Tag Archives: Stealth

The Difference Between Old And New Stealth Games

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The release of the THIEF reboot has sparked up conversations again about what makes a good or bad stealth game. Over the last few weeks it’s prompted me to take a look back at games from THIEF’s family tree and contrast how they approach things.

Last month I played through Dishonored again — the first time doing so since having beaten the old Thief Gold and Thief II: The Metal Age — and played its DLC. That by itself put Dishonored into perspective in relation to its ancestors and I think gave me a good frame of reference to see where the new THIEF is coming from.

The big shift in many of the stealth games we’ve seen recently, or games that use stealth, is that like shooters, they’ve gone for a more linear approach based on waypoints and sometimes small dynamic environments. The missions in the old Thief games were built to feel like dynamic, working environments, and you’d be thrown into them with a map and multiple objectives, expected to figure out the plan for yourself. The first Crysis game was more or less like this too. Crysis 2 instead just had you head from waypoint to waypoint, taking you through small sneaking arenas filled with clever alternate paths. The missions in the new THIEF do pretty much the same thing. This works for simply providing a stealth experience, but I feel like it forgets the freedom and emergent gameplay of the older games.

Dishonored I feel is somewhere between the two, but closer to the old style. The objective is usually not to simply reach a waypoint, but to do an actual thing which is established as soon as you reach the area. Dishonored’s areas are smaller than those of classic Thief and it’s gated by loading screens, but that basic structure is still there. Some people are down on Dishonored’s validity as a stealth game because of how easily its super powers let players combat enemies. I decided to play through the game without using them, particularly the “blink” teleportation, and it instantly felt very much like a Thief-lite. Blink was basically incorporated for the sake of impatient people. Discarding it instantly forces players to methodically examine enemy patterns and the rest of their environment like a traditional stealth game. If you wanna get real technical, Dishonored’s overall structure is actually much closer to that of the original Deus Ex, which makes sense as both games share a level designer.

If you wanna ask between all these which is the best actual stealth game, I guess that’s all on preference due to a bit of irony. Dishonored has more of that dynamic emergent structure, if even only a tiny bit of it, but let’s you tear apart squads of enemies like Deus Ex does. New THIEF would be called dumbed-down by many, but is actually more of a “pure” stealth game where you have to sneak because you can’t fight off five alert enemies.

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What Happened To Objective-Based Level Design?

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My “LTTP Thief” post drew some comparisons between that game and stuff like GoldenEye or the original Perfect Dark. Playing it really reminded me of how open-ended a lot of action games used to be, and of how sad I am those kinds of games pretty much aren’t made anymore.

What happened to the days when each mission of a shooter would simply drop you into a level, give you a list of objectives, and leave you to complete them at your own pace, with your own methods, and in your own order? Now it’s all corridors, shooting galleries, and set pieces in the guise of objectives.

If you go back and play GoldenEye 007 on the N64 today, it’s actually surprising how non-linear the levels in that game feel compared to today’s shooters. The first time I played that game, looking at the mission objectives and reading the briefing — knowing there were many things that could happen in each level but I was there to perform certain specific actions, made me feel like I was being sent to complete real tasks.

The same goes for pouring over the map of a level in Thief and deciding what tools I’m going to bring in accordance. The tactical shooter genre used to be all about this: games like the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon were about you creating your own plans to complete missions. Each level in all these games was basically a small sandbox. Overall, it just makes the games feel more intelligent.

A part I really miss is when games would actually add additional objectives on higher difficulties, making the missions more complex and sometimes changing their entire nature. I guess today designers don’t want to put that kind of content in a game that most players would likely miss.

Most of today’s action games do have what they call “objectives,” that are displayed on-screen, but really they’re just a chain of messages that have no meaning other than to guide you down a tight, predetermined path. In games like Call of Duty or Gears of War there’s usually no way to progress unless you keep shooting until the game tells you those objectives are complete, and there’s no way to fail those objectives unless you die. When Nintendo Power advertised GoldenEye, one of the selling points of the game was that there were ways to fail a mission other than dying!

There’s a quote from Wikipedia and one of the guys who worked on GoldenEye explaining the difference in how they designed that game:

Initially, the designers’ priority was purely on the creation of interesting spaces; level design and balance considerations such as the placement of start and exit points, characters and objectives did not begin until this process was complete. According to Martin Hollis, “The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level.”

These people didn’t really design video game levels — they tried to design areas that functioned like real places, and then gave you goals in them. Games like Thief seem to have been designed in a similar way.

I’m not against linear games when they’re well-done. I just don’t like how there are virtually no shooters or other action games on today’s hardware built in that objective-based style.

Most of the games that do something close to this on today’s hardware are games like Deus Ex Human Revolution or Fallout or Elder Scrolls. The way quests are completed in those games feels similar in practice, but those games are really descended from the legacy of 3D PC RPGs, so the connection isn’t intentional.

In terms of first person shooters, I would say the best modern example is the first Crysis game. I’ve begged so many people who couldn’t run the PC version of Crysis to try out the PSN and Xbox Live versions because of how different that game is from Crysis 2 and Crysis 3. Surveying an entire village with your binoculars from an adjacent hilltop and planning your approach is something basically no other FPS has done in the six years since. You could even say Crysis advanced this style of level design a bit by making the levels a lot bigger. The last couple Far Cry games kinda tried to do this but with much simpler objectives.

Dishonored is actually another pretty good example, taking direct inspiration from Thief. Hopefully the new THIEF follows suit. It’s bad enough we don’t get enough stealth games that offer a real sense of player autonomy these days. Remember Splinter Cell Chaos Theory? That’s a good example too, and I wish Ubisoft would go back to doing that (disclaimer: I haven’t played Blacklist yet).

Luckily, this style of game design seems to be exactly what KillZone Shadow Fall is doing judging from the E3 demo videos. With all the open-world games seemingly appearing on next-gen consoles I really hope objective-based game design returns in a big way to action games. If we’re lucky, Shadow Fall will be a big hit and lead the way for other developers.

Really, I just miss games that gave you nothing but a place and some goals.

BULLETS:

  • Nuclear Throne, Vlambeer’s latest, is now available on Steam Early Access. http://t.co/1clFTrQsk5
  • First look at Soma, the next horror game from the guys who did Amnesia the Dark Descent. 2015, PC, PS4. http://t.co/KFJkCBCPJW
  • Giant Bomb interview about the same game. http://t.co/WZsut7zUsv
  • Castle Vidcons: Comic #121- Be Proud – bit.ly/19s2agR
  • I don’t like how Square Enix has been handling some of its iOS ports of classic games, but I’m open to the Dragon Quest series on mobile platforms. http://t.co/P0UTOGA4dX
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The Fall and Rise of Stealth Games

I know I’ve talked about the fall of game genres here more than once before, but I don’t think I’ve done a post specifically about the fall of stealth games. It really is kind of pathetic when you look back at the past console generation.

It’s not really a mystery what happened to the genre – the same thing that happened to horror games and pretty much anything that wasn’t a shooter or an RPG. Sneaking around unseen isn’t as accessible as just shooting a dude in the face and getting some experience points for it. What’s the worst though is when developers play at stealth while turning it into a straight shooter.

Ubisoft just released another 10 minutes of Splinter Cell Blacklist footage that basically looked just like the E3 demo – i.e. like a third person shooter with Assassin’s Creed climbing mechanics. I mean, Sam (or someone trying to impersonate Sam) stayed unseen before he auto-shot each enemy I guess. Maybe that level is more of a sandbox, maybe Ubisoft’ll release a video showing someone playing the same level completely silent with no kills. What really got me down on this Blacklist demo though was the predator strike mechanic at the end. Predator strikes and laser painting targets are two of the things I never want to see again, especially not in a stealth game.

What’s really funny is that pretty much every “AAA” game I’m anticipating this fall is a stealth game, or a game that allows you to put a lot of emphasis on stealth. If Far Cry 3 can maintain the sandbox mission structure that the last game had, I will happily crouch, snipe, and stab my way through that game. I am really hoping that I’ll be able to beat Hitman Absolution practically without ever picking up a gun like I did in Blood Money. The real last hope of the genre right now is looking like Dishonored though.

When talking about Arkane Studios’ previous game, the 2006 Dark Messiah Might and Magic last week, I went over a little bit how good a stealth game it actually manages to be at times. It lets me know that Arkane get’s it, and so do all the previews for Dishonored. What’s even better is that one of the main guys on the project worked on the first Deus Ex – which was also an excellent stealth game if you chose to play it like one. That’s the key: choice.

Stealth is the most appealing when it’s presented among other options. It’s only cool when you chose to complete that objective without being seen when things could’ve gone a multitude of other ways. That’s the main difference between Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Conviction.

When I look back, I’ve realized that my favorite stealth game this generation was probably the first Crysis, which just feels kinda odd. Technically that game is a shooter, but its sandbox nature also allows you to turn the game into something vaguely resembling Metal Gear Solid 3. Deus Ex Human Revolution did a pretty good job too, and if you ask me felt like an evolved first person version of Metal Gear Solid 2. I’ve also played heavily towards the stealth build in games like Skyrim and Fallout as of late.

So I guess there is sort of hope for the stealth genre, as long as it’s intelligently combined and contrasted with other play styles. From what we’ve seen, I’m not sure the people working on Splinter Cell Blacklist understand that.

BULLETS:

  • Before anyone mentions Theif, I own the first two games but have yet to play them. I’ll try to get to them later this year if I can before Dishonored comes out.
  • Well it’s happened: a whole dating sim based around Netorare. http://t.co/HPwEYQnc
  • Why we can’t watch NFL Hard Knocks on HBO Go: http://t.co/qSlfr5HC
  • Contra: Shattered Soldier and the original Siren headline the beginning of PS2 Classics on the Japanese PlayStation Store. Looks like they’re gonna be getting all the good games over there again.
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