Review by quickbeam
"A first-person shooter which demands more restraint than required of Edward Scissorhands during sexual arousal."
Yes, I think that describes the Thief series in general quite aptly. In thief II, you have two choices: remain undetected or perish swiftly. It's a concept which requires method, punishing harshly the unobservant, the impatient, and especially the reckless. But it's because you're always one mistake away from getting completely owned that the game is so much fun to play. Every decision you make is extremely important, every guard a huge liability, and every dark corner a precious safe haven. Thief II may require more caution than most games, true, but as a result it is also more rewarding.
As an artistic concept, there's just nothing like it. Set in world equal parts steam punk and Western medieval, the game has a very dark, gritty aesthetic punctuated by the *clicks* and *whirrs* of machinery and accented by light sources which tend to carve shadows into the wood and stone as if with a knife. Cutscenes pan out in delightful montages of still frames, narrated by the main character, Garrett, a cynical, witty, master thief. His world is peopled by numerous factions, including a police force which keeps a tenuous hold on the city, a group of religious fanatics who seem bent on completely obliterating the natural world, and a mysterious group of agents who attempt to maintain balance and stability with an unseen hand. Again, aesthetically and conceptually, there's nothing like it.
Of course, when compared on technical terms with its modern competitors, the game is a fossil. High resolutions (800x600, 1024x768, am I dating myself, here?) make the primitive textures more bearable, but the game really shows its age with its character models, which look and animate terribly. The worst example of this is, unfortunately, the most frequent: when a guard hears Garrett but cannot see him, she'll start skulking about the shadows with knees bent and sword drawn. Sadly, while the designers intended to convey the sense of a threatening adversary ready to spring into action upon discovering the player, what is actually conveyed is the sense that this hunched, awkward looking android is in desperate need of a toilet. I don't think we ought to expect such an old game to have cutting edge animation, but if there's anything visually which breaks the player's sense of immersion; it'd be an android with IBS.
Despite looking so damn awkward, these guards manage to effectively convey a sense of menace and danger, and that is because of convincing voice work and spot-on sound effects. A guard will attempt to taunt you out of the shadows, his footsteps will become more erratic as he paces back and forth, and, if he does find you, you'll be treated to a hair-rising battle cry followed by the wet-liver-dropped-in-a-bathtub sound of his sword taking a sizable chunk from your torso. It appears the developers spent much more time on sound design than on graphics, which some may find to be a little backwards. In any case, sound effects are incredible. Footsteps change dynamically with the surface upon which Garrett moves, rope arrows sink into wooden surfaces with a satisfying *thwunk*, and interrupting some oblivious guard's whistled tune with the coma-inducing thud of Garrett's blackjack never gets old.
As aforementioned, Thief II is a stealth action game, so the order of the day, here, is stealth and thievery. The game is broken up into fifteen or so missions which vary in terms of objectives and layout, but which all contain plenty of loot for Garrett to steal. He'll pick open safes, collect coins strewn carelessly about an office desk, pickpocket guards and peasants alike, and otherwise blag the **** out of every nook, cranny, and secret compartment within a ten mile radius of his apartment throughout the course of the game. Of course, there are plenty of guards, human and otherwise, which would rather not see the fortunes of their employers snatched up by some punk thief and who will fight to the death to protect their patrons' interests.
Did I mention that to play this game you need a great deal of patience? This is because Garrett, unlike many other video game protagonists, cannot remain standing after being shot in the head forty times, his guts dragging behind him from an opening in his midsection while simultaneously carrying eight grenades, a rocket launcher, an assault rifle, and one hundred and fifty pounds of ammunition for the aforementioned. If you're discovered at close range and decide to drop your opponent with a few melee strikes, against a single opponent you can bet on losing at least a quarter of your health, against multiple opponents more like all of it. The best policy when you're discovered is simply to run away, become invisible in the shadows as only Garrett can do, and form a new strategy.
Fortunately, while not a tank, Garrett may as well be able to vanish into thin air when it comes to slipping away from an enemy who has discovered him. To help facilitate this, he has quite a few helpful items at his disposal. The innovative rope arrow, for example, may be shot into a wooden surface from below, thus enabling Garrett to climb upward and disappear into the rafters with ease. For a more direct remedy to a surprise encounter with a guard, there's the trusty flash bomb to blind them at close range or the gas arrow to incapacitate them completely. There are water arrows to put out torches, moss arrows to dissipate the noise of Garrett's footsteps, a neat little deployable camera connected remotely to Garrett's mechanical eye, and a plethora of other devices which Garrett may use to avoid confrontation. (There's also the fact that Garrett seems to be the only protagonist of a first-person shooter with the extremely useful ability to hoist himself onto a ledge from below, an embarrassing oversight for other developers in whose games the platforming prowess of Gordon Freeman, Master Chief, and the like was noticeably lacking.)
Perhaps the most useful tool Garrett has is the shadows themselves: a visibility gem displayed prominently at the bottom of the screen changes color based on how well Garrett is concealed--bright white for walking neon, jet black for undetectable, and a few shades of gray in between to represent varying degrees between these two extremes. All these tools, coupled with mission environments which are both enormous and non-linear help to create an open-ended, sandbox type of experience filled with satisfaction and reward. I've gone to great lengths to avoid sentry detection by using a combination of rope arrows, noisemaker arrows, and strategic placement of gas mines. But I've also shot a dude in the face with an arrow. Both work.
Of course, all this great gameplay might begin to feel a little pointless were it not for the excellent narrative driving the player from one area to the next. Garrett's motives for putting himself in harm's way vary from mission to mission; at times, it's to investigate the activities of the local religious cult; at others, it's to make a little extra dough so he can pay rent. Eventually, Garrett gets caught up against his will as the key player in a long-prophesized chain of events leading to the end of the world. Though there are plot twists and turns along the way, it is mostly Garrett's cynical and darkly humorous way of telling the story which makes this unoriginal prophecy of doom plot formula more palatable. So, you've got an original protagonist telling an unoriginal story in an original setting. That's still two out of three branches of storytelling still working for us, and that ain't bad.
In conclusion . . .
It would have been enough if the gameplay had been tight and interesting at the expense of derivative visuals. It would also have been enough if the gameplay had sucked and the only thing Thief II had going for it had been its amazing atmosphere and art direction. But the fact that we have both in the same game, and that they are backed up by one-of-a-kind voice work, fantastic sound effects, and the most likable protagonist in video game history is a rarity which will ensure that Thief II remains top shelf for me for a very long time. Thief II proves that the first-person shooter still has plenty of room for further evolution. Or, more simply, it's an excellent game on its own and should be played by anyone interested in great games. Provided they can show a little restraint, and not be too disappointed by the absence of automatic weapons.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/22/03, Updated 04/13/10
Game Release: Thief II: The Metal Age (US, 02/29/00)
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