Before we get started, a word to the Thief faithful - if everyone else can just hang on this shouldn't take two ticks: third-person mode good, zombie usage sparse. Everyone still with me? Right. Let's get down to business.
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Garrett's big new adventure is a success. Not only is it brilliant fun, it's a worthy follow-up to the esteemed Thief canon and one that's sure to please fans of the Looking Glass originals. Borderlands 2: mechromancer pack. It hasn't been spoiled by console priorities in the way Deus Ex 2 was, and manages to refine the stealth formula in a number of clever ways. It does, however, have baggage. It's baggage that makes you roll your eyes rather than slam your head into the keyboard, but be warned that this review will have its fair share of open sighing. Let's keep it sweet for now though, because overall this third trip around the block with the Master Thief is a very enjoyable one, and if you're comfy and settled I'll tell you why.
The story picks up with Garrett thoroughly estranged from his previous mentors the Keepers (a Knights Templar/Masonic affair that guides the course of the city) and continuing his burgeoning career in larceny, often plucking treasure from under the noses of the opposing factions of the religiously fervent Hammerites and the organically crazed Pagans. As the game progresses your thievery leads you back into the cautious arms of the Keepers, who need a few things nicked to help them with a prophecy in which (surprise, surprise) you figure prominently. From the Bible to Star Wars to The Matrix to Thief 3, the old chosen one' chestnut doesn't look like cracking just yet.
For those not in the know, the Thief template gives you a crumbling old manor/castle/sewer system, a hastily scrawled map and the knowledge that within the said establishment there are some alpha-steals that you need for plot, some precious steals thatyou need for finances and some lesser steals that you need because you're a greedy git. There's some sublime level design within these walls, which is in part what makes Deadly Shadows such an enjoyable ride, and there's also a fair contingent of suspicious (and rather chatty) guards - that either need avoiding, or (more likely) incapacitating and dumping in a shadowy corner.
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And with the help of some above-average Al and Garrett's credib le ineptness in a fight, the whole thing works. You don't know true tension until you're pushed up against a crate in the bowels of Pavelock prison with two guards convinced that they've just heard something odd; and you know even truer tension when one of them mutters I'm going to check behind yonder crate.' The search Al that's on offer after you've been spotted (and the NPCs' habit of telling you exactly what they're thinking) is the meat and gravy of Deadly Shadows. If you're making too much noise, are standing in too much light or if you've just stuck an arrow in their best fnend's neck without their approval, then chances are you're in trouble.If a serving girl spots you then she'll run for a guard. If the guard then chases you down a corridor and you clamber up awall then your pursuer will patiently wait and inform you that you can't stay up there forever - before (perhaps) rushing off to get reinforcements. If you carelessly leave a door open, meanwhile, they may switch to investigation mode, or perhaps just mutter about the residents of the castle always leaving that bloody door open.
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Old Guard, New Tricks
It's events like these that make the game so much fun - every guard has the potential for a variety of different reactions, and you never quite know how events are going to pan out. It's certainly not perfect, and in many cases the fragility of mind that curses so many in-game characters still applies, but as far as the routine of spotting, investigating and giving chase goes, Garrett's enemies are extremely proficient. Excellent, even.
To aid you in your skulking you have a full complement of medieval gadgets. As well as your standard head-piercing arrows you can arm yourself with water arrows that extinguish torches, moss arrows that cover the floor in sound-proofed green stuff and cause bizarre allergic choking reactions in guards, and fire arrows that, unsurprisingly, ignite the poor souls they strike. Gas bombs, mines and holy water do the jobs you'd expect them to, while the noble Blackjack retains its position as your most subtle and useful drubbing device. In fact, watching your right arm slowly rise as you sneak up behind an unsuspecting member of the constabulary is almost worth the price of entry alone.
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Which leads me to my first concern - as a devoted Thief fan how could I even contemplate playing the game in the third person? Well, at first I resisted bravely. I tried reader. I really tried. But then I spectacularly caved - because it actually turns out that the third person works, and works well. For a start the game is built expecting you to use it, and if you're grumpily insisting on doing it the traditional way you'll miss out on features like pushing yourself up against walls and hackle-raising views of angry Pagans scouring the room for your scrawny hide. The third-person view, however, is a touch clunky. It's great when you're creeping, but as soon as more nimble actions are needed - say balancing on a pipe or taking a difficult jump - you invariably have to flick back to first person. What's more, Garrett is no Sam Fisher when it comes to acrobatics, and you often feel constrained when the supposed super-thief has so many problems climbing through an easy-access window.
With a raft of familiar sound effects carrying over from the previous games, aural effects are a Deadly Shadows speciality. From footsteps tapping over metal grates to the thud of Blackjack on skull, the quality in sound never dips. On one occasion I found myself creeping up a jeweller's staircase when a scripted sequence saw the shopkeeper come in through the front door, and the simple sound of a door opening and closing behind me had me tapping the quickload key just to hear its eerily authentic slam. Dialogue meanwhile (despite the way it often sounds, see Missed Opportunity', right), is impressive simply because of the sheer quantity of lines that have been recorded - you rarely hear a guard say a line you're certain you've heard before. And when you're standing on the stairs of a crumbling manor and a guard shouts out I see thee on the stairs! it really gets you by the throat. It's no hard task, I suppose, but no NPC has ever told me exactly where I'm standing before.
When we move on to visuals, however, things aren'tso peachy. Sure, it looks nice, with excellent lighting effects and all, but I know my PC can do better. I also know that it's pretty hard to program an Xbox game that does better, and herein lies the problem. In my view, when you have a cathedral or a castle - anything gothic - you do it grand, majestic and awe-inspiring. Here, they're just done boxy. Everything is crammed up and done at 90 degrees, and quite frankly it isn't good enough. Level design is the area in which Deadly Shadows shows its true credentials, but you can't help but feel that it's hampered by the need to pack everything into relatively small, separately loaded zones to cater for console memory. As mentioned, it's nowhere near as bad as the compromises made in Deus Ex 2, but you can't help but feel aggrieved nonetheless.
While I'm waving my angry-stick, I'll start up on another gripe. The physics (and the ragdolls, see 'Cryin', Walkin' Talkin'..', left) are integrated into the game with an alarming lack of panache. Where a game like Far Cry can seamlessly merge its physics engine with the game environment. Deadly Shadows' physics are simply wrong. Should you want to move something you'll have to run into it for a second or so before it wants to shift, and even when it does it'll move as if you're on a medieval moonbase. And how can a sardboard box be weighty enough to stop a heavy cathedral door from opening? (And while we're on the subject, why can't you actually see Garrett holding an object rather than have it appear as an icon on the screen? Bah!)
Despite early claims, physics rarely enter the gameplay, and when they do it's in situations with teetering heavy objects above conveniently placed Pagans - the likes of which you've seen many times before. Another feature that doesn't hit the mark is the ability to wander the streets of Garrett's hometown between missions. At first this is great fun: you can raid your local inn, break into your landlord's house and nick all his stuff, offload your stolen goods and stock up on equipment and murder screaming women - all entertaining stuff, but you'll tire of it quickly. There's not enough variety or reward, and later in the game (when all you want to do is walk to your next mission) there's always a cavalcade of guards, angry Hammentes and pissed-off Pagans who want to chase you through the streets. It all turns a bit Benny Hill (minus the jolly music and breasts) with a so-called man of the shadows brazenly legging it to the next load zone - through which he knows damn sure he won't be followed. The entire presence of this cityscape just smacks of a creative concept that was smothered halfway through development, and the game suffers for it.
Enough moaning though, as when it comes down to it, I truly enjoyed this game. Its Xbox loyalties may be somewhat misplaced, and it has too many niggles to be considered a true great, but the experience remains compelling. The story is great, the tension is real and if you like copious adrenal activity then you won't go too far wrong.
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Occasionally (though admittedly quite infrequently), you're even faced with a moral decision - do you steal the inheritance of a recently widowed woman who's crying her eyes out while her extended family descend on her belongings like hawks? I didn't, I really couldn't. What would buy me five gas bombs could have brought her a smidge of happiness, so I left her with her loot and a mansion full of unconscious servants instead. Call me a sap, but I think I did the right thing.