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This past year has seen a subtle trend emerge. Though it is one that has been prevalent for years now, it was all the more pronounced with a number of games that came out recently. Stealth games require players to sneak around killing enemies, disposing of evidence, and avoiding guards at all costs. Action games follow the opposite route; they load the player up with as much firepower as possible and thrust them headlong into the fray. What happens when games meld these two ideas, stealth and action, into a single game? A number of games decided to give their best interpretation of “action-stealth” this year, with a mixed bag of results.
Hitman: Absolution saw the return of everyone’s favorite genetically-engineered assassin, Agent 47. The Hitman series has always been known for its stealth, utilizing disguises and distractions to find and eliminate your target. With Absolution, 47 can step a bit outside his normal stealth tropes and kill with reckless abandon. The cover system has been overhauled to allow 47 to channel his in third person shooter. It’s a detriment to the game to kill whoever you want; your score is diminished with each non-essential kill. Meaning, only kill your target for the highest score possible. Though you can make Hitman: Absolution an action game, it’s really not recommended and goes against the grain of what makes the game as popular as it is.
You might think that I’d put Assassin’s Creed 3 under the stealth category of this article. Well, you’d be wrong. Cast aside all you knew about the Assassin’s Creed series as Assassin’s Creed 3 basically throws all of that out the window. Assassin’s Creed 3 is an action game at heart; it features major battles, with Connor manning squadrons of colonial troops, defending bridges and firing cannon at oncoming troops. The stalking and killing the series is known for is diluted to an almost unrecognizable point. When you think about the legacy the game has built up over the years, you’d think the latest iteration, the culmination of both five years of hype and three years of development, would be the epitome of a stealth game. Instead, Assassin’s Creed 3 is a major letdown in the stealth department, eschewing planning and execution for tired action game tropes.
When it comes to stealth, Mark of the Ninja might be the best representation of the genre I will mention. From the creators of Shank, this Xbox Live Arcade title is a delight to behold. From the art style to the gameplay, it bleeds stealth. And it should, since you find yourself playing as a ninja. Shadows become your best friend, your sword and a variety of ninja-weapons your only ally, as you stalk through a 2D world, killing as little as possible. Mark of the Ninja can be completed without killing a soul, making stealth a crucial element of gameplay. Conversely, you can turn into Ryu Hayabusa, protagonist of the Ninja Gaiden series, and slice and dice your foes to bits. Beware, however, your ninja is not bullet proof and can not take more than a few shots before death. The action aspect of the game is limited but is still an avenue that begs to be explored.
When you’re put into the shoes of a remorseless killer, who runs in guns ablaze, wasting every breathing thing in a room, do you really think about stealth? With Hotline Miami, stealth may not be the biggest aspect for this indie hit, but it can play a very important role. Each level starts with the protagonist outside of a building. You are thrusted into the world with the only orders being to wipe the place clean of living things. Each level requires careful planning before you go blasting into a room, which is where the stealth comes into play. Bash an enemies’ head in with a baseball bat and none of his buddies will be the wiser. Open up with your newly acquired shotgun and your position is compromised and you’re more than likely dead. Thinking that stealth doesn’t come into play in a game like Hotline Miami means that you’re not playing it right or you just love being reckless.
In a year full of sequels, Dishonored was one of the best, if not the best, new IP. And, of course, it melded both action and stealth, rewarding players for playing either way. You took the role of Corvo, framed for the murder of someone he was supposed to protect. From there, you’re thrust into a steam punk world, with choice on your side. Each level can be completed however you want, be it through stealth or open confrontation. The game’s levels were sandboxes, allowing each playthrough to be slightly different from the next. You could possess a rat, sneak through a grate in the wall and find yourself inside the building with not a eyebrow raised. You could also slash and shoot your way to your target, killing everything that breathed. Choice is something stealth games usually give players the most of, and with Dishonored, the choices were endless.
When I reviewed Far Cry 3, I made a note to bring up how easy it was to go from extreme stealth to all-out combat at the drop of a hat. Even the best laid plans usually end up blowing up in your face and this was no more apparent than in this game. You could sneak through the jungle, survey an enemy outpost with your camera, and marking each enemy until you developed a strategy. Only then would you hear the roar of a tiger behind you, sending you sprinting into the camp, guns blazing, all sense of purpose thrown out the window with nothing but survival on the mind. Unfortunately, Far Cry 3 made it almost too easy to silently eliminate enemies from afar with your sniper rifle. An upgraded .50 caliber sniper rifle with a suppressor and extended clip would make short work of enemies in the right hands. Sometimes, however, the game would do something to make you change your plans and say “Screw it, I’m going in,” and you’d run in lobbing grenades and popping off rounds with a smile on your face.
Each one of the games I’ve described has followed a trend I hope continues into 2013. The trend of blending stealth and action, giving players choice in how they want to defeat an obstacle that has been put in their way. Whether it is keeping to the shadows, stalking your prey and striking at just the right moment, or running and gunning without a care in the world, games this year have taken a great step forward in changing up the tired tropes of their genres. It’s good to see developers blending styles, some did it very well; others could have used a little more work.