Review: The Dark Mod
Developer: Broken Glass Studios
Series: Thief- inspired mod
Engine: Doom 3 (id Tech 4)
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
Release date: October 2009 (Original release); June, 2011 (Version 1.06)
Genre: First-person sneaker
Until last month, there were two games I had been dying to get a hold of for years. One of them was Duke Nukem Forever, which I’ve played, finished, and reviewed. The other one is this: The Dark Mod.
The Dark Mod isn’t a standalone game like DNF is, though. It’s not even really a mod, either. TDM is more like a TC: a total conversion for Doom 3 - and it’s one inspired by the classic Thief titles from the late 90’s and early 2000’s. It was actually after Thief: Deadly Shadows came out in 2004, that the team behind it got together and decided they could do better. Several of the team members who spent five years working on the excellent unofficial expansion for Thief II: The Metal Age, T2X, were recruited to help work on this project.
Another five years passed, and unlike DNF, plenty of screenshots and trailers had been released over this period to whet our appetites. I personally couldn’t wait to play this offering from Broken Glass Studios – a tribute in name to the long since defunct Looking Glass Studios who developed Thief, Thief Gold, and Thief II (and partially completed Thief II: Gold before going out of business).
BGS chose to use the Doom 3 or id Tech 4 engine which, perhaps hard to believe, was pretty much cutting edge technology seven years ago – and it was about this time when work on TDM began. They stuck to using this engine rather than pull a 3D Realms and later switch to something else when it came along, and throw away all their work. There’s no doubt that id Tech 4 suits this title. You think of Doom 3 for instance: dark corridors, dark rooms… darkness. Perfect! Indeed, the real-time lighting is one of the reasons why it suits this project – and it’s used to great effect.
But it’s also starting to show its age dramatically. One thing I don’t like about TDM is the character models. They leave a lot to be desired. They’re rather ugly, actually. But anyone who ever played the original games by LGS should be used to this, seeing as even then, the technology present within the Dark engine too, wasn’t overly impressive as far as looks were concerned. And this goes for Doom 3 as well, to be frank. So the character models could do with a makeover, but the world they inhabit isn't bad looking at all thanks to some lovely textures, and other stuff. Granted, with my rig I can't turn on all the bells and whistles, but it looks decent as is, at least.
As of October 2013, version 2.0 of The Dark Mod is out. It's fully standalone, meaning you don't need Doom 3 in order to play it. Not only will your savegames from previous versions of TDM not work, but the maps you have downloaded likely won't work either, so you'll have to re-download them.
It’s going to be hard to do this. I usually judge a game as is, but this will be a little different. The basic premise behind this is that some fellas made this mod, and an editor called DarkRadiant was released - and this contains the character models, the weapons, the textures, and lots of other goodies - which is then used by people who worked on the mod, as well as those within the community, to make most of the maps. Even I could make a basic map if it weren’t for my naturally short attention span, and crippling procrastination. So there are perhaps two camps to praise/blame in this case as far as TDM goes. Three, if you count engine bugs that are present in id Tech 4.
The AI in this game is supposed to be on par with and even better than the OGs (original games). If you’ve watched all the trailers, or even played the game, you’ll see they are capable of a few tricks. They can do the regular stuff such as patrol, lie down or stand still, or mutter to themselves (more on this later) – but NPCs can also sit down at a table, eat food, play cards with each other, and instead of doors magically opening by themselves, characters actually reach out to open and close them. They might be two metres away from said door when they do it, but at least they do it. I realise this is perhaps necessary so that the door doesn’t collide with the NPC when it swings open towards them, however. And they even close the door, most of the time, afterwards – how polite. This series of actions will maybe give the player precious few seconds to scurry off to a dark corner given the situation. A humorous exploit of sorts is being able to "stop" the door before it closes fully - therefore providing a quick entry in some cases, without having to use a key or a pair of lockpicks.
Guards can also carry torches and lanterns too; all the better to see you with. A guard’s head will move around as they survey their surroundings, and they also seem to possess a peripheral vision of sorts and can see you out of the corner of their eye. And they notice when loot is missing – although this can be dependent on difficulty modes.
These guards are far less likely to “forgive and forget” like in the original games. There are five different alert levels, which go from muttering about perhaps seeing something to actively searching for you, and eventually attacking if he can. And if can’t reach you with his sword, then he’ll stand there and throw rocks at you - the meanie.
The voice acting isn’t professionally done obviously, and there are some rather laughable (and some good!) attempts to try to recreate famous Hammerite (called Builders here to avoid legal woes) or guard voices. I’m personally always expecting to hear Stephen Russell or Daniel Thron’s voice at some point, and when it doesn’t happen, I’m sad. I don’t know how much they would charge to be involved in this project, but it would make it so much more awesome if they did some voiceover work.
Speaking of which, the NPCs don’t say a hell of a lot. Gone are the days of eavesdropping on conversations, or being amused while listening to guards mutter under their breath. There are a few generic samples for characters depending on the situation involved, but it would understandably be up to the map authors for now to put in the extra effort, and have some scripted sequences complete with dialogue and the like. But the focus is largely on map making – and some of the 45+ maps made so far are very good, I’m happy to see. And it should only get better as said authors gain more experience with DarkRadiant. A few missions are probably on par with original missions you would have witnessed in the games responsible for TDM existing in the first place.
Authors of these maps like I said before, range from TDM developers (mostly) to community members (or forum dwellers), and there have been a few competitions so far over the past couple of years to see who can make the best maps. These maps are downloadable once finished and then fit in your ‘FMs’ folder. You then have to install maps once inside the game, and this requires a restart before being able to play. The obligatory ‘THE DARK MOD’ flashes across the screen before being taken to a briefing, which will vary constantly depending on the author. Sometimes you get videos or animations (even with vocals), and other times its straight to paper; objectives, and if you’re lucky you’ll then move on to the buy screen where you can buy weapons, tools of the trade, and other items. Then it’s off to a rather long loading screen before entering the map.
All in all I’m not a huge fan of the install/uninstall method of FMs, but it does save on disk space to not only uninstall maps but delete the folder contents of maps you’ve beaten or no longer care to play. Since maps have separate savegames and the like, it also prevents you from overwriting precious savegames from another mission. The FM model used here means that there will likely be an inexhaustible supply of maps for us all to play over the coming years, instead of just one set of dev-made maps and that’s your lot - so it’s just as well.
So far there isn’t a proper singleplayer campaign which would include what one would expect from a Thief title: proper cutscenes, briefings, a coherent, continuing story; high production values – although some of the better map authors have taken to creating their own series of maps, complete with named characters and locations too; really going the extra mile.
Sound was a major feature back in Thief: The Dark Project and its sequel. Listening to footsteps, doors opening, and mumbles coming from guards functioned as audio cues, and complemented the visual ones very nicely.
TDM just doesn’t do it as well, I find. Not only do the NPCs not talk enough, but it’s hard to tell when and where someone is walking, and what surface they’re walking on. The footfalls aren’t distinct enough at times, apart from when a guard is treading on tiles - it sounds as though someone went in to a damp shower and started stomping up and down while recording the whole affair.
And forget about directional sound too. A door will open, and you can’t tell if it’s right next to you or down the corridor most of the time. You end up relying too much on what’s right in front of you visually, to compensate for this. It might be best to play with a headset/earbuds with this game to get the proper experience. Then these issues aren’t so profound.
The music in TDM is good, and compliments the atmosphere in-game tremendously. Some tracks are beautiful and sound quite like Eric Brosius’s effort with the original games. There is a drawback though – at times, it can actually be a tad distracting, and might interfere with your ability to hear sounds in game - such as footsteps, which can be quite slight on certain surfaces.
The control of the player character is more fluid and less jerky than trying in vain to control Garrett. With the OGs (original games, not gangsters), I always found the controls were edgy – get too close to a ledge, and you would slip off without actually wanting too, usually to a painful death. Trying to mantle on to things usually resulted in Garrett falling and making a racket. This sometimes nameless anti-hero in comparison glides gracefully over most obstacles. The mantling rarely lets you down, and you can mount just about anything (stop laughing) – from chairs and tables to ledges and awnings. Occasionally you will try to do a manoeuvre such as a jump mantle, or a run, jump and mantle – and these actions can go pear-shaped at times. You have to “change the angle of the jump”, apparently in these cases.
The other usual controls are there, such as crouch, leaning from side to side (and forwards) which not only helps with peering around corners, but listening at doors, too. One thing I would have liked to see is the wall-flatten manoeuvre that Garrett pulled off in TDS – this would lower your visibility according to the lightgem, and make it less likely for guards to bump in to you.
Announced in late 2011, there is a new campaign for TDM in development called the Crucible of Omens. Being made by several mappers and other people in the community, the campaign will hopefully have a lot of what was missing in most of the single FMs released for TDM. Personally I'm hoping to see a great story, fantastic missions, the return of those classic cutscenes from Thief, and more scripted sequences like conversations between NPCs, complete with proper voice acting (we can only hope!).
Not only are the rope arrows back, but now you can pull off a new move – swinging while on a rope. In the past, you might have been just an inch too far from making a jump from a rope to a ledge – you then fell to your death, more than likely. In TDM you can swing from a rope to close the distance. It might be a bit tricky to get the hang of (no pun intended), but it’s a novel idea, and realistic at that. And if there's no rope arrows to be had, then in some maps you can even climb up vines on a wall.
And that’s not all. The player can also manipulate items in game, and this goes beyond just frobbing coin purses and opening doors. You can actually pick up items and move them around. Objects have weight to them, so candles which you can pick up and snuff out, will be light - whereas crates are heavier, naturally. You can also drag unconscious bodies in addition to carrying them.
One thing you might remember from the original series is that when you selected and read a piece of paper or a book in a mission, you would go to a separate screen to read the writing. In TDM, you are able to read the scroll in real-time while everything continues on around you. So you have to make sure to get to an out-of-the way place in order to read. The devs could make this even more realistic and dangerous by making it so that you can’t read in the dark, and you need to have your lantern out, or read by a light source of sorts.
In TDM, you can eat food lying around. Using the frob key on an apple for instance, will make the protagonist (or anti-hero perhaps) eat it and leave the core behind. It’s kind of disappointing to see that you can’t store food like before, but even more disheartening is the fact that eating food doesn’t seem to regenerate health like in the originals. Only health potions do this.
You might remember that swimming was done away with in TDS. If you dropped in to any liquid deeper than knee height, you drowned. This was rather disappointing when considering that swimming was present as far back as Thief: The Dark Project. The reason this was all absent from TDS might be the same reason why the rope arrows were missing, among other things – engine constraints, AKA dumbing down for the console version.
But you’ll be glad to know that swimming is back in TDM, accompanied by a neat looking breath meter as well, which hangs out around the lightgem alongside the health bar. This also means breath or air potions are back, too.
It’s great to see most if not all of the weapons and gadgets from the originals return, save for a few. For instance, I’ve yet to see a slowfall, speed, or invisibility potion, although I vaguely recall them being in there somewhere, due to the fact that I witnessed them in a screenshot a while back (could be wrong).
There’s some new additions too, which are quite handy: one is a hooded lantern that you can uncover in dark areas – which are plentiful in the game – when you can’t see otherwise. The other item is a spyglass - you might remember these from pirate films and the like. It’s a telescopic lens of sort that allows you to zoom in on distant parts of the map, or down corridors and so on. It essentially replaces the mechanical eye from Thief II and TDS. There’s therefore no scouting orb unfortunately, seeing as that was linked up to Garrett’s eye if you’ll remember. But I mean, who really used it anyway?
My Favourite TDM Missions
(level design, originality, presentation; all considered):
"Heart Of Lone Salvation"
"The Siege Shop"
"Return To The City"
"No Honor Among Thieves"
"A Score To Settle"
"Tears of St. Lucia"
"Alchemist" (Thief’s Den 4)
"Somewhere Above The City"
"The Beleaguered Fence"
"The Chalice Of Kings"
The combat on one hand seems to have some good ideas, but practically fails in execution (literally). You move the mouse in a direction (as opposed to holding a directional key in Thief) when striking with a sword, to pull off different hacks and thrusts, or an overhead swing. This also applies to blocking. It’s not “one block fits all” like in the original games. Here you have to anticipate which manoeuvre your opponent will execute, before parrying his blow. All seems fine while you’re practicing these moves on your own, but as soon as you face off against a guard with your shortsword - it doesn’t work all that well.
But on the plus side I am glad to see that only one or two blows are needed, depending on where you strike, to put down even the toughest of foes – unless they’re undead anyway (the undead, particularly zombies, don’t come back after you slay them with your sword, unlike before). But the clunky combat is probably a good reason to avoid being penalized by unnecessary confrontations which you’ll more than likely come off second best in.
Firing arrows can be tricky, and you have to master the art, much like in Thief. In more recent versions of the mod, you can enable a bow sight, reminiscent of said game (here come the chuckles about bow upgrades), which helps a bit. But you have to practice with different distances for a while to gauge how high you need to aim, seeing as some arrows, particularly broadheads, arc in flight – much like in reality. Correct me if I’m wrong, but traditionally some special arrow types don’t do this – like fire arrows.
There’s also an autolockpicking feature – but it takes so long to wait for the sequence to repeat that it’s best to learn how to do it manually. Not too hard, really, but at times you might beg for a key to a door rather than over-reliance on lockpicking by mappers. One interesting thing is that when you successfully pick a lock on a chest for instance, you can see the objects inside and pick them up individually, rather than having an item added to your inventory and not knowing what it is until you search for it, or ending up with an unusable object which you have to put down without making a sound. Items within chests and the like can also be stacked on top of each other, so it pays to look under things that seem worthless, where you might find something that tickles your fancy.
The Dark Mod has its share of bugs. Some that have plagued me include the dreaded quicksave crash, where if you press the quicksave button ( F4 by default), then the game crashes. This can also happen with the manual saving process too, especially if you are the kind who saves often. The solution so far is to not save the game that often.
Another bug which annoys me is the installation and uninstillation of missions. If you’ve just played an FM, and try to uninstall it or install another mission, then the game will crash, and you’ll have to fire up TDM again, manually, instead of getting the promised game restart. You can just uninstall missions manually from the Doom 3 directory however.
Bugs in game include some physics issues such as bodies moving around autonomously after being knocked out and you attempt to drag them – resulting in the guard or servant floundering around like a fish out of water. I only encountered this on one map to be fair. A lot of the time though, bodies in game will actually change position since you last moved them. This usually happens when you load a savegame. Other issues I’ve come across include some clipping, and disappearing environments (particularly with some environmental effects such as fog), which I reckon has to do with my graphics card, which is unfortunately at this time, an ATi card.
There are also very long loading times depending on the map, which will make even the most hardcore rigs weep. But, there is an upside to this: there are no loading zones and so on within the map, unlike say, Thief: Deadly Shadows - so this makes for a fluid gaming session with no unnecessary stops during play. Framerates within TDM for the moment are also not so great, and you may well notice a significant drop at times, on particular maps. Saving and loading a game might make this a bit better though. This issue should apparently get better with later releases of the mod.
What’s the Score?
+ Lighting used to good effect
+ Some really good maps
+ Great interactivity
+ Feels like a Thief game
- AI a bit suspect at times
- Clunky combat
- Looks a bit dated in some cases
- Bloody long loading times
- No campaign as such
What do you think of The Dark Mod?
It will be interesting to see how this project develops once the source code for the id Tech 4 engine is made public. I’ve read time and time again that this will either take place at QuakeCon 2011, or when Rage -which uses the id Tech 5 engine- is released. I've read some rumours that TDM will be then be made in to a fully standalone game, independent of Doom 3.
For the time being, despite its issues, I like The Dark Mod. It’s a mod that has incredible longevity and replayability; catering to those who want to make things harder in missions, by changing difficulty modes and tweaking things in the options menu so there’s less HUD and other things that give you an unfair advantage. All in all, it’s like the developers have taken everything we loved from LGS’s cult classics back in the day and kept the good things, fixed most of the bad things, and then added in some extra goodies to boot. It’s one thing to have the developers listen to the fans when it comes to making a game, but this time it is the fans who made this game (or mod, rather), and it’s quite an extraordinary effort to say the least. And work on it continues still, so we can only hope to see even more brilliant things in the future.
I just hope that Eidos Montreal bothers to go to the same lengths with Thi4f, whenever that sees the light of day.
© 2011 ANDR01D