Stealth is one of gaming’s youngest genres, not seeing mainstream popularity until 1998. It’s also something games in every genre have to some extent. This means that I’m tasked with distinguishing between games that fully commit to stealth and those that whistle at its skirt on its way to another macho firefight in a maze of knee-high concrete.
In other words, a video game may fully assert the genre, or it may offer it as one of many possible options in the open-ended design that’s become so popular now. With the lack of good stealth games in general, this list includes some of these “play it yourself” designs, but my intention is to accelerate towards a purer representation of the stealth genre as we go. This means that number one above all has to be the best stealth game and be the nearest to adapting stealth, as a concept, into a full interactive experience. The rest are parts of its whole.
Mark of Kri
This PS2 gem from SIE San Diego Studio came out in a time before three-dimensional combat against multiple targets had its defining anthem in God of War. A similar tatted-up tough guy to Kratosbut hailing from the Polynesian Islands rather than the Greek ones, protagonist Rau knew how to twist necks and loosen a few scalps with the best of them. Though known for its Disney-esque animation style, Mark of Kri holds a surprising conference between genres, offering players the chance to use a literal bird’s eye view, a corner kill technique, and a bit of clever footwork to take out opponents tactically. As a stealth experience, it doesn’t advertise the stealth genre loudly, but its slow take on combat situations and its clever use of sneak kills just nudge it onto this list.
Plus, it looks like an R-rated Moana, the upcoming Disney film featuring similar themes and designs. That cutesy gore style is worth a look all on its own, and the patient will find that Rau’s lighter on his feet than he looks.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
In both stealth and action, Rocksteady’s Arkham series excels at delivering that particular childlike glee of being the Batman. Hauntingly perched on a lamppost or pressed against the mildewed asylum walls beneath a floor grate, your control of Batman always feels like he has his whole utility belt’s worth of options to take out the bad guys one by one.
It offers great opportunities for bone-crunchy sneaky time, but also has a lot of linearity in the design of those opportunities. Arkham City was more open but also less stealthy in the end: “stealth action” is the best name for it, as most “stealth” situations in this series equate to sneaking up on the first guy and brawling with the rest. The first game was creepier, with the scarecrow sections offering a particular dark glee, hide-and-seeking in the ol’ looney bin. But neither game was fully committed to the genre (even if they were very respectful as she went sashaying by).
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Often topping lists of best stealth games, Tom Clancy’s pure stealth franchise puts its best entry on this list almost forcibly. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the most linear great stealth game I’ve ever played. Its purity gets it on the list, but its restrictiveness keeps it high.
Protagonist Sam Fisher breathesdusky-toned anti-heroism into his earpiece and down the necks of unsuspecting guards. He hangs upside down at just the right point on their patrol route to pull em up by the neck and send them the regards of his Special Ops training. Everything about the Splinter Cell series exudes its quiet, patient style. It also forces the player down a path without choice or intuitive decision-making. Each level feels like a trial-and-error labyrinth of security guards that another game might set up as challenge maps. Chaos Theory is the best labyrinth of them all, but you never feel like more thana cog in its machine.
The furthest from Tom Clancy’s “point and stealth adventure” on this list, Ion Storm’s Deus Ex offers so much freedom that stealth may not even be on your agenda if you don’t want it to be. But its expansive design and “play it your way” innovative style offers up a truly multifaceted take on the genre, experienced best when you take each situation at the word of its own tactical potential. And that means you may need to be stealthy.
Deus Ex is a sprawling playground of character builds and combat scenarios, rife with opportunities for blunt trauma fun and forced electroshock therapy. Probably the most multiplex of any stealth game on this list, it didn’t look good when it came out and still doesn’t. It’s a big, ugly brute of a game we love anyway because it lets us have our way with it. Sequels would be more polished but less experiential. For freedom of movement and opportunities for emergent gameplay situations against statuesque NPCs, look no further than the original.
Recent console gaming experiences, either open sandboxes or linear corridors, have not strived for the branching path gameplay style that Dishonored wears like a favorite old coat still dusty with specks of 90s PC adventures. Bethesda Softworks takes aesthetic cues from Bioshockbut crafts an experience more like the fully interactive romps that used to light up DOS typeface with an adventurer’s timeless wonder. Most games today can’t manage it because they’re too busy rendering perfect eyebrows and holding their players’ hands, making sure nothing goes wrong.
I’m aware that you can play Dishonored without any stealth at all and that looseness in its design means that it can’t advance on this list. But when masked vigilante Corvo really gets sneaking, when you get the knack of wall roaming and that fantastic runny-jumpy-stabby locomotion available to you if you do it all just right, the techno-punk Victorian aesthetic is just a bonus. Why more stealth games aren’t about subtle blade work instead of paradoxically silent gunplay, I’ll never know.
Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja shouldn’t be thought of as 2D Splinter Cell, but instead as the NES Ninja Gaiden rebalanced around the “ninja.” Though it has all the instant takedowns and line of sight evasion of its 3D counterparts, as a sidescroller it has a simple immediacy that makes it feel like a shot of pure stealth up the forearm instead of the diluted experiences you get playing in sneak mode on a first person plane, where often the action is just stealth done poorly.
Mark of the Ninja offers you little recourse if you fail in your epic ninja prowess. Its design economy frees the stealth genre from the feeling that it’s all purely optional, like there’s some hidden prize for hiding and waiting but running in would be just as good. Patience is a tense, rewarding experience in Mark of the Ninja, a glorious proof of concept for subtler experiences on the 2D plane to match (even exceed) Team Ninja’s bloated take on the console conversion of gaming’s favorite ninja.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
Games that adapt films have enough trouble without giving themselves the added burden of actually adding to the mythos. But that’s exactly what The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay does. It’s a game whose influence can be seen in the Batman: Arkham Asylum cinematics and in any stealth game’s proclivity towards those sneaky button prompt finishers from behind. Riddick (voiced with that paradoxically brusque warmth only Vin Diesel pulls off) punctures lungs with makeshift shivs and bare-fistedly snaps necks in this decadent take on the first person shooter that has as many fisticuffs in the shadows as firefights in the open doorways.
The hand-to-hand combat in this game has a visceral heft rarely seen, and while the levels may be spatially restrictive they offer Riddick plenty of chances to make spines crunch by cover of darkness. Sometimes clunky AI impedes the work of this absurdly ambitious game, which had better character models than Skyrim almost fifteen years ago. But the stealthing is viscerally sound, the lighting effective and engrossing, and the atmosphere second only to number one on this list.
Metal Gear Solid
Along with Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (which just missed the top 10 by being too clunky and over-difficult in retrospect) and a certain number 2 on this list, Metal Gear Solid pioneered the modern stealth game. Here in its defining moment are the countless sight cones and alarm systems, guard patrol patterns and alertness levels, that have become the standards of the genre. Here Solid Snake became the singular icon of stealth gaming and Hideo Kojima that legendary master of cinematic storytelling. The game is an interactive marvel, when it deems you worthy of interacting with it.
The most popular number 1 for lists like these doesn’t have enough of those emergent gameplay scenarios that the stealth genre lives for. Its overbearing narrative only accentuates the feeling of hands being held through some genre-defining, but admittedly straightforward situations. None is perhaps as iconic, but one other released just three months after has the full meaty experience of being a connoisseur of the shadows. And that would be …
Thief: The Dark Project
For pure interactivity, sprawling playground-like levels, and total player freedom in navigating the stealth game’s design, Thief: The Dark Project offers stealthing its biggest adventure. Conking guards on the imbecilic noggin’ was never so satisfying, with the locomotive energy of all those earlier PC intrigue simulators coming fully to bear on the medieval streets of Looking Glass Studios’ anthem to going where the digital cobble takes you. Emergent and satisfying gameplay gives you new and satisfying options around every literal corner. Its use of light and sound is legendary.
It isn’t number one, not just because it controls a bit starchy to modern gaming tastes, but because my pick for number one is so pure in its realization of horror, that stealth as an experience, as the idiom by which the game has been designed, is even more exacting than it is in this clever medieval walk in the shadows.
Creative Assembly was tasked with adapting a feeling when they made Alien: Isolation. To that end they employed every control, every graphical nuance, every atom of intelligent pathfinding to create, not just a horror game, but a fear simulator. In order to do so, they stripped the player of their rights as a protagonist and cast them into a labyrinth of creepy awe, often with a flashlight and your held breath as your only weapons. Hiding and waiting is the gameplay in Alien: Isolation, which pits its skulking baddie against you in every cloying, oppressive second of your time on the space station Sebastopol.
Is there a map with sight cones? No, you know where the Alien’s looking only if you dare sidle out and see. Is there a designated alert level? No, you can figure it out by the kinds of sounds it’s making. Is being spotted instant failure? No, but it requires some pulse-pounding thinking to get you out safely. Reception on this current gen marvel was mixed because players hope to play games to be empowered. They hope to conquer worlds as an unstoppable action hero. This is why stealth and horror gaming have fallen into the pitfalls of over-production and fast-paced gameplay. Lately, they’ve been too actional to give you that oppressive powerlessness of hiding as a necessity, where light is both your only ally and greatest foe.
You hide for real, run for actual legitimate fear, and win at the cost of your blood pressure in Alien: Isolation. For being more than a game mechanic, for becoming an actual simulated effect on its player, for having structural perfection matched only by its hostility, stealth in Alien: Isolation is the purest and best stealth game ever made.