1. Thief: The Metal Age [Wikipedia page] (2000)
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Perhaps the greatest threat to The Metal Age’s position at the top of the pile is its own predecessor, Thief: The Dark Project. You should play them both, of course, and in the right order because the story that runs through the original trilogy is superb in and of itself. Thief II just about pips every other game to the podium for several reasons, however. Most of them can be found in the level design, which is yet to be surpassed. Whether it’s the complexity and span of the First City Bank and Trust or the incidental storytelling littered through Shipping…And Receiving, which is as fine an example of economic worldbuilding as anything outside Dark Souls, The Metal Age is consistently fascinating, in its mechanics and elsewhere.
Thematically, the development of conflicts and the religious schism that has formed since the first game are all natural developments. The world feels like the natural conclusion of the first game’s steam-gothic rather than a forced change of palette or pace, and it moves both Garrett and the City forward rather than rehashing ideas.
To say that nothing in the fifteen years since its release has surpassed Thief II might seem a little disheartening but so many games have taken the stealth genre in new directions. Thief is a foundation, a relatively basic interpretation of stealth as sight and sound, elevated by the talent with which those elements were twisted and hammered into place across such a variety of levels and objectives.
All of those ideas can be reshaped and the beauty of the game is also in its influence. Thief established and cemented certain ideas about stealth – particularly first-person stealth – and many of the other games on this list wouldn’t exist in the same form if Looking Glass hadn’t paved the way. The idea of a game in which enemies are to be avoided rather than killed is no longer surprising, but Thief was an unusual experiment, and one that didn’t necessarily have a target audience. There were earlier sneaking games, of course, but on the PC, there could be no list of greatest stealth games if it weren’t for the precedent set by the greatest stealth game of all.
Notes: While this was to be the last Thief game from the much-missed Looking Glass, who were not long for this world at the time of release, huge mod project T2X: Shadows of the Metal Age is a continuation of the Dark Engine games in the same style.
Read more: Adam considers Thief’s City and other urban landscapes, A Game and a Chat with Dark Project designer Greg LoPiccolo and director Randy Smith, RPS Remembers Thief and a wide-ranging interview with Warren Spector, covering both Deus Ex, Thief and Epic Mickey.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Start with the original and do move on to Deadly Shadows. Pathologic is one of the only other games that feels quite as strange as Thief’s Dark Engine incarnations.