"Thief : The Dark Project" was, for me, the game of 1998. Half-Life? Never heard of it...
Turning the idea of the first person shooter on its head, Thief actually encouraged you to avoid combat where possible. In fact, on the hardest difficulty level you failed the mission if you killed anybody! It was a novel approach that promoted stealth and sneakiness over violence, as you pilfered your way through a series of Steampunk styled locations.
The Story So Far
Flash forward to The Big 2K, and "Thief 2 : The Metal Age" is about to be released.
Set a year after the original, Thief 2 puts you once again in the role of the cynical master-thief Garrett as he makes his way through "the city", a fantasy world where magic and steam-powered technology mingle. A corrupt new sheriff going by the unlikely name of Gorman Truart is making life difficult for the thieves of the city, and for some reason he has it in for you in particular. It's up to you to find out why, and to make the city safe again for honest thieves such as yourself.
Gorman isn't the only new arrival in the city though. The religious Hammerites, whose faction was almost destroyed in the original game, have split, with an off-shoot known as the Mechanists creating all manner of bizarre mechanical devices. Robotic guards join their flesh and blood counterparts in Gorman's service, and of course there are also a few new gadgets for you to play with, including a mechanical eye that lets you scout out an area without having to get too close.
Meanwhile an underground resistance movement of Luddites, known as "Pagans", has formed to fight the rapid technological progress the Mechanists have brought about. But just because they are your enemy's enemy doesn't make them your friends - it's possible they are linked to the Trickster, who you defeated in the first game.
The Science Bit
Looking Glass have been tinkering under the bonnet of the Dark Engine which powered Thief (and System Shock 2), and several new features have been added.
Support for 16 bit textures and coloured lighting help the game look a little more colourful than the rather drab original, though if you are expecting brash Unreal-style technicolour levels you're probably in for a disappointment.
Meanwhile the polygon count of the game's models has been doubled, making the world's inhabitants look much more detailed. Many of the characters in the original game were rather angular and awkward, but The Metal Age marks a big improvement. Kudos to the modellers and skinners at Looking Glass, as they seem to have done a great job of revamping the models without losing the original game's unique style.
Bizarrely, Looking Glass have also added the cloud system from the latest of their "Flight Unlimited" sims to The Metal Age, and along with the new weather effects this makes the game's environment rather more attractive. Expect to see clouds flitting across the starry sky, fog wrapping the streets, and snow and rain falling around you.
The world of The Metal Age has also expanded, with levels much bigger than in the original game. This also means more gameplay naturally, and each mission can take an hour or more to complete, even if you get everything right first time.
One map sees you running across the rooftops of the city to reach an art-deco style Mechanist tower without being seen. Once inside the tower you find yourself crawling around the ventilation ducts before popping out through a fireplace and into the main building to steal the blueprints for a Mechanist doohickey. All of this is a single level, and the sheer scale of it is impressive.
The city also feels more lively than the original game's mostly abandoned streets. Guards hurl abuse at each other across an alleyway before one gets so angry that he starts shooting arrows at the others, starting a battle between them that leaves you free to sneak past in the resulting chaos.
Of course, all of this extra detail, improved graphics, increased level size, and extra scripted sequences comes at a price. The game runs fairly slowly at 640x480 on my old P2-300, which barely meets the minimum requirements. You're going to need a Pentium III or Athlon to make the most of this game at higher resolutions...
The original Thief was a classic genre-busting game that brought stealth, story and style to the first person shooter. The sequel looks set to build on Thief's strengths, deal with its few flaws, and improve both the visuals and the already stunning sound of the original game.
The big question is .. will that be enough? Thief was rather overdue when it was released at the end of 1998, and the graphics engine hardly set the world on fire even then. The extra splash of colour and the rather fetching weather effects should help, but The Metal Age is still unlikely to win any prizes for its graphics this year.
What really counts though is the gameplay, and luckily that seems to be fairly solid from what we have seen so far.
The Metal Age has already gone gold, and should be in stores here in the UK at the end of March. Look for a full review of the game here on EuroGamer in the near future... In the mean time, check the next page for more screenshots of the game in action.