Gaming Education: Stealth 101

Today we continue our Gaming Education series by looking at the six games you need to play in order to pass an undergraduate level course in stealth gaming.

A "stealth game" can be a tricky thing to define, as stealth often shows up as a mechanic within traditional action or FPS titles. For those that have experienced the joy of quality in-game sneaking though, you know that well-done stealth gameplay is important and all-too-rare, and can succeed as a core aspect of a game in the right hands.

Stealth games have been around since the early 1980s, with their roots in titles such as Castle Wolfenstein. Unfortunately, the hardware limitations of the time meant stealth gameplay left much to be desired, and the stealth genre remained little more than a curiosity for years.

However, the tide turned in 1998 with a number of important releases, most notably on the PC and Sony's PlayStation, which launched the genre into a permanent place next to action games, puzzle games, and role-playing games. These day it's practically expected that even non-stealth-focused games games include segments that encourage or reward stealthy play.

Below is a list of stealth games from that early and influential era, each one an essential to the rich stealth world we live in today. We've also included some great later additions to the genre, since stealth play has only gotten better as technology has advanced. If you're looking to understand the history of sneaking around in games, these five titles are essential gaming experiences.

#1 Metal Gear Solid

metal gear solid playstation

Release Date: 1998

Original Platform: PlayStation

Also available on PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo Gamecube (as Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes).

It's only appropriate to begin your education in stealth gaming with Metal Gear Solid. Solid Snake's exploits began years before on the MSX2 and later ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System. His leap into 3D on Sony's PlayStation, however, is where the man (as well as his creator Hideo Kojima) became a legend.

Metal Gear Solid takes place years after the original Metal Gear (released in 1987) and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (released in 1990), with former FOXHOUND agent Solid Snake infiltrating a nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses Island. His mission to rescue two high-profile hostages changes when he discovers that his former unit is trying to stealth-launch a nuclear weapon with the aid of a bipedal battle tank code-named Metal Gear Rex.

Metal Gear Solid offered the complete package: unforgettable characters, action, epic boss battles, and a story with plenty of jaw-dropping twists that also touched on themes of war, nuclear proliferation, and more.

The most important of all the features of this classic game was the stealth. Contrary to so many popular games at the time, the object of Metal Gear Solid was to avoid conflict as much as possible. The game provided gamers many avenues to do so such as crawling, hiding under surveillance cameras, hiding in cardboard boxes, distracting guards by knocking on walls, and other elements which have become staples of the series and the stealth genre as a whole.

The game's popularity, commercial success, and critical acclaim helped launch the stealth game genre into what it is today. Many of the game's features also served as a backbone or basic outline for stealth games that came after. It wasn't the first game in the genre but no other company had done stealth so well until then.

#2 Thief: The Dark Project

thief dark project

Release Date: 1998

Platform: PC

Two months after Solid Snake infiltrated Shadow Moses Island, PC gamers got a taste of stealth gaming of a different variety with Thief: The Dark Project. The game by Looking Glass Studios flipped the script on the gaming crowd by creating a stealth game with a first-person view.

Gamers saw the medieval, steampunk world of The City through the eyes of Garrett, a master thief trained by a secret society. Because of his chosen occupation, Garrett's combat skills were limited and players had to rely on stealth and evasion to survive.

The game's use of light, sound, and enemy awareness as central gameplay mechanics was revolutionary at the time. These mechanics have become the standard fare gamers expect of any decent stealth game.

The game required players to hide in shadows, elude enemies by crawling or climbing to different areas, and generally remain out of sight. A visibility bar showed players how visible they were to enemies, which was an innovation that would be adapted by countless later stealth titles.

Enemy NPCs were intelligent and reacted to the world around them. They were programmed with various levels of suspicion and reacted to changes in the environment. Sound played an equally important role. Players could find enemies by following their voices or footsteps. The reverse was also true, and careless, noisy players would eventually be found. Sound could also be used as a distraction by tossing items to lead enemies away from the player.

The game certainly had its flaws but it was fun, unique, and, most importantly, influential. The stealth genre wouldn't exist as it does today if not for Thief: The Dark Project. 

#3 Hitman: Blood Money

hitman blood money

Release: 2006

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox

The Hitman series has always favored stealth over open gunfights, and Blood Money is arguably the game where the series peaked thanks to a number of improvements over its three predecessors.

Every mission in Blood Money can be completed in a number of  ways, with the stealth option always being the most rewarding. Creative players can rack up stealth kills with fiber wire, a well-placed knife toss, long distance sniper rifle fire from a high vantage point, poisoning their drink…the list goes on.

The best and sneakiest kills in the game, however, are the ones that make the victim's death look accidental. Every mission gives the player a different opportunity to do so. Frequently, targets can be pushed off balconies from great heights. One mission lets Agent 47 rig the pyrotechnics machine at a night club to kill his target during her performance. Another mission lets you rig a BBQ grill to explode.

The game also added the Notoriety System, a reward and punishment system which tracked a player's progress through each mission. Stealthy players were rewarded with extra points, cash, weapons, and more. Careless players were punished with a high notoriety level that carried on to the next mission, thereby making progress more difficult thanks to NPCs recognizing Agent 47. Notoriety levels could be lowered by replaying the mission or using in-game cash to bribe eyewitnesses.

Stealth games have rarely been so gruesomely satisfying or rewarding as Hitman: Blood Money.

#4 Tenchu: Stealth Assassins

 tenchu stealth assassins

Release Date: 1998

Platform: Sony PlayStation

Tenchu: Stealth Assassins should have been the first in a line of many great games. Unfortunately, it has gone down in history as the best game of a failed franchise. But what a first game it was!

The game has the distinct honor of being the first noteworthy 3D third-person stealth game, predating Metal Gear Solid by a month in the US and a few months in Japan. It was also the first hit stealth game based on ninjas, who have by now become nearly synonymous with the genre.

Players controlled either Rikimaru or Ayame, assassins who serve and protect Lord Ghoda in feudal-era Japan. The two heroes were outfitted with various tools and weapons including throwing stars, poison rice treats, smoke bombs, and a grappling hook to scale rooftops to aid in their quest to kill silently.

Character animations were also motion-captured to make them more realistic. That realism takes a gruesome turn when the camera switches to the "stealth kill" angle. The camera shoots out to a wider angle to give the player the best view of his decapitation including severed heads, sword-length stabs to the heart, and entrail-spilling stomach slices.

Unfortunately, the series' popularity dwindled thanks to a number of poorly-made sequels and spin-offs.

#5 Goldeneye 007

goldeneye reloaded

Release Date: 1997, 2011 (as Goldeneye 007: Reloaded)

Platforms: Nintendo 64, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

It is impossible to talk about the Nintendo 64 without mentioning Goldeneye. Rare's first-person shooter was one of the must-own games of the system. It remains one of the best and most entertaining movie-to-game adaptations ever made, and was instrumental in bringing the first-person shooter genre to consoles.

But what is a classic FPS title doing in a list of stealth games? Stealth was actually an important part of Goldeneye's single player story mode, especially on the higher difficulty settings. Bond's silenced PP7 was a necessity to get through stages unheard as well as unseen thanks to a well-placed shot at a security camera. Doing so meant fewer waves of enemies to shoot through. A player could also crouch to sneak up on an enemy and take him out silently with a karate chop to the back of the neck.

The game is most well-known for its addicting multiplayer deathmatch modes, but we shouldn't forget its contributions to the stealth genre. With the massive popularity it eventually enjoyed, it exposed countless players to stealth gameplay the likes of which they had never seen before.

Do you think we missed anything on our list of essential stealth titles? Let us know in the comments!