Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thief 1 vs Thief 2: Which is Better?

Thief II: The Metal Age is technically a sequel -- it's in the name, after all -- but it's so much like its predecessor, Thief: The Dark Project, that it doesn't really feel like a sequel. It's basically the same game, but with 15 new missions, a couple new items, and a few technical upgrades to the engine. I guess Looking Glass Studios realized they had a pretty good formula on their hands, and chose not to do anything too extravagant with the sequel. The two games are so fundamentally similar that people tend to lump them together as one collective entity, because if you like one, then you'll like other.

And yet, people definitely have their preferences, with some people liking Thief 1 more for its darker supernatural atmosphere, and others liking Thief 2 more for its more robust level design. Some people find the undead enemies in Thief 1 to be a turn off, while others think the same of the robotic enemies in Thief 2. Having played Thief 2 immediately after finishing Thief 1, there are certain things I like and dislike about it; it's a tough call trying to pick one over the other.

I'm not going to treat this article as a stand-alone review of Thief 2, because that would feel mostly redundant, since I've already covered all of the basics in my review of Thief: The Dark Project. Most of what I wrote in that article applies to Thief 2 as well, so I'd recommend you start there so you have an idea of my thoughts going into this review. I'm also not going to make this a direct side-by-side, in-depth comparison article, either, because the games are so similar I can't talk at much length about how they differ. Rather, this review will be a more simple look at Thief 2 and, in general, how it stacks up to its predecessor.

Like I mentioned above, Thief 2 is basically the same game as Thief 1, but with more of an emphasis on the human element -- breaking into structures like banks, warehouses, and mansions, and trying to avoid detection from human guards. Whereas Thief 1 was fairly evenly split between these types of human levels and supernatural levels -- ones where you break into crypts, haunted cathedrals, ancient cities, and fun-house mansions and fight zombies, skeletal warriors, fire elementals, etc -- Thief 2 consists almost entirely of human levels. There's exactly one supernatural level in the entire game, and only a few undead enemies that appear well off of the beaten track in a handful of other levels.

I can certainly understand why they made the change; after all, I mentioned in my own review of Thief 1 that the stealth system simply works better in those human-centric levels that challenged you to play like a, well, thief, as opposed to the supernatural levels which made you play more like an adventurer rogue. I kind of liked those supernatural levels, however, because they added a lot of variety to the game, both in terms of atmosphere and gameplay, since the types of places you visited were often radically different from one another, and fighting undead enemies offered a nice change of pace from time to time. As a horror fan, I also liked the scarier, creepier atmospheres those levels instilled.

The levels in Thief 2, on the other hand, feel relatively samey because they all take place in fortified human structures. Four missions have you break into regal mansions; three levels have you break into religious cult buildings; three missions have you break into public service buildings; two levels have you slink through the city streets. That means 12 of the game's 15 missions have a strong, similar feel to at least one other mission, though in reality even these categories feel somewhat similar to one another (a bank, a mansion, and a mechanist fortress all feel kind of similar to one another, in terms of both aesthetics and gameplay). Two of the maps are even reused for later missions, and one is recycled from Thief 1.

That leaves only a handful of truly memorable maps in the entire game. I finished Thief 1 almost two weeks ago and can still vividly remember the Bonehoard crypt, the mage's towers, the opera house, Constantine's mansion, the haunted cathedral, and the ancient city. I finished Thief 2 yesterday, and only three levels stand out in my mind (for good reasons, anyway): (1) the one where you follow someone through a portal and end up in a pagan village in the woods, only to go through another portal and end up in the Maw of Chaos, the game's only supernatural level; (2) the one that has you running along the city's rooftops on your way to a mechanist tower; and (3) the one that sends you to an abandoned light house, where you descend via a secret elevator to a submarine bay and board the submarine itself.

Part of the reason the levels feels so similar to one another is because you spend 90% of the game dealing with the same enemies: human guards and combat robots. You might fight a spider every now and then, and a handful of levels face you with a couple zombies, haunts, or ghosts, but these are all in hidden areas and have no real impact on the mission. The undead enemies in Thief 1 were more prominent, but also alternated with human enemies for variety, as opposed to the robots in Thief 2 that almost always appear alongside human enemies. Thief 1 also threw more overall variety at you, with fire elementals, human mages, burrick lizards, and craymen (not to mention, more spiders) that would pop up during various missions.

Apparently enough people complained about the undead enemies in Thief 1, feeling that they took away from the game's intended burglary angle, or that they were too annoying or immersion-breaking, and so Looking Glass removed that focus from the game entirely, replacing them with things that, I feel, are actually worse -- cameras, automated turrets, and robots. I, for one, really liked Thief 1's dark fantasy, light horror atmosphere; Thief 2 abandons this theme altogether and instead goes for a more steampunk vibe, which I would normally enjoy, but it makes Thief 2 feel just a little too modern, and therefore like so many other stealth games that have come out since. The bank level, for instance, doesn't look or feel like a medieval fantasy bank at all; it feels like any generic bank you'd find in any other game.

The steampunk stuff does change the gameplay up just a bit, however, which I suppose can be a good thing. Cameras and turrets need to be avoided entirely until you can find a control station to disable them, and robots can't be knocked out with the blackjack like human enemies; rather, you need to fire a water arrow on their backside, which is actually kind of similar to how you kill zombies in Thief 1. Some people thought the zombies in Thief 1 were annoying, but at least you could sneak past them fairly easily -- the patrolling combat bots in Thief 2 are so hyper-alert that they can detect you when ordinary humans wouldn't, and they're so hyper-aggressive that they can spin in place and kill you before you can do anything.

The robots are usually pretty manageable in most levels, but they were egregiously annoying in the final level when the game throws dozens of these hyper-alert, hyper-aggressive robots at you in very close quarters. And they're relentless, too. Human guards, at least, don't go into full alert when they catch a glimpse of you; the robots do. Human guards will give up searching after 30 seconds and go back to their routines; the robots will keep pacing at high alert right outside your hiding place indefinitely. It took me over three hours of constant trial-and-error save-scumming to get through the final level because of those damn robots.

It was even more exasperating because the final level came right after the game wasted another four hours of my time by making me repeat an entire level all over again. In mission 13, you're tasked with infiltrating a mansion and mapping its interior; if you're playing on expert difficulty, then you have a bonus objective of finding seven secret locations. I spent two hours meticulously scouring every inch of the map for loot and switches to open hidden rooms, only for mission 14 to send me right back into the exact same level to do it all over again, with everything reset. That second-to-last mission feels like deliberate content padding, and was a major buzzkill going into the final mission.

The ending, though, is the ultimate buzzkill. It shows an animated scene of the villain being stopped, but then ends with no resolution whatsoever. There's just a brief dialogue between Garrett and a Keeper, in which Garrett asks if all of the game's events had been written in their prophecies; the Keeper says they were, and Garrett says "tell me more." The screen then cuts to black so abruptly that I almost thought the game had crashed. Thief 1's ending showed some peaceful resolution of what happened after stopping the Trickster, with nice, tranquil music, and a longer dialogue that actually explains what Garrett's going to do with himself while giving the player more of a setup for the next game. It made you feel accomplished, like a badass, and that after saving the world you were free, setting off to do your own thing. Thief 2's ending just says "alright, game's over, back to the menu with you."

Where Thief 2 gets most of its deserved praise is in the level design. The maps in Thief 2 are generally larger, more open, and more complex than those in Thief 1, offering you a lot more freedom to pick your own route to your objectives. Whereas Thief 1 might have only had, at most, three ways to get to an objective, Thief 2 is more apt to give you five or six options. Perhaps more importantly, the map is actually useful in Thief 2, showing you the exact layout of each level while still only generalizing your location within the map. It still requires you to use a combination of your eyes and the compass to figure out where you're going, but you can actually plan routes in Thief 2 and thus have a better sense of where you're actually going ahead of time. They also just make more logical sense, as compared to some of the maps in Thief 1 that felt like random, jumbled messes.

Unfortunately, the bigger, more complicated maps come with a few trade-offs. With more interconnected paths leading to vastly divergent routes through the level, and more patrolling guards moving throughout the larger number of rooms, there are a lot more moving parts that can lead to a lot more trial-and-error as you sometimes find yourself backed into a corner because of variables you didn't (and couldn't) know about. It also seems like there isn't as much meaningful loot to find, as if it's all been spread across bigger maps, leaving you with a lot of long, empty hallways and barren rooms. It can be a bit tedious trying to complete some of those high value "steal X amount of loot" objectives when Garrett, master thief, is reduced to scrounging through couches for loose change.

As for which game I like better, I think I have to give a slight edge to Thief 1. I personally prefer its darker fantasy/horror atmosphere, and I felt like it had more memorable levels and more overall variety. While Thief 2 is technically a better game, in terms of the upgrades to the engine and the greater focus on level design, I just didn't care for its steampunk drapings, and the cameras and security bots felt more annoying that any of the undead enemies in Thief 1. As I wrote at the top of the article, the two games are so similar that deciding which one is better mostly comes down to personal taste. In the future, I probably won't make distinctions between them, because they do kind of feel like one, singular entity.


  1. I see you're a big fan of Thief. Have you played any of the Thief Fan Missions? Some of them are even better than the originals.

    1. I've not played any of them, and honestly may never get around to it. I'm currently playing through the 2014 Thief reboot, and will be looking to take a long break from stealth games once I've finished that one.