and fantastical things that could be much more powerfully presented. Contesting that however, is nature of things like The Eye and how it affects the player's progress through this mission specifically. Having something that feels like a wildcard presence in the game is amazing, so that voice giving the player a vague alteration upon their objections is something I commend, I just wish that the world of Thief wasn't so... insularly in some cases.

~sLs~