E3 2012: “Stealth” Games Are Evolving The Wrong Way
Stalking gone stale
by Nicholas Capozzoli
©2012 Nicholas Capozzoli
Those games are all looking fabulous, undeniably.
I’m excited for the whole lot of them. Yet as stealth games, each title featured a number of failings.
It’s enough to say that I’m officially concerned about the genre. Are stealth games evolving in the wrong direction?
Blame Call of Duty (everyone else does)
I hate to pick on everyone’s favorite whipping boy, but the problem is part-and-parcel of Call of Duty‘s influence on the industry. Shocking, I’m sure.
Even the most casual observer could note that Call of Duty‘s staggering popularity has inspired many developers to seek ways of integrating the sales giant’s stylings.
In most cases, this action creep has taken the form of set pieces or slow motion shooting. While Call of Duty may not have invented bombastic visual spectacle or slow-mo, it has certainly found a way to package such features into a brand.
In the wake of CoD‘s torrential successes, other games have begun applying the product’s maxims.
Looking at the marketing data [for survival horror games] … the market is small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell. A ‘survival horror’ Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.
Man of Action
Traditional pillars of the stealth genre haven’t been immune to action’s gravitational pull, something that was fully evidenced this year at E3.
Recall the controversy over the recent Hitman nun trailer (well, the other controversy): why was Agent 47 engaging in a reckless brawl, and not using his stealth savvy?
Hitman: Controversial Nun Trailer
Thankfully, our time with the game has alleviated any fears that Hitman has fully abandoned the stealth genre for the greener pastures of high-octane action. Yet it showed some troubling signs that stealth games are losing the beat.
I can’t say that I was pleased to see the “tag” feature that was used to great effect in games like Red Dead Redemption appear in Hitman: Absolution and even in the upcoming PS Vita title Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. “Mark and execute” was also used in Splinter Cell: Conviction, making that game less stealthy.
I was doubly concerned to find this feature such a trivial matter to pull off in Hitman…by dropping time to a complete standstill, lining up a series of ace headshots looked like a casual affair.
The effect is clearly meant to reinforce the impression that Agent 47 is an unstoppable killing machine. But here’s the thing: that’s exactly the opposite of the impression that a stealth game should typically aspire to.
The best stealth games make sneaky methods the most viable course of action through two qualities: they provide you with fun, effective stealth techniques, and they make direct confrontation a means to a quick end.
Hitman: Absolution incentivizes stealthy play through a scoring system that awards points for the indirect approach. But it’s a meta-game solution to a problem that could be addressed via ludic means.
Players of the Assassin’s Creed franchise have been confronting this for years. Peruse any forum for the games and you’re bound to find them sharing artificial reasons for pursuing stealthy playthroughs.
After all, where’s the incentive to silently track your target, or to run from a fight, when it’s so darned easy (and cool looking) to wipe everyone out with a chain of instant-kills? You’re a human wrecking ball in Assassin’s Creed, and the latest entry is also the greatest example.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist features the same “tagging” technique that Hitman has espoused, albeit in a slightly less potent form. Its “killing in motion” feature allows Sam Fisher to wade through his enemies, firing off headshots with aplomb and disabling terrorists with slick grappling moves.
It looks awesome. It really does.
But it’s in the service of cinematic, unbelievable action, not stealth and cunning. The same goes for Splinter Cell: Blacklist‘s use of Call of Duty mainstays like UAV support, or slow motion breaching.
None of these games are evolving the genre in the direction that it truly needs to be pushed. The real linchpin of stealth games is, in fact, artificial intelligence.
Dumb AI the issue
The failure of artificial intelligence to evolve is the direct cause of stagnation within the stealth genre.
Think back. How many times have you watched a guard pace the same pattern with robotic consistency? How recently have you strangled a hapless henchman as his peers stand mere feet away, oblivious? How often has a soldier sauntered in front of you, stopping and presenting his exposed neck like a lamb at the slaughter?
Each of E3’s big stealth games showcased such flaws.
These issues have been around for ages. Only the Metal Gear series made a wholehearted effort to address the NPC behavior problem, but relying on Hideo Kojima to focus his attention on one thing…well…might not be the best way to go about things, let’s just say.
Other games really need to make some strides here, too.
Realistic, dynamic artificial intelligence would have a marked effect on the enjoyment offered by stealth games. It would lend an unpredictability to encounters that naturally ups the excitement.
It would heighten immersion by making NPCs feel more like real people. And it would add some much needed challenge to a genre that’s becoming rife with hand-holding and solutions to encounters that are spelled out in bold letters.
How much more exciting would it be if you weren’t quite sure that the guard you’re stalking won’t turn around on a whim? If you couldn’t be sure that a passerby wont stumble upon your hiding spot?
There’s so much untapped potential there. I wish that we could have seen some of this E3’s big stealth titles push the envelope.
There’s always next year, eh?