An astonishing game which was unfairly overlooked at the time - Looking Glass
had the unfortunate knack of releasing their games in tandem with a much bigger hit from another company (in this case, 'Half-Life
'), 'Thief : The Dark Project' remains one of the most intense and atmospheric computer games on any platform, ever. In the UK, 'PC Format
' gave it the monumental score of... 89 per cent, and buried it away in the back of the magazine. This is because - also in common with other Looking Glass
games - it was neither part of a franchise
, nor, due to a lack of marketing spend, an 'event
The game was set in an intriguing 'steampunk' universe, one in which steam-powered electrical lighting coexisted with magic, zombies, archers and feudalism. We saw glimpses of a world in which primitive magic was being obliterated by technology, each side championed by rival groups of devotees - the pagan 'Woodsies' on one side, and the mechanistic 'Hammerites' on the other, with the 'Keepers' chronicling the conflict. So much thought had gone into this that it seemed wasted on a computer game; it seems a shame that 'Wing Commander' and 'Tomb Raider' have been turned into films, whilst 'Thief' has not. That's market forces for you, I guess. Nonetheless, a thriving fan network has built up around the game and its sequel.
Gameplay involved sneaking around a set of environments - mansions and caverns featured prominently - in search of treasure, although as the game progressed your character ('Garrett', a dead-pan cross between Han Solo and Humphrey Bogart) found himself involved in deeper and darker events about which I shall not elucidate further for fear of distressing the frail. Much hiding in darkness and coshing of guards ensued, as your character was physically quite weak and unable to hold his own in a swordfight. Although you had a range of weapons (a sword and a bow, and some mines), your blackjack was the most useful of the lot - it could knock out guards with one well-placed blow. It was all a bit like 'What's the Time, Mr Wolf?', but with weapons, or Geoff Crammond's 'The Sentinel' but less abstract.
Each level was huge and well-designed; as with 'Deus Ex' there were usually several different goals to accomplish, and several different paths to achieve them. Whilst the character graphics were nothing special, with angular characters walking around rather unnaturally, the complex level design, impeccable voice acting, excellent sound and near-constant darkness combined to give the game an atmosphere absent in most others. Another important element was the feeling of inferiority, of being off-balance and hunted; each level introduced a new villain, some of which were unkillable, whilst the difficulty curve was unforgiving. This put a lot of people off the game, and to be fair it isn't instantly appealing; I myself played the first level on and off for six months before becoming hooked.
The aforementioned sound design deserved some kind of award, if only for showing restraint - much of the game was silent save for the dripping of water and the steady tapping of distant feet, which made the sudden bouts of violence seem all the more extreme, rather like Battlezone but without tanks.
It was followed in 1999 by a sequel, 'Thief II: The Metal Age'. Thankfully 'II' was much the same as 'I' but bigger and better looking; unfortunately, it was engulfed in the collapse of Looking Glass and received only a limited commercial release.
In the UK, West Ham United - a football team - are commonly known as 'The Hammers', and 'Hammerite' is a company which produces a range of rustproofing paints for metal for DIY. This made certain parts of the game hard to take seriously.
Curiously, there wasn't actually a 'Dark Project' in the game; in Europe it was released as simply 'Thief', and one suspects that the subtitle was added by the marketing department, as in 'Hitman: Codename 47' or 'Project IGI: I'm Going In'.