The Dark Mod reviewed, By SneakyJack
I am one of the doubters of the dark mod I'll glady admit up front. After Thief 3 and its 'updated' engine (at the time) left me feeling like a battered and abused (but unfortunately still faithful) wife I really didn't know if I'd be able to follow the Thief franchise beyond Thief 2 and its fan missions.
Disclaimer: I played very little of Doom 3's missions as it isnt my type of game so I am not really aware of how many things I'm about to mention are basic engine bugs, features already included in Doom 3 by default or what have you. I also really did not enjoy Thief: Deadly Shadows and don't really remember alot from it (still trying to forget) so I may mention certain features in The Dark Mod as "new" that were in TDS - consider me speaking from a "new to me" perspective before you get all 'historically factual' on me.
I found myself wanting to give The Dark Mod a shot and wanting badly to like it - So I tracked down a copy of Doom 3, installed the Mod and loaded up all the missions to give it a go. After spending many hours with it playing through the training mission and the small handful of available missions thus far, here is what I found:
The Great: What The Dark Mod Does Excellently
The Overall Feel: This modification unmistakeably feels like it is built around the world of Thief. The look, the feel, the sounds, the setting, the objects - everything feels fantastic. Its unfortunate that the actual names and assets from Thief cannot be used but the Dark Mod team has done a brilliant job of coming up with great alternatives. Never once did I think I was playing anything other than an extension of the Thief universe, and this made me very happy.
The Mantling Mechanics: Nailed it. Completely nailed it. Hugely improved over the previous games in the series and just felt incredible. Never once did I misjudge a jump or fall to my death for some silly reason - and I very much enjoy the fact that the main player character is much more agile with mantling than in the Thief games. (You can mantle onto a ledge even if objects are present, finally!) Its also nice to see that the player character is able to climb onto bookshelves realistically and through smaller holes (its not like you'd have to be standing completely upright in real life anyway) instead of feeling like a brick being thrown toward a wall every time I jump or mantle. I was so impressed by how the mantling is handled that I honestly spent most of my time playing just climbing on things in awe of how easy it was to get from place to place without the annoyance of reloads from silly engine caused falls or fluke misses. All I can say is thank you Dark Mod Team - you've completely mastered this aspect of the engine and that is very nice to see.
The Readables: As someone that constantly mentioned enjoying readables that are displayed on screen instead of changing to the typical book or scroll view I applaud this decision as well. It is a great feeling to be able to be so immersed in your surroundings knowing that you have to find a dark spot to check out any literature due to the game continuing on while you read - it added so much to my experience and I really liked how it worked overall.
The Overall Physics: Not being a mapper or coder myself I'm not sure how much of this has to do with the Doom 3 engine and how much the Dark Mod Team had to do themselves - but the physics of the mod feel great. Objects feel like they have actual 'weight' to them and everything felt basically like it would if someone of the player characters size were trying to move them around. Bodies fell pretty realistically and overall everything behaved just as you'd expect it to in the real world (other than a few instances of objects zooming across the room when kicked) and I was really surprised. I tossed a body down the stairs just to see a hilarious ragdoll effect and was quite happy that it slid down the stairs more realistically than in other games I've played.
Object Handling: The way this was handled for the most part was pretty stunning. Being able to have a choice of dragging a body or throwing it over your shoulder with the touch of an extra key was great. Being able to knock things off shelves and objects reacting realistically to force was quite a change for me as I was used to the 'sometimes' physics of the previous thief games. I loved being able to drag a candle around lighting torches and other candles with relative ease and thought it was really clever that some food items left behind bits (like an apple core) when eaten. And just thinking about being able to press a key to put a candle out while I'm holding it frankly makes me want to load the Dark Mod up immediately. Object handling was done extremely well and is probably my second favorite bit other than mantling in the engine.
Chests And Drawers: One of the biggest things that always bothered me about the thief games previously is that most of the time you'll find yourself opening a chest only to have to check your inventory to see what you actually picked up as alot of the time there were no visually displays inside to let you know. In The Dark Mod you will open a chest and see each individual item inside it, not only allowing you to pick and choose what you want to take along with you, but ending the old "junk object that you now have to somehow toss without alerting the guard in the next room" annoyance that we all knew and loved. Just opening a chest to see the treasures inside made me quite happy, frankly. I'm not hard to please.
Item Stacking: While playing one of the fan missions already released for TDM I had opened a chest to find what I thought was a worthless chess board inside. Something told me to pick it up anyway (mainly just for fun as I was still getting used to the object handling) and underneath was a coin purse. Not only did this make me smile - but reminded me that with new technology comes new ways to be sneaky. I loved seeing items inside other items and stacked realistically around the areas in the missions.
Swimmable Water: Again I don't know if this was something from the original engine or something modded onto it but the water looks and feels amazing. Watching the realistic water ripple in a 'thief' game was great fun, and after diving in I really enjoyed how swimming was handled. The time you can stay underwater seems somewhat short but I'm sure breath potions (or air potions?) are there for a reason. Again, the water looks very good.
The Rat: In one fan mission in particular I came across these little furry guys running around - and though I don't know if it was fan mission specific or another bit of AI programmed into TDM I was really impressed. The rat ran around very realistically and was actually quite charming. Just that little touch added so much to the mission for me that its really funny to look back on. I hope to see more little AI additions like this in future missions.
Vial Design: Whoever designed the vials for the different potions (including the stunning swirling effect within) should get a huge pat on the back - those things are like mini works of art and are borderline beautiful visually. The orange one is particularly striking and had me sitting there for a good minute or two just admiring the subtle swirling effect.
Object Design: The vials, the flash bombs, the mines, the lantern and on and on - all of them look great. Its great to see such care taken for the design of the most basic items in the game - we'll be seeing alot of them and they all look really well done.
Return Of The Rope Arrows: I don't think I have to explain this one. They never should have left the Thief series and its great to see them back. Thank you again, Dark Mod Team.
Screenshot Handling: This may mean more to someone like me (that posts tons of reviews with screenshots) than the average player but this really floored me. I had been playing the training mission and was taking screens for the future review (that you are reading now) and was curious as to which folder all the screenshots were saved after taking them in-game. I combed the main directory looking for the image files thinking they'd get tossed in there together - lo and behold but what did I see? That's right, the screens were saved in their own named folder for each mission. Incredible, and saves me alot of time not having to sort through a giant stack of screens all in the same folder to decide which ones go to which mission. Whoever made this decision if it wasn't already built into the engine.. thank you. Seriously, thank you.
The Good: Things That Are Well Done But Still Need A Bit Of Tweaking
Blackjacking: Perhaps the most important gameplay mechanic for me - the blackjacking in TDM is pretty well done for the most part. Hitting someone feels like it has much more weight behind it than in Thief: Deadly Shadows and overall feels far more satisfying. So far I have not found a way to successfully blackjack a foe walking toward you (normally while in total darkness you can lean forward to hit them head on for the KO) without alerting them and getting my loot sack sliced in two (see the melee combat section a few paragraphs down) so I really hope this gets tweaked a bit as well. Overall though its quite solid.
Overall AI Behavior: Though I saw the AI stuck on objects once in a while during my mission playthroughs I must say that their overall behavior is pretty remarkable. I loved seeing them turn their head toward noises before muttering something about what they heard - just a little touch that adds so much to every situation. One of the biggest things I've noticed about the AI is that they will actually notice when an item goes missing near their patrol route. Running down a dark hallway after filling my loot sack only to hear something along the lines of "We've been robbed!" and looking back to see the guards going into search mode because of what I had just stolen was excellent and quite exciting. It really feels for the first time in a Thief style game that your actions actually make a difference and that the AI wont just walk blindly past as you empty out the place. This is destined to add extra challenge to ghosters, so it will be interesting to see how this affects people with that playstyle. The search paths are pretty well done and I really enjoy how most of the AI in the missions I played were not static and were roaming around here and there or on their patrol routes. I'm very excited to see what the community does with the AI in future missions and how complicated their behavior, actions and interactions with each other will become.
Voice Acting: I really enjoyed the voice acting overall that was present by default in The Dark Mod. Sure, it could be stronger - but I'm really impressed with the work that was done thus far. Some of the accents were rather hilarious and overall the team did an excellent job of getting quality voice acting for the characters. That being said I hope that more lines are added in the future and are more varied in tone - Alot of the time I felt that there was more mumbling than anything and a bit more of the comedic lines couldnt hurt. I'm excited to see what kind of voicework comes out of the community for the mod as well.
Rope Swinging: Perhaps its my lack of thiefy grace but I never could seem to get the rope swinging to work the way it was intended. During the training area I had to use the noclip cheat to get across the water after falling about a dozen times and getting frustrated with the mechanic of it. With a mantling mechanic that is so very strong its strange to see the rope swinging aspect so difficult - but I am still impressed that it was put into the Mod at all. Hopefully it gets tweaked a bit to make using it a bit easier, as for now I'm going to have to pass on its use when I play.
Lockpicking: Lockpicking for me is one aspect of the Thief games that has always bored me regardless of how its handled. I do like the method employed in TDM (by using sound rather than playing a silly mini-game that gets old quickly) much better than the previous games but lockpicking to me still serves only to bring the mission to a grinding halt every couple of minutes. I understand that its a big part of thief gameplay - but my personal preference is for missions that are low on lockpicking and higher on key use or unlocked doors. I'd like to see more use of lockpicking for things like exterior doors and footlockers and less on EVERY DOOR INSIDE THE PLACE. Sorry, I get worked up when thinking about some of the missions we've been made to lockpick our way through. All that being said - the way it is handled here is a step above and it works much better.
The Not So Good: The Not So Enjoyable Side
Melee Combat Is Broken: Let me be blunt - Melee combat is too god damn hard. I found in TDM that I was discovered more easily than in previous games (or so it seemed) which led me to more Melee combat than I am used to - and it is really a pain to deal with. I found myself striking the same opponent dozens of times and still causing no damage even when a hit registered as a hit. Circle strafing (one of my favorite methods from the previous games) is impossible here as the enemy moves just as fast as you do and is always focused on you directly front and center. Opponents have the uncanny ability to block everything you throw at them regardless of how you swing - so being thrust into battle is not only a penalty for being caught but simply makes the game unplayable until you see the death animation play. Granted, difficulty of the AI may be controlled on a mission to mission basis (again, I'm not a mission author) but I found myself hitting the quickload button whenever combat was the only option. Really disappointing and hopefully this can be tweaked in the future.
Load Times: Again, possibly the fault of the Doom 3 engine but holy smokes. For a game engine released in 2004 to cause my Quad Core Phenom with 4 GB of ram to take many minutes to load each mission (though reloads are much faster) seems very odd. Games released in 2008-2009 that are much more graphics intensive (ATI Radeon HD 4850 1 GB card) take a fraction of that time to load. Obviously I do counter this with the fact that the entire mission loads without loading zones, thank goodness - so there is an extreme upside to the downside on this one.
Overall Stability: Again, this one is probably based on specific machines and configurations - but I had an extreme crash to desktop problem with all the missions before making a ton of tweaks, rolling back drivers to less than current ones and so forth. Seeing the posts in the official forum lets me know that it was not just me - so stability issues may need to be addressed in the future. Once I did a ton of searching around for tweaks and ways to patch up the problems it was smooth sailing, but it was a rocky road to get there.
Storable Food: Let me admit up front that this is a silly personal nitpick and isnt to be taken that seriously - but I do miss being able to store up food to be used later for a few bits of emergency health regeneration. I could be wrong, but I noticed no way to "pocket" food that is picked up in TDM and though I enjoy the cool effects like apple cores being left behind - I'm a sucker for the nostalgic ability of using food to regain health. You could probably blame Christine for packing her excellent Thief 2 missions with edible goodies - but I think it adds a little something to the experience. Now that I think about it... does food even give health in TDM? Apparently I've got more research to do.
The Dark Mod Logo Video: Again a smaller nitpick - but do we need to be reminded that we're playing THE DARK MOD *WOOOOOSH NOISE* every time we load up every fan mission? Sure, the mod is brilliant and I want the creators to get all the credit they deserve but does anyone forget what mod they are playing in the time it takes to get from the menu screen to playing the mission? Seems a bit overkill, really.
So What Is The Verdict, You Long Winded Fool?
Though The Dark Mod is very strong and solid the very moment that I'm typing this to be posted - the potential I feel it has after the hours I've spent playing it and the handful of missions I've seen is simply staggering.
What The Dark Mod Team has done here is to give each and every one of us the tools to create missions that are good now but will become incredible later. Imagine back to the time when you loaded up Thief 2 for the first time and took a stroll through its boxy simplistic missions thinking "wow, this is amazing and even better than the first game!" Now imagine your reaction to playing missions like Broken Triad, Pirates Ahoy, Rose Cottage, The Seven Sisters and many more for the first time and compare how far apart in quality the original missions are from those...
Right now The Dark Mod is in the "Original Missions" stage my friends - so imagine where we'll be a few years from now if it really catches on and gets support from quality map makers and the folks that have the desire needed to make that spark turn into a forest fire.
I, for one, am sold. My thanks to the Dark Mod Team and to those that will pick up the project to create a mission in the future.
Individual Mission Reviews: