Stealth has always been my favorite genre of video games, in which you typically play the role of a passive aggressor. Stealth games don't have protagonists with incredible defensive or offensive abilities. Truly, your only real assets are patience, limited invisibility and silence, all of which coalesce into the ever-satisfying silent one hit kill. Play a stealth game correctly, and it doesn't matter what difficulty you are on, how many items you have, or how many enemies you face. You are going to win, and the AI can't do anything about it but go about their business casually searching for you while you bide your time and wait for the perfect time to strike. Yes, stealth games are the only opportunities gamers have to go through a map and kill or disable every enemy you face without any of them ever being aware of your presence, or their impending doom. I simply adore this genre.
I am addicted to the tension that only a stealth game can provide. That's why I've been discouraged lately by the recent development trend to radically alter the once popular stealth formula. The big three stealth titles (namely the venerable ninja simulation Tenchu,the extremely popular Metal Gear Solid titles, and the somewhat similar Splinter Cell series) have lately made significant changes to traditional stealth games to the point that they more like action games with stealth elements.
Ubisoft really pissed off a lot of their stealth fans when they released Splinter Cell: Conviction.
Take Splinter Cell: Conviction.In his latest outing, Sam Fisher was far less stealthy than in previous games, relying instead on action oriented conventions like cover,queueing up targets, and using loud bombastic assault rifles. Ubisoft said they wanted players to feel like bad-asses, which is funny because I always felt like an incredible bad-ass when I played the old games. I think what Ubisoft really wanted was to appeal to gamers with short attention spans who had no desire to master the often unforgiving stealth mechanics gamers like myself have honed for years. So in short, they took away the stealth in the hopes that they would make more money. Sadly, the new limited form of stealth proved popular with players who didn't enjoy the demanding nature of the earlier games in the Splinter Cell series, suggesting that Ubisoft will continue to pump out games that are less about patience and timing and more about action and attitude.
Rikimaru? Good! First person sword fighting in a stealth game? BAD!
Furthermore, Techu creator's From Software released the most recent Tenchu entry on the Wii called Shadow Assassins. Stealth, while still a major theme in the game, has been simplified to the point that areas on the map where players can hide safely from enemies are highlighted with a purple glow.There is some timing required to reach these points, but stealth is largely about the satisfaction of surveying a situation (admittedly, a lot of alliteration for perceptive prowlers perusing this post) and acting on those environmental observations at just the right moment. The new Tenchu game takes away that sense of accomplishment by telling you from the get-go, "Here's an enemy, and you need to move HERE to kill him." It feels like stealth with training wheels, and while this may appeal to toddlers, the unperceptive,or those who simply aren't suited for the tense protracted grind that constitutes legitimate stealth,it sure doesn't go a long way towards making a grown man realize his fantasies of being an all powerful ninja assassin. Stealth levels are supposed to be like puzzles... puzzles with silent take-downs, whose solutions aren't obvious or simple. Solving these puzzles instills feelings of power. But in the Tenchu on the Wii, instead of feeling powerful, you feel about as much satisfaction as you would after following a set of IKEA directions when assembling a lamp. FEEL THE POWER!
Lightning Bolt Action? Is that anything like 'Tactical Espionage Action'? Didn't think so. :(
And that brings us to the most popular stealth game series of all time, Metal Gear Solid. Concerning Metal Gear Solid 4, it's hard for me, as a stealth fan, to complain. Octo-Cammo is easily the most significant addition to stealth game-play since the cardboard box, and although MGS4 allows players to run and gun if they prefer, you can always choose from a number of different play type with varying levels of stealth. That's why I have nothing bad to say about the Solid Snake's final console outing: instead of stripping away or dumbing down stealth conventions, Hideo Kojima added new game-play on both the action and stealth areas of the game. However, as he announced when the game was released, MGS4 is apparently the last console game featuring Solid Snake. Sure, we'll always have the PSP games Kojima has promised to oversee, but portable gaming just isn't the same considering the limited system power and interface options available to play around with.The next Metal Gear game on consoles, while intriguing, initially looks like it is going to be all about swordplay instead of stealth, cutting instead of creeping. I can't wait to play it, but it isn't going to be a pure stealth game from what I can tell. Raiden is a cool hero who is a master of acrobatic swordplay, but the new Metal Gear Solid: Rising trailer stabbed me in my heart with it's complete lack of subterfuge.(I've heard rumors that there may be stealth elements after all, but I've also heard contradicting comments that the game's director wants to appeal to people who don't like stealth games. I just don't know what to believe, and based on the aforementioned trends, I fear the worst.) UPDATE: Konami said "You can slice enemies weapons in half, allowing you to complete the game without killing anybody. This is cold comfort for stealth fans, and the death rattle of the last pure stealth franchise. I feel like crying. Silently.
So is stealth vanishing completely, or is it just in hiding in the shadows waiting to strike again? A few promising somewhat stealthy games are on the gaming horizon, it seems. The impending 2011 release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution should have some stealth options for FPS players who are interested in taking the road less traveled by, and Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed series looks to take it's brand of 'hiding in plain view' stealth on-line in the soon-to-be-released Assassin's Creed 3: Brotherhood. Despite this promising games, I can't help but feel like the genre is on the brink of fading away completely due to the fact that the genre leaders listed above are either abandoning ship or dumbing their franchises down. Do gamers as a whole have the patience for these types of games anymore, or are the developers just relying on old tricks to the point that they are no longer relevant? I certainly hope that some developer somewhere is lurking in the darkness of a development studio, poised to strike with a new, unexpected stealth title, because in its current state, the stealth genre as we know it is dangerously close to becoming extinct. Should that happen, we'll always have the old stealth games, but I doubt that yelling, "SNAAAAAAAAAKE!!!" will do much to bring the genre back to life.