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The Year In Review: Stealth

Most games with even the slightest hint of action also include bits of stealth. Sometimes it’s 100% perfunctory and just a side effect of being a video game, such as when you try to get up real close and steal away at least one easy kill in Gears of War before things start going totally sideways. You’ll try to keep cover between you and the enemy, utilizing the third-person camera to your advantage so you can see who (or what) is just around the corner. This is just an ancillary notion to when games necessarily give you a shooting reprieve. Take a breather and then take advantage of having the drop on the baddies.

Other games more overtly include sneaking and hiding. We call them “stealth games.” Don’t worry, I’ll give you a second to collect your brain off the wall after I just blow’d it with that little bit of knowledge. Surprisingly, though, the biggest pure stealth game this year didn’t come from a huge publisher or developer (Both Tom Clancy releases this year were from the Ghost Recon series, a traditionally more action-oriented tale of international intrigue). No, instead it came from Klei Entertainment, developers of the bloody, frenetic, and overall terrific Shank and Shank 2.

Mark of the Ninja manages to accomplish what most other stealth games (or even games that simply incorporate stealth elements) wish they could do: not make it frustrating. Sure, there are times where you feel like things got out of hand a bit too quickly, but you always have a way out. With a little dash of Shank-style hack ‘n slash, you are more than capable of dispensing of alerted foes with your blade. Or you can simply escape up into the rafters à la Batman: Arkham City. Or you can pause time, knock out the lights, and hide in a darkened recess of a wall. Any given sticky situation has a multitude of ways to get unsticky.

All of which is elevated by the way Mark of the Ninja surfaces its stealth information, which is to say it visualizes it all for you. You can see the sound waves you create as you sprint versus the nigh imperceptible ripples you make when you walk. Enemy sight is shown via light cones and their alert states are discretely shown by Metal Gear Solid-esque icons overhead. And while there is a gradient to your active state, its categorical nature is also discrete and revealed to you, so you never have to worry “can he see me? I think he can see me. OH SHIT HE SEES ME.”

Better yet, certain maneuvers like taking out lights and the like will show you the consequences of that action before you do it, so you know prior to even throwing your shuriken that it will alert the guard below. It’s genius and totally makes the inherent trial-and-error nature of stealth games way less frustrating.

Surfacing stealth information seems to be becoming commonplace, though, even among non-stealth games. Far Cry 3, for instance, is primarily an open-world action game where you can go anywhere (so long you’re not in a mission) and shoot anything, and it’s fantastic. It shoots great, it drives crazy, and has one hell of an opening. In a startling move of competence for a first-person shooter, though, Far Cry 3 actually has some good stealth.

It works because it surfaces your current status very well. Crouch and you’re instantly quieter and less visible, but you’ll also know when enemies see you due to an onscreen indicator. It’s an arrow that points much like a grenade indicator would in Call of Duty games, except this one points to people that see you instead of things that explode you. It’ll grow in size as these people see you more clearly—or at least begin to suspect they see you. If you can dash away in time, you will avoid being spotted.

But Far Cry 3 is also a very systems-driven game, so if you manage to dispatch this sneak-ruining scourge in a silent manner with no one else seeing your dirty deed, you fall back into a non-alert stage. It works because it discretely informs you of your current state and, like Mark of the Ninja, gives you a brief chance to fix small errors without going full-on Rambo to fix it.

It also helps that there are simply chunks of the world that are specifically for pure stealth, namely areas with tall grass. If you crouch in any sort of foliage, you will break line-of-sight with tracking enemies (or potentially tracking). It’s something that’s explored more fully in Assassin’s Creed III. While you would think a game about an assassin would naturally be more about stealth, ACIII actually allows for a great deal of action, and it’s action that—for the most part—works. Connor moves capably and eliminates enemies quickly. It feels appropriately brutal and efficient.

But hiding is also cordoned off into discrete elements. Hay bales and wells and hanging off of ledges all keep you out of the sight of enemies, keeping you incognito. Not only that, but much like in Far Cry 3, you can keep low profile in tall grass to instigate instant stealth, hiding you in pretty much plain sight much as you would be blending in with a crowd or sitting on a bench. The massive opportunities and natural feel to those chances to hide are what make the stealth in ACIII work. Well, that and the fact that you can easily see what enemy in which location currently suspects you, ignores you, or is about to become a major problem for you. It makes sneaking around much more manageable.

It’s just that there are two problems with that: 1) purposefully, it’s all contextual, as stated by the developers, since they aim for “social stealth,” so you won’t find a crouch button, and 2) it punishes you for failing to sneak around undetected. I don’t mean that it punishes you with a quick fight or the need to run and hide, but that it raises your Notoriety, a mechanic that I’ve hated since 2009′s Assassin’s Creed II. With anything above incognito, enemies will spot you regardless of what you’re doing. So no longer can you case a building or stalk your prey in a new way according to your warped scientific method. No, instead you must first run around whilst avoiding any enemy patrols so you can bribe town criers or check every tree and wall for wanted posters. It’s not a lot of fun and totally kills the momentum of the game.

It’s a similar problem that Dishonored has. I mean, if you’re spotted and have a pretty quick reaction, you can take care of the issue before it becomes a full blown problem. However, the moment one guy in the area screams “GUARDS!” or something, you’ve got a whole bunch of killing ahead of you. Or running and taking a shit load of damage. Or reloading a checkpoint. The killing wouldn’t be such a problem since Corvo is quite handy with a blade (and grenades and pistols and spring traps and crossbows and supernatural powers) so fighting a roomful of dudes is actually kind of fun, but if you are going for stealth or a good ending, fighting immediately means you’ve failed your goal. Whether meta and a point of pride that you never got spotted or tangible in that you can’t kill people for fear of rising Chaos, you are punished for being spotted and forced to fly or fight.

The actual sneaking, however, is very well done. There is no “social stealth” as there is in ACIII, but instead you are given a set of statuses and you can do certain things in those statuses. Either you’re spotted or you’re not; either an enemy is oblivious or suspicious or alerted; either you’re in hostile or you’re in neutral territory. Your actions will move you and enemies along these rails, so it’s all a test of poking and prodding at moving parts as you sneak around in attics and sewers.

Poking and prodding, however, is probably more in the Hitman: Absolution wheelhouse since the Hitman series has become famous for being testbeds of Mousetrap-like gears and cogs turning. Hitman, perhaps more than ACIII, is all about social stealth. In fact, let’s go ahead and assume Ubisoft lead game designer Steven Masters meant “contextual stealth” rather than “social stealth.” Hitman is all about hiding in plain sight with costumes and figuring out what piece goes where so when you push over the right domino, everything tumbles just the way you want.

And just like Far Cry 3, you get the grenade indicator-style arrow that grows and grows until you elevate your status. It’s helpful because you don’t have totally binary states of seen/unseen like some past Hitman games. Now you can go into a room, realize you shouldn’t be there, and walk out before you get into serious shit. Better yet, you have this Instinct meter that you can burn to casually go “oops! My bad!” to smooth over an otherwise “oh fuck” situation.

It all falls apart, though, when you encounter areas that are chock-full of the same enemy type. You see, enemies of the same type can all see through your costume if you’re trying to front as one of them. In fact, they can see through you from like 50 yards away, so when you have no other choice but to try to be a cop amidst a sea of cops, the game kind of breaks the one way it works and it soon becomes a half-assed Splinter Cell game.

But the important thing, I guess, is that it’s there. This has been a big year for stealth. Last year there was Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations for the big titles and Sniper: Ghost Warrior for the smaller guys. But more than anything (even quantity), this year was probably the most about surfacing stealth to the player, bringing all the pertinent information that would otherwise be going on in the background to the forefront and putting it right in front of your eyes. Developers may have realized this year (or rather, several years ago due to development time and such) that stealth should not be frustrating; it should be exciting and nerve-racking, not arbitrary and fruitless.

Sure, there were games like I Am Alive and Deadlight that incorporated stealth in a more opaque way, but those were aesthetic, tonal choices that fit those titles. And Stealth Bastard Deluxe is more like a puzzle game than a stealth game. So for this year of 2012, stealth was all about informing the player, and for that I’m grateful.

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