The 8 Ball 9.24.13: Top 8 Stealth Games
Welcome to another edition of The 8 Ball where the topic is on stealth games. Liana and I came up with this topic due to our mutual love of Blacklist and Splinter Cell getting back to its roots. I’ve had a mixed love affair with stealth games, some of them I obsess over (many in this list) and others I can’t get into at all like, Dishonored, Hitman, and a few others. Still I’ve constructed a list of some all-time great stealth games and a few of my person favorites. Let’s begin:
Batman is one of the best games of this generation, which is bewildering when you really think about it. Aside from the production values, the combat, the story and the locomotive elements, stealth is really where Batman shined. Nothing was more fun than hanging upside down from a gargoyle head as the witless enemies grow terrified as their numbers dwindle from your actions. The game made stealth a near-requirement in certain parts (especially late game), given the fragility of Batman and the number of enemies in some areas. Arkham Asylum made you feel like Batman which is what made it a joy to play. While Arkham City went further with the gadgets and combat, it was less fun to actually explore and get around.
NOLF is basically a thinly-veiled spoof of Austin Powers/James Bond but with a strong female hero. That might actually make it a better property because Cate Archer could have been a role-model for women. NOLF was all about the battle between UNITY and the evil forces at H.A.R.M. trying to destroy the world. You used gadgets like robotic poodles, gas disguised as perfume sprays and a “body remover” powder that actually removes bodies from the levels. The game is a little clunky by today’s standards but if you can track down a copy of it (or NOLF 2), it is well worth playing.
I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was putting this game on my list and he was upset by it. His argument was that Chaos Theory was better. My argument back to him was that I never played Chaos Theory, so that doesn’t matter. I find Blacklist struck the perfect balance between a Splinter Cell game being difficult but actually making the game fun/easy to play. You can get through every level without touching a soul in the game, just bypassing (or near enough) all encounters. Or you can play the game like a basic version of Gears of War, loudly gunning down everyone in your path. There are a few annoying objectives in the game but by and large it’s the most fun I’ve had with a Splinter Cell, to date.
The Assassin’s Creed games have been coming out like clock-work recently, but the third in the series remains the best. Like with Blacklist, it just had the perfect fusion of either being able to be sneaky and stalk your targets, or just running down your target and murdering them in front of everyone. The big improvements in this game are obviously the Brotherhood, and to a lesser extent the crossbow. But the Brotherhood is a great tool for you to use to kill a target with absolutely no (or little) suspicion drawn to you. Even though every member of the Brotherhood dresses exactly like you. To me, Brotherhood is the apex of everything Assassin’s Creed should be. It’s just a shame that the recent games seem to be moving away from this high point to a more pirate-themed direction.
Who knew that the Far Cry series could be taken in this direction? By which I mean a game that people would actually be excited to play. Far Cry 3 kind of shocked the gaming world when it came out and was a superb experience. Sure clearing out the various outposts was fun, especially just using a knife or your trusty bow and arrow, but it was the hunting mechanic that was the key to the game. Slinking around the forest or plains, trying to get closer to the tiger to perform a knife kill, never got old in the game. The more you hunted and leveled up, the more lethal you became to let you hunt more dangerous beasts. I’m honestly surprised PETA didn’t have a fit about this game. No bigger rush came though when you would sneak behind a guard, knife him, then sprint to his buddy killing him, and keeping the combo chain going, until you finally threw another knife into the last guard. It was such a great feeling in the game.
Mark of the Ninja shares almost the exact trajectory of Far Cry 3 for me. When I heard about the game I was neutral, until I remembered that they made Shank 1 and 2. Those were not great games, to say the least. However, like with FC3, Mark of the Ninja surprised the hell out of me when I did play it. It does 2D stealth games “right” by giving you big levels to explore, plenty of hiding spaces, and the ninja tools to let you be as sneaky as possible. The one-hit kills are particularly fun to do, sneaking up behind a guard and executing them with a quick slice of your blade. However tools like the infinite supply of darts and the grappling hook can make distraction or simple avoidance common place as well. With this game, and Don’t Starve, Klei Entertainment is on its way to becoming a very respectable developer.
While Mark of the Ninja got the 2D stealth action down correctly, MGS does it “right” for 3D games. This was a landmark game when it came out, forever changing how people perceived the Playstation brand and games in general. Here was a game that had a rich, full story, a ton of voice acting, beautiful (for the time) graphics, and the gameplay to back it all up, MGS might actually be the most important game of the Playstation console. Most of the game had you memorizing guard patterns, or watching the mini-map to see where they were facing, so you could slip up behind them and break their scrawny necks over and over again. If that failed, donning a cardboard box was always a fool-proof plan to get through an area. The newer MGS games obviously look/sound better and have better gameplay systems (but goofier stories), but the original one is still the best there is.
A controversial choice but one I stand behind fully, Riddick is the best stealth game, period. It legitimized both first person melee combat, the minimalist hud that gives you information based on visual cues and for being arguably the finest movie-based game ever created, Riddick does it all. The highlight is the interplay between the stealth mechanics and the first person combat. When crouched in darkness the screen has a blue shade to it to let the player know that you can’t be seen. Then you can sneak around, choking out guards or killing them all in your quest to escape the prison. The great thing is, is that for about the first third of the game you have no guns at all. The most damaging weapon you’ll get is either a screwdriver or some other type of shiv so you can take various prisoners or guards out quickly. Riddick is a game that everyone should play, just to see how a scrappy studio (Starbreeze) can make one of the best games ever without compromising gameplay, creative control, or the character’s voice.
Note: I only mean Butcher Bay in this pick, not the lesser Dark Athena.
Top 8 Games that Use Stealth
I had a tough decision to make this week: did I try to show what a smarty pants I am by sticking to official stealth franchises, or would I go with my heart and include some games that aren’t really defined as stealth games, but still incorporate the type of gameplay enough to make it a meaningful part of the experience? I decided to go with the latter, because it makes for a more diverse list and allows me a pretty nostalgic walk down memory lane. I also decided to list franchises instead of individual titles for variety’s sake. My take on this list is that I only included games I personally like. I try to acknowledge other “important” games, but I’m trying to show readers some respect by being honest about my personal preferences.
The thing about stealth games is that they really are for players that don’t mind having their asses kicked over and over until they get the right approach. Weirdos like me call that “challenge”. Sane people who play video games call that “frustration.” Stealth games constrain the player in ways that shooters and beat-em-ups don’t, but while you give up that instant sense of power in a stealth game, you gain a definite sense of achievement when you complete objectives. Stealth games are, perhaps, an acquired taste, but so is black coffee. I love me my black coffee. (Don’t confuse that with Hot Coffee, okay? I know GTA V just came out, but no.)
Honorable Mention: Snooper Troops
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of this series. It was an edutainment series from the early 1980s that I played on the Apple IIe. I was too young to play Castle Wolfenstein, but Snooper Troops games were available during computer time in school. My most vivid memories of that series were the sequences where you sneaked into someone’s house in the dark – a black screen with white lines indicating walls – and snooped around for evidence while trying to avoid detection — your avatar was indicated by a pair of moving footprints, and the evidence was question marks spaced out on the screen.
This sounds lame by modern standards, but back then it was awesomesauce! This was my first experience with anything resembling a stealth gameplay mechanic, and it’s stuck with me for decades.
8: Mark of the Ninja
Retro-inspired indie gaming is big right now, and Mark of the Ninja is basically the illegitimate child of Shinobi and the early Metal Gear games… now that’s an image you can’t un-think. Solid Snake just took on a whole new meaning… Wow. Anyway, yeah, Mark of the Ninja… oh my brain is broken now. Forget it. Watch the video if you want to get a sense of the game.
Why list Mark of the Ninja, but not any of the Metal Gear games themselves? I’m pissed off that Quiet is pale and half-naked in the friggin’ desert in the Metal Gear 5 trailers, not because I’m offended, but because as a fellow pale person, that doesn’t make any frikkin’ sense! There is no sunblock in the world that protects you from hours of exposure to that kind of sun, and seeing this image causes me pain.
Seriously, it’s the mole people equivalent of watching someone get kicked in the nuts. So screw you, Snake. No list for you!
7: The Mark of Kri
The Mark of Kri was a lesser-known PS2 game. However, I remember being captivated by its Polynesian-inspired setting, the brutality of the bare-handed stealth kills, and the way the game managed to make a fairly bulky character fit into stealth gameplay. I don’t seem to be alone in remembering this game fondly, because it’s coming to the PSN this week!
6: Uncharted 2 and 3 (and the new Tomb Raider)
Uncharted games are known for being “Dude Raider” action-adventure platformers as opposed to stealth games. However, I relied heavily on stealth in the last two games of the trilogy, especially while playing on higher difficulty settings. Uncharted 3 most notably puts you in positions where you begin a map weaponless and have to dispatch the first few enemies using smarts and planning before you can start blasting away using cover-based third-person shooter-style play. Ironically, the stealth gameplay filtered back into Lara Croft’s rebooted Tomb Raider adventures, which indicates their effectiveness and success with fans. We’ll give Lara unofficial shared status with Nathan Drake, because the borrowing that goes on between these two franchises is undeniable.
Another semi-shared slot here. I included Dishonored because it continues some of the “stealth action with RPG elements” traditions established in Thief, a game I personally didn’t get into but of which I understand the significance in the history of video games. The other thing about Dishonored is that its art direction is just so darned pretty, and anything that, stylistically, doesn’t fall into some done to death aesthetic is something I support. Similarly, its gameplay handles stealth differently from others on this list, and the player choice component sacrifices difficulty for style. That’s okay, because the game has style to spare.
4: Assassin’s Creed
The Assassin’s Creed series is great, and took a massive leap in quality between the original game and Assassin’s Creed 2, when the story and the chase mechanic both vastly improved. The franchise incorporates stealth gameplay into a much greater whole that is one of the most interesting, dense, science-fiction franchises in the modern gaming era. While the story structure in Assassin’s Creed 3 might be bumpy in the early going – who can forget the tutorial that seemed like it was never going to end — the general consensus among players seems to be “I had fun though”, and since these are games, that’s what matters.
3: The Last of Us
I love this game. Love it, love it, love it. It’s one of the few survival action titles I feel manages to maintain its tone and mood right until the end without getting boring or ridiculous, and that’s partly due to the scarcity of resources in its post-apocalyptic setting. On harder difficulties, stealth kills are essential, but even when the settings are easier, sneaking up and shanking a Cordyceps is just so much more satisfying than shooting them, because of the grizzly melee close-ups. This positive rewards system for using stealth is extremely satisfying, and it’s the tightest combination of stealth and exploration I’ve experienced, which is fitting in a world that is equally balanced between death and life.
2: Batman: Arkham Asylum/Arkham City
I almost listed this duo as my number one pick, because they’re just fantastic games. They look great, the voice acting is incredible, and they manage to add some fresh elements to Batman canon. While the films have strayed away from the colorful elements that make Batman’s universe alive and fun even with an abundance of psychopaths and murderers — as well as its incredible cast of female characters — all those elements are proudly on display in the Arkham games, and it’s still moody and dark. As a stealth game, however… well, yes, there are strong stealth elements that are extremely fun to utilize. But there are also significant portions of the game where Batman is beating up enemies with combo-based melee mechanics, so I stepped back from declaring it the best of the stealth bunch. The thing that these games add to stealth gameplay, however, is the empowering fear factor that attacking silently provides. It’s a unique twist, and because it’s Batman, the melodrama works.
1: Splinter Cell
My fondness for Splinter Cell comes partially from having the unique experience of interviewing Michael Ironside while dressed as Cheetara from the Thundercats… and he actually didn’t think I was a freak. The dude was confronted with this:
And acted like nothing weird was going on. Michael Ironside is, therefore, awesome. Very strange bias declared. Moving on.
The story of the Splinter Cell franchise spans over a decade, and is not just the history of a game, but is a window into the rise of Ubisoft and the video game industry in general. Because of this, the various games have had to contort and evolve with player tastes while still maintaining a core tradition that is distinct, both visually and thematically. Splinter Cell has been used as a showpiece to launch multiple Ubisoft studios, and Sam Fisher is one of the more recognizable protagonists in gaming – Not a bad achievement for someone who spends a good portion of his time in the dark!
Splinter Cell’s history is notable because it’s lasted as long as it has without a reboot, and it’s evolved its stealth mechanics without breaking them, which is a feat in itself. Its latest instalment, Splinter Cell Blacklist, plays like an anniversary film the way Skyfall celebrated fifty years of James Bond: it incorporates nods to various points in the history of the franchise, including gear, play styles, unique multiplayer modes, and plot points, while telling its own story, staying accessible to new fans, and introducing its own cast to move Fisher’s future adventures forward. While Grand Theft Auto V has the limelight right now, Sam Fisher has always worked in the shadows, and it’s my hope that his brand of quiet, flawed, but noble hero will continue to find success in a landscape where Grand Theft Auto’s cast of reprehensible douchebags is the sales darling of the video game world.
As said in the intro, there were a few big series that didn’t make my list for various reasons. The big few are probably Dishonored and the Hitman games. I’ve just never been good at any of the Hitman games, despite owning all of them, I think. As for Dishonored, I dislike how the game limited you to how much magic you could regenerate. Sure you could use potions, but I wanted you to be able to passively regenerate half your magic, not 1/5th of it. Same goes for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Anyways, other games that didn’t make my list are: Sly Cooper, Deus Ex, Thief, any other MGS or Splinter Cell games, The Saboteur, Alpha Protocol, Syphon Filter, and The Last of Us
There weren’t a lot of comments from last week’s column, but I’ll address the few good ones. I did kind of forget about Kinzie from Saints Row 3 and 4, but that’s because I don’t view her as a nerdy character. She has nerdy tendencies but the voice acting is too sunshiney for me to really see it. I did kind of think about Travis Touchdown but I’ve only play No More Heroes for 15 minutes, so I couldn’t comment on the character. Also, Max Payne isn’t a nerd, just a guy with anger issues.