Waypoint Weeklies: Best Stealth

Crouch down, find cover, or put on a disguise, because this week, we’re talking about stealth mechanics and sneaking missions!

What is your favorite stealth game or mission? What kind of detection displays do you like (e.g. the Soliton radar, or Skyrim’s sneak reticle)? What are the most stylish or amusing disguises? What are the best stealth perks/perk trees? And when it’s an option, do you prefer to play stealth missions lethally or not?

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There are some people who say that a stealth game is only as good as when you get caught. Those fools are wrong. A stealth game is only as good as its face and neck stabbing.

Shanking a dude is a tried and true method of making a game awesome. Assassin’s Creed was an under baked open world with repetitive mission structure, but the stabbing was so good that we got a Michael Fassbender movie out of it. Of course, I’ll also broaden the tent to include neck snapping, because hearing “uh uh uh crack” with CD quality sound in Metal Gear Solid never got old.

You wanna know how good icing a motherfucker is? FromSoftware, arguably the most impactful developer of the past 10+ years, decided to make Sekiro all about that stab life. If I’m not stealthily cutting through people’s spleens, then I’m posture breaking them to get that sweet, sweet red dot.

In conclusion, face and neck stabbing is a land of contrasts. More games should include it.

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My favorite way to play just about any game is as a ranged, stealthy character. Bows, sniper rifles, let me crouch in some corner and pick enemies off from a few dozen meters away. The Elder Scroll games are a classic for this, of course - I like to play a necromancer archer in Skyrim, conjure up my own bow and distract the enemies with some thralls while I sneak around. Plus, if I don’t plan to get hit, I can wear some of the nice outfits instead of armor. Sniper Elite 4 has a delightful range of difficulty settings so I can make the stealth as challenging as I like without making all of the Nazis bullet sponges.

Also, shouting out an itch game I really like:

I love games where our interaction is primarily text-based; this might be the only stealth game I’ve seen do it, though. It’s a really interesting take on stealth. Be sure to note the epilepsy warning!

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The later Assassin’s Creed games (Origins forward) have really good stealth mechanics. Valhalla’s superstab is a great addition to the arsenal, allowing you to more easily fell enemies that previous games would have made you fight in one of those old-fashioned knock-down drag-outs where everybody forms an orderly queue.

Hitman…I’m not sure what there is to say about Hitman that hasn’t already been said at this point. There’s a bonus exit to the Miami level if you’re wearing the flamingo mascot suit (yes you can be a flamingo mascot) in particular that I do not want to spoil, but I feel like Hitman is the free spot on the “disguise stealth” bingo card.

Shout-out to Prey for letting me be a coffee cup.

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I prefer modern Hitman to the other games with stealth that I’ve tried. It’s nice to be able to be semi-in-the-open, in a disguise, walking around an environment instead of sneaking behind boxes. The waiting in other games never appealed to me and nothing else has given me as many options as Hitman to get out of tedious situations. That said, most of my other stealth game experience comes from 10+ year-old games.

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My favourite kind of stealth is hiding in plain sight. Hitman is a disguise-based version of that.

Assassin’s Creed has also been mentioned already, but not the actually really good and unique multiplayer modes it had for a few installments! You and a handful of other players are in a small level with many copies of each character model, everyone is randomly assigned a player to kill. You have to identify and take out your target without being identified and taken out by your pursuer. Or pursuers, IIRC you can have multiple ones if you’re high on the scoreboard. NPCs never do anything “high profile” like running or climbing, only slow walking and standing in certain places to chat so you better not do those things, either. Players also have certain special tools, like smoke bombs or poison, which make things like stealthy killing or escaping easier. It was great! I’m sad they stopped!

Another game that has taken this type of stealth to its logical extreme is Spy Party, in which one player is a spy at a party (oooohhhh I get the name now!) who has to do certain missions like bugging the ambassador or making contact with a double agent (“banana bread”) within a time limit. The other player is a sniper on the outside, looking for tells, with the ultimate goal of shooting the spy with the single bullet they have. It’s amazing and I wish I was better at it.

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Yeah, Matthias! Spy party is such a suspenseful game & very much fun or a great way to hang out with friends.

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Shout out to the light meter in Splinter Cell that conveyed how visible you were, changing depending on whether you were in a well-lit environment or shrouded in shadow.

I remember enjoying my time with Thief, with cool tools like the rope arrow which could be fired into wooden looking surfaces so that you could climb up the rope to higher areas. But I remember starting Thief 2 and was amazed that it gave you an invisibility potion and a slow-fall potion, the latter I used to jump off a balcony and land safely.

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I never expected turn based stealth to work and am glad that Invisible, Inc. proved me wrong. How it ramps up the tension over the course of every level is masterclass game design. It avoids a common problem in many other stealth games, which is to wait for that perfect moment instead of taking a risk or using a consumable.

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A game of Monaco can and will often turn into pure chaos… but I loved playing the Gentleman with his regenerating disguise, just staying calm and waiting while everyone’s getting shot, before slowly walking to the bodies to revive them.

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I’ve never been a big fan of the whole “stealth games are only as good as the action when you get caught” thing people say. In stealth-action games, sure. But a lot of old school stealth games and some modern takes that stay more focused on stealth assume you’ll die when you’re caught. You’re supposed to be outgunned in games like Thief and the early Splinter Cells. The element of scrambling to salvage your life is good and fun, but so too is reloading and trying to perfectly weave through the stealth puzzle again.

On the subject of Thief, few mechanics compare to the good old rope-arrow. Morph in Prey is a great shout tho.

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I am one of these people. I saw this thread and thought “time for me to find that Dia Lacina tweet,” but alas, this thread seems to have anticipated that. Though I think that axiom is maybe less about stealth mechanics as core tenets in a game’s design and more about how a lot of games choose to incorporate stealth mechanics as a kind of icing, where it’s not the only focus but just there because someone on the dev team (or maybe the marketing team) was like “we need some more spice.” One of the things that can almost immediately sour me on a game is a bad forced-stealth section — like I might be utterly loving something and after ten minutes of unexpected or forced stealth that feels shoehorned into a game that wasn’t built with it in mind I will be ready to toss it. That shrine quest in the Lost Woods was the only thing that ever made me want to stop playing Breath of the Wild. If a game is going to have stealth it’s got to be a well-integrated part of the game’s systems.

That said… @navster, I don’t think we disagree! Because Sekiro is by far my favorite stealth game. You can probably play through Sekiro without stealth but man, it would not be nearly as fun without it, which for me is the marker of really good stealth. It should be kinetic and fun; it should have reasonable allowances that maybe kill the realism a bit but make you feel like a ninja (coincidentally, Mark of the Ninja is maybe my second-favorite stealth game — and I think the reason both these work is that they’re less about like military-style Splinter Cell stealth and more stylized, comic-ish, ninja-adjacent stealth). Stealth is pure video game power fantasy, and the way Sekiro lets you chain kills and activate Ninjitsu skills that either augment the stealth further or open up new ways to approach big fights is just so satisfying.

That all aside (at the risk of writing way too much here), I want to shout out XCOM 2’s Concealment mechanic, because it allows for some incredible initiating moments. There’s very little I’ve ever found as satisfying in a game space as lining up an Overwatch trap knowing my soldiers will be revealed as soon as the aliens move, and also knowing that that entire pod is about to be annihilated by six guerrilla fighters all firing at once.

Also — Heat Signature! Heat Signature is all about infiltration, about being an interloper on massive enemy vessels, sneaking around and incapacitating crews that should (and do) easily overpower you if they manage to find you. It also lets you escape by shooting a window and jetting out into the vacuum of space, which I always do, no matter how easy it might be to just walk back to my ship. Moreover, the way it gives you time to fix things if you break stealth but can think quickly enough leads to some great organic problem-solving. Love love love that game, more people should play it.

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Thanks for the prompt to look back into Spy Party. I went to check if the game was finally out of Early Access (it is not) and found that the Spy Party YouTube channel has a bunch of footage from competitive Spy Party tournaments. Definitely the most Voight-Kampff thing I’ve seen today.

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This reminded me of a game that has a good example of the bad stealth mechanics you’re describing! Call of Juarez is split into two halves: you play one half as a badass priest with armor and dual revolvers in action levels and the other half as a wimpy kid who has to sneak around everywhere. The stealth levels suck because you have the same weapons, but no ammo and no health, so they’re defined by your inability to use the fun tools instead of something like Thief/Dishonored/etc. where your tools enhance your stealth capabilities.

The thing that made me quit the game is one stealth level where you have to sneak into the farm you escaped from while your character has an interior monologue about all of the awful torture they did to him and if anyone ever sees you, you immediately game over, no chance to hide again. If you try to shoot one of the guards your character thinks “What? Why would I do that?” and I was like “Dude, you won’t shut up about why you should do that.” Clearly the devs thought I might try to use my limited resources in this way, but instead of allowing multiple solutions to the puzzle, they arbitrarily force you to have an even more limited toolset for this one specific level.

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There’s 2 ways I engage with stealth:

-save scum my way through it
-don’t

There’s one exception to this though, Metal Gear Solid V. It’s the only stealth game that I felt gave me all the tools to take the successes with failures. I slowly would work through bases large and small trying to find windows in patrols to move forward, taking out guards and moving their sleeping bodies out of sight, stowing away on trucks to get past checkpoints. And when it all goes bad I tended to try and slip away over fighting. Too bad the game isn’t finished.

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The only game I’ve ever actually gotten really good at stealth mechanics is actually The Evil Within. Note: it’s not because that game’s stealth is actually good. It’s really because I don’t like engaging in the combat. So, I take that game so freaking slowly, so I don’t get caught. I will usually wipe out an entire area of people before even exploring. It’s just easier that way.

I’m not sure, but I think that puts me firmly in the “I don’t like stealth mechanics” camp.

The true measure of stealth game quality is how fast it’s quick save and quick load are.

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I think the point re shoehorning in the stealth is absolutely it. The “how good is the action after stealth” thing makes me think of the recent Wolfensteins and Tomb Raider more so than a more focused stealth game. I still think it’s a question worth asking with the latter, but it’s just not the only question. With the Dishonored series, for example, which I have played through countless times and has very good combat mechanics, I usually decided ahead of time whether it’s a playthrough I’m going be quicksave/quickloading through or playing more organically.

Imo with stealth-ass stealth games it’s totally legit to not engage with the combat mechanics at all sometimes if I’m there for the sneakies. Much like tacking-on stealth mechanics into action games, it’s arguably better for focused stealth games to not get caught up trying to make the post-discovery action anything particularly special in a stealth game, particularly if there’s a limited budget.

Speaking of which, more people should play Aragami before that second one comes out. The main stealth mechanic is that you can blink between shadows, and you are basically required to paint temporary dark spots on the ground to allow you to move unseen across wider spaces. It’s not the most refined game, but there’s a lot to like.

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To me, the “action after the stealth” line (which I remember being the more broad “what happens after the stealth”, but I could be wrong…) has always been about this problem. Because the player will break stealth at some point. So what happens next?

If the only answer to breaking stealth is to hit F9, that’s a bad stealth game. If the answer to breaking stealth is to murder a bunch of dudes, that’s a good action game with some stealth mechanics. If you have tools to evade, escape, hide, and then try again, that’s a good stealth game.

Metal Gear Solid and Hitman are legendary because they support both the “good action game” and “good stealth game” outcomes from breaking stealth.

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while i agree with hitman being supportive of both methods in terms of gameplay i wonder if the ranking system undermines this to some degree by applying some pressure