Thursday, 29 December 2011

Explorations In The Dark

Over the years, I've enjoyed many hundreds of hours playing the Thief series of games, by the mighty Looking Glass Studios (may they rest in peace).  Thief is an excellent immersive simulation from a collection of technically-gifted and highly imaginative game developers.

Initially released in 1998, Thief re-defined first-person viewpoint games to a vast degree, with its genre-creating "stealth" element.  The player's position in the game world actually mattered, which it rarely did in games past.  A light gem, on your screen at all times, would begin black and become increasingly brighter as you moved further away from darker, shadowed areas of the gameworld.

Sneaking around and snagging loot, avoiding guards and critters, is all well and good, but Thief had one other ace up its sleeve: the "missions" in which this gameplay took place were often HUGE.  A single mission could take the form of scoping out a mansion, or a museum, or a church... and the church's grounds, and a network of caves / crypts underneath... and the adjoining sewer system.  Or you could find yourself in a sizeable section of a dark-ages-themed city.  The diversity of situations, places, events and Stuff To Do in Thief is another string to its bow.  One moment you could be running from guards, or sneaking past them, scouting city roof-tops for vantage points of entry, raiding old crypts, desecrated tombs, or avoiding shambling unholy entities in defiled cemetaries, chapels.

In opposition to the extensive dumbing-down and "over-tutorialisation" of today's games, there are no quest arrows, there are no waypoints.  You are given objectives, you MIGHT have a map, and you are placed in a position within the mission gameworld and allowed to go where you wish, and do as you please.  Looking Glass never insulted the player's intelligence, this was another of their games that gave you a ton of things to do, and allowed you to discover and explore at your leisure, learning the game "system" as you progressed.  Sadly, no-one cares to produce a game that does such things any more.

I'm simplifying the game mechanics for the purposes of brevity so please check out Wikipedia for a more detailed run-down on the series. The point of this post is that, while the gameplay in Thief still holds up, 13 years on, the visuals are rather lacking technically (though not artistically).  Not that I'm personally bothered about this, but amongst other reasons (and the lack of legally-released source code for Thief's "Dark Engine"), this is why fans have taken it upon themselves to release their own Thief...

The Dark Mod is a free "add-on" package for Doom 3, which aims to re-create the Thief experience from the ground up, using the now open-sourced, and more modern graphics id tech 4 engine.  And it thoroughly succeeds.  It does not currently feature a campaign of missions, rather it is a "tool set" of materials that one may use to create and play missions.  Thankfully many fans have already created a good amount of missions in the few years since its release.  Hot on the heels of update 1.07, which adds yet more superb content, here's some thoughts on a few of the missions I've been playing:

Winter Harvest by Shadowhide

Winter Harvest
(image from The Dark Fate)
I'll begin with something out of the ordinary.  There is little loot, not a huge amount of sneaking, and the setting is quite unusual.  A snowy forest, surrounded by mountains, is the locale for this particular mission.  While Winter Harvest does suffer a touch from rather unpolished storytelling - you're plonked into a house on a snowy peak and told to "go find something valuable" - the resulting journey makes up for it.

Not that there aren't dark cathedrals, twisted pagans, huge spiders, and well-stocked castle libraries to plunder and explore, but the dense winter forest one finds oneself in is an usual locale, and certainly not unwelcome.  It's pleasant to have some friendly AI that chats to the player, also.  There is a curious lack of readables, which some may find disappointing, and a few "doors that aren't doors" (side rooms with a few extra bits of loot would have been nice), but this is recommended nevertheless.  Solid thumbs up.

Caduceus Of St. Alban by Bikerdude

Caduceus Of St. Alban
(image from The Dark Fate)
Caduceus encapsulates aspects of Thief's gameplay and provides a classic experience, distilled into a small but fully-formed gameworld.

You are tasked to retrieve a sacred relic from a Builder outpost.  So this is out-and-out classic sneaking all the way.  Many methods of entry and egress, many floors to explore (also various ways to reach them), and towering heights to visit.  Some interesting readables, solid texturing and a successful atmosphere make this a must play.  Shame there isn't more of it.

Flakebridge Monastery by Jesps

Flakebridge Monastery
(image from The Dark Fate)
One aspect of Thief that many champion is its occasional, and highly successful, dips into horror.  Far more effective than any Resident Evil game, a trip through a down-trodden, wardended-off corner of The City, or a long-forgotten Builder chapel full of haunted undead makes for a fascinatingly chilling experience.  Keep in mind that neither Thief nor The Dark Mod emphasise combat so you're better off avoiding these monstrosities wherever possible.

I'm pleased to say that, finally, The Dark Mod has an exemplary example of undead lootery in Flakebridge Monastery.  A sizeable mission, with a very well fleshed-out gameworld: the player will visit a bell tower, the guard and guest quarters, an infested kitchen, and a very dangerously haunted chapel.  They all connect in a coherent manner, and finding your way between them is half the challenge!  There's a bit of roof-top shenanigans too, which feels deliciously dangerous.

My only complaint would be that the crypt section was disappointingly small, and could stand to have far more dangers present for the player to over-come.  Otherwise, this is my favourite TDM mission so far and a fantastic few hours of skulking were had playing it.

The Transaction by Sotha

The Transaction
(image from The Dark Fate)
Continuing the saga of Thomas Porter, having stolen an arcane tome and risked life and limb (as one does) for the thing, Sotha returns us to a more well-trodden locale with another take on a City mission.  With some huge twists.

There is little scope for exploration, few side-quests (but there IS a great one in there, that's one distressed damsel), but this matters less when one considers the plot.  There are suprises aplenty, some good readables, and even some purposeful - as opposed to gratuituous - combat (one of The Dark Mod's weakest areas, and the team would do well to overhaul the combat and make it closer to Thief's).

Small cutscenes are used to great effect, and the city area - small though it is - is rendered with good texturing, modelling and some well-placed puddles, torches, convincing weather effects.  Just a shame so little of it is explorable: there are rather too many unuseable doors.

Still, it's absolutely worth playing - though start with Mandrasola, it's the first in the series - and carves out another niche of stealth role play excellence that The Dark Mod provides so well.

No comments:

Post a Comment