Retrospective: Thief

thief-ii

Most games encourage you to run ahead and take out your enemies quickly. The Thief series, however, is one of a group of games that encourages stealth. Lots of stealth games seem to get the formula totally wrong, but the Thief games – which largely defined this genre, along with the Metal Gear Solid series – get it right.

Anti-hero and player character Garrett is a thief with a mysterious past who’s not all that good at face-to-face fighting but excels at moving silently in the shadows and beating people over the head with his blackjack. To help achieve this end, the Thief games provide you with a light sensor that tells you how visible Garrett is to his enemies. Staying in the dark is imperative: it means that guards and other enemies can’t see you. The brighter your light sensor is, the more visible (and thus the more likely to be discovered) you’ll be. As you’ll certainly find out during your playthrough, being discovered by your enemies in a Thief game is a very bad thing.

In the Thief series, darkness is your friend.  Here, the light sensor (the crystal at the bottom) is dark, indicating that you're invisible to enemies.

In the Thief series, darkness is your friend. Here, the light sensor (the crystal at the bottom) is dark, indicating that you’re invisible to enemies.

Why can’t you just run out of the shadows and hack your enemies to death? The reason is partly that Garrett is not a warrior – he’s no Kratos or anything like that. Instead, you’ll have to use your lineup of weapons and contraptions to survive, including a collection of different types of arrows (for example, the extremely useful water arrow, which can put out torches and flames and keep Garrett in the dark) and tools such as flash bombs (temporarily blinds other characters that see it, allowing Garrett to knock them out.

Secondly, as the game will remind you if you’re playing on hard mode, Garrett is a thief, not a murderer. At higher difficulties, you’ll fail your mission if you end up killing anyone, even in self-defense. There’s always a way to get through a mission without killing anyone – simply avoid your enemies or wait until their backs are turned and hit them over the head with your blackjack, knocking them out.

Another reason is the importance of stealth to the progression of the game. Garrett will often have to eavesdrop on people to learn about secret plans and steal documents without being detected. In the Thief series, you play a spy just as often as you do a thief.

Here's what you DON'T want to see.  You can fight guards with your sword, but more often than not the commotion will either end with you dead or more guards alerted to your presence.  The key to success is remaining in the shadows.

Here’s what you DON’T want to see. You can fight guards with your sword, but more often than not the commotion will either end with you dead or more guards alerted to your presence. The key to success is remaining in the shadows.

Still, Garrett is a thief, and he has rent to pay. Thus, he’s going to steal some shit. All the Thief games leave loot around for you to swipe: candlesticks, silver plates, stacks of coins, etc. You can even steal food from rich guys’ dinner tables to keep you up and moving. Most of these goodies are out in the open, but a surprising amount is hidden away in strange places. The game gives you an incentive to explore each map and find more loot by letting you buy more weapons and tools for your arsenal with the loot you collected on your previous mission.

Someone's bedroom, full of stuff that's about to get stolen (by you.)

Someone’s bedroom, full of stuff that’s about to get stolen (by you.)

One of my favorite parts of the Thief series is all the documents and letters left out for Garrett to read. These indicate great attention to detail on the part of the developers. Some of these texts are important to the plot, revealing the plans of other main players in the story and dropping tips for Garrett to follow. Others are purely there for atmosphere, or to simply give the player a laugh in the middle of a tense stealth mission.

You'll find stuff like this all over the Thief games, especially the second one.

You’ll find stuff like this all over the Thief games, especially the second one.

Thief: The Dark Project was released in 1998 for the PC. However, 2000′s Thief II: The Metal Age is a lot better than the original in every respect. While interesting and innovative, Thief didn’t seem to know where its strengths lay. Its mechanics emphasized stealth, but all too often the game put Garrett in situations where he was running through caves and tombs, fighting zombies and large animals that couldn’t be taken out with a blackjack to the head. As a result, Thief could sometimes be frustrating and slow.

Thief II fixed all of these problems by putting Garrett in almost entirely urban environments where the player can lurk in the shadows and knock out guards and civilians alike. For this reason, plus a few tweaks and improvements to the mechanics of the first game, Thief II is a much more enjoyable game.

Thief is also one of those series that just won’t die. Nine years after the release of the third game, Deadly Shadows, the fourth game in the series was announced. Simply titled Thief, this “reboot” is one of the most anticipated games of the year. Hopefully it will be able to live up to the legacy this great series has created. If Thief ends up sucking, it’s going to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year instead.

But will it suck? In a troubling turn, the game’s developers have recently given interviews in which they emphasized the reboot’s “accessibility.” Whether this means the game will be dumbed down to the point that it takes the actual gameplay out of the player’s hands – a Quicktime event-style “press X to kill guard”, for example – remains to be seen. I really, really hope Eidos doesn’t follow this trend.

A pre-released screenshot from the new game.  I wish I knew what the hell was going on in this scene - I guess I'll have to wait to play it.

A pre-released screenshot from the new game. I wish I knew what the hell was going on in this scene – I guess I’ll have to wait to play it.

The first three Thief games, last I checked, can all be found on Steam. You can also buy boxed versions, but they might be a pain in the ass to get working with Windows 8 or 7. I’m not a huge fan of Steam, but it’s nice to have sometimes, isn’t it?

Retrospective: SkiFree

skifree1

This is SkiFree, a game that was released on Windows Entertainment Pack in 1991 with copies of Windows 3.1 (?) It took up a slight 100-something KB and came preloaded with every Windows machine in the early 90s. It was one of many such games we got for free back then, and one of the few that were loaded on the machines in my elementary school’s computer lab.

SkiFree is the only game out of all those early 90s freebies that anyone remembers, and people remember the hell out of it. But why?

SkiFree is an extremely basic game where you point your ski man down a slope and he skis. You can move him around with the arrow keys on your keyboard. If you’re so inclined you can do low jumps off of hills (represented by half-circles) and high jumps off of ramps (shown as rainbow-colored bars, for some reason.) This isn’t necessary, but it’s fun.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

SkiFree features sweet tricks such as this one.

You aren’t alone on the slope. Your nameless skier is joined by annoyingly slow, crappy skiers and annoyingly fast, skilled snowboarders. There are also dogs that sometimes piss on the snow (seriously, this happens.) All of these, including the stationary trees and rocks that populate the slope, are obstacles for your skier to avoid. Not that it matters all that much if you hit them: you’ll just fall over and get back up.

Sometimes the tricks don't work out.  Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

Sometimes the tricks don’t work out. Left: tree, rock, a snowboarder.

There’s something else that lives on the slope, but if you don’t know what that something else is then I won’t spoil it for you. Go play the game. The creator’s official SkiFree website is here. He seems like a cool guy, even aside from the fact that he gave me a fun diversion to play in my school’s computer lab when I was six years old.

For some reason, SkiFree has become a part of modern internet culture. Not a massive part, but a part. It must be the power of nostalgia at work. New games are great and all, but we also like to think about the games of our distant childhoods, even if it turns out they weren’t very good, objectively speaking. Luckily, SkiFree was pretty good for what it was: a fun, innocent two-minute break from the tedium of school or the office.

Retrospective: Freelancer

Hey, I guess this series is going to be a regular thing. So read up and be enlightened.

freelancer cover

When I was younger, I loved games set in space. I played the hell out of Alpha Centauri and Homeworld. So I was excited when, in 2003, Freelancer came out. This title billed itself as an open-ended sandbox sort of space shooter. As the box says, YOU DECIDE what kind of guy the player character (freelance pilot Edison Trent, the blonde guy on the box) gets to be. You can run escort missions and take out enemy ships. You can ship legit goods or make way more money smuggling contraband at the risk of discovery and death at the hands of one of the game’s state military or police forces.

This game must have had pretty high production values. It looked great in 2003, and even today, 11 years later, it holds up pretty well in that department. It featured plenty of voice acting talent, including John Rhys-Davies and George Takei. It has some cutscenes that are pretty clearly just in-game action and not pre-rendered, but that’s okay with me because I’m not a big fan of pre-rendered cutscenes anyway.

Excitement!

Excitement!

Without giving too much away, Trent is thrown into the middle of a growing interstellar war. The four empires that dominate Freelancer‘s star systems have been kept from the brink by a shaky system of alliances and truces, but at the beginning of the game this system is about to fall apart. It’s World War I in space, pretty much. And you’re in the center of the action, jumping from system to system, fighting pitched battles and running tense escort missions (SPOILER: every time you run an escort mission in this game you will get attacked along the way.)

This game features plenty of dogfights with small fighters and battles against larger cruiser and battleship-type craft.

This game features plenty of dogfights with small fighters and battles against larger cruiser and battleship-type craft.

The combat is fun and the controls are great. The basic gameplay in Freelancer is just really good. It’s also fun to jet around Trent’s corner of the galaxy and discover new star systems and visit their planets and stations as they open up. The universe of Freelancer isn’t all that big, but it is interesting – if you fly off the paths established by the empires of the game, you’ll find tight asteroid fields and thick clouds of gas that are home to rebel and “criminal” factions and their bases.

The reputation system this game uses was also pretty cool at the time. As a freelance pilot, Trent has a certain level of standing with each faction in the game. He can increase his rep with a faction by running missions for them and lower his rep with a faction by running missions for a rival faction. Missions can be found in the bars located on planets and stations. In a practical sense, though, all this reputation and mission stuff only really comes into play at the end of the story mode, when you get the freedom to roam all the systems without worrying about dramatic betrayals and sudden outbreaks of war. Scripted game events will mess up your rep with certain factions anyway, and it’s near impossible to maintain good rep with certain factions given the requirements of the story missions, so it’s not much use worrying about rep until after you’ve finished the main section of the game.

The warp gate ahead is a way for the player to move long distances in a short time.  The star systems in Freelancer also feature warp gates that carry your ship from system to system.

The warp gate ahead is a way for the player to move long distances in a short time. The star systems in Freelancer also feature warp gates that carry your ship from system to system.

Plotwise, Freelancer has a decent enough space adventure storyline, though the writers didn’t bother coming up with too many original ideas: the empires I mentioned above are basically Space America, Space Britain, Space Germany and Space Japan. That’s not really a big deal. What does kind of suck about Freelancer is that Trent, your player character, isn’t that interesting. He’s a tough pilot guy, and that’s all you can say about him. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that you can choose whether Trent is a lawful kind of guy who works with the police and military, a smuggler who trades with rebel groups or a straight up opportunist. This would be fine if he were a silent protagonist, but he’s not. Trent does talk and emote, and it seems like he’s trying to have something interesting about him.

Still, he’s just not interesting at all. This does hurt the game’s story and playability a bit because it means I don’t care all that much when Trent’s ship gets shot apart by a Rhineland cruiser. It’s frustrating, but I’m not crying for the guy or anything. By contrast, when I get Garrett killed in Thief II I apologize to him personally. Yes, I say “I’m sorry” to my screen.

This isn’t the main issue with Freelancer, though. The greatest problem with the game is that singleplayer mode gets old after a while. While the story is going, everything’s fine, but every single mission afterwards is a slight variation on “go to X and shoot Y until it explodes.” Whether it’s a straightforward “wipe out all the enemies” mission, a capture mission or an escort mission, it all boils down to the same thing. And while the combat in Freelancer is fun, it can get grating after a while. That’s a pretty serious problem as far as replayability goes.

Like every pilot in the world, you spend a lot of your Freelancer time in bars.  These are featured on every planet and dockable station and allow you to gather info and the same old boring jobs from the bartender and other bar patrons.  The most amusing thing about these scenes is that sometimes the bartender is a robot.

Like every pilot in the world, you spend a lot of your Freelancer time in bars. These are featured on every planet and dockable station and allow you to gather info and the same old boring jobs from the bartender and other bar patrons. The most amusing thing about these scenes is that sometimes the bartender is a robot.

That leaves multiplayer, which is… pretty much multiplayer. Not much to say about that, except that it adds a lot of value to the game by letting you strategize with friends and engage in dogfights with real players instead of the same old AI. There’s just one problem here – I’m pretty sure nobody plays Freelancer anymore. If you want space shooting PvP action, you’ll have to turn to EVE Online or a newer game instead.

If you’re going to play Freelancer today, the best way to make it interesting is by adding a bunch of mods. Modders have included hundreds of new ship types and even new systems to Freelancer‘s maps. The game might be worth playing just to fly around a behemoth and kill everything in your path.

freelancer enterprise

Its several flaws aside, I still have a soft spot for Freelancer, probably because I played it a whole lot when it came out. It is legitimately a good game, though. There are certainly a dozen other similar games that have surpassed it, but if you can get Freelancer for a dollar or two it’s well worth it.

Retrospective: The 7th Guest

Have you ever replayed a game that you remember loving as a kid but that, in retrospect, wasn’t really that good?

For me, that game was The 7th Guest. To be fair, it isn’t a bad game at all. In fact, it’s pretty fun at points and has a creepy and sometimes goofy atmosphere that somehow works. It was also on the cutting edge in terms of graphics when it was released in 1993. Unlike its more mellow puzzle-adventure game cousin Myst, however, The 7th Guest hasn’t aged well at all.

2spooky

2spooky

The story of The 7th Guest is confusing at best. From what I could tell, a crazy murderer named Henry Stauf had a dream of a doll and then made that doll and sold it and eventually became an extremely successful dollmaker. Then he expanded into sliding block puzzle games. Then he went even more crazy and shut himself in a creepy horror movie mansion he also dreamed about (and then designed and built, I guess?) Finally, he invited six seemingly random guests to a dinner party at said creepy mansion full of his dolls and sliding block puzzles, promising them stuff that each wanted desperately if they attended. All of this is explained in the opening cutscene, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

Speaking of cutscenes, boy are there some fucking cutscenes. They’re really grainy and badly recorded and their sound is nearly impossible to make out. Then again, this was 1993, and FMV games were still pretty new, so maybe The 7th Guest can be given a break. The contents of the cutscenes, though, aren’t excusable, because they often make even less sense than the opening video and feature extremely bad acting. But hey, I couldn’t do any better myself, and I can’t imagine Trilobyte had a huge budget for acting talent, so whatever.

Stauf's guests, minus one.

Stauf’s guests, minus one.

So, the story. It’s kind of a mess. It’s not really clear why Stauf is doing what he’s doing, except that he’s crazy and possibly sold his soul to the Devil (Stauf = Faust?) His six guests are all assholes in their own special ways, which makes them pretty much unsympathetic victims to Stauf’s death trap of a house. I won’t spoil anything except to say that it’s weird as hell this game was given to me, because as stated above I played this when I was seven and there are some sexual references in it. Really weird, goofy references that are played for laughs more than anything else, but still. There are also loads of skulls and spiders, and Stauf’s voice makes fun of you sometimes if you can’t figure out his puzzles. By the way, Stauf isn’t anywhere to be seen in person at his own party. Not a very good party host, is he.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles.  Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles. Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

And yeah, there are puzzles in this game. In fact, The 7th Guest can be fairly described as a puzzle game, because they’re about 98 percent of the whole experience: certain puzzles must be solved before some doors in the mansion can be unlocked and the story can progress. Some of the puzzles were pretty difficult to complete when I was a kid, but most of them are really just straightforward trial-and-error deals that aren’t too hard to work out. And of course, most of the puzzles have some kind of creepy skull/blood/spider theme to them. Oh Stauf, you wacky guy.

A few of the puzzles were especially frustrating (for example the Reversi blood cell game you played against the computer. That one sucked.) Also, some of the results of the completed puzzles were, well, puzzling.

I won't spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it's pretty stupid.

I won’t spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it’s pretty stupid.

One problem with The 7th Guest is that Trilobyte, the developer, clearly didn’t have enough interesting puzzle ideas in its stock to fill a whole game. Some of the puzzles were fun and interesting to work out, some were all right and a few were kind of dumb. Puzzle themes are also sometimes repeated, which can be annoying.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game.  Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game. Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

Despite its problems, The 7th Guest was a fresh experience in the early 90s. It also stood up well against its competition and sold a lot of copies, which makes sense when you consider the typical quality of FMV games (shit.) This success spurred Trilobyte on to make a sequel, The 11th Hour, which like most other people I’ve never played. I hear it’s pretty bad, though. It was also a commercial flop. The success of the original probably couldn’t have been repeated anyway. By 1995, people were getting a lot more used to playing good games on their PCs, and I imagine Trilobyte’s stuff looked pretty poor with all its pockmarks by comparison.

What with the resurgence of gaming nostalgia, however, The 7th Guest recently returned from the grave. It’s been on Steam for a few months. Getting The 7th Guest on Steam is probably the only way to play the game today without using a virtual machine program to run Windows 95 and buying a probably expensive as hell original copy of the game, so it’s the best way to play it by far. Just keep in mind that The 7th Guest is 20 years old when you’re playing it. I’d recommend waiting for a Steam sale – a few dollars is well worth the cost of experiencing an essential part of PC game history.

A Dubai travelogue: End

My trip came to a close after ten days. Most of those days were taken up by family visits, sometimes in the traditional style. Paying a social call in the Arab world involves sitting around in a living room, eating nuts and sweets and drinking juice and coffee or tea and talking about the kind of stuff people all over the world talk about: politics, money, who’s getting married to whom and who’s moving where and why etc.

Caffeine and sweets are half of all social life in the Arab world.  (Source: Ekim Caglar, Creative Commons)

Caffeine and sweets are half of all social life in the Arab world. (Source: Ekim Caglar, Creative Commons)

Consequently I didn’t get to visit many of Dubai’s tourist attractions – that wasn’t really the point of my trip. If you want to know more about those more typical attractions and activities (swimming with the dolphins, visiting the attraction-filled Burj al-Arab, going to the desert to camp out) look at Trip Advisor. That’s the best place to get ideas for your trip. One important thing to know about Dubai is that if you happen to have a lot of money, you can have a really good time there. For example, at Dubai’s Dolphin Bay you can pay a thousand dollars to do whatever the hell it is this guy in the below photograph is doing.

Note the dolphin's expression, which says: "Seriously, cameraman. Fuck this job."

Note the dolphin’s expression, which says: “Seriously, cameraman. Fuck this job.”

In most places in the world, money talks. In Dubai, it won’t shut up.

dubai rain

Above is a view from the place I was staying at in Dubai in the Mamzar district. If you don’t notice anything unusual about it, that’s probably because you live in a place where rain is something that happens on a pretty regular basis. Here in the UAE, it hardly ever rains – the only time it does is in the middle of winter, and even then only very rarely. When it rains, though, it damn well pours. 51 weeks of dry heat and one week of typhoon season: that’s the weather in this particular corner of the world. All things considered, though, December/January is the perfect time to visit the Gulf. Temperatures hung around 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit during my trip.

The journey home was pretty miserable. A total of 26 hours spent holed up on three different planes, in coach, with my knees jammed against the chair in front of me because the airlines keep inching the rows closer and closer to each other every year. As if they think we don’t know what they’re up to, the bastards.

Dallas Ft. Worth, where I spent 10 very enjoyable hours on my way home.

Dallas Ft. Worth, where I spent 10 very enjoyable hours on my way home.

My final memorable experience on my Dubai trip had nothing to do with Dubai, but with American Airlines. After a planned four-hour layover at DFW and a three-hour delay at the gate, these idiots had us sitting on the tarmac for nearly three hours more without much notice from the cockpit as to what the hell was going on. I heard one mumbled announcement about a de-icing which, fair enough, we don’t want the plane to crash or whatever might happen as a result of negligence. But please, American Airlines pilot, tell us how long it might take and what the hell exactly is going on. If I hadn’t had my 3DS and a copy of Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors my head certainly would have exploded. So yeah. Fuck American Airlines is my opinion on that.

On the other hand, the British Airways flight from Dubai to London, while not great by any means, had personal TVs with lots of shows and movies available for each coach passenger. I watched an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson and James May raced in a rental car and a sailboat respectively from one end of New Zealand’s North Island to the other. The same episode had Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) race against Warwick Davis and a few other actors/celebrities. That was admittedly a lot of fun, so +1 for British Airways. Emirates still wins the gold for best coach experience, though.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, season 4 starts in April.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, season 4 starts in April.

Aside from my whining about bad flight experiences (if I were tweeting this I suppose I’d stick a #firstworldproblems on there) my trip was extremely interesting. If you’ve got the time and the money, I’d suggest checking out Dubai. If you’re into shopping there probably isn’t a better place in the world to go right now. If you’re not, there are still plenty of things to do there. That’s a pretty bland way to finish this series of posts, I admit, but it’s all I can think to say. An anticlimactic ending. But considering the fact that half of this Dubai travel series has been about airplane trips, grocery stores, milk, and cities that aren’t Dubai, maybe that’s appropriate.

Persona 4 Golden: a pretty good reason to buy a PS Vita

p4g-2

If you have money to burn and feel like buying a system for just one game, consider getting a Vita for Persona 4 Golden.

That’s not really an accurate statement, to be honest. There are quite a few good titles on the Vita right now. Last year, though, there weren’t. One of the few that I was at all interested in was this port of the popular 2008 JRPG title Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. I’m a massive SMT fan and loved Persona 4, but that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to buy a Vita.

But Golden isn’t just a port – it actually adds content and hours of gameplay to the PS2 original. There’s a whole new dungeon. There are more Personas to fuse. There are new Arcana that Persona 4 Golden makes up to shove these Personas into. There are a bunch of new costumes your characters can wear in battle (including a few slightly creepy ultra-fanservice outfits for the girls in your party.) There’s a new battle theme, meaning now there are two of them instead of just one (thanks Atlus!) There are several new story events and some new activities for your character to experience. There are two new social links.

One of the two is kind of irritating.  Thanks, Atlus.

One of the two is kind of irritating. Thanks, Atlus.

P4G includes a bunch of extras outside of the game itself. You can now replay cutscenes, watch Persona-related videos like a live concert by whoever brought you those Persona battle themes and background music and a quiz show starring the MC, Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko, naturally hosted by Teddie. What fun!

Another extra: philosophy lectures!

Another extra: philosophy lectures!

Newcomers to Persona 4 aren’t going to understand what the hell any of this is about, so here’s a primer: Persona 4 is a half-dungeon crawler half-social sim. Your player character has to fight shadows in a magical world with his high school friends through their Personas, magical manifestations of their inner beings that can beat up monsters. At the same time, he still has to attend school, establish relationships with his non-Persona-using classmates and townspeople and hide everything he’s doing from his detective uncle. It makes more sense when you play the game, believe me.

Don’t worry about picking up the original if you’re planning on getting P4G. If you have a choice between P4 and P4G, this is the one to get. The original game is all here and then some – it doesn’t take away anything from the old Persona 4. The gameplay is the same, albeit with a few tweaks to the all-important Persona fusion system that make it easier to use. Unfortunately, this means it also retains the few genuinely annoying parts of the game.

Seriously, Teddie.  Fuck you and your bear puns.

Seriously, Teddie. Fuck you and your bear puns.

If you want to know why Persona 4 is a 10 out of 10 game and one of the best JRPGs to come out in the past ten years, go look for a P4 review. The game is simply well-made and a lot of fun. Moreover, it brings together “hardcore” Shin Megami Tensei fans and gamers who can’t stomach the harsh and sometimes cheap difficulty of main line SMT games. It pretty much made SMT’s reputation in the West, and for an American fan of slightly obscure/weird JRPGs (meaning ones that aren’t Final Fantasy) this is enough reason to love it.

The only sticking point is whether P4G is worth buying a Vita for if you don’t have one already. I know a few people who would say yes, but I’m not so sure. If money is no object, or if you’re big on mobile gaming and don’t want to or can’t sit in front of a TV screen for hours on end, then I’d say go for it. If it is and you’ve already got a PS2, though, I’d go with the original P4. You’ll get essentially the same experience, only without the extras that P4G adds.

All in all, though, I don’t regret my decision to buy a Vita. P4G adds a lot to the original Persona 4, and it allows you to play it on the bus/train (I never did this, but if you don’t mind people wondering what the hell you’re doing this should be a benefit for you.) And anyway, the Vita’s got plenty of other good games out. Really it has.

A Dubai travelogue: Abu Dhabi

“Nameless blog writer,” I hear you saying, “you’re a dumbass. Abu Dhabi isn’t a part of Dubai. How can you include it in a Dubai travelogue?”

You’re right. Abu Dhabi is an entirely different city/emirate from Dubai. So why am I writing about it here? Because I went there on my trip and it’s in the same country.

abu dhabi coast 35

Let’s get the Wikipedia part of this post out of the way: Abu Dhabi the capital of the UAE and the richest and largest emirate. AD has pretty much all the oil wealth in the country, so its leadership of the UAE is only natural. The city is perched on an island off the Gulf coast. It was my home for a few years around the turn of the millennium when I was still a snotty, stupid teenager. I have pretty fond memories of my time there.

Despite its vast riches, the city aspect of Abu Dhabi isn’t nearly as grand as that of Dubai. It has experienced crazy growth similar to Dubai’s, but not quite on the same scale skyline-wise. AD has fewer attractions, a smaller population and a slower pace of life than its eastern neighbor. If Dubai is the wild girl in the family, then Abu Dhabi is her more sensible older sister – not as exciting to be around, but with her you’re less likely to wake up the day after with a severe headache and a stiff neck.

A park in Abu Dhabi.  The late ruler and founder of the country built a lot of parks and planted trees extensively in his city.

A park in Abu Dhabi. The late ruler and founder of the country built a lot of parks and planted trees extensively in his city.

So Abu Dhabi’s not quite as much “fun” as Dubai to visit. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there, though. I used to live in Abu Dhabi, and having just visited again after 10-12 years I can say a lot has changed. Firstly, there’s this:

emirate palace

The Emirates Palace is a hotel, but it’s probably the richest/most expensive looking hotel in the world. Non-customers (which is what you probably are unless you have money to burn) can visit the Palace’s lobby and eat in its restaurants. I came here with my cousin once. It’s highly recommended – even if you’re not into glitzy rich stuff, and I’m honestly not, the Palace takes the concept to another level entirely to the point that it’s well worth seeing.

The top sell on the Emirates Palace lobby menu is the cappuccino topped with pure gold flakes.  Yes, it's a real thing that you can buy.

The top sell on the Emirates Palace lobby menu is the cappuccino topped with pure gold flakes. Yes, it’s a real thing that you can buy.

On the more religious end of things, there’s the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, located on the way out of town. The mosque is massive, the largest in the country, and looks like it’s right out of the One Thousand and One Nights; all white domes and arches with towering minarets. It’s also extremely new – construction on it ended just a few years ago. Visitors are encouraged, but remember the dress code: conservative for both men and women. You’re not on the beach in Rio here.

A view from either the courtyard or the outside of one of the walls of Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

A view from either the courtyard or the outside of one of the walls of Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

The city itself is all business on its face, but it does have some attractions. Shopping is a huge deal (although really, if you’re in the UAE for shopping, most of your time will probably be spent in Dubai.) The city is fairly conservative, but it does allow for alcohol sales in hotel restaurants and bars, so feel free to have a drink or ten as long as you keep it indoors.

The Corniche (coastal sidewalk spanning the length of the city) is also nice. Well worth a visit in the winter and spring, when the weather isn’t too hot.

Source: Rüdiger Meier (Creative Commons)

Source: Rüdiger Meier (Creative Commons)

At the end of the Corniche, a spit of land stretches out into the Gulf and curves to the east, forming a sort of bay. This part of town is called the breakwater. When I lived here there wasn’t much out in that area (except for a great seafood restaurant that had been built on a ship in the harbor called Abu Tawfish – it’s sadly gone now.) Now, however, there’s a pretty big shopping center called Marina Mall right at the breakwater’s “elbow”. It has a lot of cafes and great views of both the Gulf and Abu Dhabi harbor, so I’d suggest a visit. It’s no Dubai Mall in terms of size or scope, but the environment out on the breakwater is nice.

To be honest, the only reason I went back to Abu Dhabi for one day was to visit my family there. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have made the trip. On the other hand, I’m used to Abu Dhabi having lived there, so it’s not that interesting to me. It might be interesting to you, though, so why not check it out. There’s a bus service that makes daily trips between the two cities, which are only 90 minutes apart.