I've been a fan of the Thief series from the beginning, and at last I get to play and review a total conversion that fully brings back the best elements of the earlier games, while improving some of the poorer elements. It's hard to recall exactly when I first heard of this total conversion, but the earliest posts on their current forums date back to mid-2004. I remember it was shortly after the release of Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, which did not come with a level editor or construction set. At the time, there was a months-long campaign to get one released, since Thief 1 and 2 had enjoyed a long life of fan-made missions (Thief 2 missions continue to be made to this day). An editor eventually was released, thanks to the unpaid work of several of the developers, but time has shown it to be unpopular with modders, as there are only 27 fan missions released for Thief 3, according to Thiefmissions.com, while the missions for Thief 2 are far too many for me to count manually.
At any rate, to continue this little historical background as I remember it, a group of modders decided to build a mod that captured more of the spirit of the two earlier games than Thief 3 did, using the most moddable and cutting-edge engine at the time which was capable of the real-time shadows necessary for a stealthy game like Thief. That engine was the id Tech 4 engine. I was not happy that I'd have to buy a copy of Doom 3 in order to play the mod, since I had no interest in playing Doom 3, but I was pretty sure that the prices would drop after the "one year" they initially said the mod would be complete. Five years later, under the looming possibility of Thief 4 coming out before their mod had time to catch on, they finally publicly released The Dark Mod 1.0 last November, and although id Tech 4 is no longer the cutting-edge engine it was back in 2004, mod-makers are free to use higher quality models and larger textures with all the bells and whistles to keep it looking great.
I say mod-makers, because The Dark Mod, as of yet, is only a platform and toolset with which other fans can make missions. The only mission that comes with The Dark Mod is a training mission, which provides instruction and practise opportunities to get used to all aspects of the gameplay, and it does this very well. At the time of this writing there are already 17 missions released for it, some of which are continuing, interrelated missions with continuity. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised to see this year's crop of Dark Mod missions exceeding all of the Thief 3 missions that have been made since 2005!
I've played 4 of the available missions so far, and I've found almost all of them to be thoroughly satisfying. I'll review individual ones in later postings. But first, a little about Thief for those who don't know, and how TDM (The Dark Mod) intentionally differs from it.
For a general overview, I recommend reading the Thief series page on Wikipedia, or perhaps the one on TV Tropes, though that one's full of spoilers. In short, it's a game set in a different world than ours -- a pseudo-Middle Ages which is just developing its own sort of steampunk Industrial Revolution, aided by various kinds of magic. A powerful order of knights templar called the Order of the Hammer (Hammerites for short) rules much of the sprawling urban city (called "The City"), inflicting its own extremely harsh punishments on anyone it deems a heretic or who breaks its various religious commandments. Nevertheless, their religion characterises their god as a master builder, who wants them to develop technology and construction projects. Followers of the older, wilder nature gods show another side of the populace of this world.
In this, you play the role of Garrett, a cynical deadpan snarker who was trained in the ways of near-invisibility and stealth by a secret society of "Keepers" who manipulate society behind the scenes to keep things in a stable balance, probably to prevent societal collapse and a return to barbarism. At some point, he tires of their manipulations, and strikes out on his own as a master thief.
And this is what you do in the game. Break into mansions, castles, prisons, warehouses, churches, museums, etc., and steal all the valuables you can, preferably without ever being seen by the guards or civilians. Although there are different ways to play this game, I prefer the "ghosting" method, where your goal is to never let them know you were ever there, except that all their stuff is missing. When necessary, I'll resort to the blackjack to knock out a few particularly vigilant people, and I may break some traps or security systems, as well as kill some giant spiders or zombies, but I never end a mission with human blood on my hands. I'm a thief, not a murderer. I don't even carry the sword that comes as part of the standard equipment, if I have the choice to drop it.
Infiltration, climbing a rope to an open second-story window, rooftop running, hiding in the shadows, picking pockets, and lifting valuables from under people's noses is what this game is all about. Along the way, you can read notes and journals for clues on where to find particular artifacts, or to learn of mysteries or puzzles to solve within each mission. Although each of the games in the series also included a "save the world" plot near the end, most of the missions revolved around you simply being a thief, doing thiefy things, and those are the best ones.
The Dark Mod provides all of these things in spades. The main difference is that for legal reasons, it takes place in a similar, but different world setting, with an unnamed thief. The team has a wiki where the details of their original city, factions, and storylines are kept, and are presumably still developing, although the team has said that nothing is stopping individual modders from taking it in whatever direction they prefer. Ultimately, the differences don't matter. It's the spirit of the thing that I love, and this is the best thing I've played since the original Thief games.
For later review
The missions I've played so far are:
- The Chalice of Kings
- The Heart of Lone Salvation
- The Parcel
- Business As Usual
- Return to the City
- Living Expenses
- Lord Dufford's
These links lead to the mission downloads for each one. Looks like I've played more than I thought I did. I'm in danger of running out of them pretty soon.