The Renaissance of the Stealth Game

The recent demo of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker gives players a glimpse at a game that’s staggeringly well presented, exquisitely crafted and undeniably compelling. It’s also visually exquisite, with graphics so resplendent you can’t help but wish you were outputting them on a big television in high definition. But it also makes one thing abundantly clear: old dog Hideo Kojima has no interest in learning any new tricks. It’s a true entry in the Metal Gear series, without doubt.

That’s not to say Kojima Studios doesn’t know how to tinker with the formula. Former PSP outings Metal Gear Ac!d and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops played with the franchise like an enthusiastic child being thrown into a ballpen for the first time. Good games, but hardly nuanced in their design, and downplayed by the developer as whimsical detractions. And whilst there’s also the upcoming 360/PS3 title Metal Gear Solid: Rising, which teases players with "lightning bolt action", it’s still to be confirmed whether Rising is even a stealth game. Fans of the series will probably attest that Rising’s protagonist, the cybernetic techno-ninja Raiden, probably has little need for the series’ traditional sneaking missions.

How much has the Metal Gear Solid series really changed since its early days?

Those fans will also argue that the series itself has also undergone drastic changes. The weapon customisability of the fourth and most recent entry opens up whole new opportunities in dispatching your assailants. It would also be very unfair to claim the third game – my personal favourite and the springboard for Peace Walker – to be similar in execution to any of the others. But I argue the series’ core stealth experience has remained largely unchanged since the original in 1998.

Elsewhere, the genre has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Ubisoft’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed II uses stealth to empower the player in a way that the Metal Gear Solid series lacks. Ezio’s predecessor Altair snuck up on the unsuspecting masses to great effect in the 2007 original. What’s the difference? Assassin’s Creed, for all its faults, used stealth as a powerful weapon instead of an artificial difficulty bump, and the sequel looks more than likely to continue this tradition.

The genre, for anyone that’s happened to miss it creeping up behind them, has traditionally functioned by encouraging the player to avoid enemies entirely, usually by disuading the player from combat by giving their character poor offensive capabilities. Your foes are generally only weak from behind, so these games end up a connected series of trials and errors, with a heavy emphasis on error.

When it works the results are sublime. The original Metal Gear Solid now occupies an unshakable place in gaming history, its few faults rendered inert thanks to heady nostalgia. And what then-adolescent doesn’t have a special place in their heart for 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project and its virtually peerless emergent gameplay? Both games are fine examples of trial and error honed to near-perfection.

But all too often it doesn’t work out. Contentious interactive storybook Metal Gear Solid 4 aside, few recent traditional stealth games have been anything other than mediocre. Consider last year’s Manhunt 2, a notoriously dated stealth game that exacerbated the problems traditionally inherent to the genre: a crude separation of ‘light’ (bad) and ‘shadow’ (good) areas of the map. The exact same problem was also present in this year’s poorly received Velvet Assassin, with crude detection routines (enemies could often spot you when the game insisted you were completely hidden) and miserable, narrow-corridor-laden level design combining to ensure the game would not be well remembered. Both games are also no more than simple memory puzzles, and frequently frustrating ones at that. The world has evidently moved on.

Velvet Assassin isn’t a popular game with TGR staff…

It’s worth mentioning that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this ideology: Mega Man, Super Mario World and Sonic 2 would have been nothing without repetition. Trial and error is an age-old gaming tradition. After all, and it would be a great shame to see all games reduced to Assassin’s Creed levels of simplicity. There’s a definite thrill to achieving a perfect run through a level of any game, and few genres are as naturally suited as the stealth genre to eking those terse, intense emotions out of a player.

What the current market tells us, though, is that now is not the time for the traditional style of stealth gaming. The seventh generation of consoles has elected the precise, frenetic first-person shooter as the champion of genres, and the massive audiences that demand ultra-twitch gameplay clearly aren’t biting on the stealth bait. Some might consider this a shame, but recent revivals of the point-and-click and fighting genres are evidence that these things tend to come full circle anyway. We’ll undoubtedly be deeply ensconced within the shadows before long.

Instead, stealth is transforming into a common gaming feature. Elements of the genre are popping up everywhere, becoming an integral part of the modern action game’s swiss-army knife of features. By integrating the sneaky ideals into other genres, developers are now providing players with whole new opportunities to use features that were on the verge of becoming stagnant. Even brazen, bombastic Gears of War 2 had a go in its downloadable content chapter Road to Ruin, with muscle-loaded protagonists Marcus and Dom donning the uniforms of their enemies and slipping by, provided the player can control their chainsaw-trigger, largely unnoticed. And if Gears of War can feature stealth, it’s safe to say that anything can.

Consider Pandemeic’s upcoming open-world title The Saboteur, which mixes the combat style of Grand Theft Auto IV with the disguise-grabbing antics of the Hitman series. Stealth is perpetually an option, but because it looks cool and feels satisfying it’s more than likely to be the player’s first port of call in a mission. The difference is when the espionage goes a bit pear-shaped there’s a functional combat system waiting in the wings. Crucially, The Saboteur distinguishes itself from traditional stealth gaming by promising not to punish players after their disguises are invariably rumbled.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of the surprise hits of 2009

Or look at the recent Batman: Arkham Asylum, which merrily grafts silky-smooth combat sequences into a stealthy game. Its sneaky sections have Batman perching on top of stone gargoyles and routinely picking off entire rooms of foes, giving the caped crusader so much offensive capability the player almost feels sorry for hopeless grunts. Batman even sits in the shadows, viewing rooms with his stylised ‘detective mode’ vision, calmly watching his adversaries’ heart rates increasing to the point of blind panic.

In a similar vein there’s the empowering stealth antics of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Continually disregarded as a poor man’s Metal Gear Solid by the uniformed masses, Conviction has had a long and awkward redesign since the previous Double Agent. Sam’s faster, sleeker and more dangerous than ever – no doubt partially due to his ability to now fire where the crosshair is pointing. Ubisoft have understood the occasional misstep is inevitable, and have reacted by giving Sam a whole new bevy of features to help him react after being spotted by his pursuers. These tools enable Splinter Cell to become more than a repetitive loop of repeating checkpoints until success, which is a huge change in gameplay for one of the most iconic stealth franchises. With action sequences unashamedly inspired by Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, slick projected cut scenes, and stylised floating text, no stealth game has felt as cool since the original Metal Gear Solid.

It’s clear the success of Assassin’s Creed has undoubtedly prompted developers to rethink their interpretations of stealth and its implementation in games. The coming months hold great promise for fans of the once-ubiquitous sneaking missions, provided they’re prepared to let the new face of stealth into their darkened living rooms. Once they do, they might have a hard time going back to the stubbornly traditional Peace Walker.

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