The best game of 1998 reappears with three new levels and a budget price tag. Is it too good to be true?
First Person Sneaker
"Thief : The Dark Project" was first released at the end of 1998, just sneaking into the stores in time to pick up my "Game Of The Year - 1998" award. Half-Life? Never heard of it...
The emphasis in Thief is on stealth rather than combat. As Garrett, the master thief of the title, you have an uncanny ability to hide in shadows. Find a dark corner and you will be almost invisible to guards and other characters.
The idea is to break into a location, steal everything you can lay your hands on, and then leave without anybody knowing you were there. Which is easier said than done...
The game can be nerve-wreckingly tense at times, and the only way to play it is late at night with the lights turned out and the speakers turned up. Literally - the game is so dark that you simply can't play it during the daytime!
The whole thing is driven along by an excellent plot that takes in secretive cults, magical items, satanic rituals, and the end of the world along the way.
Drawn cutscenes between the missions give you a wider sense of purpose than simply taking from the rich and giving to yourself, and along with the steampunk mix of technology and magic it all adds up to a sinister and atmospheric experience.
The Director's Cut
Now, almost a year later, we have "Thief Gold". Essentially this is the "Director's Cut", featuring another faction to rob, three new levels, and digitally remastered versions of a few of the other maps. Or something like that.
The "new" maps and characters fit seamlessly into the middle of the plot, complete with their own cutscenes. Which is hardly surprising as they were actually part of the original design.
Lack of time forced Looking Glass to cut the maps first time round, but now they have finished them and added them back into the game. Thief Gold is Thief as it should have been, the designer's original vision for the game made whole.
But does it live up to its promise? Well .. yes, and no.
The biggest problem is that the new faction, the mages, are a bunch of pansies. They speak in big booming voices that make them sound like Death from a Terry Pratchett novel (ALWAYS SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS), and they come out with lines like "You cannot change my destiny", and "I shall return in larger numbers".
And while their magic powers look pretty and cause lots of damage, the mages take a couple of seconds to cast a spell. Simply whacking them over and over again with your sword will usually prevent them from damaging you.
Sadly they serve more as comic relief than credible bad guys...
New And Improved?
The three new levels are a mixed bunch as well.
The first one (in which you have to rob a thieves' guild hideout) is excellent - the map is massive, the design good, and the gameplay very challenging, especially on higher difficulty settings. This one alone took me two or three hours to finish!
Then comes the mage's tower, which is a bit of a let down .. not least because it is full of mages. The texturing isn't particularly good either, and there is far too much jumping between flying rocks and leaping about above pools of lava. Thief is a first person sneaker, not a 3D platform game!
The last of the new maps is rather good though, starting in a network of caves before you emerge into a fully modelled opera house. The design and texturing of the opera house is amongst the best in the game, and the relative lack of shadows to hide in makes it quite hard as well. There are also some nice touches, including a singer warming up for the night's performance.
Of course, Thief Gold also includes all the levels from the original game, and they are as good as ever. Constantine's mansion is a particular high point, a trippy Escher-esque nightmare where walls, floors and ceilings are interchangable.
To be honest, I didn't see much sign of the changes that have been made to the original levels, except that mages and their guards have replaced the zombies in the Lost City map.
That actually makes quite an improvement though, as before you could complete one section of the city by simply outrunning the zombies. With mages and archers around, that isn't an option anymore.
The Lost City was always one of the game's best maps, and now it's even better...
Sound And Vision
Graphics-wise, Thief is beginning to show its age. The game was already well overdue when it was released last Christmas, and the graphics engine was hardly state of the art to begin with. Another year on it is looking a bit rusty.
Where Thief really does shine though is in the audio department - the use of sound and music is simply the best I've ever heard in a computer game.
Footsteps echo through the level, changing as a character moves from grass to gravel to paving to carpet, adding a whole new dimension to the game. You often depend on your ears more than your eyes to judge where someone is and where they are going.
Guards stop and chat with each other, whining about their dinner being delivered late, or complaining that they don't get paid enough. The religious Hammerites wander around muttering prayers and ritual chants to themselves.
As well as helping you locate where guards are, it all adds to the atmosphere, and there's something strangely satisfying in sneaking past a pair of guards as they discuss their orders to watch out for a thief.
Music is also used to great effect, varying from total silence to pulsing industrial techno, with a range of droning noises and ambient sweeps in between. It is always in the background though, and adds to the atmosphere without interfering with the gameplay.
Other games could learn a lot from Thief when it comes to sound.
If you missed Thief the first time round, go buy Thief Gold NOW! Although the graphics are a little ropey in places the game is still a classic, and at just £15 you can't go wrong.
For those of us who have played the original game to death already, it is a little harder to recommend though. Three new missions aren't much for your money, especially as one of them isn't particularly good.
On the bright side, those three missions should add five or six hours of extra play to the game, and it gives you a good excuse to play through Thief again while you wait for the sequel, "Thief 2 : The Metal Age". There's even a nifty "Making Of" film on the CD, featuring interviews with the team working on the new game.
And let's face it, if you enjoyed the game the first time, don't you think Looking Glass deserve some more of your hard earned cash?