Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Of all the games on this list, Riddick’s sci-fi prison break saga has more in common with Arkham Asylum than any other. Like Batman’s biff ‘em up, Assault on Dark Athena (incorporating the earlier and superior Escape From Butcher Bay) is part stealth game and part brawling game. It’s also a stabbing game – Batman doesn’t use shivs quite as often as ol’ shiny eyes.
As well as handling both the stealth and first-person melee combat well, Riddick is a fine example of how to work with a license. Extending the backstory rather than retelling a story better suited to cinema, Butcher Bay plants itself in a setting suited to the kind of close quarters sneaking, stabbing and skull-smashing that suits Riddick as a player character. He’s a bastard but he’s your bastard.
Notes: Assault on Dark Athena is an expanded remake of the earlier Escape From Butcher Bay. While Athena’s prettier, there is an argument to be made that Butcher Bay is superior – it has quicksave, its lighting system doesn’t get in the way so much and it’s not saddled with the boring extra section. The balance just about tips towards the newer Athena, and in any case you can only obtain Butcher second-hand now anyway.
Where can I buy it: GOG.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Batman’s Arkham games have a similar palette and combination of violence and sneaking and fit into the ‘strong licensed game’ category, as does Shadow of Mordor.
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
No One Lives Forever 2, like the original, is a lovely spoof of the James Bond genre, with its gender-switch approach, and gleeful nicking of Fleming’s gadgets, vehicles and plot structure. Cate Archer makes for an excellent protagonist, peculiarly snooty and unlikeable in some ways, while defiant and ass-kickingly pleasing in others. The pleasure of using gadgets to approach situations in your own chosen way is immense, with a good mix of stealth, action, driving and narrative. Flavours of Hitman, Deus Ex and Austin Powers made for an interesting cocktail. One that really worked and impresses with its uncommon inventiveness even now. Wit, too: shooters imbued with comedy to anything like this extent were rare then, and even rarer now.
While this sequel never forces the player to rely on stealth, as the first game did on occasion, the new gadgets introduced make Cate’s approach to each mission more flexible than before. The levels are also more open, with a few exceptions, allowing for more experimentation. It’s the setpieces, such as the tornado-in-a-trailer-park, that are creaking the most as age catches up with them. Spectacular at the time, some of NOLF 2’s more extravagant flourishes feel like distractions rather than attractions. But the core of the game, and its predecessor, are as good as anything the wonderful Monolith have ever made.
Notes: The first game in the series is also a treat, but standalone expansion/prequel Contract J.A.C.K., which threw out most of the spy stuff in favour of shooter conventions (including generic gruff man protagonist, allegedly to help sales) into the series, should be avoided like 14 types of plague.
Where can I buy it: :( The rights are tied up in a knot no-one can (or, more likely, wants to) untangle. So second-hand’s your only recourse for now. Last year, plans for a re-release were announced, but nothing’s happened yet.
What else should be playing if I like this: Hitman: Blood Money does gadgets and stealth impeccably well, and even weaves absurdist and slapstick humour into its assassination vignettes. Or there’s Dishonored for a more flexible and serious (yet fantastical) approach to the gadgety stealth shooter.
Read more: Retrospective: No One Lives Forever.
8. Alien: Isolation [official site] (2014)
Developer: Creative Assembly
There are many horror games about running away rather than standing your ground, a tradition which Frictional’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent may have revitalized but that has been a part of scare ‘em ups since the days of Clock Tower, and indeed the very birth of survival horror: 1982’s Haunted House. Alien: Isolation is one of the few games within the genre to model its antagonists behavior in convincing fashion, however, rather than relying on scripted events and ghost train ghouls. Creative Assembly’s game utilizes every trick in the book, including scripted sequences, but the credibility of the creature’s movements is the main source of uncertainty and fear.
In order to survive, you’re provided with a set of tools that distract, delay and deter the alien, and anything else that presents a threat. That equipment, and the ability to hide under furniture and in lockers, feeds into a system of sound, sight and sneaking. Where many of the games on this list are masterpieces of UI design, communicating and providing feedback in smart and stylish ways, Isolation goes the opposite route. All of the information you need to survive is locked into that unwieldy and view-obscuring motion tracker, an in terminals that take too long to boot up and process your inputs. As well as being a superb horror game, Alien: Isolation is a wonderful example of how a stealth game can excel through a lack of communication with the player. It’s occasionally frustrating but it’s exquisitely tense.
Notes: The most notable alteration to the design of the Alien, as compared to the film, is seen in the legs. The man-in-a-suit design didn’t have the recurved legs of the game’s creature but the designers realised that hiding under tables and watching humanoid legs shuffling past wouldn’t be quite as creepy.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: SOMA, the sci-fi horror game from Frictional is worth a look. System Shock 2 is the only currently available non-guns-blazin’ sci-fi horror game comparable in quality though.
7. Deus Ex [Official Site] (2000)
Developer: Ion Sorm
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
The question as to whether Deus Ex is truly a stealth game kept the official RPS List Lawyers awake for several months. Their final report on the matter read as follows: “A stealth game is a game in which stealth is necessary at least once rather than optional at all times. Otherwise, some smartarse will manage to do a no-kills run of Doom and claim that it’s one of the inspirations for Metal Gear Solid.”
It might be possible to run from Liberty Island to [REDACTED] all guns blazing, cyber-clodhopping your way from one mission to the next without a care for the consequences, but it’d be a sad way to play. Stealth in the original Deus Ex can seem tricky to those who didn’t play it at the time, or who have become accustomed to Human Revolution’s upgraded moveset. Try to clobber everyone on the back of the head or stun them from afar and you may well struggle, but it’s a game that has been carefully designed to allow ‘ghosting’. Often, you won’t even need to incapacitate a single enemy – go in, reach your objective, and get out, all without being seen or leaving a body behind.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Consider Neon Struct, seen elsewhere in this list. Deus Ex: Human Revolution improves some of the stealth mechanics and the upcoming Mankind Divided may go a cyberstep further in that regard. The first three Thief games are as close to the immersive sense of Deus Ex as anything else available though. Also check out The Nameless Mod for the original.
6. Mark of the Ninja [Official Site] (2012)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Mark of the Ninja is so brilliantly designed that, fittingly, its quiet revolution could almost go unnoticed. It’s a side-scrolling stealth game that allows for lethal, non-lethal and unseen approaches to its levels, and while the seamless nature of control, information and interface seem like they might have been refined for a generation or more, the game seems to have crept into the world fully-formed. Some of the ideas, such as the visible audio cues and lines of sight, have precedent in other stealth games, notably Metal Gear Solid, but Klei have reinvented or elaborated on every inspiration.
The game’s world throws high tech private military corporations and ninja dojos together – shadows, shuriken, explosives and laser tripwires. That allows for some tricky design but the game is rarely punishing, usually providing escape routes as well as weapons and tools that can put guards out of action. Visually, it’s a masterpiece. The slick cartoon graphics are only part of the reason though; the game’s main strength is its use of every aspect of visual feedback to inform the player. It gives you all the information you’ll ever need, tidily and attractively, and trusts you to play and experiment with that information as you see fit. If that involves unleashing a plague of flesh-eating bugs to dispose of a corpse, so be it.
Notes: Lead designer Nels Anderson is now working on the intriguing Firewatch at Campo Santo.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Deadlight has a different visual approach, and zombies rather than ninja, but it’s another gorgeous and unusual side-scrolling game. Not as impressive as Mark of the Ninja but worth a look. Anything else by Klei is worth your time and money as well.