Thief II: The Metal Age Review
By Monica Bair |
The first time I slammed a nice, fat billy club on the back of a guard in Thief II I thought to myself, man, it's good to be back. If you enjoyed the first game (and why wouldn't you have?) then you'll feel right at home back in Garrett's shoes. His personality's intact, his insights and comments are once again witty and snappy, and the world that he inhabits is just as vivid, if you can use that word for environments that are squintably dark. If this is your first time in the world of Thief, get ready for one of the most mature, well thought out action games of the year.
Our previews have done a good job of fleshing out Garrett's new adventure in Thief II, but just to recap, the game takes place over a year after the original events in Thief I. Hammerist separatists, the Mechanists, are up to no good, and somehow the new Sheriff is involved. The streets are getting cleared of the riff raff, and Garrett suddenly find himself being the focus of Sheriff Truart's wrath. How do these connect, and what's up with those big gold robots? You'll have to play to find out. A big part of Thief's strength comes in the storyline, which is dark, completely original, and absolutely enthralling. Since this is a sequel, a lot of the initial thrill of seeing the past/forward environments in The Metal Age is gone, but in its place is a solid sense of security and momentum. Looking Glass has gotten comfortable with both the gameplay and the storyline with the sequel, and it shows. The game plays even smarter (and slower, in case you were wondering), and they've gone to great lengths to include tons of details and crucial story points within the levels themselves, elaborating on the strengths of the original game. Thief I was a risky concept to pull off, and the team has said before that they were pulling out all the stops for the sequel, given that they knew there was an audience for a thinking man's sneaker/shooter.
That doesn't mean that the sequel is a giant leap from the original. In fact, the game looks and plays very similarly to Thief I. You do have new gadgets this time around (such as a mechanical eye that allows you to zoom into objects, or spy orbs that act as a remote camera), and the interface has been tweaked, but most of the work has been done on the core gameplay experience. You're still hiding in shadows, making bulls-eye shots with your bow, and generally tip-toeing the crap out of the scenery, but each act feels even more real in Looking Glass' second attempt. Levels less linear than before, and the environments shy away from visual variety and focus on keeping to the story. Don't expect to be jumping from deserts to jungles in this game, but do expect to see a seam-free storyline that involves more characters, subtler intrigue, and environments that seem to connect a lot more naturally.
For instance, the game opens with a mission involving clearing a path in a mansion to a woman so that her lover can sneak through the guards and get her out, a task which not only involves finding the woman, but insuring that all guards on the route are out of commission or safely out of view. What route is the best? That's up to you. I diverted from the designated path completely and found myself in some interesting areas I would have otherwise never ventured into. Another mission has you sneaking through the city streets avoiding the guards in order to get a special item from your house, a process that shows just how much wider the gameplay has gotten in the sequel. Not only are there a myriad of routes available to you, from city streets to the underground tunnels of the canals, but there are entire areas that will bring you gold and information that aren't needed to complete the game. Secrets abound in every mission, and rather than just providing a joke or two, the special notes or items that you find really add a depth to the storyline, especially when you keep track of all the connections between the characters involved. One note of advice -- when you get to the warehouse level, make sure to take the time to find out what the butcher has been using for his meat stock.
The AI is even better in this game, with guards that are even smarter and more interactive than in the original game. Not only do characters seem to have complex routes, but they even seem to have agendas. Some guards are much less likely to catch you, especially if they're snoozing, while other guards keep in troops and are on a keen and constant watch, especially in the later levels. New additions are the children, mechanical robotic entities that must be disabled and avoided in a much different manner than normal human guards. Though you can get away with rushing by a child much easier than a human, taking them out is a much stiffer task (and they're not likely to give up on finding you as easy as a human, either). The situations that the game puts you in are much smarter as well. I was impressed at some of the intricate footwork that needed to be pulled of in order to avoid guards, pickpocket a specific character, or pull of a certain task. Looking Glass doesn't seem the least bit afraid of toning down the action even more for the sequel, and though some people may not like it, others will find it a step in the right direction for the series.
The interface is showing a little bit of wear in the game, unfortunately, particularly in the map interface. I can't emphasize how much you rely on the map in Thief II, and unfortunately it takes forever to flip back and forth between the menu screen and the game screen, and even then it can be very confusing to figure out where you are at a particular point in a level. Even though there is a compass and a general highlight of your location, it would have been nice to have had a "you are here" sort of X to give you a clearer bearing, or perhaps a map that could appear on screen to give you guidance as you move, like you use a map in real life.
The sound once again shines in Thief II, from the dark but ambient score to the myriad of sound effects and voices that you'll hear in the game. It's really one of the first times in a game that your ears are equally as important as your eyes, and the Looking Glass team has emphasized that in the sequel. Guards seem to react much quicker to sound cues, even the sound of an unsheathing sword. Leaning up to doors allows you to eavesdrop, and just hearing the volume level jump up as you lean closer is a thrill for someone used to thinking of sound as a mood setter rather than a gameplay device. That's not to say that the plain soundy sound won't have you enthralled. You'll never forget the first time you hear one of the children speak, I guarantee you.
The good news is that the cutscenes are just as stylistically pleasing and watchable as the original, with the same great art style, and even more heady exposition from the Keepers and Garrett that never turns schlocky. The graphics are baby step better than the first, but unfortunately the dark engine is still the big wart on an otherwise near-perfect game. In terms of AI and sound the engine excels, but unfortunately I found that the game tended to slow down or simply chunk out much too often for the amount of detail and action on screen, and for the power of the processors and 3D cards I tested the game out on. Though it certainly didn't kill the adventure it definitely was an annoyance at times, especially during important events. The city looks great, but the polygon count of the environments are definitely lower than 3D competitors like Quake and Unreal Tournament, that have shown off some stunning examples of brick and stonework. I'd love to see the world of Thief fleshed out with more detail, but unlike most games, I can honestly say that the pluses outweigh the minuses by far. It's definitely more than worth playing, but it's sad to see textures butting up against each other so bluntly and flatly at point in the game where competitors have taken the ball and ran to really beautiful new places.
If Quake is your universe, then you probably won't get what all the fuss is about with the game, and you certainly won't understand why someone would get off on peeking around corners and creeping around for hours on end without laying so much as a finger on any thugs. But for those of you looking for a complex, unique effort, Thief II continues to shine. The game puts in so much world detail that you can't help but get immersed in Garrett's plight and his adventures. Whether you're creeping up on a guard, or hiding in a dark alleyway listening to an important conversation, it's hard to separate yourself from the tension and tell yourself that you're still just playing a game. Like Half-Life, Thief II is an adventure that leaves a resonating impression, and a game that you'll want to return to, often.
-- Vincent Lopez