Where have all the stealth games gone?

The art of sneaking round seems to be lost on modern gaming, with pure stealth games becoming an endangered species…

Back in 1997, Hideo Kojima unleashed Metal Gear Solid onto the PlayStation. A project heavily inspired by childhood games of hide and seek, the purpose of the game wasn’t to kill every enemy in a level – instead the goal was evasion, as Solid Snake clung to walls, ducked under security cameras, and avoided the now-comically-small vision cones of guards.

It’s easy to get hooked on Metal Gear Solid, which feels like a sneaky spy thriller in the palm of your hand. It’s even fun to play it back-to-back multiple times, experimenting with new ways to get past its many obstacles. It served as a thrilling first introduction to the stealth genre, and one that paved the way for franchises like Hitman, Splinter Cell, and more.

In recent years, however, the genre has snuck back into the shadows. Metal Gear Solid V‘s superlative gameplay was tied to a story cut short by drama with Konami, while the Splinter Cell franchise is nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps understandably, publishers have alternative priorities. Many have been chasing the “live service” game, or putting eggs in the online shooter basket. Even Konami, despite general malaise about a Metal Gear title without Kojima, created the ill-advised zombie battling Metal Gear Survive – a way of ticking boxes for multiplayer gamers.

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In fact, the most recent AAA stealth titles have both been first-person. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is excellent, offering plenty of paths to each objective, but it doesn’t look like a sequel is coming anytime soon thanks to Square Enix’s acquisition of the Avengers IP and Eidos Montreal’s task of bringing it to life.

The other, Dishonored 2 (and its excellent standalone expansion ‘Death Of The Outsider’ from Arkane Studios) is widely regarded as one of Bethesda’s best titles this generation. Despite this, commercial reception was tepid. If Dishonored 3 ever happens (and we really hope that it does), it needs to shift a lot of copies, or the franchise is surely doomed entirely.

There is one outlier, a stealth franchise that is still attempting to play the ever-shifting gaming landscape, experimenting with new methods of attack as the industry changes – not unlike its protagonist. If you’ll forgive the laboured metaphor, Hitman remains arguably the last true AAA stealth franchise still kicking. Its focus on replayability led to an episodic release cadence back in 2016, which worked well enough, but the sequel once again reverted to a tried-and-true boxed product. Both Hitman (2016) and Hitman 2 are fantastic games, but arguably neither has received the commercial success to match that.

Assassin’s Creed has all but shed its stealth systems, still offering the ability to hide bodies and crouch in bushes, but now within the guise of an action RPG. In fact, in this humble author’s opinion, the change has benefitted the series, with Origins and Odyssey standing out as truly impressive entries in a franchise that had begun to grow stale.

Thankfully, there is a last bastion of stealthy titles – the indie scene. This year’s Aragami is a fun stealth game with supernatural abilities, while Mark Of The Ninja offers a fantastic 2D stealth adventure with smart mechanics. Of course, there’s also Mike Bithell’s Volume, which was heavily inspired by the original Metal Gear Solid.

It could be stated that stealth gaming hasn’t gone away entirely. In some ways, it has been folded into the AAA space instead of being allowed to shine on its own. Playing Far Cry 5, a first-person shooter, players can stealthily infiltrate bases to avoid alerting enemies, while the Uncharted franchise often offers tactical advantages to those willing to eliminate enemies silently before plunging into a firefight. The Batman Arkham games and Spider-Man PS4 also offer light stealth options, but nothing particularly thrilling or vital. Is this as good as it’ll get for those of us who yearn for a return to the wall-hugging days?

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Hopefully not. In a recent interview with Gamer Sky, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot commented that Splinter Cell could make a comeback, but not necessarily as a traditional title.

“On Splinter Cell there will be some new type of experiences, but more on different devices,” he stated, lending some weight to the rumour that the game could be a VR project following Ubisoft’s deal with Facebook and Oculus. It’s not ideal, but at this point it feels as merciful as a raindrop in a drought. We’d take some VR-based stealth experiences over a big load of nothing any day.

What are your favorite memories of stealth gaming? Are you happy for it to be a facet of the emergent gameplay many AAA releases tout these days, or are you itching to perform that show-stopping split jump as Sam Fisher again? Let us know in the comments below…