Over the weekend, I had a chance to dig into Thief 2x: Shadows of the Metal Age.
For any gripes I may have about Thief 2x, they are small in comparison to the fact that this is an entirely new freaking game in the Thief universe. It took me a bit to get used to, because of some minor technical and graphic issues. For whatever reason going to map, objective or menu with briefly drop to the desktop before opening the correct page (like at most 1 second with half a second lag time, during which the screen is black and the game still running; you CAN be seen, attacked and killed during this lag between exiting menus). Also, the textures and lighting seemed really wonky on the first mission, so despite some really neat atmospheric tricks and well done visual story-telling, it just didn’t look or feel right.
Another part of the disconnected feeling comes from using new health icons, a new shadow crystal and a few other cosmetic and semi-cosmetic changes. For instance, water arrows look different and cost more, but this is no big deal, because unless you’re fighting steam beasts or fire elementals, you always end up with way more water arrows than you needed generally. I liked the idea early on of combining the lock picks into a single item (hair pin), but this meant that it couldn’t be hotkeyed, so the return of the classic lock picks a few missions in was a welcome event. Zaya’s new sword is cool, but the knock-out hammer seems like a silly replacement for the blackjack, though it does kinda lampshade the whole dead vs. unconscious distinction which is even less meaningful in this game.
The first REAL mission (the Prologue has no weapons or sneak-mechanics, though there were some obnoxious instant-kill traps), while impressively built felt kind of off. A few of the subsequent early missions felt the same way, but gave me enough of a Thief fix to keep going. Thief 2x really hits its stride after you reach Sunnyport. The train-ride mission was a cool bit of world-building and atmosphere, but felt rather unrewarding as a mission; the following mission where you have to sneak into the smuggler’s hide-out, raid the place and get out without even knocking anyone out, however, was pure Thief bliss. The Hammer temple was great, but the Masoleum!
Down Among Dead Men is probably one of the best Thief levels I’ve ever played and is by far one of my favorites; it’s creepier and more colorful than Down in the Bonehoard or either of the Haunted Cathedral levels, and has supplanted Trail of Blood as my favorite mission. It has some of the coolest set pieces, wild puzzles and traps, and creepiest undead filling a webbed catacomb of crypts which includes the final resting place of an evil necromancer whose ghost has caused the dead to rise at his beck and call. I can’t think of a level from either Thief or Thief 2 that comes close to how awesome this is in terms of storytelling, play or level design with the possible exception of The Sword (and this was more fun and had less accidental fall deaths). This would absolutely be the sort of level where, if you could get a decent floorplan of it, would be an AMAZING dungeon crawl for low-to-mid-level characters. Plus, it introduces new zombie mechanics which I’ll probably write up for tomorrow.
Meet Zaya, the alluring sociopathic murder-hobo protagonist of Thief 2x: Shadows of the Metal Age. As a woman of color with a crippling lack of empathy, she hits at least three diversity checkboxes! Just kidding; I’ve never heard ANYONE bring her up when talking about diversity in video games.
As far as the character Zaya goes, I’m still warming up to her. I haven’t found her particularly likable or interesting, and she’s got a bit of a one-track mind. Her arc of losing her cousin to murderous thieves so that she herself becomes a murderous thief (because revenge) is a bit silly. There are a lot of ways that they could’ve addressed this within the game’s mechanics to make it less ridiculous. One of my biggest gripes – and one which feeds into this – is that the difficulty does not affect the objectives in any meaningful way. If one plays Thief and assumes Expert is the ‘canonical’ way in which the missions are done, Garrett is a consummate professional and wholly above murder, even against the despicable child-killing Mechanists; indeed, one of the biggest challenges is making it through a mission without getting into lethal altercations. Zaya has no such compunctions against killing and is free to do so wantonly on the highest difficulties, so one may assume that she doesn’t have Garrett’s moral code and is pretty much a murder hobo. Which explains why she knocks people out with a hammer rather than a leather truncheon. In large part, this is why the missions in the smugglers’ hideout and the Hammer temple felt so Thief-like – you weren’t allowed to just kill people (or even knock them out in the case of the former).
I’m entirely expecting that the guy who took Zaya in and taught her thieving ways is going to end up being a bad guy. I just hope that I’m invested enough in Zaya by that point to have some sort of emotional response. For all of the amazing effort that went into fleshing out this new world and integrating it into the existing Thief lore, I wish that Zaya herself were better done. Even if the rest of the game ends up being garbage and there is nothing else good about it, it will have totally been worth it for missions 5-7, where I really felt like I was playing a brand new Looking Glass Studios Thief game.