Review by quickbeam
"15 years later, Thief 2 is still the best stealth game ever created."
And I'm not just saying that out of nostalgia. Ever since I played and immensely enjoyed Thief 2 back in 2000, I have been actively looking for a game to dethrone it with better stealth mechanics. Splinter Cell, Metal Gear, Tenchu, Hitman, and even recent, critically acclaimed interpretations of the stealth action genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored can't hold a candle to this masterpiece, not to mention Thief: Deadly Shadows and the much maligned Thief reboot of 2014. I keep re-writing this review over and over because I keep replaying Thief 2 every couple of years and continue to be blown away by it each time. Like, not just blown away in the sense that I surprise myself with my ability to enjoy playing a 15 year old game that runs on the primitive Dark Engine, but that I am actually *inspired* by such excellence in design that I willingly set aside a few hours of my evening after a busy day to rewrite a review I've already written multiple times in the past. The game is just that good. It evokes a special kind of fondness and devotion, and with a couple of mods bundled with the TafferPatch you can find online you can play it on modern systems with updated textures and resolutions which make it look better than ever.
Where to begin? I suppose I should start off by writing about the game's atmosphere, since the series is kind of known for its amazing setting and moody ambience. Thief 2 is *dark.* Not always in tone. In fact, the game is often hilarious, even slapstick. More dark in the sense that if you run it at the correct gamma adjustment and turn off all the lights you'll still be squinting at your monitor while playing. If there were ever a thieving simulator which accurately depicts what it feels like to skulk around at night when visibility is poor, this is it.
The game takes place in a medieval universe that seems to be balls deep in a steampunk industrial revolution, creating an interesting juxtaposition between dark age primitivism and Edwardian technological wizardry. Torches, cobblestone streets, robots, power generators and swords all exist alongside each other in a delightful mishmash of visual stimuli that feels unique and unforgettable.
Inhabiting the franchise's titular urban center, simply referred to as The City, are peasants and nobles hopelessly divided by a brutal feudal class system, a police force hostile to the poor, the ultra religious Hammerites and Mechanists with a frightening and dogmatic view of industrialization, the magic-attuned, machine-hating Pagans who dwell in the forest, and the Keepers, a mysterious organization shrouded in secrecy. The plot itself is a little overly reliant on end of the world prophecy cliches, but with its examination of heavy themes like the growing pains of unchecked industrial progress and the religious transformation of an underclass with no hope of upward mobility--as well as its constant wry commentary on the narcissistic self-absorption of the wealthy elite--Thief 2 still feels smart and relevant without being obvious and preachy.
Garrettt, the protagonist and player avatar, serves as the game's narrator with a dry cynicism and razor sharp wit that makes him instantly likable. The other characters are expertly written and acted as well, such as the creepy shut-in Karras, who serves as the leader of the Mechanist faction. Even the City Watch and Mechanist guards you run into on your thieving missions seem to be voiced lovingly and genuinely, often whistling or mumbling to themselves while Garrett eavesdrops from the shadows. Cutscenes play out before each mission in a minimalistic montage of still frames with a voiceover courtesy of Garrett, self-interested and resentful of being thrust into the role of savior but ultimately good-hearted and at times even compassionate.
If the writing and thematic exploration of Thief 2 are smart, then the level design and stealth mechanics of the missions themselves are downright genius by comparison. Seriously, these levels are the most expertly crafted you're apt to find in any videogame to date. The mission environments are absolutely massive, with many different points of entry, secret passages, winding corridors, and plenty of guards. They are also, of course, rife with shadows and darkness within which to safely enshroud our reluctant hero.
Garrett is the very essence of a master thief, with enough tools and tricks up his sleeve to make Batman green with envy. In addition to being able to mantle over ledges, a sadly underused gameplay mechanic even to this day, Garrett has everything a medieval steampunk larcenist could ask for: water arrows to extinguish light sources, noisemaker arrows to distract guards, rope arrows for the vertically inclined, flash bombs to disorient nosy guards, two different kinds of lockpicks, a deployable spy camera, mines, potions, and a blackjack, whose coma-inducing thud *still* curls my lips into a devilish grin after all these years. Interacting with the environment is an absolute joy with all these gizmos at your disposal and it makes traversing through the levels and avoiding the guards--or knocking them out abruptly with the blackjack--incredibly rewarding.
Navigation can be a bit of a pain--I mean, these levels are truly HUGE--and pulling up the hand drawn map only highlights the room you're currently in, not your exact location nor your orientation. Instead, you've got to use the game's compass as well as some good ole' common sense to complete your objectives. Don't get too excited though, as moving carelessly over certain surfaces like tile and metal can attract unwanted attention from surprisingly far away. To give you an idea of the scope I'm talking about, I played the second mission earlier today on expert difficulty, and it took me over two hours to complete. I only got about 75 percent of the loot in the level. Two. Hours. There are 15 missions, many of them as much as 3 to 4 times larger than this one...
In a game called Thief, you'd guess there'd be no shortage of loot to steal, and you'd be right. Each mission is littered with precious gems, ornate China, and golden candlesticks just begging to be pilfered, though they're often hidden in deliciously clever ways. After each mission, the loot you've acquired is automatically converted to currency and used at a pre-mission shop screen to purchase tools and ammunition for your next less than philanthropic endeavor. This keeps the game laser focused on its excellent level design without any of the tedious backtracking and aimless wandering which plague the between mission open world elements of other stealth games.
Combat is handled exactly as it should be in a game about being the stealthiest son of a b**** in town. In a word, open, melee combat is terrible, and not at all a viable option. In addition to the blackjack, Garrett also carries a sword, and its only useful function is to block a blow or two if you're dumb enough to get cornered by an angry guard (note: I am dumb enough to be cornered by at least one guard at least once per mission) and need to circle around him in order to run away and regroup.
The game can be quite punishing if you're careless, though--even on the lower difficulties you can get your loot lined ass handed to you on a silver platter if you try to fight off more than one guard at a time. And don't think you can rely on healing potions, either, which you have to select from a list of inventory items in real time and which take effect over a period of about 30 seconds, not instantaneously. The game more than provides you with the elements needed to make open combat entirely unnecessary, however, so if you get caught, it's usually because you were careless. Even if you don't have a minimap with enemies' locations or cones of vision available to you, you can always tell how close they are by the sound of their footsteps and you always know how visible you are with the ever-present light gem at the bottom of the screen. It still sends a shiver down my spine whenever a guard passes within inches of me in a dark hallway.
Difficulty level in Thief 2 is handled incredibly well. In addition to more guards who do more damage to a less resilient Garrett, turning up the difficulty adds completely new objectives such as redirecting a large shipment of goods to Garrett's fence by putting a new shipping label on the front of the container. The addition of these new objectives completely changes the way Garrett moves through the level, often requiring him to wedge into impossibly secure nooks and crannies to obtain the things he needs. Additionally, playing through the game on the hardest difficulty setting, expert, adds a nonlethal imperative to every single mission in the game, which absolutely fits with Garrett's persona. After all, he's out for gold, not blood. Thankfully, Garrett's pacifism does not extend to murderous robots and giant spiders, so you're free to blow them all sky high with some of Garrett's less subtle instruments if you desire.
I'm absolutely in love with this game, I really am. I used to say it was in my top 5 of all time, but that's really not doing it justice. Thief 2 is my absolute favorite game of all time, and I've just gone into exhaustive detail as to the reasons for that lofty (or, perhaps dubious??) honor. It's got smarts, it's got charm, it's got wit, it's got freedom, but most of all it's got a metric ton of heart. It's an absolutely brilliant game set in a brilliantly realized world, narrated brilliantly by a brilliantly written main character. But don't take my word for it--quit taffing around, head over to Steam or GOG, pick this thing up for less than 10 bucks, patch it and play it already, you taffer!
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 12/22/03, Updated 09/10/15
Game Release: Thief II: The Metal Age (US, 02/29/00)
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