This is a very pretty-looking and fun mission. Considering its small size, it has a lot to offer.
Final Score: 7.5 Hammers
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Garrett has been hired to steal a valuable gem called the Serpent's Eye. The stone is on exhibit at the Hightowne Baronial Museum, a building with few guards but an elaborate security system.
Visually, my first impression of this mission didn't overwhelm me; however, the mission starts in the basement floor in a storage room, so in this context the somewhat bland opening view is justifiable. As I moved out from this room and further into the building, I soon found my initial impression had gravely underestimated this little mission.
Overall the visuals are very appealing, especially on the top floors. The museum isn't large, since this is a contest mission with a size limit, but as I played I never felt any area was too cramped or lacked correct proportions. The rooms are pleasantly detailed and are for the most part something other than regular cubes. The textures are chosen well and set a mood one might expect for a museum building with wooden interiors. They aren't always aligned optimally, but this seems to be mostly due to the complexity of the architecture and the need to fit the rooms inside the contest limit.
As the mission takes place in a museum, it contains exhibition halls with many items on display. The texts associated with them add to the believability of the setting, both by placing the objects in the Thief world and by being appropriate for a museum. In addition, many of them are an amusing read. The more personal writings are few, but give some idea of the traits of the main characters. They also hint at the consequences of Garrett's job tonight, helping to immerse the player further.
The gemstone is protected by a pressure plate system, so getting to it means taking special measures. The only problem I could find with the level presents itself here. Not wanting to reveal too much of how the security system can be bypassed, I'll just say that it took me over a dozen reloads to get it done even when I knew what to do. A dozen reloads didn't exactly fill me with joy. Still, even this very frustrating episode didn't harm the mission too much for me. Because of its small size, the reloads take only a few seconds. Also, if you do manage to get the gem without too much trouble, accomplishing your goal feels quite satisfying.
Hightowne Museum is the winner of the 2nd small FM contest and in my opinion it deserves its title. Many contest missions only have one or two features that are polished and may seem more like demos than missions, but Hightowne Museum is complete. It is very good in all aspects, even excellent at times. The level is impressive as it is; taking into consideration that it was built with both time and size limits, it is quite an achievement.
Spitter informs me that there is a bug with the gem's security system. Apparently it is possible to use the straightforward approach and simply sneak carefully close enough to grab the gem without triggering the alarm. I need to hone my thieving skills though, because I haven't been able to accomplish this myself.
The architecture is close to flawless. It is pretty to look at and spatially very well constructed. The only gripes are a few texture misalignments and the area where the gem is kept. This location should have been fixed to lessen the risk of the player getting stuck and other mishaps.
The museum has a calm, quiet mood, which fits a public building closed for the night. There is even pale moonlight coming in through the windows. The architecture, the item descriptions, the few personal notes and letters; all make the museum feel like a real location.
The story is simple and the setting is hardly original, but there is some additional information to be found in the level, giving the plot an interesting twist and raising the score slightly above average. A little scheming makes such a delightful difference for atmosphere as well.
This level is fun to play, but unfortunately it is a brief experience. There are few guards to complicate matters and they are easy to avoid or take out. The real challenge lies in getting past the mechanical watchers and the security system, especially on Expert. Personally I think gameplay in this mission is at its best when sneaking unnoticed through the museum. Completing the main objective is the highlight of the mission, just as it should be. The irritation I felt trying to acquire the gem keeps this score a bit lower than it could be though.
Final Score: 7.5 Hammers