5. Dishonored [official site] (2012)
Developer: Arkane Studios
We thought Dishonored might play out like Thief. It’s a first-person stealth game set in a world that crunches historical influences and invented technologies together, and it has direct Looking Glass heritage in the form of co-director Harvey Smith. Where Thief focused on sneaking and shadow-hugging, as befitting its title and lead character’s profession, Dishonored takes to the rooftops. Garrett always felt underpowered, a master thief who quickly ended up out of his depth, while Dishonored’s Corvo is a bodyguard turned assassin. He’s the most dangerous person in the room, whichever room that happens to be.
That reality requires a very different approach to stealth. Dishonored is a kinetic stealth game, in that it is movement rather than lack of movement that is most likely to help you go undetected. Instead of biding your time and observing patrols, you can use your superpowers (and Dishonored is also one of the best superhero games ever made, even though it isn’t strictly a superhero game) to teleport short distances and to distract or destroy guards from afar. In building a game around the player character rather than imitating Thief’s deadly shadows, Dishonored created new styles of play.
Notes: Dishonored’s The Knife of Dunwall/Witches of Brigmore DLC is a significant improvement upon Dishonored itself, thanks to a more interesting protagonist and a more complete story, plus the optional involvement of henchfolk to help you out. So if you can afford it, do pick up the GOTY version of Dishonored, even though at £20 it’s twice the price of the vanilla one on Steam.
Where can I buy it: Steam, disc and most other download services, though all they’ll give you is a Steam code.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Thief: Deadly Shadows if you want more, and still relatively accessible fantasy-stealth, or there’s the third-person Shadow of Mordor if you want something with more blood and more magic.
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [official site] (2015)
Developer: Kojima Productions
The story doesn’t so much end as just stop, the base-building feels like somebody else’s concern and tactics are a little too easy to perfect over time, but The Phantom Pain is the greatest stealth action game ever made. There’s so much to do and to see that you’re likely to spend the first couple of months discovering new interactions and surprises, and it will probably take years for every secret to come to light. Considering the strength of personality in the series and its auteur creator, it’s striking that the best of The Phantom Pain would still be in place even if it were stripped of all identifying Metal Gear Solidisms. As a dry military stealth sim it wouldn’t quite work – the exuberance, oddity and humour are vital – but it could stand apart from the MGS series as gaming’s greatest and most brilliantly crafted curiosity.
No other game has embedded such elaborate and exquisite stealth mechanics into an open world environment. That Kojima Productions’ masterpiece does so in one of the most convincing and reactive open word environments ever crafted is astonishing. Even though seemingly incomplete, which ties into the development and launch disputes covered in the notes below, The Phantom Pain is a ridiculously generous game. The Side Ops are often more compelling than the main story missions and it’s impossible to play for long without running into an emergent distraction. Or creating one of your own.
Notes: The apparent dispute between publishers Konami and Metal Gear director Hideo Kojima – which appears to have concluded with Kojima’s departure from the company amid talk of the publisher’s move away from bid budget game development and the cancellation of the Kojima co-directed Silent Hills – has been as mysterious and confusing as some Metal Gear Solid plotlines.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The seemingly forgotten Project I.G.I. feels like a shabby precursor to some of The Phantom Pain’s ideas. MGS 1 and 2 are also available on PC, and if you enjoy the VR missions from the earlier games, Mike Bithell’s Volume might be your cup of brewed leaves.
Where can I buy it: Steam
3. Hitman: Blood Money [official site] (2006)
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Hitman’s finest installment might also be the only installment that has ever fully lived up to the concept’s promise. IO’s sandbox (snuffbox) assassination games are built around the idea that infiltrating, stalking, targeting and eventually killing targets in believable environments would be entertaining. The least important part of that is the kill itself. These are not particularly violent games, for the most part, and the best players take a certain pride in the cleanliness of the kill. A good hitman does not cause a commotion or attract attention. Each level is packed with possible death sentences, environmental triggers and weapons that can put paid to the unaware, but there are also onlookers and guards to contend with.
At its best, Blood Money presents its levels both as credible places that feel authentic – remembered either from cinema or from life – and as intricate puzzles. As you attempt to make your way to the target and then back to the exit, perhaps hiding a body or two along the way, the solution to the puzzle becomes messier and messier. Every new variable introduced, whether it be the sound of a gunshot or the wrong disguise in the wrong area, dilutes the clarity of the original setup. Agent 47 is the poison in the system that prevents everything from working as it should – your job is to leave before the system recognizes that it has been compromised.
Notes: The final Hitman game with a Jesper Kyd soundtrack. For now.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Blood Money is the series at its peak but there are decent levels in every game, even the subpar Absolution. Maybe the Death to Spies games will tickle your fancy if you enjoy the tricky stealth of Hitman, but if it’s the killing you enjoy, try Kane and Lynch.
2. Invisible, Inc. [official site] (2015)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Klei Entertainment
Three years ago, claiming that Mark of the Ninja was anything other than Klei’s stealth masterpiece would have been considered rude at best. That the studio have created an even more inventive, intelligent and enjoyable stealth game already seems preposterous, but Invisible, Inc. is exactly that. If the translation of familiar mechanics into a side-scrolling environment seemed bold, the reinvention of the sneaking and stealing genre as a game of turn-based tactics deserves a medal for outstanding bravery. Invisible, Inc. might well be the best wholly original turn-based game released in a decade.
Everything from the brief campaign structure to the heavily customizable playstyles has been designed to encourage experimentation and create maximum tension. Like Mark of the Ninja, this is a game that believes that information is power, and the screen will tell you everything you need to know to survive. And then you’ll die, again and again because you didn’t think three or four moves ahead. Between turns, you’re likely to pace and scratch your head as if playing a Chess tournament at the highest levels. The genius of Invisible, Inc. is that it creates such drama and tension within infinite procedural environments, which adjust themselves according to your personal desires. Fancy limiting guards’ patrol patterns to make life easier? There’s an option for that. How about slowing the security systems that come online the longer you’re on-site? It’s possible.
Invisible, Inc. is a classic that we’ll be talking and writing about for years to come.
Notes: Revealed under the working title Incognita – retained as the name of the in-game AI – Klei switched the title to Invisible, Inc. when people responded to the punning name in focus testing. A rare example of a clear focus testing triumph.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Mark of the Ninja, which is both precursor and prototype for Invisible, Inc., while being a marvelous game with its own style and mechanics.