Review -- T2x: Shadows of the Metal Age
The City is no place for a stranger...
I've played T2x: Shadows of the Metal Age from beginning to end four times now. And I've replayed two or three missions an additional three or four times, to boot. I don't know if you're familiar with my insane demands and general tendencies towards snide remarks and nitpicking, but just looking at the number of hours I've given this game in the past four or five days should -- in itself -- give you an idea as to whether or not I enjoyed it. Hint: I enjoyed the hell out of it.
I'll tell you what T2x is, for starters: It's fun. More than that, it's the kind of fun I had playing Thief: The Dark Project. It's more fun than I had playing Thief 2: The Metal Age, but I think I was probably just grumpy that year and maybe didn't give TMA the chance it deserved. What I'm trying to say is that T2x is, for me, a return to the old Thief vibe... the hiding in barely-dark corners chanting "do not see me, do not see me," the fingers-crossed leaps over streets teeming with guards, the perfect timing of lockpicks and advancing patrols, and the shining moments of "I am so clever" upon finding a really sneaky way around an obstacle. Plus there's edible food, swimmable water, and a noticeable lack of blue foggy doorways. So that can't be bad.
I've scrambled over rooftops in a tacky little seaside tourist trap while angry men with bows tried to get a clear shot at me. I've skulked through the museum where the City Fathers lie in coffins beneath a vaulted roof. I've listened at cathedral doorways, nervously fingering a flashbomb while Hammerites in the next room complain bitterly about the food. I've crossed my fingers and took a flying leap two storeys over cobblestone streets just to see what kind of idiot leaves his windows open in the middle of the night when there are ne'er-do-wells like me creeping about the City... and what kind of valuable stuff he might have. I've tossed myself into sewers to escape capture, flung mines where they'll do the most damage, and if the City's hospitals aren't full of guardsmen with serious concussions I'll be very surprised indeed.
Well, okay... there's one hospital I'm pretty sure isn't full of bruised guardsmen. But I'm never going back there again unless I have to.
A new character, a fully-realised story with terrific attention to detail. Thirteen full-length missions, each packed with brand-new textures, objects, enemies, and weapons. A rich extension of the game world, carefully built on canon, with so many threads linking the two original Thief titles that I will cheerfully say that to my mind it is more of a Thief title than Deadly Shadows was. And, okay, Deadly Shadows was built on new technology by a different studio and tried to add something new to the series as well as something different -- but to me, that's the crux of it. T2x was created to stand with The Dark Project and The Metal Age, built from what the fanbase considered to be the most important aspects of the series, designed to be new without being different. It's familiar in both atmosphere and execution. There are plenty of new things to play with, a new and original story, missions that push beyond canon and into wonderful and fresh ideas, but it never swerves from being Thief as Thief ought to be. I'm starting to babble, aren't I?
It's probably important to frame the project in time for people who weren't around five years ago when it began... After the closure of Looking Glass Studios, a murmuring started in TTLG's Thief Editing community. Without LGS, our expectations of seeing further installments to the Thief series were suddenly dashed (this was quite a while before Ion Storm took up the franchise to develop Deadly Shadows) and the more ambitious people began to hatch a plan: If LGS wasn't going to be giving us Thief 3, we'd have to do it ourselves. The ideas gradually coalesced until it became clear there were two distinct schools of thought -- on one hand were people eager to create a new Thief game from relative scratch, perhaps with a total conversion of Quake 3's engine, and on the other hand was a group who were more interested in using the Dark engine to create a full-length expansion pack for Thief 2. The latter group became the Dark Engineering Guild, and spent the next few years crafting Shadows of the Metal Age.
And like I say, it's more of the same... only better. There are plenty of innovations, some of them obvious like the Pagan crystal you can use to drastically alter the effect of your elemental arrows as the game progresses, and some of them subtle and unseen like the scripts and other engine-level modifications that enable some rather grisly zombie behaviour, among other things.
The new weapons and tools bring a level of emergent gameplay that I really wasn't expecting to see. Not only are the old standby favourites like the Flashbomb and the Rope Arrow always on hand to help the player find a creative solution to an obstacle, there are new pieces of equipment that provide endless opportunities for lateral thinking. One of the things I've always considered absolutely vital to the Thief games is the freedom to modify your plan on the fly, to be able to respond to situations in many different ways -- and T2x has that in spades. I really wish I could just blurt out what the new weapons and equipment are and how they can be used in creative (and sometimes hilarious) ways, but I know you'd be much happier to discover them for yourself.
The briefings and cutscenes are gorgeous, dripping with atmosphere and setting the stage for each mission in the way fans had come to expect after The Dark Project and The Metal Age. The voice acting, so integral to the original games, has moments of that are perfectly Thief. The architecture and level design is fluid, interesting, and tends to incorporate the best aspects of each of the first two games in the series -- people who want staggeringly high polycounts and mind-bending particle effects with realistic physics and dynamic lighting aren't going to find any of that in T2x... the engine obviously doesn't do that, and (at least to my mind) Thief games don't need any of that. What Thief games need is atmosphere, replay value, and tension. It's all about the gameplay, and T2x delivers in classic Thief style.
So what are we looking at here? What's the bottom line on this expansion?
The best way I can think of to describe it is Great Fun. Sure, there are occasional little things which remind you that T2x was created as a labour of love by amateurs, but they're virtually inconsequential. I could rhyme off more than a few things that made me squint and frown a bit, but you know what? When I look at the notes that I was making during my first run through the game, they start with Classic GBM Nitpicking but by about a three missions in they dissolve into comments like "ambient sound in this mission totally rocks" and "brother vorbis' doctrinal fortitude = win" and "HOLY COW MAYHEM! This is the most insane mission EVER! POW! BANG! AIE!" ... and then there are no notes after the tenth mission because I just totally forgot I was supposed to be making them. But when I look back at the first page or so, I realise that the nitpickings are almost all ridiculously trivial complaints, generally attributable to the fact that I hadn't quite immersed myself in the plot and the world at that point.
The things that still stand out for me are the moments that make me forget T2x wasn't created by LGS: The overheard conversations ("I don't know, he looks old... That makes it a bad painting..."), the little scraps of diaries and journals that remind you that there's more going on in the City than Zaya's quest for vengeance, the wonderful briefing movies, the twists and turns of a very well-crafted plot... The five years put into this project are absolutely noticeable, as is the amount of respect and love the team has for the game world created by Looking Glass.
If you ask me, it was well worth the wait.