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Thief 2: The Metal Age, Looking Glass, 2000

A swan song is always a bittersweet thing, especially when the song itself is so brilliant and accomplished. Thief 2: The Metal Age was the last game created by Looking Glass before their shocking demise, and it's possibly the greatest computer game ever. Looking Glass has had a long history of intelligent and involving games, and also a history of financial difficulties despite their successes. By all accounts, sales of Thief 2 did not even have a chance to infuse the company with new money before things fell apart. The news came as a tremendous blow to me, as I have enthused about their games since the days of the first System Shock, five or six years ago. However, if there is going to be an end, it may as well be on a high note, and Thief 2 represents everything I look for as a gamer impatient with most games on the market.

In Thief 2: The Metal Age, you once again take on the role of Garrett, master thief and unofficial conscience of the City. After the events of Thief: The Dark Project, Garrett would seem justified in wanting things to settle down a bit, but no such luck. He's a main character after all! The missions start out simple and easy -- Garrett helps a friend rescue the friend's girlfriend, raids a shipping warehouse, and so forth. The next few missions get more difficult and tricky, as Garrett is hired to frame one of the members of the City Watch. This backfires, and soon the Watch is hunting for him all over the City. Running through the streets not sound like typical Garrett gameplay? Up next, he has to infiltrate the Mechanist Cathedral and then rob First City Bank and Trust. Not enough yet? Break into Sheriff Truart's Estate! Two easier missions follow, where Garrett is tracking down clues and following people. What are the Mechanists up to? The tenth mission is a beauty, and was partly contained in the demo released before the game. Garrett goes across the City by rooftop, and breaks into Angelwatch Tower to spy on the Mechanists. Five missions remain, and I won't reveal much about them except to say that the Mechanists must be stopped! And while the road is difficult, you're just the thief to do it.

Gameplay is refined from the first game, and months of tuning and heeding feedback is well in evidence. Garrett has some new equipment, like a spy eye and some vine arrows, but the tools are mostly the same. The big difference is in the missions themselves. The level design is superb, the best I've ever encountered, and Garrett moves through the landscape of the City like someone who can't seem to evade intricate, yet logical, challenges. First City Bank and Trust is a good example, as it is about as difficult to infiltrate as you would expect a bank to be. But the challenge is finely calibrated and it's all possible if you pay attention and use your tools wisely and move with care. There are new guards to evade, and the metal age of the title refers to the Mechanist creations such as cameras and guard robots. The gameplay is rich and incredible.

I'll give two examples in narrative form to support my contentions about the game. Mission 7, Blackmail, consists of breaking into Sheriff Truart's estate to find out some information from him. You begin outside the wall of the estate -- there is a well-guarded main gate, and other ways of sneaking in. But if you manage to knock out or kill both of the guards, you can lockpick the door beside the big gate, climb up a ladder, and then jump down onto the inside of the wall. On the inside, there is a lever to open and close the big gate. I was watching a friend play who entered this way, then attracted the attention of a bunch of guards -- probably five or six, swords and arrows both, all in a mob. An impossible battle for Garrett. My friend ran around the grounds of the estate, attracting as many guards as possible, then ran out the main gate. Making sure that they were all outside, he climbed up the ladder, jumped down, and closed the main gate, so that the entire mob of angry guards was outside. Ha! Talk about a satisfying feeling.

My other favourite moment from the game doesn't reflect very well on me. As I sneaked into Angelwatch Tower, I had a number of objectives. I needed to steal something from the main office, which I did first. This set off alarms in the whole Tower, so every guard and civilian in the place was in alert mode. Unfortunately, I learned at that point that I had to find a series of phonographs to listen to on every level of the Tower (part of a tour previously given by the villain, which explained his plans), which meant that I had to revisit all the locations swarming with angry enemies. I suppose I could have gone the coward's route and reloaded an earlier save game, but for some reason I stuck with the mistake. After so much training in sneaking quietly and sticking to the shadows and knocking people unconscious, it was actually fun to run around like a maniac on the edge of disaster. I was still working within all of the same gameplay paradigms of course, and the beauty of Thief 2 is how I could succeed at doing things my own way because I could predict how the game world would react.

Some of the members of Looking Glass have found jobs in other computer gaming companies, notably Ion Storm Austin, where teams are working on a sequel to the excellent Deus Ex, as well as on Thief 3. But I have more of a feeling that Beatles purists did listening to the solo efforts that the band members put out in the 1970s -- this can never be like the old days. Thief 2 was a pleasure to play every minute, and so the experience should not be subject to any complaints. I guess I'm greedy, wanting more topnotch games in the future. It was easy to have a source for good games that I could rely on; now it's back to sorting through piles of worthless clones. Looking Glass, I will miss you!


Last modified: November 10, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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