Thief II : The Metal Age

First person sneaker reviewed

Walking In My Shoes

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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea?

Thief was one of the most innovative games of 1998, taking the first person shooter and turning it on its head by encouraging you to creep and sneak instead of run and gun. Thief II is essentially more of the same, but as the original was so good that isn't necessarily a bad thing...

Once again you take on the role of the cynical master thief Garrett, a man with an almost supernatural ability to hide in shadows, making him all but invisible in darkness.

The world in which you live has changed though - it is now the Metal Age, and there is a definite Jules Verne vibe going down. Steam powered robots clank around, mechanical heads scan for intruders, and one mission even features a vast submarine which looks as if it has escaped from "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea".

Led by the fanatical Karas, a new faction called the Mechanists has risen to power. A radical off-shoot of the religious Hammerites from the first game, they are responsible for many of the bizarre new inventions that fill the city, and rather more besides...

You will also face a corrupt new Sheriff who has decimated the criminal population and now seems to have it in for you, as well as running into your old friends the Pagans, who you defeated in the first game.

Once again the game's story is pushed along by excellent cartoon-style cut-scenes between missions, and the plot is as gripping and labyrinthine as ever, leaving you unsure of who your friends and enemies really are as it leads you towards a climactic showdown in an overgrown Mechanist cathedral.

Violator

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One of the new scouting orbs in action

As in the original, the emphasis in Thief II is on stealth rather than violence, and your arsenal reflects this, although you still have arrows, a sword and your trusty blackjack if you feel the need to cause some grievous bodily harm.

Moss arrows spread patches of moss on impact, helping muffle your footsteps if you have to cross tiles, stone or metal. Water arrows can put out torches and gas lights to give you more shadows to hide in. And noisemaker arrows do exactly what it says on the tin, making them useful for distracting guards with.

Rope arrows can be fired at wooden surfaces, trailing a length of rope for you to climb up. Thief II also adds vine arrows, which are essentially the same but supposedly able to attach themselves to more surfaces. In practice they don't work very well though, and as this is the sole new "weapon" it's something of a disappointment.

Luckily there is plenty of new equipment though. You now have a mechanical eye which allows you to zoom in and take a closer look at distant objects. There are also "scouting orbs" which act as remote cameras, allowing you to throw out into a room to scope it out without having to put your head round the door.

If you need to drop down into a room but are worried about breaking your legs in the process, there are now "slow fall potions". There are even potions which render you invisible for a few seconds, which can be useful for getting you past guards in well lit corridors.

In My Room

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A lighthouse, yesterday

Thief II features fifteen massive levels, most of which will take you at least an hour to complete even on the easiest skill level. Settings range from the surreal maw of chaos to a police headquarters, taking in a huge warehouse complex and an archaeological dig along the way.

The missions are varied and interesting, calling on you to plant evidence, follow a blood trail, kidnap a man, steal antiques from an art exhibition, and break into a bank vault. There are also rather less of the shambling undead than in the first game, although you can still find a selection of skeletons, zombies and ghosts if you look hard enough.

Design is generally top-notch and the levels are truly impressive, even though the graphics are more Rainbow Six than Unreal. Sadly many of the levels suffer from sloppy texture alignment in places though, and a few feature magical furniture that floats in mid-air a foot or more off the ground. I wish I could find some of that at my local Ikea - it would make cleaning so much easier...

Rather more attention has been paid to audio cues though, and guards now have even more things to grumble about. There are also more Half-Life style scripted events, and you can eavesdrop on conversations, listen to ghosts, and watch guards hurl abuse at each other across the roof-tops.

Enjoy The Silence

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Fog, yesterday

Meanwhile the Dark Engine which powers the game has been given a much needed face lift. Although it's still hardly state of the art, it does at least look presentable now.

Coloured lighting has been added, and is used to great effect in several of the levels. Clouds now flit across the sky as rain drizzles down on you, thanks to a bizarre code transfusion from Flight Unlimited of all places. There is also fog, though sometimes it seems to stray into the buildings instead of lingering in the streets where it belongs.

The levels are a little less barren and rather more spaceous than in the first game, and the character models have all been carefully reconstructed with a higher poly count and new skins to make them more detailed as well.

Even the already excellent sound code has been given an update to introduce support for EAX 2.0 and A3D 2.0, bringing echo and reverb effects to those of you with recent Creative Labs or Aureal soundcards.

Of course, this doesn't all come free, and the system requirements have risen rather sharply since the first game. You will need a mid-range Pentium II or better to really make the most of it.

Conclusion

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Do you think they saw me?

Thief II had some mighty big boots to fill, and the good news is that apart from a few minor flaws it seems to have largely succeeded.

At first sight it was rather too similar to the first game for comfort, sharing most of the weapons and equipment, many of the character models, and even some of the settings from the first game. But with more interesting and varied missions, bigger and more detailed levels, new enemies (and allies), a few new toys to play with, and some vital tinkering under the bonnet, Thief II stands on its own merit.

Eye Candy          

9 /10

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