Thief II: The Metal Age
Thief II is a wonderful sequel to the innovative and unique Thief. Whereas I had a hard time getting into the original game, I had no trouble stepping into the world of Thief II, due in no small part, of course, to the fun I had playing the original. Thief II is a sequel that builds upon the world of the original game, without sacrificing the player's investment for the sake of cheap novelty. At the same time, however, Thief II adds a great deal to that world in the form of new gadgets, new adversaries, and a wholly different feel to the very fabric of the world itself. Thief ended essentially with the demise of mysticism and magic in favor of mechanism. Thief II picks up where it left off and delivers a still-better gaming experience for reasons I'll explain below.
One of the most welcome changes in Thief II, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to play the game at much higher resolutions. Whereas the original was limited to a maximum of 1024 x 768, the sequel can go all the way up to 1600 x 1200. It's still limited to 16-bit color depth, unfortunately, but I assume that limitation exists due to the fair amount of dynamic lighting the engine has to handle. True dynamic lighting is still pretty expensive, computationally speaking, and sticking with 16-bit color depth surely helps keep the cost down, regardless of the method(s) of lighting the developers employed.
Overall, the game's visuals are almost uniformly great. There is but one serious complaint worth making, and it's a carry-over from the original game. To wit, the character models simply look goofy. The guards and other persons still look both anorexic and triangular to me. I think I'm just going to have to conclude that the developers don't know how to model human bodies. They got it wrong in the original game, and the sequel doesn't look much better in this regard.
As in the original, however, the cut-scenes are wonderful, perhaps even more so. I love the artistic style employed, and the scenes in Thief II are done even better than the original. None of them had quite the same impact on me as some of the cut-scenes from the original game, mind you, but they were all very good. Overall, Thief II improves upon its predecessor significantly, but there is still some room for improvement in terms of character modeling.
I loved the audio in the original game, and Thief II manages to outdo it. The abilities of the engine itself seem largely unchanged, but the quality of the samples used has definitely improved. The various chatter, whistling, and other such behaviors in which guards and other persons will engage has also been improved. There were some laugh-out-loud funny bits in the original game, and I think the sequel manages to top it. I have no complaints in the audio department. Thief II is a joyful experience for the aural sense.
The interface of original Thief was a problem for me. I all-too-often dropped an item I wanted to use, or managed to use it in the wrong way. Though I didn't have the same learning curve with Thief II, I still think there are elements of the interface that are just awkward. When using flash bombs, for example, I just can't seem to get the throwing arc down. The result is that I end up blinding myself and not my pursuers more often than not. Maybe I'm just incompetent, but it seems to me like the interface could be better in this regard; at least, I don't have any such problems with other games.
It also bears mentioning that key-binding could have been improved from the original. To their credit, the developers let the gamer bind just about any action to a key. If you want a key bound to walking quickly and another key bound to walking at a regular pace, you can easily do this. Given that the different movement speeds are crucial to the gameplay, this is a good thing. But why not supply an option to change the speed setting itself and use a single key for movement in any given direction? That seems far more intuitive to me. Yes, I realize you can toggle between walking and running (using the shift key by default), but what I'm talking about is some smoother way to move the "throttle" up or down. The mouse wheel would make for a particularly good choice, I think, as it would allow one to adjust Garrett's movement far more quickly and easily. Maybe Thief III will deliver something better in this regard.
Despite those two complaints, the interface is ultimately pretty good. The visibility gem is still the best all-around interface element for any stealth-based game made to date. The key-bindings, though arguably not optimal, can easily be saved and recalled should you change your mind (or have multiple players using the same machine). Everything works pretty well once you get the hang of it. I've just got a few blind spots, I think.
The mechanics of Thief II are the tried-and-true formula of Thief, so I won't repeat many of my positive comments herein. Instead, I refer the interested reader to that portion of my previous review for details. What I will say about the sequel is that it has managed to introduce a number of new elements, all of which make sense in light of the changes in the game's world since the time of the original story. The addition of the cameras, steam-powered robotic guards, and so forth are all great additions to the gameplay. Frankly, it brings a whole new kind of challenge. In Thief, I could knock out any guard; in contrast, you can destroy the cameras in Thief II, but it typically takes the use of very noisy fire arrows to do it. I thought the use of a camera that supplies ranging and direction data to another machine that fires cannonballs was a particularly inspired bit. Suffice it to say that these kinds of additions make the game a lot harder.
Offsetting that increase in difficulty, however, are some great new tools in Garrett's arsenal, foremost among which is the scouting orb. I complained of the original game that there were just too many circumstances in which the player had to trust to blind, stupid luck. Peeking around corners can get you spotted, and sometimes you could not avoid making a mad dash for the next shadow, hoping all the while that nobody would see you. The scouting orb definitely goes a long way toward fixing this problem. I still wish the game could be played in third-person perspective, but good use of the scouting orb makes that more of a luxury than the imperative it was previously. Of course, it's a bit hard to reconcile a mechanical eye and a device that effectively broadcasts images to that eye with steam-age machinery, but we must give the developers a little leeway here (grin). In short, the open-ended gameplay of the original has been improved and augmented in the sequel, and it's a pleasant step forward.
The original game told a powerful and interesting tale. Garrett played a central role in bringing about a very fundamental change to his world, a change that reshaped the culture entirely. The sequel does the same, but manages again to do it in a largely believable way. Whereas the Hammerite cult never made all that much sense to me in the original game, the rise of mechanism truly gives them a niche to call home. The story of the mechanists' rise and fall is central to Thief II, and it is a very interesting tale indeed. The ending is ultimately a bit tired (i.e., it's been done to death before), but it's still a lot of fun. I think most gamers will find little with which to quibble in the story of this game.
If anything, Thief II gets the balance of content exactly right. The first game had far too many missions involving hordes of undead creatures. That did help to lend a certain spooky feeling to much of it, but it got old after a while. In keeping with the shift from mysticism to mechanism, Thief II makes a clear break in that regard. The undead do turn up in certain places, but I think their use is much better balanced. The AI has obviously been improved as well. I still saw guards get hung up on corners occasionally, but they seemed not to do it so often. They also seemed somewhat "smarter" in their searching to find the source of a noise.
Further, Thief II offers the player far lengthier and more detailed missions. Whereas the original game seemed a bit light in that department, a complaint largely solved by the gold edition, no such comment can even be made about the sequel. In truth, I was actually getting a bit tired of the last mission by the time I completed it. It's very long and involved, requiring the manufacturing of certain components in order to win the game. That's a really neat process, by the way; it just got old after several hours of play. Suffice it to say that Thief II delivers a lot of solid gameplay for the player's entertainment dollar. This isn't a game that can be finished quickly at all, and it's a lot of fun throughout.
Since there is no multi-player aspect to Thief II, there is little to say. As with its predecessor, Thief II is one of those relatively rare games, I think, for which multi-player would simply make little to no sense. It might have been fun to be able to play it cooperatively, but it's hard to say whether it would have been worth the effort for the developers. Perhaps a mode in which one team of players works as guards while another team works as thieves would make sense? I don't know. Personally, I really enjoy a good single-player game, so the lack of multi-player support means little to me. If you're the type who really has to hook up with his friends to enjoy a game, then bear in mind that this game provides nothing for you in that department.
Just as the original game was a clear winner, so too is the sequel. It takes the unique gameplay of Thief and improves upon its limitations with several new devices. Better yet, Thief II serves up a more challenging campaign than the original game without including many of the annoyances of the first. It has a few warts here and there, as I've noted above, but Thief 2 is another great game in what is turning out to be a unique and wonderful series. You're really missing out if you don't play this game.
Reviewed by Phileosophos