"The steely-eyed lawbreaker returns. With all its deficiencies ironed out, Thief II takes the lead."

Thief: The Dark Project was a game which, while impressively ambitious, was also undeniably experimental in nature - most noticeably in its level design, and the way in which the experience was generally structured, to best give a player the crafty feeling of being a master thief that was to be its remit. Much of the designers' time must have been spent in trying to balance the different ways of challenging the player; what types of environments would people enjoy thieving from, and in what abundance? What implements and gadgets ought the player to have at his disposal? What types of enemies might best challenge and excite the discerning gamer? As it was, Looking Glass Studios did a marvellous job; they came up with a game that occupied a niche in the wide range of computer game genres, and which brought its concept to life and exploited it in great detail. Thief was an above-par product that was capable of emotionally involving anyone with a pulse not only in the rich, stylised world of Garret the expert ''taffer'', but also in the minutae of the process of selectively burgling a rich house and escaping unscathed. It was not without its own faults, though; from the odd control issue through to the definite overabundance of poorly lit, cave-like levels, much was flawed, yet promising of improved things to come.

Thief II: The Metal Age continues on from the story that was started in the first game, not immediately, but an unspecified amount of time afterwards; perhaps two or three years. Garret has understandably had to cancel his plans of retiring early and ''in style'', and has returned to anonymity as a shady character on the fringes of the as-yet unnamed city's criminal underworld. The Thief world is a splendid one, set in a time period roughly equivalent to the European eighteenth century (or thereabouts); but with the addition not only of electricity, but also magical and pseudo-scientific devices that give the environment a strong sense of the fantastic. The ruling elite inhabit sumptuous mansions, and live an elegant high life of their own, while low-lives such as your avatar utilise their skills in helping themselves to what's not, by common consensus, theirs. As a fairly effective measure against this type of thing, heads of the household employ guards to patrol inside their homes and prevent burglars from getting away with their belongings. You're tasked, over a series of missions, with breaking into a variety of places - property of the nobility, or more frequently, some place that is integral to the developing storyline - and taking the best stuff to be found there away with you, as well as getting (possibly) more important things done.

Although it's not long since the events of the first installment ended, the city is quite a different place for outlaws. The new Sheriff is cracking down, and he's helped by the ubiquitous security devices created by the Mechanists - a religious cult that has split from the Hammers of the first game and gained wide credibility on its own. Where the Order of the Hammer preached the virtues of ''wood and beam'', the Mechanists are in favour of sheet steel, cogs, and machinery. The machines that the Mechanists have crafted - ranging from special door locks to clanking, grinding robots - are a recurring theme for the whole game. Much more of your time is spent focused on the Mechanists and their shadowy leader than was devoted to the Hammers in Thief. This also comes with a greater emphasis on the story. Thief II has a much stronger and no less innovative narrative than the original, which sets in soon and moves to the forefront comfortably quickly. The movies that set the scene so well in the first game do of course return, mostly made up of impressionistic still shots and Garret's sardonic voice-over, but with the occasional proper cutscene that keeps up the game's theme very well.

Returning from the first game are the secretive Keepers (who trained Garret as one of them before he defected) in a reduced role, and also the Trickster-worshipping pagans. The undead get only a few cameo appearances, not nearly as much of the limelight as they were afforded in the original Thief. While I've no particular animosity to the idea of stealing from zombies and spirits, it's still a fact that most of the levels in which they featured weren't much good. As I suggested in the first paragraph, this was a symptom of the developers not being sure whether to polarise the game towards one particular type of environment. With experience comes expertise, and while there were levels in this game that didn't really capture my imagination, they are for the most part sound. A variety of locations to sneak in, with as many different mixtures of surfaces, lighting and guards as there are stages, make it a treat to continue to play. Decoration makes a difference - echoing marble and wooden floors must be moved across slowly and cautiously, but carpets offer a relief from such considerations. Burning lamps can be put out, but electric ones can't (though light switches do make an appearance for the first time).

Thief dropped the ball somewhat with its final level, a rather anticlimactic and dull pursuit through some nevertheless very pretty environments, with little actual thieving (or even sneaking of any kind) to get up to. This has been sensibly rectified in its sequel - rest assured that the game will keep its promise of an engaging experience all the way through. On the subject of the levels, the point must be made that this truly is a massive and challenging game. If Thief's levels were large, then Thief II's are enormous; each will likely swallow up several hours when you play for the first time. Likewise, the content of the levels, in the form of puzzles and information that you have to carefully obtain, is not always intuitive. You should be prepared for a difficult and, yes, even frustrating slog at times, but also know that it is very satisfying when you have managed to complete it. Most of the time, the fault is yours for missing something out - for example, I didn't realise for several minutes that I had to press a particular key to drop an item on level three, and was getting quite worked up about it until I realised what I was doing wrong. There's no training mode for novices, but the first level is easy, relatively short, and has training elements to it, to get you started.

Thief II demands, but repays, concentration. This is often evident in the incidental detail that has been put into each area. You'll find notes that have been left from one person to another, letters, and such - much of it humorous, in a dark way, such as the memo left by a bank official and one gentleman's letter to his prostitute. This delight in thoroughly worthwhile background detail also extends to the reams of voice-acting done for the game; people share pleasantries, argue with each other, badmouth their employers (or others')... The only problem is when people begin talking and you're too far away, or they're too quiet, so that you just can't hear them. The measures you must take to hear them talking often mean that they will discover you as soon as they walk away from each other, which sets up a silly situation where you'll want to listen to them, and then quickload your saved game and not bother with them any more.

This new game runs on the same engine as the original, as will be apparent to anyone who has played both. There are few improvements in the visuals, though the game does seem to cope much better with panoramic views and large areas (juddering only a little, and barely noticeably). Higher resolution modes are available - I was able to run it at 1600 by 1200 on my machine - and I suspect that that's the only substantial addition. Three dimensional sound systems are catered for right out of the box. The game's front-end is a souped-up version of Thief's, incorporating essentially the same interface but with a new burnished-brass ''skin'' applied to it. This is displayed at a resolution of 640 by 480, and that necessitates a flickering resolution change every time you access the menu screens. This occurs when you want to check the map or your mission objectives, too, and even when you load a quick-save (as the game ''helpfully'' switches you over to the list of objectives while you wait, so you can review them). This wastes time, is infuriating when you keep wanting to retry a section for whatever reason, and could surely have been handled better - as it is, the only solution if you really can't cope is to give in and play at 640 by 480 all the time (which makes the game look like a dog's dinner on my monitor). Thankfully, this is about the largest issue I have with the game. The irritating bugs that surfaced occasionally when you attempted to climb a rope in the original have been eradicated (at least, I didn't encounter them).

One area that could have been given a little tweaking is the intelligence of the guards. They're a very sophisticated breed: they'll search any area where they've heard a noise, and they'll run and fetch companions to help them if they get injured, and return to your last known location. However, there's a definite imbalance in the way they detect your presence. Some guards seem able to hear every slightest movement you make when you're nearby, no matter how slowly you creep, whereas others can't see you properly if you're more than about twenty-five metres ahead of them, even in a well-lit corridor with no obstacles between you! It's easy to take advantage of their undeniable stupidity by (to give an actual example) stalking around a circular balcony in bright light, picking up valuables off tables, while a couple of guards wander along behind you, occasionally peering short-sightedly in your general direction and wondering aloud whether they just saw something move. While I'm on the subject, it's worth noting that guards really should be able to climb ladders if they're going to be included; they're an easy and lazy escape route on the occasion that they make an appearance here. Guards can usually be treated as realistic human beings, though, and that is what makes or breaks a game which tries to do what Thief does.

As this is a sequel, you'd expect a good number of additions and new gimmicks to play with, and such things are indeed granted. Particularly worthy of mention is the scouting orb: a Mechanist device which can connect to Garret's mechanical eye via ''aetheric vibrations'' to give him a fish-eye view of wherever he's thrown it, swivelling around for a full view of the area (and even an upside-down view if you want). Brilliantly, the type of view it gives is altered by how well you throw it; if it rolls across carpet it gives a good view of the room, with only a few smudges and perhaps droplets of water as evidence of the time it's spent in your pocket... but if it bounces off the door and a few chair legs, say, then you'll have knocked out part of the lens, and affected other areas with splinter lines that shade in or obscure what you're trying to see. Other helpful widgets and doo-dahs that feature include the frogbeast egg - which hatches out a little frog, that will hop over to an enemy and explode, hopefully killing them or at least making them take fright and run away. Disconcertingly, if a frogbeast kills someone it doesn't count as your having done it, which allows you to get away with murder here and there even on the ''expert'' difficulty level, on which you're supposedly not allowed to (as it's just not done).

If you have qualms remaining about making a purchase, let me try and put them at rest. Should you want more clarification about the way the game plays, bear in mind that it's most similar on a basic level to the original, and that I've written a review of that as well which covers the style of play in a little more detail. (Investigate my screen name, near the top of the page.) In summary of how I feel about Thief II, I'll just say that it is a seriously artistic piece of work. Almost all aspects of this production have been tweaked to near perfection; those few that aren't, I've covered above. While mainstream console titles such as Metal Gear Solid gain all of the recognition, games like this one go unnoticed - but it is worthy of your attention, and being a PC gamer first and foremost, it saddens me that so few people come to Thief and its like and realise how accomplished they are. Thief II: The Metal Age is ready on a bargain games shelf near you, and will probably cost you barely anything to buy. I encourage, no, urge you to acquire a copy.

Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 10/29/02, Updated 10/31/02

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