Ed Price, Bad Stealth Man

I’ve been crouching behind these boxes for nearly ten minutes, now. As each guard comes and goes, I make sure to count them and observe their routines – where they walk, how long they pause for, how easy it would be to walk right past. I’ve had this tranquilliser gun in my increasingly sweaty palms for so long that in all this excitement I’ve forgotten how many incapacitating rounds are left. The guard strolls past again. I hold my breath. I make my move. “We’ve got an intruder! As the alarm begins to sound and back-up rushes closer, the only thing I can bring myself to do is sigh, mumbling “every fucking time“.

Ever since I first laid hands on Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, I’ve fancied myself as a bit of a stealth aficionado. The reality is… somewhat different. Instead of the suave, sophisicated Bond wannabe I purport myself to be in my head, the version of me that stumbles ineffectively through every stealth game is more akin to a rat-arsed Octodad than MI6′s finest. If real spies acted anything like I have in my many years of sneaking, then it wouldn’t be too long before it was renamed to Her Majesty’s Shittiest Service. I’m bad at it, is generally my point.

Yet, no matter how often my attempts result in failure and the Game Over screen appears, I still can’t bring myself to admit that I should admit defeat and sack the whole genre in. As much as I’ve found myself tiring of games where I’m tasked with shooting people, I’m arguably far worse at avoiding them entirely. After all, there’s no wrong way to shoot someone, but there are plenty of ways to cock up the act of sneaking past them.

No matter what the method, I’ve found a way to bungle it. Sneak up behind them and knock them out? They’ll turn around the moment I’m about to frantically tap the buttons. I’ve even had occasions where my attempts to knock them out will miss, and the sight of my fist feebly missing the back of their skull will be enough to set off the high alerts. Wearing a disguise? I’ll almost certainly find a way to accidentally do the one thing that renders the costume useless, and be caught with my pants down in the middle of a swarm of armed guards. I’ve even found a way to screw up the sacred act of hiding inside a cardboard box, believing, in a brief moment of panic, that someone wouldn’t notice one sitting around in the middle of a jungle.

I first realised I might not grow up to be the greatest of spies when I managed to procure a copy of Perfect Dark on the Game Boy Color. Instead of a frantic run-and-gun affair that saw you tackle aliens and high-tech weaponry like the N64 version, you were instead dropped into a top-down perspective and told to mix stealth and shooting, depending on the objective. At least, I assume there were no aliens or amazing gadgets to play with because I never managed to get past the stealth tutorials that you had to pass before you could actually tackle the story mode.

No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get past one of the tutorial missions where our heroine was told to sneak up behind a guard and plug a bullet into the back of his skull. Apparently there was some way to subdue him without the other guard in the area being instantly alerted to your presence, and as the cartridge was one of the few that came with a battery-activated rumble-pak you could be sure that every failure was punctuated by a series of vibrations as Joanna Dark was shot to shit, time and again.

To this day I’m not even sure if there even was anything beyond that point, or if it was all some kind of elaborate joke at my expense. All I know is that no matter what I tried, if I ever tried to sneak up behind the guard and shoot him in the back of the head as instructed, then the bullet would fail to kill him and I’d meet with instant failure. That’s right; I am so bad at stealth that I found a wrong way to shoot someone.

That wouldn’t be the only time, either. If memory serves correctly, I don’t think there’s a single stealth game I’ve played where I haven’t repeatedly failed in the fine art of shooting a man. My excuse is that – outside of the Hitman series – if you want to non-lethally shoot someone then you need a tranquiliser, but if you want to subdue them instantly then it’s like having to deal with zombie hordes or living in Los Angeles (which, some would argue, is the same thing) – headshots are the only thing that count.

If you’ve got a weapon ready to fire a blast of non-lethal ammo at your foes, and you manage to hit someone anywhere other than their head, then you might as well just set the alarms off yourself. Above the neck is the road to an instant knock out, but below the route leads only to alerts betraying your location, and that’s ignoring the utter embarassment of getting caught because you tried to shoot them in the face and somehow missed. The only time this doesn’t seem to apply is the Metal Gear Solid franchise; if the tranq hits your foe they’ll go down no matter what, but the further away from the brain the longer it takes to kick in. Some of my more tense moments have come from staying well-hidden, firing a shot into their foot, watching them react in confusion and then begin to walk off before finally succumbing and introducing their face to the floor.

It doesn’t just end there, either. In most cases – and in Kojima’s franchise, especially – you then have to find a way to hide the body, which is just inviting a whole array of potential accidents and mistakes. It’s at this point that my brain chimes in like the bloody Microsoft Paperclip, shouting “you’ve actually managed to shoot him properly, for once, are you sure you don’t want to just quit while you’re ahead and play something else?” By the time I’ve told it to sod off another guard has walked in, caught me in a compromsing situation with his unconscious buddy and forced me to make a run for the nearest vent, where I’ll sit out the next ten minutes waiting for the caution status to finally disappear.

At least with regards to Metal Gear, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Second Sight, I always come away with the feeling that at least when I screw up that it’s almost entirely my fault. That’s not so much the case with some games. Dishonored, in particular, earned a great deal of ire from me when I realised that choosing the stealthy path was far more difficult, considering that it was mechanically predisposed to making sure you got caught. What Corvo Attano’s adventures share with some of the bigger-budget FPS titles of our day is ‘the invisible line’ – a part of the map that, once crossed, will cause more enemies to spawn. It’s a noticeable but necessary part of your latest popcorn shooter because otherwise there would be no targets for you to riddle with bullets, but when it’s part of a stealth game then it’s an incredibly jarring thing to notice, and one you can’t shift once you’ve cottoned on to it.

So, in the case of Dishonored, once you reach a certain point in every map, guards will suddenly appear from nowhere and discover the bodies you’ve carefully hidden from the previous bunch, or they’ll swap their routines around despite no previous inclination to do so. At times it can feel like a punishment for making sure you’re prepared, and at worst comes across as artificial difficulty. Even to this day I can’t think about Dishonored without thinking about the time I watched a guard pace around a building for five minutes before I finally managed to sneak inside, only to find myself stuck as he suddenly decided to explore that very same building the moment I did. That or the time I carefully hid every single body at the top of a staircase, only to cross the line and spawn a guard that would discover them and blow my cover every single time.

It may be frustrating, but it’s at least comforting having something other than your own incredible lack of skill to blame. I have no such excuse for titles like Hitman Absolution, which I keep trying to finish only to get stuck for months on the same level because I haven’t figured out the route to take that won’t get me caught and slaughtered. Absolution is also inexorably worse for me because there aren’t many non-lethal options – if there are any at all – meaning I have to create a pile of bodies on the way to my goal, and I have to hide them somewhere if I want a half-decent score from it all. That reckless pursuit of a score makes being a stealthy guy that much harder, and considering that you’re a bald guy with a giant bandage on your head, covering up a bar-code, it’s not like you weren’t inconspicuous to begin with. Aiming for that ‘Silent Assassin’ rating isn’t just difficult, but it’s one that constantly leaves me snapping my fingers and swearing loudly whenever I inevitably – and repeatedly – fail.

At least Alpha Protocol throws you a bone or two when you level up, considering that the stealth branch of levelling lets you literally turn invisible for several seconds if one of your enemies spots you. It may feel inexplicably cheap, but it’s certainly far less frustrating than making a minor error, thanks to the iffy controls, and being punished for it. Better yet, most of the AI is absolutely borked from the get-go, and some guards won’t even bat an eyelid if you tranq someone less than five feet away from them. Obsidian’s effort isn’t the most well-constructed of games, but its biggest achievement is making me feel like even I could be remotely good spy material, even if Michael Thorton talks like the most boring IT Technician ever.

If I’m going to be skulking in the shadows, then I’d much rather spend my time with Adam “I never asked for this” Jensen. In fact, outside of Solid Snake’s exploits, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the best stealth games I’ve ever played. That doesn’t mean I’m any good at it, though. It’s one of the very few AAA releases of the last few years to accommodate different paths depending on whether you want to play stealthily, pragmatically or with all guns blazing, but if you take the the oft-maligned boss fights out of the equation then it’s an even rarer case of a game where the sneakiest path is the optimum way to play.

While you could easily grab a gun and lay waste to the hordes of enemies ahead of you, Human Revolution felt like a masterful take on the stealth genre, even though it was only one potential way to play. However, it also posed the greatest challenge of them all, as two of the largest-scoring achievements would be awarded to the sneakiest of players. The Pacifist achievement is self-explanatory, but in a tribute to Kojima’s series, there was also ‘Foxiest of the Hounds’, which would only be awarded to those who managed to get through the entire story without ever triggering an alarm.

It’s also an achievement I’ve unlocked. Somehow, despite everything I’ve told you, I have earned gamerscore through never being spotted by enemies in a videogame. From start to finish, I somehow managed to complete all of the latest Deus Ex without ever being caught or setting off an alarm, and it’s by far the greatest accolade I’ll earn for my stealthy exploits. Oh sure, I only got there by frequently saving and ruthlessly reloading every time I was (frequently) caught, and it may have caused my total playing time to be at least double what most others’ would have been, but I still got there, didn’t I? So what if it’s essentially fradulent? Come on, don’t take this away from me.

That brief glimmer of hope aside, I doubt I’m ever going to truly get along with stealth games, but that’s not going to stop me playing them any time soon. I may be terrible at them but, rather than discouraging me and leaving me no choice but to give up on the genre altogether, I still find myself wanting to play as many as I can and proving that, one day, I could be as good as James Bond or Solid Snake. Until then, if you come across a conspicuous cardboard box in the middle of the jungle, then yeah, that’s probably me.

Last five articles by Edward



  1. Ste Ste says:

    I really enjoyed the rebooted Deus Ex game. I think it did really well with the stealth gameplay considering it was a 1st person game. I’m still of the opinion that Dishonoured would have been a much better game if it had used Deus Ex’s method of dealing with stealth too. Speaking of which, I never really had much of an issue with the invisible line problem you described.

  2. Tim Tim says:

    Maybe you should give the latest Splinter Cells a try. The Last Known Position and Mark and Execute systems mean getting caught can be a fun part of the game rather than a frustrating and instant restart.

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