The best missions for free Thief tribute The Dark Mod

I have this clear memory of playing the first Thief, crouching against the wall in a dark stairwell as a guard walked closer. I held my breath until he passed, hidden in a shadow inches away. The games in the original Thief trilogy were all about light and darkness, with a “light gem” at the bottom of the screen to indicate whether you were really in the dark, reducing the guesswork created by the oddities of first-person bodies and your own screen settings. It’s an obvious idea more stealth games should borrow.

A a lot of things from the original Thief games didn’t become standard in the genre, and even the 2014 reboot/sequel didn’t pick up on some of them. For that we have The Dark Mod [official site].

Modders had been making fan missions for the first two Thief games for years before organizing themselves into Broken Glass Studios (in homage to Thief creators Looking Glass) and making The Dark Mod. The catalyst was Doom 3, another game all about light and darkness. Its engine, with real-time shadow propagation and solid physics interactions, was perfect for a stealth game. The first version of The Dark Mod required Doom 3 installed on your system, but with the release of its source code in 2011 The Dark Mod became a standalone game with a growing library of missions to download from its in-game client – over 100 of them so far, with new ones still being made.

To prevent legal trouble The Dark Mod has its own steampunk-ish setting that modders agree to use, one that resembles the original Thief games closely – even more so than the remake, to be honest – but uses different names. The religious zealots are Builders rather than Hammerites, the skeletal undead are Revenants not Haunts, and the backdrop for all this is called Bridgeport rather than The City and is part of an alternate history Europe instead of a fantasy setting. In play it still feels like Thief in spite of these changes.

Here are some of the missions that demonstrate that best.

Thief’s Den

Thief’s Den is a small map. There’s a street, some rooms accessible via rooftops, and a building belonging to a rival thief who has stolen a scepter that you stole from somebody else. Thief’s Den is tight, both in the sense of feeling enclosed and lacking extraneous clutter. I wish there were more fan missions like it. There are several follow-ups, all much bigger. Thief’s Den 3: The Heart of Lone Salvation is a strong one, tasking you with stealing a lucky gem from a corrupt lord. You can choose from three different amounts of guards in the level, which is a more interesting way of setting difficulty than just choosing how high the loot quota is.

Requiem

At the other end of the scale, Requiem is a multi-stage mission with changing objectives. It begins as a break-in at a Builder cathedral during a memorial service, but expands in different directions before it’s done. Requiem is one of several missions to build on The Dark Mod’s cosmology, differentiating the Builders from their Hammerite inspirations – that means there are a lot of books and scrolls full of history to find, as well as the expected letters where someone records their last words and ends with ellipses.

William Steele: In The North

In The North is another mission that adds to the setting, this one taking place in a town called Braedon, north of Bridgeport (hence the name). You won’t see the town, as the entire map is the inside of a snowbound mansion converted from an old Builder church and still haunted by its past. The current owner’s no saint, with a secret network behind the walls for spying on the women in his employ, just in case you need some motivation for robbing him blind.

Thomas Porter 3: Glenham Tower

Every Thief game needs to abruptly shift into horror halfway through, and The Dark Mod makes frequent use of undead if that’s your thing. Glenham Tower (part of a series starring the same protagonist, but playable in any order) is about descending through a building full of zombies and revenants to steal a grimoire, with the additional complication that the tower’s falling apart. Stairs and even the floor break beneath you, and at one point I wound up stuck down a hole shooting rope arrows up at wooden protrusions that broke off as soon as I hit them while skeletons mocked me from the top. Good times.

Talbot 2: Return to the City

Talbot’s another returning protagonist, one from a fan mission for the original Thief called Prowler of the Dark. In Return to the City he has to make it through heavily patrolled streets full of guards wearing helmets, which means they can’t be blackjacked – a nod to realism that stymies my preferred playstyle of piling everyone in a corner then exploring in safety. The ultimate goal is to steal explosives from a Builder workshop. The Dark Mod’s object manipulation means you can grab things with a right click, then centre-click to spin them round. Return to the City makes clever use of that once you find the explosives and need to squeeze them out of a barred cell.

Tears of St. Lucia

A couple of missions come pre-installed with The Dark Mod, including a Training Mission that’s both tutorial and a decent set of challenges to play around with. Tears of St. Lucia is a full-fledged story though, depicting another break-in at a Builder temple. There’s some nice world-building, with posters stuck on walls that refer to characters and events from other missions. That’s common to Dark Mod levels – friendly references to the community’s other work that connects them and contributes toward the sense of a larger world, as well as connections between creators. There are no Keepers or characters like Viktoria, but The Dark Mod’s setting has grown into its own thing, in spite of borrowing a lot from Thief before filing off any incriminating owner’s marks.

The Creeps

I’ve saved my favourite for last. The Creeps is another horror level and another small one, so I won’t say too much to spoil it except to say that it does a clever thing with lights that gave me a start. Another thing I like about The Creeps is that it has a voiced protagonist who mutters a few lines at relevant points. Something I miss from Thief is Garrett’s cynical commentary, musing to himself about whether the books in someone’s fancy library even have words or are just for show. Much as I like The Dark Mod it is missing Garrett and the sense of continuity his story gave those games – when I finish a mission in The Dark Mod there’s usually just a stats screen waiting at the end, and an unconnected mission in my download queue.

The Dark Mod’s flaws are few though. I’ve encountered a handful of bugs, and I’m not a big fan of the lockpicking minigame – all about listening to a series of clicks and a clunk, finding the precise moment of silence between them to let go of the mouse. Still, The Dark Mod is a better homage to the Thief trilogy than the official 2014 release and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it over that. This is a game that understands the pleasure of waiting in shadows for someone to walk past, that has no boss fights or scripted events that jarringly move you into position for a cutscene.

The Dark Mod’s a living thing too. New missions are still being made, with three new additions already this year. It made it through Steam Greenlight in March, and will come to Steam at some point. There’s no reason to wait though, there’s plenty to be getting on with already and those scepters and gemstones aren’t going to steal themselves.

21 Comments

  1. Senethro says:

    Also check out link to thief2x.com for a full campaign size of missions. Ignore the bad tutorial mission and be charitable to the perfectly respectable amateur voice acting. By time you’re in the second mission and penetrate the museum interior you’ll see these guys know what they’re doing.

    Also, shoot ice arrows into water to create a temporary floating platform.

  2. shrieki says:

    installing this right now ! i have been living under a rock !

  3. Paul Debrion says:

    Another longtime The Dark Mod player here.
    There are a few more missions I’d also like to recommend as “must plays”.

    Thomas Porter 1: The Knighton Manor:
    While it isn’t the most remarkable mission in any specific way, it’s in my opinion one of the most “well rounded” missions for The Dark Mod. It’s not too hard, not too easy, not too big, not too small, rather non-linear, and it features enough variety to utilize most of the mechanics you’ll encounter in other TDM missions.
    I actually run this mission as a sort of “warm-up” before playing through newly released TDM missions because it is so well rounded and it serves the purpose very well.

    A Score To Settle:
    This is a rather challenging and very well built mission that shows off a lot of The Dark Mod’s features in general. The environment is very detailed and it uses more NPC animations than usual to add flavor. It’s also a nicely non-linear with enough ways to “get in and get out” so to speak.

    Thomas Porter 6: The Lich Queen’s Demise:
    This is a very difficult mission that gets to show off a lot of features that are often not present in easier missions for difficulty reasons. These include more complex semi-random patrol patterns and re-lighting behavior among other things. This mission expects you to know TDM’s mechanics very well, so I’d recommend becoming very familiar with the game before doing this one.

  4. zeep says:

    Nice article. Big Thief fan here and i was very happy to finally try this when TDM became standalone.

    Sadly, as much as i loved playing it i disliked the lock picking minigame so much i gave up playing altogether.

    • Paul Debrion says:

      There’s an option to disable the lockpicking mini-game and have the locks auto-pick.

  5. Jalan says:

    Last I played TDM (before these more recent updates) I was gradually piecing through the downloadables and stumbled across a (relatively) good mission that I can’t recall the name of. It started the player off with little more than rope arrows (1-3 if I’m not mistaken) and required that they climb a huge tower from the bottom up, making certain to recollect the arrows or otherwise become stranded in the middle of it.

    I think the main reason it stuck out to me was because it was an actual challenge (or at least it felt like one) – it was planned out in such a way that it didn’t really give the player much inventory at all as progress was made through it, forcing careful planning when items did get used and absolute accuracy when it came to figuring out routes in regard to staying in the shadows.

    Unfortunately (for myself at the time at least) I either caused it to become bugged or it was simply bugged due to the (then) changes to TDM (just after it shifted engines, I think, or rather dropped the requirement of needing Doom 3 installed) and the mission became impossible to complete. It eventually required stealing things from at least one sleeping clergy and each time I attempted it, it just denied me the opportunity. I felt optimistic about the author going back and fixing it at the time but when I read the TDM forum, it seemed like they’d moved on so I just never went back.

  6. Unclepauly says:

    I’ve tried installing this twice now in the past and it wouldn’t load any missions and just crashed. I’m going to give it one last shot. 3 times is plenty chances imo. I’ll report back if it works.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Ok I set up everything the same way I always set up my games. Resolution, surround sound(eax), etc. Got a CTD. Slowly started changing settings and found the problem. 5.1 surround sound doesn’t work. The game will only load missions in stereo sound. That pretty much sucks as good stealth games rely on sound to place things in the environment. Ah well, I’ll still try it out but if I can’t locate things through audio it’s a no go for me.

      • AluminumHaste says:

        And I’m sure, that you went to the forums and asked for help on the first two tries.
        EAX needs to be set up properly or it will just crash the game. Every time.

        • Unclepauly says:

          I did this time. There’s actually a way to replace the audio completely with openal soft to get proper 3d audio positioning. Someone posted it to the forums last year. That’s going to make the game so much better.

  7. poliovaccine says:

    *Nice,* I saw this article and grinned, but I was worried I’d have played all the recommendations… I am very, very pleased to find that I recognize almost none of them. Thanks for the heads up, as well as for the attention paid to a small but worthy niche!

  8. AluminumHaste says:

    The screenshots for In The North and Glenham tower are reversed.

  9. bill says:

    I love Thief and so I keep being tempted to try this… but I love Thief in no small prat due to the world building, story and characters.
    A bunch of standalone levels without plot, cinematics or voice acting isn’t so appealing.

    Are there any levels/sets that pull together levels into a decent narrative with voice acting that isn’t awful?

    • Daymare says:

      I missed Garrett’s voice almost immediately and couldn’t get into The Dark Mod very far because of it. Even “Thi4f” had a voiced protagonist, and while he wasn’t Stephen Russell, I liked him well enough.

      That reminds me … Russell apparently voiced Corvo in Dishonored 2? I gotta play that one again as him.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Some of the missions have voiced characters. One of them even does a very good job of impersonating Garrett.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    Oooh, lovely. I never knew about this, but now I’m very, very interested, which is the best result these articles can have.

    Oh, for some reason this article does not show up in the “Free Games” section of the website, even if it is a great fit!

  11. Glacious says:

    Thanks for the reminder about this forgotten-by-me mod. I now remember installing it on my previous PC, shortly before the PSU shorted out and the motherboard caught fire a little bit. RIP Boris.

    Between this, the GMDX 9.0 release and the NO One Lives Forever revival article, there’s been a lot of dust blown off some classics around here recently.

  12. Halk says:

    I am quite sad that there is still is no full campaign for TDM.

    Couldn’t the modders select the best 15 or so missions and arrange them into a campaign? I expect not much would need to be changed; just some flavor text would have to be modified to convey a continuous plot and possibly some central McGuffins would have to be added to the missions.

    • AluminumHaste says:

      It’s being worked on.
      Crucible of Omens is the first mission and it’s pretty massive.
      Big problem with any fan project, is it depends on people’s free time and dedication to a project with no funding.

      • poliovaccine says:

        That’s exactly why I think the new Bethesda Creation Club thing is insanely cool, in spite of people complaining that the most awesome, DLC-sized mods that provide hours of gameplay might actually start costing money instead of being free by default and necessity. But given how rarely those huge projects are ever finished (or if so, within the span of most peoples’ involvement with the game), I think having those really big projects become paid could actually result in them being finished sometime between now and the freezing-over of hell. It’s just too bad something like The Dark Mod cant benefit from it, since there’s really no Bethesda game up for modding that supports even a serviceable stealth experience.

        But yeah, knowing how long and turbulent it can be to develop, not just a large mod, but a collaborative effort across geographies to boot, it’s definitely nice to know it’s being worked on, and given what’s been accomplished already I have faith they’ll actually finish it, but I just wont exactly be refreshing the page til it’s done, that’s all.

  13. soopytwist says:

    I enjoyed these a lot:
    Mandrasola v1.1 (Thomas Porter prologue)
    The Knighton Manor v1.2 (Thomas Porter part 1)
    The Beleaguered Fence (Thomas Porter part 2)
    The Glenham Tower v1.1 – (Thomas Porter part 3)
    The Transaction – (Thomas Porter part 4)
    The Phrase Book – (Thomas Porter part 5)
    The Lich Queen’s Demise (Thomas Porter part 6)
    Builders Influence
    Fiasco at Fauchard Street
    Flakebridge Monastery v. 1.20
    A Score to Settle
    Training Mission

    Also, I made a smaller light gem mod for which the developers liked a lot so they might have implemented it into the latest build by now but it’s here anyway if you want/need it: link to dropbox.com