DrK is one of the Thief scene's heavy hitters, responsible for "Lost Among the Forsaken" which is one of my all-time favorite FMs and one of the most popular of recent years. But long before that his first series of maps, A Night in Rocksbourg, was already accorded classic status, and they were in fact among the first FMs I played back when I was first getting into Thief just six years ago. Replaying them has confirmed my original impression: it is a masterpiece of a horror campaign, with excellent ambience and design, and some serious gameplay flaws that don't, however, ultimately spoil the experience.
Garrett receives a message from the Keepers, bringing him out of weeks of hiding after his defeat of Karras. But he has one more night to spend in the "fortress town" of Rocksbourg, so he decides to pay the Hammer's coffers a visit. But your real mission doesn't begin until you venture outside Garrett's room and start to overhear the disconcerting rumors circulating on the streets: a killer's on the loose, some sort of invasion looms, and recently a local lord discovered a mysterious artifact in a cellar, and then went mad. The latter, you decide, is worth investigating.
The city of Rocksbourg has an atmosphere you can cut with a knife. It is maze of tight alleyways and dimly-lit corridors. The facade designs give the appearance of a densely-packed urban honeycomb, and the textures give it grimy, gritty, and run-down look. A few well-chosen ambient loops dominate the soundtrack; in one of them, a cat's shriek mingles with the clanging of a hammer. It's a dark and dirty place.
There is also a strong vertical component to the city with a lot of height variation on street level, a canal, and a few more hidden locations above and below ground to seek out.
The mission is quite challenging compared to many other popular releases. You start off in the middle of the city, with no map and no guidance in terms of which dirction to take. You have no choice but to pick a direction and strike out with your compass in hand. But tension is in the air. Guards are patrolling every key path, and the civilians can't seem to go to sleep either—and everyone is extra jittery tonight. Sound seems to carry very well (or for Garrett, very badly) in this mission, and furthermore in many areas it is easy to get caught in the open, even from multiple directions at once. You have to be very careful to sneak all the way through, and you'll probably tip someone off anyway. There are plenty of nooks to hide in, and plenty of places where you can mantle to a higher level of street to put some extra distance between you and the guards, but in this dense map the pathways are so well-connected that shaking off the guards can require some extra effort. That on top of being forced to wander blind in the city until you get a sense of direction can make the beginning of your playthrough a challenge. It's not the beginning of "Into the Odd," but it's a rougher start than most FMs I've played.
Thankfully it's an exhilarating one. Not so exhilarating are the other "challenging" aspects of the mission. The first might seem like a nitpick but it greatly affects the mission's pace. I mean that all of the pickable locks seem to take the maximum amount of time to pick, even when it is completely unnecessary from a gameplay perspective. This is a frustrating flaw that is repeated in the following Rocksbourg mission.
The second is also related to locks. After exploring the accessible areas of the city, the mission essentially reduces to a series of keyhunts involving the property of the mad lord. A few of the keys are maddeningly well-hidden, dropped arbitrarily in places you're unlikely to see while passing through an area normally, with some requiring careful scanning to find, and clues to their locations are tenuous if not nonexistent. The thing is this sequence is the climax of the map. The readables (however cryptic they are as to the location of keys) develop the story quite skillfully along with the environmental storytelling, custom sounds, and other surprises. I'm sure that more than the usual number of players resorted to walkthroughs or forums for help on this mission, but I'm also sure that in all cases it was worth it.
While its flaws are both obvious and frustrating, the strengths of "A New Beginning" are nonetheless considerable. Rocksbourg is one of those Thief locales that is instantly recognizable once you get to know it; it can't be mistaken for any other. The default level of ambience is gripping, and there's a palpable and mounting sense of horror as you progress. When the mission ends, one thread of the story has wrapped up, but a darker mystery remains...