Waypoint Weeklies: Best Stealth

I think another important question in stealth design is what the game actually incentivizes you to do. I have extremely mixed feelings on MGSV as a stealth game. As far as writing and themes, I think it is catastrophically bad, but I’ll put those feelings aside for the sake of the conversation.

Infiltrating each camp or base the first time was simply sublime. Sitting up on a hill with my binoculars, observing patrol routes, noting good angles of approach and finally putting all of that planning together was absolutely phenomenal and something that most games simply cannot match. Being repeatedly asked to tackle new (sometimes identical) missions on the same camps was an absolute drag. I had already identified what the best point of attack was, and I would likely repeat that or force myself to take a less-than-ideal approach just for the thrill of something new.

But also, I can’t stand the fulton. Again, putting aside the goofiness of it, what with abducting and brainwashing soldiers and all that. As a general starting point with stealth, I want to leave as light a footprint as possible. Sure, I’ll takeout a guard here or there and that’s always fun, but I want to be encouraged by the game to be judicious and economical with my decisions. The clean run in and out is the power fantasy. But I felt like MGSV wanted me to stripmine every valuable item and good personnel from the map. I won’t say this has to be a problem for everyone, but it definitely was for me.

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I came to this thread to say MGSV because it really is the apotheosis of 3D stealth design, but it’s other systems subordinate all that in favour of grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down.

Once you get to Part 2 and the game starts throwing Naked missions at you where you can’t bring in any gear (including the fulton), you’re reminded of how incredible the core of that game is.

I’d also submit Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory as a great example of how old school save scum stealth is still incredibly cool and rewarding. It’s really not that hard to avoid getting spotted in that game, but it does require an in-depth knowledge of the game’s unique mechanics and systems. Possibly one of my favourite stealth game moments was making a headshot while hanging from a rail, but the round went straight through the guard’s head and into a plate glass window behind him that was alarmed. A real motherfucker moment, but a good one too.

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Mark of the Ninja best stealth game ive played.

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Count me among the folks who don’t mind a stealth game that is primarily designed with save scumming in mind. I appreciate the alternative take on it, I enjoy messy stealth gone loud moments, but I think it’s not universal.

The best counter arguments IMHO are two top down tactical games: Shadow Tactics (which is so invested in the save scum that it flashes a counter in your face letting you know you should save) and Mutant Year Zero

Both of these games are almost puzzle games as much as they are stealth games, because you are kind of encouraged to reload until you have a perfect run, but I’m okay with that.

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Arkham Asylum is the first game I experienced that largely reframes stealth, not as a challenge that disempowers the player where getting seen puts you at a severe disadvantage and the ideal goal is to move through a level without leaving a trace, but as a hunter calculatedly stalking its prey and putting the fear of god into your quarry. It’s reflected in the swift and silent violence of the takedowns, all uniquely, brutally animated depending on your approach.

There isn’t even really a way to sneak through areas without enemies knowing, as the Joker constantly broadcasts your presence whenever you take down a mook in a set stealth encounter and orders the other minions to check your victim’s location. While these hapless guards react by putting on a brave face and buddying up, that facade falls eventually as the bodies pile up. Joker’s goons get paranoid, turning around erratically with every other nervous step, firing into the air, their hearts pounding. And when you finally reveal yourself to them, they stagger in terror, a second before you relieve them of their consciousness with a mighty blow.

Of course, the game’s stealth has to be this way because it’s all about the power fantasy of being Batman, this almost supernatural symbol of vigilante justice striking from the darkness. You face different, increasingly tougher stealth scenarios that push you to use your growing arsenal of gadgets and skills and make better use of the environment as you progress through the game, but the narrative remains the same. You are vengeance, you are the night, you are Batman.

It’s worth saying that the depiction of criminals in the Arkham series, and, hell, in a lot of Batman stories that focus on his vigilantism, is fucked up. It definitely made going back to Arkham Asylum earlier this year an exercise in compartmentalizing.

Speaking of problematic faves, I genuinely love the frantic dynamic ebb and flow of stealth and combat in The Last of Us and its sequel. The real-time crafting mechanic along with the dozens of bricks and bottles you can pick up and throw at enemies add so much to the scrabbling, scrappy mess whenever I inevitably get caught shiving someone or make too much sound and alert a damned clicker.

It’s never as methodical as Batman weaving in and out of the shadows or Corvo dissecting Dunwall, nor is it bombastic as Snake gunning down waves of soldiers when the alarms start blaring, or even outright comical as Agent 47 yeeting fire extinguishers and cans of expired spaghetti into the noggins of bystanders when he’s been made. It’s just Joel, Ellie, and Abby struggling to survive from one bedraggled encounter to the next, at least in my less-than-proficient hands.

Oh and special shoutouts to Tenchu: Stealth Assassins for introducing me to the genre over two decades ago! I’m sure that if I were to actually replay it now I probably wouldn’t have a good time, as I recall controlling Rikimaru and Ayane felt like the exact opposite of being a speedy ninja even back then. But yo those stealth kills were sick as fuck, and you could do them from the back, the sides, and the front!

just check this shit out:

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This one really does go to the king: nothing is better at stealth than Metal Gear Solid. Every game was the peak of the genre when it released, and the stealth mechanics only got better and better with each new entry. From the straightforward line-of-sight and distractions of MGS1, the camo of MGS3, the better camo of MGS4, and finally to the sandbox stealthy perfection of MGS5, no one has ever topped MGS in terms of sneaking around where people can’t see you.

It’s an enormous shame that the implementation of stealth into modern games has been reduced largely to two mechanics: tall grass and elevation. This is basically all there is to stealth in Sony’s first party games, sadly - jump in the tall grass and you become invisible. Go on a rooftop and you become invisible. Line of sight, taking cover - these things are basically irrelevant. These hyper-forgiving stealth sections remove all the joy from sneaking around and taking out bad dudes and are, gameplay wise, my biggest problem with a lot of games I otherwise quite enjoy, like Ghost of Tsushima or Uncharted 4. I don’t think this approach is fundamentally flawed, but it’s been poorly executed for a long time.

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I think the “Best Stealth” judgement is always going to be contingent on just how much you enjoy levels of complication with Stealth.
(Personally, one of the reasons that I never really got into MGS2 was that the stealth was just… too unforgiving, in combination with the fact that you get hit with about a million hours of cutscene in between the unforgiving stealth sections which are the bit you get to play. But if you like unforgiving stealth sections, clearly the MGS games will be high on your list.)

Personally, I’m going to put down another marker for Invisible, Inc, because if you’re going to have stealth as a puzzle, it needs to be turn-based, and be as much about judging risk/reward and predicting behaviour with not-quite-perfect information.
(Secondary shout-out to Heat Signature, too, for kinda the opposite approach.)

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When it comes to stealth, my first introduction was probably Little Big Adventure in which you could be sneaky if you held R1. That was always you activating stealth mode, had a kind of safety blanket round it. By holding this button the game became this other thing.

I would agree that Mark of the Ninja is definitely up there as is Invisible Inc. Metal Gear Solid is so good at delivering the different levels of stealth and basically embracing stealth at a philosophical level where it touches and rewards every state of play. Do you want to be sneaky and lethal or sneaky and humanitarian like Kojima probably wants you to. Do you want to sneak without using any kind of gun at all? The game will grade you on whatever approach you take. Why kill a bunch of dudes when you could just sneak past them and leave them all oblivious?

I really enjoy system heavy games where stealth can be opted as a flourish. You could go all guns blazing but doing it stealthy with the precision of a surgical knife is the zenithal way to experience that game. I remember Goldeneye and Perfect Dark fondly for doing this. There were levels in which you were required to infiltrate a location, if you playing on higher difficulties to get those additional objectives, you would have to be stealthy, sometimes tripping an alarm will automatically fail a mission.

Providing you had a silenced weapon and knew the level and all enemy rotations like the back of your hand, the levels suddenly had this new dimension to them. You were creeping through levels peeking from corners making headshots, waiting for them to patrol out of line of sights in which you’d plug them in the back of the head. You felt like a secret agent. You were Pierce Brosnan infiltrating the facility to meet 006. You were a professional. The game would obviously play fine if you were caught, but any true 00 perfect agent would restart the mission immediately.

I guess games like Dishonored, Hitman and Sniper Elite still tend to the flame here. I think my issue with Dishonored is that it gives you so many different choices in how you want to approach a level, sometimes that decision is just as simple as using this here vent shaft here or creeping above everyone on the chandeliers. Hitman too has so many different options it begins to feel… well… it kind of does become a bit of a checklist.

Contrast this with the Batman: Arkham games, the approach to stealth is to empower the player. Whilst it was cool to be picking off dudes one by one as Batman in that game. It was a thing that so many other games picked up, where all the skill is drained out and your basically seeing levels in the form of vent shafts and gargoyles.

This approach to stealth leads me to one of my most hated tropes in modern games: stabbing dudes from bushes. It’s lazy and basically funnels the stealth into cowardly one button presses. Awful. The newer Tomb Raider games are rife with this, if I see a game in which I’m stabbing exposition spouting- many pocketed PMCs I will projectile vomit everywhere.

The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer was a great little stealth spinoff of that game too. Getting good at that game required patience and playing the long game. Basically that speech Dennis makes in that episode of It’s Always Sunny:

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It’s interesting to me how much I love stealth games, but didn’t love the implementation in Metal Gear Solid 2. (I have yet to try any others in that series).

A lot probably had to do with the fact that Thief 2 was the high water mark for Stealth for me at the time, and there’s a world of difference in the interests of those two games. Thief, generally, wanted you to feel like you were getting away with something you shouldn’t. While there was a story going on, the focus was often taking everything that’s not nailed down.

I think a good stealth game should make you feel like that. MGS 2 didn’t really do that for me. Stealth was a challenge that took place between cut scenes and extended dialog. The sound of someone noticing something was the signal that the fun was over, and now it’s time for a long reload and restart. And just as a matter of feel, the game has you doing sneaky modern paramilitary things, and that’s just something I don’t really vibe with.

So, while I don’t think it particularly holds up today, Thief 2 is probably the game that defined what I think a good stealth game is. It’s a game about getting away with something, is often slow and more about careful observation than action, and has a huge planning component. I think a good game also does the Thief trick of doling out story in things you steal, pickpocket and eavesdrop on (without making it required in the way that AC tailing missions do). I think a stealth game is good when you need to have the right tools and information for the job – preferably that comes from the game itself and not from a wiki or video or something.

I think that’s probably why I really love both Invisible Inc. and Shadow Tactics, they both have this arc where you look at a map, and it just looks impossible, but by the end, you’ve somehow made it happen. Invisible Inc particularly has that feel of breaking rules that is immensely satisfying.

I also don’t mind the quicksave, fail, repeat approach to stealth at all. Even when we aren’t in immersive sim territory, stealth is often about poking the world to see what works, and a save system is a good way to cushion the blow of something not working. But I think it’s a sign of an even better game when things are well designed enough that you don’t need a save system as a cushion. But that has to be balanced with how unsatisfying it is to have npcs that completely forget you, yet at the same time, how unfair it can feel if you can’t reset.

Being a sneak is a hard fantasy to emulate.

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Still haven’t played anything that beats the thrill of playing Thief back in 1998, but the upcoming Brenden Chung game, Skin Deep, just might do the trick with its stink detection mechanics.

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I played through the full Thief series for the first time last year (including Thief 2014, though I couldn’t finish it), and Thief II holds up the best, IMO. I preferred its level design to Thief Gold, although it might simply be that by the time I got to 2 I had acclimatized to the old school vibes. Just started another Thief Gold run, so I suppose we’ll see how I feel!

Invisible Inc is the ultimate version of stealth where you are almost always just barely scraping by. And the stakes are just so high when you’re multiple hours into a run and one misstep can end it all. I love it, but the intensity is just too much sometimes lol. Would be amazing to see it on a Tactical Tuesday stream sometime.

I’ve never played Shadow Tactics but a few of you fine people have mentioned it so that’ll have to be added to the list…

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