Stealing Beauty: A Thief Retrospective

By Steerpike
May 2004

Murder by Numbers

A two-game franchise may seem somewhat thin material for a retrospective piece. But the story of the Thief games is one of richer history than many realize—Thief and its successor are much more than the sum of their parts. The adventure that unfolds as you play them is intriguing enough, but when taken hand in hand with the corresponding real-life tale of innovation, corporate downfall, and the subsequent industry ripple effect, suddenly Thief's dark milieu offers sufficient wealth to produce plenty of interesting reading.

The world of Thief right now consists of Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age. The third and (probably) final installment, Thief: Deadly Shadows, is in development at ION Storm Austin and expected to ship May 26. Thief fans may also know that the original game is now available in three versions. There are classic Thief (1998); Thief Gold (1999), which includes three missions that didn't make it into the original release; and Thief Platinum (2000), which is just a prepatched version of regular old Thief, without Gold's additional levels. I'll go over various options for getting your paws on these games, and compatibility with modern computers, later on.

Thief 2 shipped in the summer of 2000, scant months before Looking Glass Studios, the company responsible for the franchise, shut its doors forever. The Metal Age would be their last game. To understand Thief it is necessary to understand its pedigree, and we'll get to that shortly. As this is a Thief retrospective and not a Looking Glass eulogy, however, if you want more info than this article offers, you can look here for Wagner James Au's compelling account of the studio's last days.

In 1996, Looking Glass designers contemplated a game universe set in a dystopian Camelot, an Arthurian legend turned on its ear: Mordred would be the misunderstood hero, Arthur the vicious tyrant. Dark Camelot was the foundation for what would eventually become Thief; as time went on and the Camelot idea faded (marketing insisted Arthurian legend was passé), the studio's goals coalesced around a more undefined but equally descriptive nomenclature. Not yet sure what sort of game they were going to make, the team at Looking Glass started referring to their concept as the Dark Project.

I Only Lied about Being a Thief

Thief: The Dark Project opens to the scratching of a quill pen and a stylish cinematic composed of a mélange of heavily Photoshopped stills. In what is to become one of the franchise's trademarks, each mission briefing begins with a text poem, prayer, song, or passage from one of the world's many internecine factions. The most promising acolyte left us—not out of the lesser folly of sentiment, but out of the greater folly of anger. His heart was clouded and his balance lost, but his abilities were unmatched. Even then we knew to watch him most closely. A voiceover in a soft and sinister tone: "I have a simple job planned for tonight ..."

Garrett is a cat burglar in the shadowy underworld of a mammoth, nameless urban sprawl, making his living by preying on the wealth of nobles and leisure society. From the beginning, it is clear that Garrett is no normal thief; his ability to conduct his profession borders upon the mystical. And well it might, as he was trained for a very different sort of life.

The Keepers are the chroniclers, prophets, and sentinels of the City's secrets: the fly on the wall of history, always watching, never revealing. As such, they have a strict policy of nonintervention in City affairs, which of course means that they intervene all the time. Their acolytes are trained in semi-arcane skills that facilitate observation. Among these talents is the ability to vanish completely in semidarkness—quite an asset for a budding property reallocation engineer.

Though little is ever revealed of Garrett's history, we learn that he was trained as a Keeper but left the order before full initiation. Whether he once truly intended to join their ranks is anyone's guess; he never says. The Keepers, in their usual Zen-like manner, let him go but have quietly kept tabs on their errant prodigal since the moment of his departure.

Garrett is an extremely complicated character. A creative misstep in the protagonist could have ruined the game, because on the surface he seems anathema to common game characters. He is no hero. To Garrett, the very suggestion that he might be righteous is an insult, and any gallantry of action is an accidental corollary to his real objective. He does what he does for personal gain, shamelessly pursuing material wealth.

He kills without thought, applying no value to any life but his own—but not from a pathological thirst for violence. Garrett kills because he can, not because he wants or needs to. If he kills, it is because the life of his victim means nothing to him. For this reason, the violence in Thief is among the most wrenching in any first person game: it is possible to finish both without ever harming anyone, and taking a life therefore becomes an act of greater cruelty than it might in a game where violence is part of the equation.

Yet it is almost impossible not to like Garrett. He is more curmudgeonly than ogreish, narrating cutscenes and providing color commentary that's as amiable as it is chilling. He bitches about the rent and the landlord, complains about the hassles of living downtown, tosses off dry one-liners belying a razor sense of humor, even cheerily dissects the psyches of his wealthy targets by evaluating their feng shui or literary collections.

He is also meticulous in his approach to his craft. To Garrett, thievery is a sacred act not to be demeaned by clumsy errors or casual amateurism. Though remorseless in the act of killing, he sees murder as a gauche vulgarity, unworthy of masters such as himself. Being a good thief means not needing to kill. Indeed, on the highest difficulty level, you are not allowed to kill at all. Playing missions at this expert level lays bare video games' violent roots, because in a game, to kill is to simplify. By withholding that most basic of tools, Thief challenges us to approach its play as Garrett approaches his career: as an art form requiring patience and mastery. In becoming Garrett, if you choose to kill, you do so because it makes things easier for you.

To his intense frustration, Garrett finds himself dragged again and again into scenarios that require him to be the "hero." He is just too good at what he does to escape the notice of those who would benefit from his talents. All too often one faction or another will make him an offer he can't refuse. Though he'd probably stab anyone who suggested it, Garrett prefers to help the righteous rather than the wicked. His cantankerous, complaining anti-heroism—however reluctant—is nonetheless proof that underneath the greed, Garrett is a good man.

But don't leave any jewelry unattended around him.

Boomtown

Just as Garrett is a protean labyrinth of motivations, his city reflects a pageant of human decadence and greed, welded to a backdrop of uneasy coexistence between magic and technology. Great chugging engines roar alongside streetlights hurling fountains of sparks high into the air. And everywhere are meters, switches, valves, gauges, pumps, levers; an iron nightmare of steam power gone wrong. This environment walks hand in wary hand with dark wizardry, mystical creatures and the cruel attentions of infernal deities that take a constant and active interest in the goings on of mortal lives.

Among the boilers and incantations dwell the City's people, living as they can in a world locked in a conflict between the natural and unnatural, the real and manufactured. Cults and secret societies abound, law and order are frameworks at best; every man, woman, and child is out for himself. It is a dangerous place to live.

The Hammers rule the streets, a religious sect as harsh and unyielding as the steel that forges their eponymous weapons. When City law waits too long or is too impartial in its application of justice, the Hammerites take it into their own hands: conducting raids, placing arrests, and freely incarcerating in private stockades those who fail to live up to their totalitarian views of morality. The Hammers are religious vigilantism at the height of madness, more powerful and better armed by far than the corrupt and outnumbered City constabulary.

Contrary to the rigidly implacable Hammers lie the Pagans, dwellers on the City's rims and outskirts. Worshippers of the Woodsie Lord, an ancient sylvan force of terrifying deific power, the Pagans seek always to overthrow the technology they see as a desecration of the natural world, to smash the machines and break the girders of the City, to return society to the simplicity of a time before progress.

The City is a living character in the narrative of the Thief games. Garrett's home is as central as Garrett himself to the mythology. Deadly Shadows promises a living City, full of passers-by with pockets ripe for the picking and homes free for plunder. The City remains the great enigma of Thief: vast and incomprehensible, a breathing entity as hard and cruel as the mysterious primitive world outside, a technological Gormenghast holding Arcadian fantasy at bay by means of gears, coal, and dark magics. It is upon this shuddering mean of devilry and mechanism that Garrett preys.

Dark Matter

Thief introduced gamers to the "first person sneaker" style; it is the first major FPS that focused on stealth, caution, and planning over balls-to-the-wall action. For this reason, some people found it dull and others got frustrated when standard Quake-style tactics got Garrett killed faster than an Avalanche fan in the Red Wings locker room. Nowadays, stealth-based shooters are commonplace; Thief gave birth to this subgenre.

Thief's focus on stealth was innovative in several ways. Because a stealthy game is a slower game, designers could linger on features that would be missed in a fast-paced shooter. Missions show more attention to detail and adherence to architectural logic. Controls such as leaning and peeking are added to the standard FPS toolbox, making it easier for players to manage the furtive style. Light and sound, especially locational sound, take on significantly greater importance. Because of all this, the game needed some specialized technology under the hood.

Thief employed a new codebase called, predictably, the Dark Engine. Realistic light and sound are so important in Thief that a licensed technology such as Quake 2, in addition to delaying the game's release, might not have handled wave physics well enough to make it work. Most light and sound algorithms in other games focus on special effects over realism, which wouldn't help in a stealth context. Also, a proprietary 3D engine developed by Looking Glass would have the added advantage of being available for future projects and possible licensing opportunities.

The Dark Engine presents a stylized, angular visual aspect that is pretty effective at evoking the City's rust-filled nuances. For an engine developed in the late nineties, it does an incredible job with physics such as explosions and falling objects, as well as sound and light. The game world also looks realistic despite a comparatively low polygon count versus Unreal, one of Thief's contemporaries. Since the engine didn't choke the processor with polygons, more CPU power was available for all those physics calculations. It also meant that Thief had reasonable system requirements.

Modern gamers won't find too much to complain about with the Dark Engine. They're yesterday's graphics, but they hold up surprisingly well. Though Dark supported only a rather low maximum resolution (1024×768) and could be twitchy about EAX-enhanced audio, it was otherwise stable and performed well. The only other significant anachronism is the light. Lighting technology has undergone a major revolution recently with the addition of shaders and soft shadows, and we're spoiled by modern dynamic lighting algorithms.

It's also a dark game, and irritable players groused about "looking for the black object on the black shelf in the black room surrounded by blackness." Yes, Thief is dark. But the game's really meant to be played with the lights off. So much of it depends on creeping from shadow to shadow that dimness is vital. An icon whose varying states you'd better get really good at interpreting announces how much light you happen to be in at the present time, and with practice you can quickly identify which light sources are your biggest threats and should therefore be extinguished posthaste.

It's a little primitive given today's Dolby sound and 7.1 speaker setups, but for the time, Thief was the Saruman's voice of game audio. Sounds reverberated differently depending on the size of the area and the surfaces against which they bounced, and every whisper and tap was a clue to the presence of an adversary or a potential alarm to a vigilant lookout.

Since ambient sound is so critical to concealment and success, there is not much in the way of music in Thief outside of the cutscenes. The mission soundtrack is composed mostly of environmental noise—footsteps, voices, the growls of nearby machinery. What musical presence there is focuses largely on stimulating a mood, employing bass and long, tonal beats rather than tunes. The soundtrack is evocative of how music was handled in X-Com.

Accompanying you on your quest to liberate the City's wealthy of their trinkets is a staggering assortment of tools, bought with your earnings from the previous mission. Garrett owns a sword, a bow, and a blackjack—the latter will be your most potent weapon, allowing you to knock guards and potential witnesses out rather than permanently harming them. He also has access to various potions, lockpicks, distractions such as flash grenades, maps and tips from his hoodlum contacts, and, for dessert, a luscious buffet of multifunctional arrows.

Garrett's bow is more a toolbox than a weapon; he'd be lost without it. Broadhead Arrows are for standard offense; Water Arrows contain a crystal vial of the stuff at the head and are your best friend if you need to extinguish an inconvenient light source or clean up a spot of blood. Moss Arrows carpet the ground in soft greenery, allowing you to pass unheard; Rope Arrows grant access to otherwise unwinnable heights; Fire Arrows detonate like grenades.

You generally have a minimum cash objective in each mission, and it's in your best interest to grab all the money you can, because it's what you have to spend on gear for whatever comes next. Some have complained that leftover cash and equipment doesn't carry over from mission to mission. Though unrealistic, it's necessary to maintain balance. You never use up all your stuff on a mission, and you rarely spend down to zero while preparing—so if you were able to keep leftovers, you could waltz through the final missions armed to the teeth. That's not what Thief is about. Sometimes it's better to sacrifice realism in favor of rightness, and I'm curious to see if Deadly Shadows follows this paradigm or establishes another.

Stealing First: The Dark Project

The Dark Project introduces us to Garrett and sends him on a series of increasingly challenging objective-based missions, throughout and between which the game's intricate story is told. This franchise is fairly unique in the way it employs cutscenes. Rather than grainy video or clumsy in-engine cinematics, Thief collages hand-drawn stills and photographs with voiceover narration and dialogue. It's sort of reminiscent of how documentaries manage without supplementary video: a carefully orchestrated dance of relevant emotional and rational iconic connections. That Thief's cutscenes are still among the most impactful of any game proves that it works.

A scaling difficulty allows the gamer to move among Normal, Hard, and Expert between each mission. The number, complexity, and challenge of objectives increases with difficulty levels, and the amount of damage Garrett can take before dying is drastically reduced.

The first game plays on Garrett's greed. He is contacted by an inscrutable and somewhat creepy new face in City crime, a woman named Viktoria. She has popped up apparently out of nowhere and raised the eyebrows of the City's organized thieving guilds. Information on her is sparse, but she seems to have plenty of money to throw at freelance home invaders, whom she employs to gather various unique treasures.

Viktoria in turn introduces Garrett to Constantine, another city newcomer. An eccentric aristocrat with highly unsettling taste in home décor, Constantine offers Garrett an enough-to-retire-on sum to steal a magical gem called the Eye from an abandoned, haunted Hammer cathedral deep in a forgotten City district. It is a major, multi-mission undertaking, and Garrett gets involved not realizing that all is not as it seems.

A long-term plot has been underway to unleash the dormant malice of the Woodsie Lord and return the Pagans to dominance, a plot in which the Eye is of pivotal importance. The Hammers and Keepers are preliminary targets, as those groups are among the few who could stand a chance against the wrath of a fully manifested Woodsie Lord should the Pagan scheme come to fruition.

Garrett wants nothing to do with any of it—he just wants the money—but finds himself entwined in the perilous conspiracy all the same. He feels no loyalty to the Keepers, notwithstanding the fact that they provided many of the skills on which he now depends; and he absolutely loathes the Hammerites and their holier-than-thou morality. Still, they both make better cohorts than the Pagans, whose chummy relationship with the demon world and unpleasant habit of human sacrifice make then a distasteful ally. Besides, Garrett reasons, a burglar wouldn't have much to do if primeval forest replaced all of the cities.

The Invisible War

Looking Glass wasn't entirely sure that The Dark Project would be well received by a public with very specific views on what first person should be like. It was a major departure from "traditional" FPS of the time, and stealth gameplay was new territory. Though everyone at Looking Glass thought the storyline would offset any potentially dull areas in gameplay, they decided to hedge their bets a little.

So they tossed in some levels that focused more on exploration and the supernatural, as well as the odd jumping puzzle here and there. The Dark Project includes five or six levels that contain few if any human beings, instead seeing Garrett robbing tombs, exploring infested parts of the City, navigating haunted mines, and so forth.

Stealth is still important in these missions. Garrett is not a warrior and avoids confrontation when he can. Though he's armed, evasion is his chief tactic. A blackjack to the nape of the neck is a lot safer than a frontal assault against armored opponents. When it comes to creatures from beyond, however, standard defensive tactics don't always apply. Ghosts and zombies are not susceptible to being knocked out, so straight-up butchery becomes a more realistic alternative, and seems somehow less contrary to the game's cautious spirit than killing people—you can't feel bad about killing things that are already dead. The thinking was that these levels would add some excitement while remaining faithful to the take-care roots of the stealthy experience.

It also expanded the foundation of the Thief universe by broadening the game's fiction. Other surprise life forms hint at the City's history or have become cult favorites among gamers. The City sits astride the ruins of a much more ancient habitation. At one point in The Dark Project, Garrett is obliged to explore some of these catacombs, and he discovers that the region was once occupied by an alien and hideous form of life. Some of these horrors still lurk in the channels below the new metropolis, gazing enviously at the world that was once theirs.

Less malevolently unnatural but equally lethal are Burricks, overweight lizards that resemble waddling gila monsters until they belch a fatally toxic gas cloud in your direction. These creatures—especially the Burricks, which would actually be kind of adorable if they weren't so dangerous—are as much a part of Garrett's world as the City and its occupants. So to the casual observer, the addition of some combat, monster stuff, and jumping puzzles would benefit the overall product. It would seem, however, that Looking Glass underestimated its audience.

What little negative press Thief endured was focused chiefly on complaints about the missions that weren't burglary-specific. Some felt the haunted levels broke the "flow" of the game, that evading or fighting nonhuman opponents was less a thrill than sneaking past mundane guards. And though they were minimal compared to most shooters, the jumping puzzles were just annoying.

I agree with the final complaint (jumping puzzles are always annoying as far as I'm concerned), but I'm one of the few who enjoyed the more fantastic levels as much as those in which the opponents were strictly human. The Dark Project can be a very, very scary game, one that raises goosebumps on your arms and makes you jump or glance uneasily over your shoulder. The haunted and monster-infested levels dramatically enhanced this quality, without sacrificing stealth. However, I apparently am among a very select few who thought so. The vast majority of gamers told Looking Glass that they wanted any sequels to focus more exclusively on human adversaries.

Thief Gold adds three new levels that didn't make it into the original Thief due to time constraints. These aren't clumsy, slapped-in additions—the new missions feel as professional as the old ones. My personal favorite, The Songs of the Caverns, would be worth the price of admission on its own. Conveniently, Thief Gold is more readily available than The Dark Project, so chances are you'll get to enjoy the "full" version of the game whether you want to or not.

Case Closed

The Dark Project is a sublime gaming experience. If you can play it in the right environment—alone, in the dark, ideally in the still quiet of a late night—you'll be frankly amazed at its ability to build and evoke suspense and fear. Remember when Resident Evil first appeared, before the flood of survival horror began and we all got inured? Remember how scary it was? The Dark Project does it better and goes a step further by including a rich and vivid story ripe with characters so intriguing and history so abundant and diverse that you'll feel as though you're playing your favorite fantasy novel.

Both PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World include The Dark Project high in their "best games of all time" lists. At about 800,000 units worldwide, it was too successful to be described as a "cult" classic but not successful enough to be described as a runaway best seller. It is consistently honored alongside Half-Life as the best single-player FPS experience available. But it wasn't a blockbuster, and a lot of potential fans who don't know what they're missing never played it.

In many ways, The Dark Project is a story about the Pagans, focusing as it does on the return of the Woodsie Lord and the inroads that Pagan society has made into the heart of the City. While their tree-hugging hippie terrorist attitude isn't strictly evil, their tactics are reprehensible and occasionally monstrous. The Pagans are secretive, adding to their perceived malevolence; their looming incursion and the apocalyptic threat of their conspiracy transforms a simple tree-worshipping cult into a dark and hostile force of unknown size and capability.

And yet, their plot is the last act of a desperate people, and as such the lengths to which they will go are partially excusable. One can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the Pagans. They are forced to live and worship on the dwindling outskirts of a world that to them has grown increasingly alien and threatening, doomed bystanders who see the withering day by day of their cherished sylvan utopia. In the world of Thief, there are no clear cut heroes or villains—just allies and enemies. Merely different points of view, all struggling for survival. By the end of The Dark Project, this enemy is defeated but not destroyed.

With the Pagan star fading, Thief 2: The Metal Age turns its attention to a very different culture: a cold, mechanical religion whose devotees treasure constructs of whirling gears and pressure valves over the more intangible quality of mere humanity.

Stealing Second: The Metal Age

Thief 2 begins about a year after its predecessor, and big changes have come to the City in the intervening months. Through no fault of his own, Garrett's life is at a low point, and he greets us with frustration approaching despondency: "I've always equated emotionalism with getting caught. Both get in the way of my money."

He has a right to be pissed. It's harder than ever to be a thief in the City. Law enforcement, once emasculated and feeble compared to the will and weaponry of the Hammers, has enjoyed a major renaissance. There's a new sheriff in town, Gorman Truart, and he's made it his mission to clean up the streets. What's worse, he seems to have a special animosity toward Garrett.

Truart's crime fighting techniques focus on the application of extreme violence and Gestapo-style secret police conduct. Anyone even suspected of wrongdoing simply disappears. He is relentless in his persecution of the City's poor and criminal culture. It's so bad that even a master thief like Garrett has difficulty planning and pulling off jobs. He grumbles that if things get any worse, he'll be reduced to picking pockets in the street—a dangerous career indeed, given the ubiquity of Truart's bluecoats.

The meteoric rise in the influence of law enforcement has been paralleled by the equally sudden collapse of the Hammerite church. Recent internal disputes have left the sect in chaos. About half of its former strength bolted to join a protest movement organized by Karras, a former Hammer with an incredibly irritating speech impediment. The schism is fueled by his contention that the Hammers have misinterpreted the tenets of their deity, the Master Builder. Enlightenment, he argues, can only be achieved through progress, and progress means machines. Thus is the birth of the Mechanists.

"What's the big deal?" you say. There are already plenty of machines in the City, great coal-gobbling behemoths chugging and rumbling and ticking away. Exactly what they do is a mystery, but the City's foundation is built as much on steel as it is on magic. So one might wonder what it matters that another cult espousing the glory of the machine is born. But Mechanist machines are different: graceful, elegant, functional, and frankly creepy. Whereas the steam-powered City sported a certain lumbering Victorian charm, Mechanist technology reeks of Big-Brotherist corruption.

As if Truart weren't bad enough, the wealthy can now install Mechanist-constructed cameras that sound warning klaxons when they spy something untoward. The really wealthy can buy Children, great hulking robots that mutter alarming Mechanist slogans to themselves as they trudge about, using nightvision, laser sights, and cannons to pummel unlucky trespassers with explosive shells. Only a water arrow to the boiler can bring these monstrosities down, and hitting a target that small with a projectile that imprecise isn't as easy as bullseyeing a Womprat.

In the battle between mechanica and electronica, the Hammers are losing. While the Mechanists haven't done anything outwardly illegal or even strictly wrong, there's something unnerving about them. Even Garrett, who usually could not care less about City politics, takes note. The Mechanist presence is like having a spider on your back. A big, metal, electronic spider with diode eyes and fangs that drip alternating current.

Thus, when we meet up with Garrett in The Metal Age, he's got all that on his mind, plus the fact that the first mission is one of helping out a colleague who's fallen in love. People in love irritate Garrett, as do zealous law enforcement and cults that build tools specifically designed to antagonize thieves. So he's not in the best temper at the beginning of The Metal Age, and his mood declines as the game progresses.

Thief 2 is longer, more difficult, and requires much more care and patience. It also sports a more complex and intricate story than the original, as the Keepers drag the unwilling Garrett into the Hammer/Mechanist rivalry even as he tries to dodge Sheriff Truart.

Respecting fan wishes, it offers very few encounters with the supernatural. I don't recall a single Burrick in the game. A Thief without Burricks is like a DOOM without fire imps; it's unnatural. As I'm apparently alone in really loving the paranormal stuff from Thief, I'm not going to whine about it much more. Still, in this case I think the developers made a mistake in doing what the fans asked, because it diluted the emotional impact of the game experience. Thief 2 is less hair-raising and suspenseful than its predecessor—there are a few spine-chilling scenes, but not many. The Metal Age has a blander flavor; despite the mysticality of the plot, it comes off as a more mundane adventure than the colorful tapestry of The Dark Project.

It does paint a clearer picture of Garrett himself. He's the great draw of the Thief games. Everyone who plays them likes him, though no one could say why; he is a shuttered personality. Indeed, you never even see his face in the first two games. For most gamers, learning more about him becomes a play challenge. Garrett almost seems wasted in a medium where others are expected to assume control of him. There's so much depth that in some ways, I'd rather watch passively and see who he is rather than risk screwing him up by doing it myself.

The tantalizing glimmer of compassion beneath the brash sarcasm and remorseless greed, the question marks in his history, the uncertainty about his future—this is expertly woven into the plot of The Metal Age. There are moments when Garrett is hurt and terribly afraid, when he bears witness to atrocities so appalling that even his determinedly unethical nature is shaken—there are even times when he (grudgingly) says something nice to someone else and actually means it. Thief 2 may be a more disappointing game than the original, but it is priceless as a tool for understanding Garrett and his world.

The Metal Age is also more generous with access to the City. Garrett's burg was presented mostly as tantalizing glimpses from windows or over garden walls in the original; only one level—The Haunted Cathedral—took place entirely in the City streets, and that in a section that got invaded by demons, burned down, fell over, and had to be walled off by the authorities. The City is just an appetizer in The Dark Project; here it's part of the main course.

Whole missions take place on its streets, while one of the very best is a spectacular aerial romp from buttress to buttress as Garrett employs the "Thieves Highway" of lore to close in on a target unnoticed. The Mechanist presence is profoundly felt during these excursions: their factories loom on distant skylines, the great metal citadel towers over the horizon, and overheard conversations speak of black lung disease, neighborhoods coated in soot, and blue-collar humans increasingly replaced by robots.

The Dark Engine gives an encore performance in Thief 2. By 2000 it was no longer graphically competitive, though it still handled physics better than anything else out there. It was retooled to support higher polygon counts and 32-bit color, which helped, and Looking Glass artists went a little crazy locating or making unique textures for just about every surface. Still, it was the angular, fabricated look and feel that's a Thief cornerstone that kept people from shouting "dated graphics" (though some did anyway). It would have been weird if it looked like NOLF or Quake 3.

Deadly Shadows, by the way, abandons the lanky stylized look of its forebears. We'll see how much this departure affects the flavor of the game.

True Crime

But all in all, The Metal Age didn't work as well. It felt uneven, rushed, somehow clumsy—lacking the crystalline elegance of The Dark Project. The reappearance of popular characters such as the mysterious Viktoria doesn't produce the desired effect of connecting the two games. And its more elaborate story ultimately didn't make a lot of sense. In fact, the script seems dissatisfied with itself, as if its writers knew that their idea needed additional time in the oven. Garrett, when speaking, seems more aggravated by the occasional awkwardness of the game than by the crappiness of his life. It's hard to put a finger on exactly what is disappointing, except to say that it felt rushed, but how it felt rushed is difficult to vocalize.

The practicalities of the game were all decidedly superior. The Dark Engine's facelift was effective; audio, light, scripting, and artificial intelligence systems had been tweaked; there are fifteen missions to The Dark Project's twelve, and all the missions were significantly longer. The Metal Age was a solid 30 to 50 hours of gameplay, which is plenty of bang for the buck. But some of the heart wasn't there.

Be advised that describing it as a "disappointment" is only applicable in comparison to its predecessor. I don't know anyone who likes The Metal Age better than The Dark Project, but compared to normal games, it was quite astounding for all the same reasons that the original had been—the first story-driven stealth shooters were and still are the best.

—Continued in Part 2—

The Lowdown

Developer: :Looking Glass
Publisher: Eidos
Release Date: December 1998 (Thief); 2000 (Thief 2)

Available for: Windows

Screenshots

Thief

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Thief 2

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System Requirements

Thief
Pentium 200 MHz (with 4 MB SVGA video card, no hardware acceleration)
Pentium 166 MHz (with 3D hardware accelerator card, minimum 4 MB on-board RAM, 100% DirectX 6.0 compliant)
32 MB RAM
Windows 95/98
Mouse
DirectX 6.0 (included)
DirectMedia (included)
Intel Indeo video codec (included)
100% DirectX 6.0 compliant sound card
4X CD-ROM drive
60 MB free hard drive space

Thief 2
266 MHz Pentium II or equivalent
Windows 95/98
48 MB RAM
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

GoGamer 14.90 (Thief Gold); 14.90 (Thief 2); 39.90 (Thief 3 preorder)



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