I give up on stealth games
What do the campaigns of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 have in common? Aside from having protagonists more durable than your average human, they’re both games that I immediately shelved and vowed never to play again.
The reason for uninstalling these games is quite simple: I hate sneaking in video games.
Both of the aforementioned games implement stealth differently. In Horizon: Zero Dawn (and its sequel, Horizon: Forbidden West, which I was gifted and similarly retired from playing after about three hours), the main set of enemies are mechanized fauna. Each has a specific type of weakness and generally requires a tactful approach to dismantling the armor, removing useful components and rendering them useless.
You can certainly rush in and tackle these enemies head-on, but the chances of landing the precise shot on its weakness (Horizon is usually built around ranged weapons) while avoiding its bursts of attack are slim compared to using the game’s tailor-made stealth system.
Thanks to protagonist Aloy’s shiny red hair that blends in with the world’s flora, she can hide in the tall grass indefinitely, provided she doesn’t set off the alarms of nearby machines before hunkering down.
But despite the deliberately built stealth system, which has enemy tracking mechanics and other useful options like creating traps, I never seem to get the hang of it in a way that makes combat effortless and fun.
Likewise, my time with the Modern Warfare 2 campaign came to an abrupt end on the 13th story mission, “Alone.” The mission features an injured Johnny “Soap” MacTavish trying to navigate a city filled with armored enemies while equipped with nothing but DIY crafting materials and the occasional shotgun.
Up until that point, the campaign was generally entertaining, but the addition of armored enemies to a first-person stealth system led to a quick uninstall. The situation was made worse by the introduction of a crafting system similar to The Last of Us (another stealth-heavy game that I retired from after about 10 hours) and a horrible checkpoint system that saw me spawn and respawn on an enemy-infested balcony Not even to sink the game’s story difficulty was enough to save a mission plagued by a myriad of armored guards attuned to the slightest shift in the shadows.
What’s wrong with Stealth?
I hate missing out on games because of their stealth systems, but it’s a problem I’ve had to come to terms with. When Metal Gear Solid 5 became free through PlayStation Plus, I made it about five minutes before quitting, having never made it out of the hospital.
I realize that stealth in games is really a “it’s not you, it’s me” problem. There are a lot of players who enjoy the genre, so why isn’t it for me?
Stealth games offer a cognitive challenge. Whether the game is presented in a first- or third-person view, players must account for a number of variables that affect how stealth scenarios play out.
Artificial intelligence is part of the problem. Single-player stealth games that feature computerized NPCs hunting the protagonist have little in the way of standardization. In some cases, enemies can be overly jumpy, attuned to even the slightest rustle in the bushes. In others, they exist in an almost vegetative state, oblivious to the protagonist switching weapons and crafting items (presumably) high up in the corner. Sometimes if enough time passes, the enemies will lose interest, effectively returning the encounter to its original state.
I will admit that with enough practice any player can learn to beat these systems, but the barrier to entry is time. In an action-based game, such as Elden Ring or Returnal, the process of learning enemy patterns and abilities is active.
Every time I fight a boss, I train my muscle memory to respond to different cues. When I see Elemer of Briar lower his shield and I’m more than a sword length away from him, I know his shield charge is coming and can plan accordingly. Eventually, identifying and mentally logging these cues becomes reactive, speeding up the process of knocking down enemies throughout the game.
In stealth systems, however, the learning process is slower and more deliberate. If any approach risks blowing cover, enemy observation becomes crucial. But unlike an action game, the penalty for failing an encounter isn’t another immediate stab at the scenario, but another period of wait and see, and in my case, more frustration.
Because stealth games are so reliant on planning, they often introduce puzzle elements into the ranks as well. In the first phase of Hitman 3 (2021), you are tasked with assassinating a target on the upper levels of a skyscraper in Dubai. There are a number of ways you can proceed and it is up to you to execute a winning strategy. The strategies are often layered, requiring outfit changes and timed approaches in order to blend in with your surroundings. Given the game’s slower pace, the challenge of Hitman becomes unbearable for players like me, who find fault with the nature of the game’s finicky systems.
But unlike traditional puzzle games, which have an explicit set of rules that must be followed, the rules of stealth games are hidden and it’s up to the player to decide what they are. Will I alert surrounding enemies of my presence if I kill one with an arrow? How long will it take for that enemy to return to their previous patrol (if at all)?
Stealth games (at least the good ones) are designed to keep players guessing about how to tackle their challenges, effectively creating the dopamine response needed to keep players engaged. The best often allow players to push their systems to the limit to create rewarding scenarios, such as killing two enemies with a single bullet or completing the game as a pacifist.
Despite my inability to embrace the genre, there are sometimes systems that make stealth games accessible. The quick-hack ability of Cyberpunk 2077 completely eliminates the need to roam around enemy buildings since V can infect opponents with malware at a generous range.
This is taken to extremes through the in-game camera system – closed-circuit cameras installed all over the world allow V to inflict the same set of afflictions on enemies without being in their line of sight. On more than one occasion, I’ve posted V in a car park while she uses CCTVs to drop a whole squad of unsuspecting gangoons.
Conversely, other games adopt a stealth moniker despite their mechanic completely negating the need to proceed with caution. In Deathloop, most enemies have a fleeting attention span. Break from their line of sight and they will almost revert to a pre-encounter state.
Deathloop’s stealth system is also rarely universal. Except for certain cases like alerting the visionary Fia, who will detonate the entire game world when he discovers Cole in her hideout, alerting an enemy in one area does not announce your arrival to the entire map. No matter how loud you think the gunshot is, enemies out of sight on the screen probably didn’t hear it. Immersion break maybe, but it lets me skip what I’d rather not be forced to endure.
Another recent example of stealth I’ve enjoyed is found in Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima. The game begins modestly, with players maneuvering Jin through lots of tall grass and shadows. However, by upgrading enough of the samurai-based skills, players can effectively ignore most stealth encounters in favor of brute forcing their way through enemy lines.
Perhaps the best example of stealth for players like me came during a playthrough of Stray, colloquially known as “that cat game”. After arriving in Midtown, and stealing the nuclear battery, the cat tries to return to Clementine’s home, which sits in an apartment block actively searched by drones.
At one point, no less than six drones were alerted to my presence despite being inside an empty cardboard box. After a few minutes of reconciliation, there was no hope of survival, I made a break for the exit.
When I arrived, all pretense of the stealth section ended. No more chasing. No more spotlights. I simply escaped from the stealth part. In that moment I felt accomplished.
In retrospect, I realized that I don’t want to play stealth games at all. I’ll just pretend I do.
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