Thief 2X: Shadows of the Metal Age

Review by Steerpike
July 2005

Mea Culpa

The official Thief series could be represented as a line moving progressively, diagonally down. The numinous glory of The Dark Project gave way to the clumsier but still excellent Metal Age, which in turn handed the reins to the passable but ultimately mediocre Deadly Shadows. The Gold Star I gave Deadly Shadows last year has been the cause of much pain and self-doubt, and the truth is I cut that game more slack than it deserved. The mission design ranged from very good to astounding, it's true—and the technology was highly impressive. But the story, while well-written, was nonsensical, the villain comical and the closure unsatisfying. Moreover, what had been billed as a major selling point—free access to the City—was so disastrously implemented that it cast a pall on the game's many redeeming qualities. I was overly forgiving, and I was wrong.

But there's more than just the official Thief series out there. Jumping onto the fan community bandwagon begun with Quake and Unreal, in 1999 Looking Glass Studios shipped its DromEd level editor with Thief 2: The Metal Age. DromEd is one of the most fantastically buggy, obtuse, thick, frustrating and cantankerous development tools ever to grace the PC. It is the Battlecruiser 3000AD of level editors. Even Looking Glass developers admitted that DromEd was not a valued tool, but a reviled arch foe with its own malicious sentience that attempted to thwart them at every turn. But such was the passion for Thief that hordes of fan-made missions, and even whole new games, soon appeared.

Five years after the all-amateur Dark Engineering Guild announced its intention to create a full-length original game set in the same world, Thief 2X: Shadows of the Metal Age was released and is available for free download here. You'll need a complete install of Thief 2 patched to version 1.18 in order for 2X to work; this is available in assorted bargain packs, and the patch can be found online. Amateurs or not, these people know their stuff, and Thief 2X is a great game. It's faithful, technically sound, well-written and fun to play. If you're a Thief fan, it deserves your attention.

When Something's Going Wrong, You Must Glyph It

Garrett, that curmudgeonly antiheroic cat burglar of near-miraculous obfuscational ability, is not to be found in Thief 2X. This game takes place parallel to the events in The Metal Age. It tells someone else's story and introduces a new perspective on the City and its powerbrokers. The City is as much a character in the Thief universe as any speaking role. It's difficult to find words that aptly describe it, that nameless, immense urban gulf where twisted magic and lumbering technology exist in wary partnership. There's a novel by Paul Auster called In the Country of Last Things, and it has always reminded me vividly of the City—or, rather, what the City would be like if it were even more grim and menacing. In Thief 2X, we're awarded a perspective on the place from a true outsider.

This time you'll play a young woman named Zaya, a visitor from a sunlit country as far removed from the City's looming tenebracity as you could possibly imagine. Zaya's the favorite daughter of a wealthy merchant family and, having just come of age, is dispatched with a ship full of goodies bound for the City, where she's to hook up with her cousin Kedar upon arrival at the wharf. It doesn't work out; on the way back to Kedar's shop, some Very Bad Men bonk him on the head with a club and Zaya has to run away.

The first minimission is great; dodging Kedar's attackers, Zaya inadvertently seeks refuge in a haunted house. It's no Shalebridge Cradle—nothing compares to that two-hour ecstasy of terror from Deadly Shadows, a mission so relentlessly petrifying I'm surprised it hasn't killed someone yet—but it's quite unsettling. As she picks her way from room to rotting room, it seems that someone is leading her in a very specific direction. After lots of tension and more than a few jump-out-of-your-skin scares, she bumps into a gentleman named Malak, who insists that she must seek revenge on the men who squished Kedar's skull and offers to train her in the art of stealth.

Malak, who is a little too over the top in his creepy-lookingness, may or may not be a Keeper—a member of one of the City's most powerful factions. The Keepers were thoroughly explored in Deadly Shadows; they employ ancient Glyphs that only they can read to predict and meddle in the future. There are some Glyphs that even the Keepers don't understand, and others are so powerful that in the wrong hands they would be nightmare weapons. There's also the matter of the missing Last Glyph, the final symbol with power over all of the others. The Last Glyph is the primary plot thread of Deadly Shadows, and when you finally realize what it is, it's pretty cool. Zaya has no idea who the Keepers are and wouldn't care anyway—but they know her, as they know everything that goes on in the City.

The game's 13 missions—it's actually longer than The Dark Project—see Zaya performing tasks intended to first identify the men who attacked Kedar and then shove their clubs somewhere painful. It turns out (natch) to be a more complicated proposition than she'd originally assumed. A great number of City bigwigs are involved, and much of the activity deals with the ongoing rivalry between the Hammer Church and Mechanist seceders. It's a good story, rich in Thief mythology and well-spiced with personality and occasional bits of well-placed humor. The narrative takes a bizarre turn at the end, and much of the main plot is predictable, but all in all it's gripping enough to keep you interested.

Honor Among ... Well, You Know

Built in the same mission-based structure as Dark Project and Metal Age, Thief 2X is a first-person sneaker game that calls for stealth, careful observation and patience. Some people just don't see the appeal in lurking quietly in a dark corner, waiting for just the right moment to break cover. Sneakers aren't for everybody, and like the game on which it is based, 2X is very unforgiving in combat. Zaya is no more a fighter than Garrett, and she is hard pressed when toe-to-toe with an armed opponent who knows she's there.

Luckily, the game is designed in such a way that you're only likely to face that situation if you get impatient or clumsy. Zaya has learned Garrett's art of vanishing completely in dim light and can remain invisible as long as she's careful. Your equipment is designed to facilitate this stealth, though she is able to use deadly force when necessary. Zaya's hammer, used to knock unsuspecting opponents out, is her most important tool.

2X also includes several new pieces of equipment, such as EMP grenades—useful against the howitzer-carrying Mechanist robots. Elemental Catalysts, provided now and then by Malak, are exceptionally useful tools. The right Catalyst will turn your water arrows into ice arrows, able to freeze an opponent in place or create little icebergs as stepping stones across deep water. Stuff like this, along with the fact that all the original weapons have been remodeled, are signs of how hard the Dark Engineering Guild worked on this project.

There is one serious flaw in the gameplay, though, and it's the reason that Thief 2X isn't getting a Gold Star: level design, while artistically beautiful, is frustrating to say the least. Structures are labyrinthine, showing no particular respect for architectural logic or traffic flow. In some of the larger levels, it's nearly impossible to find your way around. You just blunder from place to place until you've achieved all the objectives, hoping you didn't miss anything really valuable. It didn't by any means ruin the game, but it's quite an irritant.

That's just architecture, though. The missions have layered and complex goals, they're well-balanced and often very creative in style and setting—a Mechanist "Iron Carriage" (that's a train), posh museum, even a brothel. You will find yourself not only on City streets but those of a nearby suburb as well. There is almost always more than one path—some of them very creative—to any goal, and you'd be wise to explore and plan carefully. There are no "bad" missions, it's just annoyingly hard to find your way around in them.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Thief 2 is now six years old, and 2X employs the same basic technology with some tweaks and new art. Yet the Dark Engine that powers these games has somehow aged more like David Bowie than Jon Voight—it still, at six, looks surprisingly good. There's something about its angular, stylized appearance that holds up where other engines don't.

Pretty much anyone will be able to run 2X at 1600×1200—unlike the other Dark Engine games, it supports this maximum resolution in the video menu. This not only further improves the graphics, it slows down the game enough to make it playable without other tweaks on a modern system. Users with certain ATI cards may notice some misbehavior in fog effects, but otherwise the expansion performs admirably and is very stable.

Thief 2X is no half-assed cobble. Its production values are as good as those of a studio game. The creators added dozens of new 3D models, along with myriad new textures, art pieces, sprites and effects. More than 3,000 lines of original dialogue were recorded for 2X, along with many thousands of words of narrative. Each mission is preceded by the same style of animated briefing we saw in Dark Project and Metal Age—Zaya's narrative punctuating a choreographed mélange of hand-drawn stills and Photoshopped effects.

There are also new rendered cutscenes. While attention to detail is simply excellent in these, and the directorial skill is unmatched, the cutscene team might have done well to study human kinetics more carefully—people don't walk or move in a natural fashion. But that's nothing, and overall the cutscenes are great, with a keen eye for the camera and the play of light and shadow.

One thing that Thief 2X does suffer from is a distinct lack of Eric Brosius, the mad genius sound designer for the official series. While much of Thief's environmental audio can be, and is, recycled into 2X, the new stuff they created just can't compete. The choice to include a musical score in some levels was also ill-advised, as environmental noise is so crucially important in Thief that any distraction creates a problem. The music also gets very repetitive after a while. Additionally, many conversations are too faint to hear, while action and audio in scripted sequences are often wildly out of sync.

They didn't skimp on voice talent. While it might be going too far to call the voice work exceptional, it's certainly good. The lead roles are very well played for the most part, stumbling at times on a script that more than once crosses the line into melodramatic but is generally pretty tight. Malak, as I said, is a little much, but otherwise there's a lot of skill on display here. Heck, most professional studios still don't bother with good voice talent.

I do have a minor, subjective issue with Zaya. April Lurty's quavering alto is a far cry from Stephen Russell's wryly menacing Garrett. It's occasionally difficult, when listening to Zaya speak, to imagine that this girl is capable of the sort of thing Malak is asking of her. She seems persistently close to tears. Now, the actress is pretty good—she falls flat only the really hammy stuff (which is more common than it should be); it's just the tone she chose doesn't fit the milieu. We needed someone more bemusedly sinister, like Russell's Garrett.

2X Time Is the Charm

A lot of people, five years into an exhausting project for which they'd receive no recompense and possibly no recognition, would have called it quits. Especially when one considers how far technology has come from the Dark Engine—sure, it holds up really well, but it is obviously old, and that's got to be discouraging. That this team chose to stick it out says a lot about their tenacity, dedication, drive and ambition to create something genuinely worthwhile. The people who really get Thief stop being players and become disciples, fiercely defending it and sometimes so philosophically embroiled in the opulence of its mythology that we must seem weird to those who haven't played or didn't like the original game. These developers are true disciples.

Even if this game were mediocre, which it is not by any stretch of the imagination, it bears recommendation because it's free, and complete, and seems so professional in its exhibition of itself that I think the Dark Engineering Guild could go to any publisher right now, ask for funding to do an original game, and expect to get it. Shadows of the Metal Age, while not precisely a Thief game, fits snugly into the Thief universe, and it's a welcome addition.

The other major Thief conversion project is called The Circle of Stone and Shadow. It's been in development for more or less the same amount of time, and it may or may not be released episodically over the next few months or years. You can track these things, and all things Thief related, at Through the Looking Glass, a site dedicated to eulogizing Looking Glass Studios.

Thief 2X is getting a lot of mainstream gaming press attention and has been positively reviewed elsewhere. With luck, this will encourage other creative souls to get behind steam shovels of their own, to really go for broke on an independent project that truly matters to them. The Dark Engineering Guild did pure good for the industry in releasing something so professional, so enjoyable and so obviously a labor of fervent passion: they proved that independents can make magic too. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Dark Engineering Guild
Publisher: Dark Engineering Guild
Release Date: May 15, 2005

Available for: Windows 

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System Requirements

Thief 2 installed; patched to v. 1.18
Thief 2 specs:
266 MHz Pentium II or equivalent
Windows 95/98
DirectX 7.0 compliant 3D accelerated video card
DirectX 7.0 compliant sound card
DirectX 7.0 or higher (included)
4X CD-ROM drive
250 MB free uncompressed hard drive space
Keyboard and mouse

Where to Find It

Thief 2X site (free download)

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