Thief: The Dark Project came out when I was in high school. It was revolutionary, a game that not only had a solid stealth mechanic but punished you for not being stealthy. It was too difficult for me when it came out, so I gave it up.
Flash forward over 10 years. I bought the first three games thanks to an awesome sale from Gamersgate.com. As a mature (?) adult, I found the first game challenging but not impossible, the second one a bit too easy at times, and the third one a blast. I am now eagerly anticipating the fourth game, although I am disappointed Stephen Russell will not voice Garrett (since they claim they want a younger Garrett.)
Read the article I linked to. It’s three years old now. My opinion of the game, having played it again, has changed, but only slightly. I still think the zombie levels are stupid, but I think they are less stupid if you play them correctly. Similarly, I no longer think burricks (the giant lizards) are the worst monsters in the game (I now think it is the praying mantis that spits bees at you. If you think I am kidding, that such a monster could not possibly exist, you are wrong.)
However, the biggest change in the way I think of the game is this: the story is absolutely terrible. Really. Part of it is the voice actors. Garrett is the only one who doesn’t sound forced when he talks. Everyone else sounds robotic. Leave that aside, though. Where the story falls flat is that at no point is it fleshed out. The later games do, but not this one. You’re told about the Pagans and the Hammerites, but little about what each one hopes to accomplish. The Keepers want “balance”, but they come off as much less powerful Jedi.
If you haven’t played the game — the Hammerites are a religious cult that likes building stuff and hates the undead. I don’t know why this is bad, but they are portrayed as bad during the game. The Pagans worship the Trickster God and speak terrible English. The Keepers have lots of vague prophecies that it would be really, really bad if the Trickster got power and slightly less bad if the Hammerites did.
That’s it. If you want to know how it ends, it turns out that the mysterious stranger that only a fool would trust betrays you, is in fact the Trickster God, and rips your eye out of your head to do a ritual with another floating eye that talks. Only you swap the floating eye that talks with a fake and he dies instead. The end.
In short, the original Thief takes a brilliant concept (the gameplay), executes it pretty well about 80% of the time (ignoring the zombie levels and the purely stupid final level), and marries to a plot that is there only because you need a plot in games. It’s worth playing, and even worth finishing, but there are times I almost gave up.
So what did Thief 2: The Metal Age do? First of all, it has a coherent plot. It’s not breathtakingly original, but it is coherent. Stephen Russell voices Garrett AND Garrett’s main antagonist, thus reducing the number of bad actors in the game. The mechanic is largely the same, with a few wrinkles (invisibility potions are a good one — the scouting orb, not so much), but everything else around the game got a lot better. Some levels are still annoying (finding Brother Cavador was a huge pain, and the tracking missions have never been done particularly well in either of the first two games), but the only undead in the game are there for a cheap scare. Everything the first game did poorly, the second game did well, and everything the first game did well, the second game did better. My favorite sequence in the series actually occurs towards the end of the second game, when you have two consecutive missions, one in which you case a place to rob and a second in which you actually rob it. It’s such a logical idea that I’m surprised they didn’t do it before, and I hope they do more of it in the fourth game.
What about Thief: Deadly Shadows (or Thief 3, as most people call it)? It tries to be an open world game, and if you judge it by non-GTA standards, it pulls it off. There’s stuff to do between missions. Not a lot, but there is stuff to do. Replacing Garrett’s sword with a dagger seemed irritating at first, but upon reflection it was a brilliant design decision, as it makes Garrett more vulnerable (no fighting off four guys at once), but gives you a new tool in your arsenal (one hit kills on unsuspecting opponents if done from the back). It returns, in some ways, to the mucked up plot from the first game, but does a much better job of giving you context. The faction system is crude, and there’s no reason not to make both the Hammerites and Pagans like you, but it adds some depth. It’s the most polished game of the series, and in many ways the best one.
I think Looking Glass Studios/Ion Storm has, in these games, a clinic on how to make a successful franchise. An innovative mechanic gets you in the door, but consistent and solid improvement is what keeps people wanting more. You don’t always have to risk changing everything to make great sequels. Sometimes that works (Mass Effect 2 is an example), sometimes it doesn’t (Deus Ex: Invisible War is a decent follow up to the original, but they tried too hard), sometimes it’s a catastro-fuck (hello, High Heat!) Thief raised the bar each time, but didn’t stray. Play all three if you can — they’re cheap and even the first one has some great levels. But if you play only the third one, recognize the great work that went into the first two.