Review: Thief II: The Metal Age

Game Info

Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Genre: FPS, stealth
Platforms: PC
Released: March, 2000

It was back in the year 2000 that I played the demo of Thief II: The Metal Age. It was just one of those demos that I played over and over again. Life Of The Party was the name of the mission, and although it would be quite different when it appeared in the full version of the game, I just couldn’t get enough. In my mind it’s one of the greatest levels in any game ever made.

I ended up buying the full version of the game a year later and it was pretty much all I played, besides System Shock 2 and Thief: The Dark Project, the prequel, for about the next year or two.

The story in Thief II revolves around the main protagonist and anti-hero, a master thief named Garrett, who during the course of his regular duties of robbing the rich of their possessions, ends up being targeted by someone very high in social standing: the Sheriff, Gorman Truart, who seemingly wishes to cleanse the city of it criminal element with his newly reformed City Watch – which operates with deadly efficiency. But little does Garrett know that there’s someone behind Truart, pulling the strings.

Add to this that a new dawn has swept over the City, and the Mechanists, a splinter group of the Hammerites from the original game, are part of a powerful religious order, led by a maniacal sociopath (you might know of him) that has introduced a lot of new technology to the City, including “metal watchers”, which makes Garrett’s life of crime that much harder.

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Thief II was going to include a cooperative gameplay mode called Theftmatch.

It would have seen opposing teams of players break in to a building guarded by NPCs, and the team who stole the most loot would win. This didn’t make it in the final game which was a singleplayer-only affair.

You naturally play as Garrett, a cynical master thief and former Keeper – a mysterious “neutral” organisation that stays in the shadows and tries to maintain the balance, as they refer to it as. There’s no training mission as such, unlike the original. Instead, you are guided along a little on your first few missions (as long as you play on normal difficulty), especially the first, which is to infiltrate Lady Rumford’s estate and escort Gennivere, the girlfriend of your pal, Basso the Boxman (whom you may remember freeing from Cragscleft in the prequel – it was a mission objective on one of the harder difficulties). There are about 15 or 16 missions, which is more than you had in the original. They range from the regular “case the estate” type mission, to blackmail, a bank heist, traveling to otherworldly dimensions, an island (complete with pirate’s cove!), and even a city-wide excursion.

Before most missions you’ll have a briefing with some lovely hand-drawn cutscenes that fill you in on what’s happening, followed by a point where you have all your objectives laid out for you along with being able to select your difficulty level, which you decide on before each mission. The loot requirement, the only real constant throughout the game, becomes higher the harder the difficulty is. You might also have some optional objectives that aren’t crucial to the completion of the mission. Generally you are also required to only blackjack so many NPCs, and not kill anyone during a mission or cause any alerts of any kind. Enemies will also be tougher. Naturally objectives may change during a mission.

After this it’s off to the buy screen, where you can see what you have in your inventory, and buy items too. The amount of loot you have is reliant on how much loot you obtained in the previous mission only. You may as well spend it all seeing as there’s no stockpiling here. So it pays to find all those secrets in a mission. On most missions you have a map of the place in your possession, or you may have to purchase one from the buy screen. You can also buy tips which might inform you of a back entrance, etc. Also in your possession are your lockpicks, for springing locks on doors that you don’t have a key for, and your compass, which gives you an indication of your orientation which you can compare to your map. You also always have your trusty sword, bow and blackjack for knocking out enemies while their backs are turned. These are some of your constant items and tools in your inventory.

Other items and weapons available at the buy screen change from mission to mission, and include potions that can restore health, or give you a speed boost, or even turn you invisible temporarily – there are several new potions introduced in Thief II. Elemental arrows return, like water arrows to put out fire-lit torches, noisemaker arrows to draw guards to an area (which usually just alerts them and they walk anywhere but the direction you intended for them to go), and the new vine arrow which functions similarly to rope arrows. Also available are explosives like mines. Some weapons and tools are there for a more passive, stealthy approach, and others are there for when you need to flee and lose your pursuers, or decide to fall back on some firepower if things go extremely wrong during a mission – or if you prefer a more gung-ho, kill-everything-that-moves method. It depends if you are more of a typical FPS player, or a Thief purist who wants to play the game the way it was meant to be played.

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After Thief II was released, Looking Glass Studios was working on Thief II: Gold, much like they had done with its predecessor, with Thief Gold, which had some extra missions that did not appear in Thief: The Dark Project.

But LGS was in major debt despite Thief II performing well at least critically. Financially it was a different story. Eventually they were forced to close their doors, and Thief II: Gold didn’t see the light of day.

Items and weapons can also often be found in missions, not just bought. You’ll find elemental arrows in or near their respective sources – fire arrows in fires, water arrows in water, and so on. Broadhead arrows can be nicked out of archers’ quivers. Items that aren’t weapons that are accessed from your hotkeys (1-9) will end up in your inventory, which is rather simplified and you scroll through it on-screen in your HUD. Scrolling through all the items you have to find what you’re looking for does present a bit of an issue.

In-game on any given mission you will have guards, who well… guard things, mainly buildings. Some stand still as sentries, and others patrol areas, always with swords drawn, ready for a fight. But a new addition to the game is archers who carry bows and arrows or crossbows and attack from a distance. You also have female characters, something which was missing in Thief – that feminine touch. There are in addition new modes or states. You have alert guards and drunk guards whose reaction time or attention may be reduced, but not by much surprisingly. A new mode is the sleeping guard, and they can be woken if you make too much noise.

You can either go around silently blackjacking guards, or murdering them with your bow or sword, or monitoring their patrols patiently and sneak past them. This last approach is part of a practice called ghosting, and is what purists typically resort to – getting through an entire mission without alerting anyone or leaving anything out of place. Guards and other characters like nobles or servants will react to bodies left lying out in the open, and either start searching for you or run for help, so you should at least stow them somewhere that isn’t patrolled. Guards might also notice things that are missing, like loot that has been stolen. In most missions in Thief II you will also have new dangers to avoid, and these are collectively referred to as the Builder’s children, I believe. You have security cameras, sentry guns, and small little robots as well as bigger ones. Be very careful of the bigger ones as they will shoot projectiles in your general direction upon sighting you. And so do sentry guns, obviously.

In 2005, an unofficial expansion for Thief II, called T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age, was released after having been worked on for some time by fans of the original series, under the banner of the Dark Engineering Guild. This went on to be one of the most successful mods or fan projects for any game ever conceived.

You aren’t really built or equipped to take down enemies in full-on close quarters combat. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed. You’ll find swordplay rather hard most of the time, particularly if you are up against multiple foes. A quick tap of the attack button on your mouse will result in one swipe, while holding down the button slightly longer and trying an attack from the left or right of the target will result in different moves being executed. Holding down the mouse for longer will have you execute an overhead swing. You can also block attacks if timed properly. An enemy, after being hit enough times, will often flee for help, so make sure you finish him off properly!

Using the bow is good for sniping from a distance. Usually one broadhead arrow is enough to do the job, although it will always work better if you aim for the head. In combat, an alert enemy can take several arrows before going down. Firearrows don’t arc in flight, and neither do gas arrows. Firearrows are deadly but very noisy when they explode on contact, but will more often than not take down most enemies with one shot. A gas arrow is more silent and can take out multiple enemies if they are all in the same radius of the gas emission, including you.

Rope arrows can be used when there are no ladders around to get to a higher or lower level. Rope arrows can only be fired in to wooden surfaces. Vine arrows are different from rope arrows as they can be used on other surfaces like metal grates.

It’s always good practice, once you’ve knocked an arrow, to draw the bowstring to full tension to ensure you have full power before you hit your target. But don’t hold it too long, otherwise you’ll strain and wobble a bit which will affect your aim and you’ll eventually have to rest and try again.

Did you know?

Much contention has arisen within the fan community over the map and the whereabouts of each mission from both original games. To the point where several people have over the years developed proposed maps that have been revised time and time again after referring to game screenshots and cutscenes as well as in-game locations.

When Thief: Deadly Shadows was released, ground was broken for these map developers when it was revealed that there’s a river that runs right through the middle of the City.

One thing you will likely rely on is your light gem, which shows you how visible you are. If it is dark, then you are fine and likely in shadow. You are practically invisible to anyone in the area even if not behind cover. If the gem is fully lit but has a yellow indicator on the side, then you are almost fully visible and should retreat to the cover of shadow. If it is fully lit with a red indicator on the side, it means you are fully visible and anyone in the area who sees you will attack immediately or run for help. But even in shadow there are still things that can give your presence away, such as standing instead of crouching, moving quickly instead of slowly, making too much noise, and having your sword or bow drawn. The worst move you can make is knocking a firearrow, as this will light you up like the 4th of July, or Guy Fawkes Day – take your pick.

Enemies don’t just rely on sight though. They will also react to sound. So you are forced to resort to sneaking about if you wish to remain unheard. Running is almost always discouraged and should only be used to escape an enemy pursuing you. This makes certain floor types like tiles or metal a pain to walk on as they create a lot of noise – not helped in any way by the fact that you seem to be wearing high heels or tap dancing shoes. Perfect for sneaking around in. This is where you can use moss arrows to blanket an area with moss which makes your footsteps practically inaudible. Picking things up and throwing them can also make noise which will attract attention and can even be used to your advantage; a distraction.

Enemies also naturally make noise, so you should listen out for their footsteps, and their voices so you gauge just where and how far away they are. There are many interesting and usually humourous conversations that you can eavesdrop on that may even lead you to the location of loot. Eavesdropping is made easier by being able to lean, and you can lean around corners, but not only that, you can lean against doors to hear sounds on the other side. There are also many readables in the game, like parchment or scrolls, that hold information addressed to others that may or may not prove important to you.

Enemies can also react to touch and will generally do so much more rapidly than if they were to see or hear you. So don’t get too close. Luckily they can’t smell you. Or taste you. Okay, moving on...

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The Thief 2 v 1.19 Patch

There exists a v 1.19 patch. It was released in 2012, 12 years since 1.18, but it wasn't developed by LGS. An individual known as "Le Corbeau” worked on it and subsequently released it.

These patches introduce a whole host of new fixes, and make the game easier to run on modern operating systems and hardware. There’s also an upgrade to DromEd, too.

http://www.ttlg.com/forums/showthread.php?t=140088

NPCs also carry items that you can take from them if you’re sly enough. These include pouches of gold around their waist, and keys, among other things. Keys can obviously be used to fit the lock on one or several doors in a mission. If you can’t get a key, it might be worth trying your lockpicks. Some doors can’t be picked though, and you could try bashing them down using your sword, but this will make a lot of noise which will attract unwanted attention. Otherwise other devices like explosives could be used in certain situations…

You do have allies in the game although at first they are limited, and the ones whom you thought were friends soon turn on you. Initially you only have your old Keeper associates, among them being Artemus, who is supposedly the one who you tried to pickpocket in the first game, and who introduced you to the Keepers in the first place. Later on there’s the Pagans; nature lovers who really screwed Garrett over in the first game, but now he finds that they have a common goal and a common enemy.

The music in the game is once again composed by Eric Brosius. It contains atmospheric, ambient and industrial themes, which serves to suit the steampunk genre the game is based on well. The only downside is it may interfere with your ability to hear in-game sounds, so you can either turn it down or off completely. It’s a great thing that you can even elect to turn down ambient noises as well, like steam powered devices, so you can concentrate more on footsteps and voices.

NPCs encountered in the world are one of the low points in a few ways. The AI is fantastic, and probably still is even by today’s standards, but the animation and graphical quality of NPCs wasn’t ever Thief II’s best feature. There is a higher polygon count per model than TDP, so no more pointed feet and faces that look like they’ve been hit with an axe – or with as much force anyway. Decals such as bloodstains also look a bit better than the menstrual blood-coloured blobs that appeared in the first game. The game is best played on a dark brightness setting – for two reasons. One being that the game looks better. It’s suited to dark environments. And secondly, having the brightness turned all the way up can flush out shadows, making it hard to see where a nice place to hide is, and having to rely solely on the light gem to determine how concealed you are.

But the dark engine was all ready showing its age 12 years ago when it the game was first released. There were much better looking games at the time and even before that, like Quake III Arena and Unreal. So the focus was definitely on gameplay and not graphics. Having said that, the architecture and environments, although plastered with low resolution textures, which was probably best for our rigs back then to handle the game, do sort of invoke a sense of wonder in me. I’ve always been partial to medieval architecture and seeing the stone walls and fire lit torches makes it all seem so atmospheric. That’s the one thing the game has – it draws you in. It’s a believable world. Perhaps not completely chronologically accurate, but still.

Part of the reason is because of the level design. It’s step up from Thief: The Dark Project. More of the levels are above grounds and centred in and around the City in its various districts. The levels look better and play better even, as the levels were reportedly build first and the story was interwoven thereafter, whereas in the original it was the other way around – levels were built to suit the story. And a lot of Thief was more of an adventure title and didn’t feature much sneaking around and thieving, like the title of the game might suggest. Thief II has adventure, but more in the way of stealth tactics and thieving, at least for the majority of the game before settling in to its old ways yet again. And it isn’t all confined to the ground or underground, either. You can utilise the Thieves' Highway on the rooftops to evade much of the City Watch.

The controls have also always frustrated me. Mantling on to objects is risky because you have to get it just right. If you don’t then you’ll fall and make a hell of noise. You need to approach a ledge dead on. Come at it from an angle and you will suffer the consequences. Rope arrowing can be tricky for this reason as well, as you will shoot an arrow in to say a wooden beam and then try to scale the rope, but mantling on to the beam might not work all the time. Luckily there is a magical button you can press while crossing over very thin walkways which will stop you from falling to your death, which will happen from time to time. Sometimes while crouched and perched near the edge of surfaces, you will slip off. When trying to attach to a ladder you need to remember that there’s a setting in the game’s option that toggles between jumping and touching or climb ladders. You also need to approach ladders in just the right way to climb them. It’s not the most fluid or responsive control system ever to appear in a game. It’s a good thing then that Thief II was released in a time before the checkpoint-based save system as we know it today became popular. But something you don’t see in many games is being able to save and load keybindings. There are a few default ones, but you can also create your own which has your own custom control set.

Other actions other than what I’ve covered, including mantling, walking, running and crouching… swimming! Yes you can swim, but doing do might attract attention, what with all that splashing around. That’s why it’s best to go underwater when swimming, but be careful that you don’t stay under for too long otherwise you risk drowning.

What's the score?

Pros

+ Stealth-focused gameplay

+ Excellent AI

+ Great story and characters

+ Level design

Cons

- Controls are a bit iffy

- Graphics aren’t much of an improvement from TDP

Graphics: $$

Sound: $$$$$

Gameplay: $$$$$

Controls: $$

Story: $$$$

Overall score 9.0/10

Thief II probably hasn’t aged all that well in its unmodified state. There, I said it. But it is still a game that I look back on with fond memories.

The one thing that will amaze you however is what the original series of games gave birth to: an entire community spanning the entire globe that consists of individuals dedicated to improving or updating the game in some ways like creating new high resolution textures, or remastering the game’s sounds and music.

It has spawned the creation of hundreds of fan missions, including an unofficial expansion or two and several mini-series, and even projects like The Dark Mod, which may use different game engines, but indeed keep the spirit of the games alive. Looking Glass Studios didn’t just make games while they were around. They made working, living, breathing pieces of art, that while perhaps underrated and in some cases forgotten, inspired entire genres with their creativity, originality and ingenuity. Those who played them know this, and they know that Thief II is just one of these gems from the past.

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© 2015 ANDR01D

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