For the past few years, we’ve been spoiled by some of the greatest stealth games ever made. And with a growing trend of developers combining their RPGs, shooters, and strategy games with the sensibilities of the stealth genre, it’s important to know what makes the best of the best… well, the best.
So here’s your list of ingredients to making a damn-near perfect stealth experience. Use them to cook up the freshest stealth games the world has ever seen.
A dollop of dumb, but not TOO dumb, NPCs
In the real world, people can spot out-of-place individuals pretty dang well. A stealth game that accurately simulated human vision cones, hearing sensitivity, and capacity to investigate suspicious activity would result in a real bad time. This is why we dumb down AI in not just the stealth genre, but games in general. It’s fun that way.
And that sentiment is most crucial in stealth games, where the entire challenge is one of tricking, outsmarting and evading fake computer people. The best AI in the genre is subtly smart enough to be convincing as an actual person, but dumb enough to ease off in the interest of fun. It’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, in which guards have an impressively elaborate detection cycles that range from “must have been the wind” to “I should probably go check that out” depending on how long you exposed yourself. It’s fair, fun, and completely unrealistic if you think about it too much.
4 Tablespoons of Total Environmental Awareness
One of the most empowering aspects of good stealth games is the total environmental awareness afforded to the player. The more knowledge a player has, the better they can experiment with how to handle a difficult maneuver without worrying about unpredictability.
More recently, series like the Batman Arkham games have popularized a now common way of giving information to players — “detective vision,” or seeing through walls and marking guards. This usually works well in games like Watch Dogs 2, Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Far Cry 4, but there are some great examples of how gathering information to keep the advantage can be a fun challenge in its own way.
The best example of this is the XCOM-inspired Invisible Inc., which only lets players see what their agents can see. But as an extension of your agent’s eyes, you can also hack security cameras in rooms to keep track of anything that happens there. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain lets players mark targets with their binoculars, but also allows you to experiment with a sonar upgrade to your robot arm that sends out a sound wave that temporarily marks blips of lifeforms in view.
Just a dash of non-lethal options
Being engrossed in a stealth simulation is a big part of what makes them so invigorating. We love writing our own narratives of “knocking guards out and placing them in beds for their naps” or “throwing a hammer at my target’s head so hard he fell off the balcony,” but what makes it all work is that we have those options.
One of the greatest things in stealth games that has become more common is the option of killing in general. The games that do this right (give it up for Dishonored 2, Watch Dogs 2, MGSV) make their non-lethal routes just as (if not more) fun than the alternative.
Being able to walk engross yourself in a game world without having to reconcile with all of the bloody murder you’ve inflicted on poorly-paid security officers and civilians that spotted you by accident is a truly valuable thing that can make or break the best stealth games. It broke an otherwise great-feeling stealth/action shooter in the first Watch Dogs, for example, and is simultaneously one of the best parts of its sequel.