When Dishonored came out last year a lot of people said it pretty much ripped off Thief wholesale (I think one of the level designers worked on both games), which was the last straw in convincing me to finally try out the supposedly classic stealth game. After finishing Thief Gold, they were pretty much right. This game from 1998 easily holds up next to stealth rivals that came out in the years after it.
When people drew comparisons between Dishonored and Thief, they mostly went over how similar the settings and stories between the two games are, but what really matters in both is the basic concept — you’re dropped into open-ended levels and told to freely explore your way to each objective. In the tradition of today’s Fallout or yesteryear’s Ultima Underworld (which I covered previously), Thief creates environments based on working systems and not based on linear scripting.
The best thing about this is that I always felt like I had options for how to deal with each situation in the game, whether that was waiting to stab an enemy in the back, use a rope to swing over him, or sneak away in the shadows. This is made possible by both a unique array of tools and incredibly dynamic levels.
If they’d figured out how to do console versions of Thief in the late 90’s or in 2000 I feel it would’ve been a big hit with my buddies and I who played GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on N64. Similar to those games, it drops you into levels simply telling you “Here are your objectives, find a way to do them.” I really miss that style of game design.
They probably wouldn’t have been able to fit the FMVs and voice acting on an N64 cartridge, but the main technical issue for consoles back then was probably Theif’s absolutely massive levels.
Despite being separated from it by 14 years of hardware, Thief’s missions are at least as large and complex as those in Dishonored, and I don’t think there’s anything in the latter that matches up to the Mage Towers or the Opera House. These would’ve probably required many loading screens on consoles back then (like the PS2 version of Deus Ex). That’s another thing that astounds me about the levels in this game — there’s no loading at all. They’re some of the biggest continuous levels I’ve ever seen outside of sandbox games, though I don’t know if that’s because of a mod I had to install. One of the only real issues I have with Thief is that I actually got lost in almost every level.
What I think set’s Thief apart the most though is the variety in what it has you do. Most of the levels do have you break into populated areas to steal things, but the next thing you know you’re avoiding zombies in a tomb doing straight-up Indiana Jones stuff. Another level might have you investigating a haunted town trying to sneak around monsters out of a survival horror game.
The mod I referred to above is pretty much a requirement to get Thief running on modern systems. Some guides might seem pretty complex but I found a version of the mod that’s extremely simple to install if you don’t install the game on the C drive (I think it was actually built for Thief II). Other than that, you might have to remap the controls to get them to resemble modern games. The game supports controllers but you have to map all the functions yourself.
Thief Gold is probably one of the most complete classic games I’ve gone back to play. It gives you a ton of options in large areas, and always kept me guessing as to where I was gonna go next. And people say Thief II is even better.