Developer: Bithell Games
Publisher: Bithell Games
When we spoke to Mike Bithell about his (then) upcoming stealth game, he described his first release, minimalist puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone, as a so-so game with a good story. He’d intended to make a brilliant game and hadn’t cared about the story all that much until late in the process. With Volume, the scales tipped in the opposite direction: the stealth mechanics and level-building tools are as solid an expression of pure stealth gaming as you could hope for, but the story and voice acting feel overworked.
Where Volume shines though, it shines bright. It’s a game that encourages planning, providing the player with plenty of information about patrol routes and enemy line of sight before asking them to commit to a course of action. There are tools to distract and deter, and a neat balance between empowering the player and ensuring that they are still anxious and vulnerable. While the punishing instant failures and puzzle-like one-solution construction of some levels makes the game seem restrictive, the tools available are entirely capable of hosting levels that support reactive play that relies on improvisation.
Notes: The game itself and the creation suite in particular were inspired by Metal Gear Solid 2, specifically the Substance disc, which showed Hideo Kojima designing prototype levels using Lego. Bithell wanted Volume’s level designer to feel like playing with Lego and the game’s visuals are at least partly inspired by Metal Gear’s VR missions.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Metal Gear Solid 2 will take you back to the source while Mark of the Ninja’s view cones and gadgets are evidence of a somewhat similar feel to stealth, though from a different perspective.
Developer: Overkill / Starbreeze
Publisher: 505 Games
Payday 2 attempts something bold. It’s a multiplayer crime game that hopes to recreate both the gunfights of Heat when a job goes wrong (or everyone becomes deliberately trigger-happy) and the perfectly planned heists and infiltrations of Mission Impossible or Topkapi. Of course, just as in a heist film, something inevitably goes wrong, and in Payday 2, that’s usually because one of your crew makes a mistake.
Mechanically, Payday 2 isn’t a great stealth game but it’s one of the few that allows a group of players to plan and perform together. So much of the joy of sneaking is in the precision of a well operated dash across cover, just as guards are out of position. Sharing that joy with a team, coordinated and slick, is a fantastic experience that even the greatest singleplayer stealth games can’t quite match. Imperfect it may be, but Payday 2 is as close to the escapism of impossible Hollywood crimes as anything else in gaming, and it’s at its best when everyone does their job without leaving a trace behind.
Notes: Overkill founders Bo and Ulf Andersson were also founders of Grin, the company responsible for the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter games and 2008/2009 Bionic Commando revival and sequel. At the time of closing, Grin had apparently been working on other revivals, notably Streets of Rage and Strider.
Where can I buy it: Direct from the developers, Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood has an enjoyable multiplayer mode, in which players attempt to conceal their own characters in the crowd while backstabbers circle. Watch Dogs also toys with multiplayer stealth hijinks.
23. The Swindle [Official Site] (2015)
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games
Spelunky as a stealth game? It’s not a perfect fit but the comparison might be helpful if you’ve never heard of The Swindle before now. But what if you’re also unaware of Spelunky’s charms…?
The Swindle is a steampunk side-scrolling stealth game, in which you play as an endless supply of robbers and ne’er do wells attempting to snatch as much filthy luchre as possible from randomly generated buildings. You have 100 days – and 100 missions – to raise the cash needed to pull off the ultimate swindle and if you fail, it’s curtains for the entire criminal class.
Even though the opening missions can be a bit of a drag on each and every playthrough, The Swindle finds a sweet spot once upgrades have enabled some hacking and stealth trickery, and once the more devious robotic guards are in place.
Notes: The Swindle’s creator, Dan Marshall, is one half of the team behind Ben There Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please, two of the finest point and click adventures of modern times. That another Ben and Dan game has not occurred is the greatest swindle of all.
Where can I buy it: Steam,
What else should I be playing if I like this: Early stealth-action game Bonanza Bros. may not be a direct inspiration but it’s certainly cut from similar cloth.
22. The Evil Within [Official Site] (2001)
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Stealth and horror go hand-in-hand, particularly when guns are taken out of the picture and entire games play out as elaborate takes on hide and seek. The Evil Within might seem an unusual pick, then, considering it leans toward the action end of the survival horror spectrum. Behind all of the gore and gunplay there’s a wonderfully realised stealth game though, with silent instakills, traps to negotiate and lure enemies toward, and shadows in which to cower.
The release of the two-part DLC story featuring one of the original game’s supporting characters, Julie Kidman, showed how important the stealth mechanics had been all along. Those two chapters are the most horrifying and tense sequences in the entire game, and they’re entirely based on the key stealth ingredients: sight, sound and light.
Notes: Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami’s first survival horror game since 2005’s Resident Evil 4.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the more recent SOMA both contain elements of stealth-horror.
21. Commandos 2: Men of Courage [Moby Games] (2001)
Developer: Pyro Studios
If memory serves, Commandos 2: Men of Courage arrived just before the great World War II wave that swept across gaming in the early 21st century. Shortly after Commandos 2 arrived, there would come a time when every other game took place during World War II. There were shooters, there were RTS games, there were more shooters. The wave of WWII FPS games had begun in 2001, with Medal of Honor already pinned to shop shelves, Call of Duty just around the corner and a Return to Castle Wolfenstein taking place. For strategy gamers, the WWII focus was nothing new.
While Company of Heroes was a half a decade away, the venerable Close Combat series had been exploring the fronts and operations of the war for years. When Commandos arrived in 1998, a passing glance may not have been enough to recognise how its design differentiated it from other squad-based strategy games. With its small teams of highly skilled individuals, each proficient at a certain task, Commandos plays more like a tactical puzzle game than an RTS. This superior sequel has a brilliant set of missions that takes a broad view of the war, with the squad travelling from Burma to Colditz Castle. Stealth is a vital part of the game – you’re outnumbered and outgunned – and while the system is simple, it’s tense and effective.
Notes: Following the poor reception of first-person spin-off Commandos: Strike Force in 2006, developers Pyro have now moved into mobile development.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The other games in the series, bar spin-off Strike Force, are worth a look, as are the mechanically similar but thematically varied Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive and Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood.
20. Hidden and Dangerous 2 (2003) [fan site]
Developer: Illusion Softworks
Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Hidden and Dangerous is to Call of Duty what SWAT 4 is to Battlefield Hardline. Rather than treating war as a shooting gallery, Hidden and Dangerous uses a combination of first- and third-person direct squad control to simulate the tactics of SAS operations behind enemy lines. The sequel improves the stealth mechanics, allowing the player to take prisoners and steal uniforms, as well as incorporating a greater variety of appropriate objectives in its missions.
Illusion Softworks’ game succeeds in part because of its ambition. The AI struggles to cope with the player’s tactics at times and Mafia’s LS3D engine doesn’t always seem like the best fit for the experience, but with its complex maps and command structure, married to direct control of individuals, it’s a serious and accomplished tactical stealth game that allows you to see the consequences of a perfectly worked plan – or a disastrous failure – up close and personal. It’s intricacy and flaws put it in the same camp as the Men of War series: serious, intense and in-depth tactical games of war.
Notes: The Deluxe edition of the first game in the series is available free of charge, having been released as freeware to promote the sequel.
Where can I buy it: The second-hand market.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Operation Flashpoint and ARMA games don’t rely on stealth to the same degree, but offer a similar sense of military realism and cooperation. SWAT 4 is a policing equivalent.
Read more: Eurogamer’s review .
19. Manhunt [Official Site] (2011)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Combining elements of snuff films with the horrors of reality TV, Manhunt is an oppressively unpleasant game. It delves into aspects of horror that have been excavated so thoroughly by modern film-makers that the barrel has been scraped dry, buried, exhumed, reincarnated and then thoroughly dismantled from top-to-bottom. Found footage + extreme violence is a stinking trough that too many snouts have been buried in for too long. Rockstar recognise that the violence must be a requirement of survival rather than an indulgence, and by mixing their snuff with stealth, they make horrible deeds feel necessary, cathartic and then horrible again.
The executions are dirty and desperate. There’s no glamour in the game and even in the most excessive moments, the camera is a grotesque voyeur rather than a fetishising framing device. The gunplay is rubbish, and the environments are ugly and repetitive (by design, but still…) but the stealth-violence is tense, horrific and smartly designed.
Notes: Manhunt was one of the games targeted by now-disbarred attorney Jack Thompson during his campaign against “murder simulators”. Links between the game and a 2004 murder were dismissed by police but pursued by Thompson, who attempted to sue Rockstar and Sony (Manhunt was initially a Playstation exclusive), later describing the latter’s release of violent games in America as “Pearl Harbour 2” and Rockstar’s games as “the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio”.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
Read more: Kieron’s thoughtful retrospective.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Thief games’ interludes into stealth-horror are the best example of that particular genre crossover.
18. Styx: Master of Shadows [official site] (2014)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
There are several common approaches to stealth gaming but every design must make one important decision: is a failure to stay in the shadows punished by failure, or will the player have opportunities to correct their mistakes. If a game takes the latter approach, it can swiftly slide out of the stealth bracket altogether, as being spotted becomes an excuse to run and gun all the way to the end of a level. Styx: Master of Shadows plants its fantasy flag in the former category, demanding that every level is executed using stealth and stealth alone.
Titular character Styx does have some goblin-y gadgets to divert the attention of guards but on the whole, he relies on the shadows, and the nooks and crannies of each level to conceal him. Where the game excels is in the design of those levels, which make good use of verticality to ensure that you’ll need eyes in the top as well as the back of your head if you’re going to make good use of your surroundings. And if you are willing to engage with this strict approach to stealth, you’ll likely alternate between excusing and cursing the frustrating combat. It’s excused because it’s a clumsy last resort but it’s frustrating because, damn, is it ever clumsy.
Notes: Takes place in the world established by Cyanide and Spiders’ action-orientated RPG Of Orcs and Men.
Read more: Our Review.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: A sequel is due next year but until then, there’s more Styx in Of Orcs and Humans
17. The Saboteur [official site] (2009)
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
There’s a great deal to deride in The Saboteur. Set in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War, for most of the running time, the game is more like ‘Allo ‘Allo than Army of Shadows. This is a game with a patch that unlocks extra brothels and removes the clothing from the women in those brothels. It’s a game that relegates the struggle of the Resistance to backstory while concentrating on the personal business of its sweary eejit of a lead character.
And yet, there’s a great deal to admire in The Saboteur. It’s one of the few open world games that manages to incorporate stealth effectively by clearly communicating the relative danger of the various Parisian districts. All of that is thanks to some simple but effective mechanics and the glorious art direction that sees the red-spattered monochrome of the occupied city restored to its natural colours as Liberté sweeps through. In the later missions, there are extravagant scenarios, wild capers, that show Pandemic’s Mercenaries credentials in full force. If you can look past some of the tackiness, The Saboteur is a fine example of stealth mechanics finding expression in an open world.
Notes: The Saboteur was Pandemic’s final game – the studio had previously created the Mercenaries games, as well as the soon-to-be revived Star Wars: Battlefront series.
Where can I buy it: Origin.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Velvet Assassin, which came out around the same time, is almost as tonally confused and also suffers from inferior stealth mechanics. You could always play Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and pretend the stealth actually matters.
16. Monaco [official site] (2013)
Developer: Pocketwatch Games
Publisher: Majesco Entertainment
During its prolonged development cycle, Monaco appeared to be many different things. A top-down stealth puzzler, perhaps? An elaborate multiplayer tactical heist planner? A stylized but tissue-thin arcade rob ‘em up?
The reality is a combination of all three possibilities. Monaco is certainly stylized – and stylish – framing its heists in the language of a chic New Wave crime film but with visuals that are Neon Vague. As stills, the levels looks like a weird form of Magic Eye picture that you’ll have to squint and stare at if the image is ever to coalesce, but when playing, they coalesce immediately. Information flies out of the screen thick and fast as the various characters you (and your friends) can control demolish walls, hack computers and flee from attack dogs. The joy is as much in the farce that ensues when everything goes to hell as in the perfectly executed plan.
Read more: Our Review and an interview with developer Andy Schatz.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Payday 2 is a completely different take on multiplayer heists, and both The Escapists and Prison Architect feel like alternate reality versions of Monaco, viewed from different perspectives.