After years in development, a fascinating prelude and some interesting marketing decisions, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was finally released Tuesday.
Following grizzled hero Big Boss on his journey into war-torn Afghanistan, the latest title in the series is looking like another epic, bewildering and brilliant stealth adventure.
Metal Gear Solid, of course, popularised the stealth concept in 1998, introducing millions of gamers to the basic conventions of this then formative genre. You need a protagonist who relies more on watching and avoiding enemies than shooting them; you need an artificial intelligence system that gives baddies predictable patrol behaviours but also lets them see and hear the hero; and you need an environment that allows players to hide. A lot.
Here then, are our nine favourites from the whole history of sneak’em-ups – we’ve only allowed one title from each of the major franchises to ensure variety, and make it more fun/annoying.
Feel free to quietly add your own favourites in the comments section, while no one is looking.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Warner Bros, 2009)
The first of Rocksteady’s excellent Batman titles is the most claustrophobic and contained, taking place almost entirely within Gotham’s favourite hotel for the criminally insane. Although there’s plenty of melee combat, lurking in the shadows and getting to grips with the Dark Knight’s range of silent takedowns was the real thrill here, providing the thoughtful video game experience that the character has always demanded.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix, 2011)
Although the original Deus Ex is probably superior as an open-world cyberpunk adventure, Human Revolution excels in its stealth game design. The augmentation system allows for a range of specialist abilities, while enemies are just clever enough to make them a challenge rather than impassible omniscient death machines. Plus, as with Metal Gear, the game has interesting things to say about technology and its effect on society – and it gives you time and space to listen.
Hitman: Blood Money (Eidos, 2011)
Every fan of IO Interactive’s slap head assassination series has their favourite title, but we’re going for the fourth instalment. It follows the familiar recipe: work out your own way of reaching the target – avoiding guards, civilians and cameras – and then take them out with whatever is at hand. It’s the variety of scenarios and tight mechanics that make Blood Money so compelling. Whether you’re in the quiet suburbs or the White House, you’re given the thrilling freedom to be a monstrously efficient killer.
Manhunt (Rockstar, 2003)
Surely one of the most bleak and transgressive mainstream video games ever made, Rockstar’s stealth murder sim has the lead character attempting to buy his freedom by carrying out a range of gangland killings for an anonymous client called The Director. It may be a treatise on the nature of interactive violence and player culpability or an unreconstructed slab of interactive torture porn, but the way it gets you up close and personal with your victims is unforgettably creepy.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami, 2004)
Serving as an engrossing and complex prequel to the Metal Gear series, Snake Eater goes all Connery-era James Bond with its 1960s setting. But, more importantly, it really plays with the whole stealth concept. Snake is able to poison or starve enemies, as well as using the classic “porn mag as distraction” technique, but then he must also sustain himself in the large open environments, hunting and eating animals – adding a survival stealth element. Plus, there are also classic boss encounters with Fury, Pain and The End to add blistering contrast.
Second Sight (Codemasters, 2004)
Okay, controversial choice here, as this psychological thriller drew mixed reviews at the time. However, UK studio Free Radical Design crafted a really interesting slant on the stealth genre with its tale of a parapsychologist John Vattic waking up in a medical research facility with no memory, but kick ass psychic powers – including the ability to remotely control objects and enemies. The only downside is that players ended up having to use conventional weapons much more than the Darth Vader-style choke holds that the game enthusiastically provides.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Ubisoft, 2005)
As with Hitman, fans will endlessly argue over which is the best in this Tom Clancy-inspired espionage series. While later titles headed too much into narrative action adventure territory, Chaos Theory is a gritty, taut and demanding stealth experience, pitching hero Sam Fisher against an audio mechanic that demands he remains quieter than the ambient noise in any area. The sense of quiet power derived from lying on a rooftop in South Korea, just watching a target stroll into your cross hairs, is scary and ridiculous.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (Activision 1998)
Developer Acquire created the most authentic video game depiction of the ninja assassin in this demanding and unforgiving PlayStation classic. Set in feudal Japan, it’s all about creeping through the darkness, slashing the throats of enemies (resulting in great splatters of blood), and using throwing stars and grappling hooks, while attempting to remain entirely undetected. The visuals and voice acting are laughable now, but the tension and atmosphere still impress.
Thief: The Dark Project (Eidos 1998)
Legendary US developer Looking Glass Studios completely set the standards for environmental stealth with its seminal Thief series. Lead protagonist Garrett has to read everything from light levels to the texture of walking surfaces in order to get around undetected, and the open design encourages thoughtful, creative play that contrasts heavily with most first-person action titles of the era. Designers Ken Levine and Doug Church would go on to push the genre further with titles such as System Shock and Bioshock, while Looking Glass colleague Harvey Smith would co-create the excellent Dishonored, effectively a Thief modernisation.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st September 2015 14.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010