Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Retro Review: Thief 2

An arrow to the face is never healthy.

The reboot of the Thief franchise awoke a desire in me to replay the original trilogy, starting with Thief 2: The Metal Age, the only game in the series I'd never finished. I wanted to see if my memory of the high quality of the originals was accurate, or if I was viewing these old games with my nostalgia glasses on. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; too often we feel that because we loved something in the past, especially when we were young, that that thing is truly great and worthy of our fond memories. We become biased. We think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a classic cartoon/comic book, and how dare Hollywood and Micheal Bay touch our precious memories? TMNT is a pretty fucking stupid concept. The original creators even admitted as much. But for some reason, we're obsessed with the preciousness of our childhoods, and that includes all the junk pop-culture we mindlessly consumed as adolescents. I guess it's because youth is something we cannot recapture; therefore, anything that reminds us of our formative years become a fetish, and we paw and mishandle said thing, futilely grasping for that "teenage feeling." Whatever, I don't know. Let's not mistake ravings and quick conclusions for anything concrete.

Thief 2 was the last game Looking Glass Studios ever made. It was released in 2000 and somewhat rushed by Eidos, its publisher, because of the commercial failure of Ion Storm's Daikatana, a truly terrible game that I might replay/review someday out of a masochistic desire to understand the late Nineties video game industry. Nostalgia rears its ugly head once more. Anyway, Thief 2 flew under my radar when it was released, probably because I was fifteen and more interested in playing multiplayer mods for Half-Life and Unreal Tournament than messing with a first person sneaker. Thief invented its own genre, with its only real descendent being Dishonored. The object is to hide from enemies, and either avoid them all together or knock them out with your blackjack and drag their bodies to a nice hiding spot, all while collecting loot. Avoid loud surfaces like tile and gravel; stick to carpet, grass, and stone. The shadows are your friend, though any quick movement, even in total darkness, can render the unwary thief seen. It's a deep, atmospheric game, with complex sound and visual systems that the player can influence with a variety of unique arrows. Moss arrows dampen sound, allowing you to cross noisy surfaces, where water arrows take out torches, giving you more darkness. Noise arrows distract guards, while fire arrows relight torches, and rope arrows provide vertical access to otherwise unreachable locations. The complexity of these systems makes Thief 2 an adult game; I know I didn't possess the patience or understanding as a teenager to appreciate the series. Nostalgia, it seems, is not always wrong.

The aforementioned systems of light and sound manipulation are preserved to some degree in the 2014 reboot. What that game missed, however, is almost everything else. Thief games take place in a dark fantasy universe influenced by the Medieval and Victorian periods, with dashes of Steampunk (anachronistic steam-powered machines and tech--think Jules Verne, or even Brisco County Junior) to finish off the cocktail. This universe features two opposing religious groups: the Pagans, a collection of wild people and monsters who worship the Trickster God, who is a sort of amalgamation of Satan and Pan; and the Hammerites, a strict, industry-obsessed order (think the Medieval church) who pray to the Master Builder. These factions are overseen and secretly manipulated by the Keepers, a magical secret cult who read the future by interpreting glyphs. Everything takes place in the City, a sprawling feudal society built upon various versions of itself. This is a pretty dense stew, yet Thief 2 adds another faction, the Mechanists, who split from the Hammers and are able to build steampunk security cameras and giant combat robots. So there's a lot of mythology created in just the two original games, a mythology that serves to flesh out the experience of playing Thief 2. As a writer, I've always admired world building. I play video games to be transported to another world, and Thief 2 does this better than its newest relation.

 Not quite 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but close.

The early Thief games are exploratory experiences. They are nonlinear; the player proceeds through large, labyrinthian environments with nothing more than a crude map and a compass. Thief 2 features some amazingly large levels. There are sprawling estates, a huge bank, a lighthouse and submarine, a trip across the roof tops of the city to climb up a towering fortress. I am reminded of Tim Burton's Batman while exploring Thief 2; there's an Art Deco look to some of its architecture. The freedom to be set loose, without a thousand hand-holding prompts to look at this or go here, is a feature sadly missing from modern game design. The player is not trusted in Call of Duty; you can't even open a door without a buddy. You're a sad sack along for the ride, just there to mindlessly shoot at foreign caricatures. Thief trusts the player, and such trust was an essential element to Looking Glass Studios' games. Dark Souls is the only game I've played recently to bring to mind the sort of exploratory freedom inherent to the Thief series (though almost completely missing in Thief 2014). 

Angelwatch. Nice Art Deco angel. Looks like something Batman would roost on.

The plot focuses on Garrett, player character, master thief and former Keeper initiate, who becomes entangled in the schemes of Karras, the lispy, genius inventor who commands the Mechanist order. Karras seeks to wipe out all organic life; he thinks that he is a prophet and performing the will of the Master Builder. This sort of religious fanaticism is interesting, for it's uncommon in games, which usually tend to be apolitical or jingoistic (Call of Duty), whatever will sell more. Garrett ends up looking to the Pagans for help, despite them being the antagonists of the first game. Garrett is a likeable antihero. He's a thief, and not above killing (though killing humans results in mission failure on Expert difficulty level), though he grows enough as a character to keep our interest, while still maintaining his roguish self-serving charm.

Missions proceed as a list of objects, most of which can be accomplished in any order the player likes. One cool thing about Thief is that you almost always have to find your way out after completing your goals. Most missions take over an hour to finish. According to the game clock, Thief 2 took me over fourteen hours to complete, but that's not counting deaths and restarts, of which there will be plenty. Thief 2 is difficult, but less so than Thief: The Dark Project. The AI will jump on you if you mess up, either by being too careless in your movements or too obvious, though they are easily thwarted by climbing a ladder or a wall. There's an important balance to keep in mind when making stealth games; you don't want too-smart AI, or otherwise the game wouldn't be fun, yet you don't want AI you can literally dance around. Thief 2 strikes a good balance. The 2014 reboot does well with AI, though it sometimes tows the line between too unforgiving and just smart enough.

A tree beast, a Pagan monster. These things are scary as hell. The sound design of Thief 2 is beyond compare.

New gamers might be put off by the lack of direction. The inventory system is hard to navigate, for you essentially have to cycle through all your items before reaching the one you need. The graphics aren't good, though you can improve them with a readily available fan patch.  The ending leaves a little to be desired, which is why I think I never completed it years ago. You have to repeat the same level, Casing the Joint and Masks, an obvious sign that Looking Glass was rushed, and then you embark on the epic scavenger hunt that is Soulforge, with its harsh architecture and legions of waddling robots. Yet, all together, these are small flaws that do little to distract from the core quality of the game.

Immersive Sim is the term used to describe Thief, System Shock, and Deus Ex. Games like this aren't really being made anymore--the newest Deus Ex is good, but it doesn't have the freedom of the original, and neither does Thief 2014.  Those looking for well-written, atmospheric entertainment who have somehow missed the Thief series should check it out. It's usually available for under ten bucks on Steam or Good Old Games.

Final Rating: Honey Crisp-sweet, crunchy, and filling like any good meal.


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