I was always a great fan of the stealth genre. One of my first ever “stealth games” was Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. I played it relentlessly. I loved the grown-up story and cool sneaking elements from shooting out lights to create your own darkness and using acrobatic split jumps between two walls as well as the lack of emphasis on killing which I was surprised to see in a game.
I have fond memories of the game and the entire series. Chaos Theory was a massive jump in terms of graphics and choosing loadouts and Double Agent was surprisingly enjoyable but did lack in the impressive story yet the tough-choice mechanic was implemented excellently. And then we have Splinter Cell: Conviction. As well as being an Xbox exclusive (a giant middle finger to any of the fans on the Playstation by the way…), Conviction broke away from the classic “sit, wait and act fast” type of gameplay that the previous games had spent years perfecting and I had spent years falling in love with. Little did I know that the same would apply for the Hitman series which also broke away from quiet tactics in place of fast-paced “action-stealth”. It seemed that the stealth genre had its neck snapped and thrown over the side railing quietly.
If you ask me, the core theme of a stealth game isn’t “try not to be seen”, it’s “try not to get caught”. Being stealthy is fine and if you don’t get spotted then you should be rewarded. However, if you do get spotted, you should be allowed to deal with the situation by either escaping the area or knocking out a guard without the entire place going on high alert. Chaos Theory nailed this idea by allowing you another 2 chances if an alarm is sounded but the enemies start to wear bulletproof “flak jackets” and then helmets, making them harder to shoot if you played the game loud but just as easy to incapacitate as before. The game punishes action (and dumb) gameplay without you realizing. If you mess up in Chaos Theory and an alarm sounds, you think “Damn, I better be quieter next time.” The game makes you play the way it wants without you realizing. Very clever. Another core theme of a stealth game is the feeling that you are an intruder. A good stealth game makes you think “I am an intruder in this place. I must get in, finish my objective, get out and leave no traces I was here.”
Hitman Absolution attempted this, but, by giving the player a mechanic that allows quick and rapid fire to kill guards, it conflicted with the feeling of being an intruder. Hitman Absolution made me think “I am an intruder in this place. I must get in, finish my objective, get out but if I mess up, I can shoot everything on sight.” This play-style works for games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution as the game encourages different play-styles but for Hitman, there really should only be one play-style and that is pure stealth and precise assassination.
Thanks to the increase in “action-stealth” games, it would seem all is lost for the stealth genre. “Being quiet and having to sit still? Bah. No gamer wants this!” That would definitely be the case if not for Dishonored. Ah, Dishonored. Many people were either excited to play it or called it a Thief rip-off but everyone was interested to see how it held up. Dishonored had everything I wanted in a stealth game. Fast movement, using disguises (“Posession”), interesting ways to bypass the guards, good story, fascinating locations…. I could write forever about how much I adored Dishonored. Yet the thing that really stood out for me in Dishonored is that it made pure stealth games fun again. While Dishonored did have the same “aggressive/stealth” gameplay like Hitman or Deus Ex, Dishonored challenged gamers to play the whole game “pure stealth” by never being detected, never killing and dealing with the assassination targets with methods crueler than death (Removing a target’s tongue and sending him to work in his own coal mine for life? Poetic justice!).
Dishonored was made with Thief fans in mind. The game’s PR often said you can play the whole game without killing anyone but you could if you wanted to. Usually when you advertise a game, it’s the other way around. Dishonored was a breath of fresh air and made people realize that this is how stealth games should be done. Embrace change but reward those who want to be actually stealthy in a stealth game. With the Thief reboot coming to next-gen, I’m certain that the stealth genre can be revitalized. Surprisingly, many people are calling the game a Dishonored imitation even though Dishonored itself was called a Thief replica. Not that this is a bad thing but hopefully Thief can bring something new to the stealth genre that can appeal to the old fans while still bring in new ones – not an easy objective at all.
Stealth has been seen as a gimmick in many games and would be implemented for a section of a game, rather than the whole length of one. Could it be that the slow and precise stealth gameplay conflicts with the current generation’s fast and relentless gameplay that has been brought about by online games with fast respawn times? Maybe. However, I’m confident that with the success of Dishonored, stealth games can be fast yet silent. Dishonored’s “Blink” ability, which allowed for fast movement both forward and vertically, was such a genius idea that it would be criminal not to have similar features in stealth games.
The journey of stealth games has been a rocky one. I believe that, thanks to Dishonored, the genre now has a strong foundation to build on for the next-gen. I’m hoping the new Thief reboot is a success but seeing as “pure stealth games” don’t have a major appeal for gamers, I will remain cautiously optimistic. I would love to see a “stealth game” but with a massive twist. Dishonored had stealth mixed with magic, why not something like an open-world game where you play an superhero thief? Who knows? There’s a lot of fun to be had with stealth games and I hope next-gen realizes the genre’s full potential.