When considering a genre-based purchase, gamers are often torn between two similar titles. Welcome to Professor’s Game Comparisons. In this installment, we examine two titles in the “Sneaker” genre: Thief vs. Styx: Master of Shadows.
Most of us remember our first experience with the modern shooter. For me, it was id Software’s DOOM (1993). I had seen games like this before, but DOOM was the true pioneer of “texture-based” graphics. It made the maps come to life. From there, other titles such as Quake (1996), Unreal (1998) and Half-Life (1998) took the reins; setting new standards for the modern first-person shooter (FPS).
1998 was a breakout year for several game genres, and it was then that a company called Looking Glass Studios created a new kind of FPS called Thief: The Dark Project.
In this game, you play as a master thief named Garrett. The object is to remain hidden in the shadows, making as little noise as possible (completely opposite to the traditional FPS, where you run rampant…guns blazing!) While hidden, you sneak up on people to pick their pockets. You also lurk through dark neighborhoods, pilfering valuables from citizens as they sleep. As the game progresses, you meet many non-player characters (NPCs). Some are sympathetic to your cause of stealing from, and teaching lessons to the evil rich. Others are against your efforts and should be either avoided or knocked unconscious.
In 2004, the final entry in a would-be trilogy was released…Thief: Deadly Shadows. Looking Glass Studios had left the project by then; the series having been taken over by Ion Storm. This third game did a great job continuing Garrett’s story. The graphics and animation however, were disappointing. For some reason, the smooth, time-tested Dark Engine was replaced with the lackluster Unreal 2 Engine. This eliminated the game’s signature “rag doll” physics. NPC avatars now fell to the ground in a single frame, rather than performing a fancy pirouette dive.
Let’s fast forward a cool decade to 2014. Looking Glass Studios is gone…Ion Storm is gone. Eidos Montreal (of Assassin’s Creed fame) proudly develops Thief…no suffix…just Thief. Is this a long-awaited fourth installment in a classic series? The game’s early logo and accompanying URL seemed to indicate that it was. Later however, it was decided that Garrett would better serve his fans with a clean re-emergence, and the “4” was aptly removed. The URL is now simply www.thiefgame.com, and the game uses the Unreal 3 Engine; an improvement over it’s predecessor, but not as good as the original Dark Engine.
Let’s look at game play. The controls operate in accordance with FPS standards: Movement, aiming, firing and inventory are all what you’d expect. A stark difference from the original series shows up in the game’s custom difficulty options. In addition to traditional “Easy”, “Normal” and “Hard” modes, Eidos has added a variety of special challenges to make the game more difficult. As you enable each, you receive in-game bonus points, which mean absolutely nothing unless you’re going for a certain Steam achievement. If you enable every possible challenge, you will earn the maximum 1300 points upon completion of the game. Nobody at Eidos has yet reached this apex, although there are reports of dedicated players accomplishing this amazing goal. The aforementioned Steam achievement requires only 700 points to pop. But don’t be fooled; it’s still extremely difficult. If you’re an achievement hunter, I’d recommend completing the game once in Normal mode (or tougher) before enabling bonus points. This will minimize “OMG, what did I do wrong??” syndrome. Another new feature is the selection of behavioral alignment while completing in-game missions. There are three options here:
Overall, the 2014 re-imagination of the franchise provides players with a solid sneaker “fix”. My impressions are as follows:
Garrett is back!
Dark, misty environs maintain the classic Thief mood.
Story is engaging and riveting.
New bonus-point system allows for customized difficulty.
Steam achievements must be truly earned.
Game maps are smaller than in the original trilogy, and feel cramped by comparison.
The Unreal Engine’s controls are less responsive than those of the original Dark Engine.
PC keyboard and mouse mappings are limited (e.g.: I’d like to map the “Jump” command to “Mouse Wheel Up”, as I do in many other games, but there is no option for that here).
So is Thief a good choice for gamers wishing to purchase a single title in the “sneaker” genre? Yes it is; especially if you’re new to the series. However if you’re a veteran of the old trilogy, this game will likely feel “rushed-to-market”. By now I’m sure the developers are aware of this, and will hopefully in future episodes bring back the old charm.
“And the guards…cry…’TAFFER!'”
Overall score: 8/10
Next up is our second contender: Styx: Master of Shadows from Cyanide.
Question: If Assassin’s Creed and Thief had a love child, what would it be?
Answer: A shrewd, tough-skinned goblin named Styx.
Styx: Master of Shadows is a followup (if not exactly a sequel) to Cyanide’s third-person RPG: Of Orcs and Men (2012). Whereas “Orcs” leads players through an open world riddled with cut scenes (sound familiar), Styx combines the run-and-jump action of Assassin’s Creed with the stealth-crawl of the original Thief trilogy. Declaring a genre is not easy here, but this “Sneaker” is a good fit.
The first feature to raise an eyebrow is the view…it’s third person. In the beginning it’s not so bad, as obstacles and enemies are easy to overcome. Later as things heat up, the camera angles become a slight hitch. Thief‘s first person view, by contrast makes it clear at all times where you are, in relation to others on the map. This brings up a related point: The HUD.
For me, a good sneaker should convey much information to players regarding their environment. Thief does this very well in the form of a “detection meter”. A glowing gem icon on the HUD shows how hidden/exposed you are. Multicolored orbits around the gem show how much noise you’re making and how healthy you are. Styx is lacking a bit here, opting instead for placing such meters above the heads of your enemies (as in Assassin’s Creed). This isn’t horrible, it’s just that enemies tend to move around a lot…forcing you to test your mouse sensitivity more often than you’d like.
One feature I do like is the customizable skill tree, where you gain expertise in any of six general abilities. Sounds good, right? Well, it turns out that you can only learn these skills while camping inside your secret hideout, which may be difficult to reach from your current in-game position. Once learned however, these abilities enhance your character and make the game a lot more fun. I especially enjoy the “cloning” skill, where you can spawn a miniature contortionist version of Styx; great for squeezing through gates and other tight spots!
If there were any real negatives to the game play itself, it would be the combat. While third person fighting is not my favorite (give me a Skyrim sword skirmish any day), genre giants like Batman and Witcher have proven the technique worthy. But in Styx it simply doesn’t translate. You are encouraged to “parry” enemy attack, but that really only works when facing a single foe; not common after the first few hours of play.
All in all, Styx is a likeable character. As with his counterpart, Garrett, our little goblin spouts pithy one-liners and expressions of tedium…all very entertaining. But the game falls slightly short of the standard, as set by Thief: The Dark Project and Thief II: The Metal Age.
Styx has come into his own since “Orcs”!
Story is engaging and riveting.
Enemy AI is smart and challenging.
Skill trees are varied and experience-enhancing.
Combat is purely defensive and much too difficult.
No first person option (except via unauthorized mods).
Camera angles are confusing at times, and fail to show correct paths (as seen in my YouTube series!).
Overall score: 7/10