With both a new Thief title and a new Splinter Cell title on the horizon, and the release of the new top-down co-op stealth game Monaco, it’s high time we had a run down of what are arguably the best stealth games of all time.
Out of all genres, out of all styles, out of all types of video games, stealth is unequivocally my favorite. Since I first hid around corners from Russian goons in Metal Gear Solid, I was hooked on the capacity to thrillingly evade bad guys and feel like a badass, and I’ve been lapping up any morsel of sneakiness I could get my hands on ever since. So here’s a list of my favorite stealth games of all time. The list isn’t comprehensive- plenty of titles I love like the early Tenchus or indeed Metal Gear Solid don’t make the cut because they’re so dated (not to say they aren’t great).
A couple of self-imposed rules:
- This article is about hardcore stealth. ‘Ghosting’ is a key criterion for this: the term itself roughly meaning “to complete a level without any detection and without interacting with guards in any way, or causing any alerts”. Basically, get in and get out, touch nothing except your objective, and leave no trace. Be as transient and ephemeral as a ghost. The more a game allows for this, the higher it will be on the list.
- Plot or story stuff will never be spoiled- although there may be some minor spoilers regarding gameplay scenarios later in some of the games. Bits that mix up stealth mechanics, etc.
- Only one game per series. This list could be populated entirely by Splinter Cell, Thief and Metal Gear Solid games if a rule like this wasn’t in place.
- Games are generally taken as being played on the hardest difficulty. This is where stealth gameplay comes into its own, and is at its most taut, tense elegance.
10. Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
I came very close to leaving Eidos Monteal’s game, and this series, off the list entirely. Often the title loses its focus on stealth in certain sections- most notably the boss fights where full frontal confrontation is literally the only option players have to beat the bosses.
Still, the game’s deployment of Rainbow Six: Vegas’ trigger-based cover system was ingenious. The player holds down a trigger and the camera pops from first person into third person, allowing the player to move in cover, move from cover to cover, and take stealthy shots from cover. Bad guy’s AI is fairly smart, and in most scenarios it is possible to entirely evade them. Over the course of a huge adventure, and with a large capacity for upgrading abilities and items, Human Revolution provides a pretty solid stealth experience, especially in some later levels where really large areas are available for exploration and multiple approaches.
The issue is that this is a Deus Ex game: so while the stealth mechanic is good, it is diluted among the RPG mechanics, the dialogue mechanics, and the quest-completing mechanics and the gunfighting mechanics, which each try to do their own thing. Often the stealth approach is undermined due to the game wanting to focus on too many other styles at once.
9. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
Escape from Butcher Bay was a game that did a lot of things well. It did first-person adventuring well. It did first-person fistfighting well. It did dialogue, writing and side-quests well. It also did stealth very well.
The only problem was that it lasted 6 short hours.
Frankly, Butcher Bay is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s a great adventure with only a couple of missteps, and it’s graphical style is fantastic, which made developer Starbreeze one of my favorite teams until they started losing their touch after Butcher Bay’s expansion (probably due to publisher mismanagement). The writing and story in the game is very good- we have the mediocre movie Pitch Black and the flat-out bad movie Chronicles of Riddick to thank for this universe.
But it’s over before it feels like it has truly begun. Despite this, it did the predatory stealth thing better than most first person stealth games. The controls were simple and effective. Crouch was ‘stealth mode’. Jumping let you climb. You could peek effectively. A lovely touch was that it had no HUD- so graphically it felt totally pure and satisfying. Like Thief: Deadly Shadows, it featured 100% dynamic lighting, so it was obvious when the player was in light or darkness, was invisible or visible. Also, like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory it featured one trigger button set to ‘non-lethal’ strikes, and one trigger set to ‘lethal’ strikes- so the player could avoid all the bad guys, or leave a trail of knocked-out ones, or leave a trail of dead ones. And killing bad guys with your bare hands was often savage- Riddick doing such gritty moves as turning a soldier’s assault rifle into his own face and pulling the trigger.
The key factor in this game was the ambience: escaping the prison-planet of Butcher Bay was incredibly atmospheric, at times tense and scary, and always gritty. Relatively open areas and layered quest objectives made stealth have the free and multi-faceted approach usually reserved for a Deus Ex game. The fantastic stylistic tone and nicely balanced level design helped bump the game’s stealth gameplay onto this list- if you haven’t played it and you’re a fan of games like Thief or Deus Ex, this is just as strong a game as those two. It’s just short.
8. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin.
While perhaps not the best Hitman game- Blood Money and Absolution are definitely stronger iterations- Silent Assassin was the entry which perfected the series’ stealth gameplay.
There was an economy and elegance to developer IO Interactive’s level design in Silent Assassin. A simplicity and clarity which left practically all of levels ghostable. Utterly evading bad guys was a viable option, unlike in the later entries where crowd-infiltration and disguises were increasingly necessary to ‘Silent Assassin rank’ success. At times the game neared on the Number One entry’s perfectly tight, thrillingly close-quarters sneaking moments.
7. Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
This may seem like a bit of a misnomer in a discussion of stealth games. But if you think about it, Frictional Games’ “scariest-game-ever-made” is a pretty relevant entry, due to two facts:
The player can’t fight, so more often than not has to run away.
And light attracts the attention of monsters, so players are forced to hide in lunacy-inducing darkness.
Taken out of the games gothic survival-horror context, both of these aspects are core tenets of the stealth genre. You have to hide from bad guys, and you have to run away from them if you’re caught: the purest commandments of the stealth genre. However, this game also epitomises something I’ve believed for a couple of years now: stealth and horror are two styles of game which go perfectly, absolutely hand-in-hand.
The latter parts of Amnesia see the player fully having to sneak around nightmarish enemies and hide in the dark- which drains the player’s sanity, incentivising the player to keep moving and keep stocked on resources despite having to hide. Which is an ingenious innovation in stealth gameplay. If that weren’t enough of an incentive to stay invisible- the nightmarish and threatening monsters themselves would definitely give you a nudge in the hiding direction.
Hiding itself is also well handled- with the ability to stack items like crates or barrels and hide in cupboards used to break line of sight with monsters. This is something which nearly led me to include Siren: Blood Curse on this list, if only it weren’t so clunky, and primarily focused on horror.
The fact is, Dishonored’s stealth gameplay is fantastic, Arkane Studios did nick half of it from the Thief series.
On that basis I don’t have too much to say about the game. It has a nice light/dark mechanic where bad guys can only see you very close up in the dark. It incentivises ‘ghosting’ by giving you a ‘ghost’ criteria for each level, although this doesn’t give you any actual benefit. And the level design is very very good, at times improving upon Thief’s formula, at others seeming a little too contrived. But it’s a great universe and a good story in general.
The use of some of Corvo’s magical abilities for stealth is also worth mentioning, as it’s very well developed indeed. The guards have a three-tier awareness system, and I’ve frequently dodged evasion after a guard spotted me initially by ‘Blinking’ right behind him. You feel like a badass whenever you pull of emergent moves like this. The guard spots you- one ‘alert’ symbol appears around his head- in a split-second’s decision you teleport past him into a doorway, and you turn to watch him stare at where you were a moment before, muttering that he’s sure he saw something.
Dishonored’s AI is probably the best thing it brings to the stealth table. The three-tier alert system is effective. Guards emergently do things like break their patrol routes to examine corpses, rats, posters or attack members of other factions. They react entertainingly to your powers and the environment around them. This game features the best AI of all the games on this list.
5. Mark of the Ninja
MotN is one of the only successful sidescrolling stealth games in history. You play as a ninja with the goal of avenging his murdered present-day clan, and are tattooed with magic tats which provide you with incredible powers- that will ultimately kill you. You follow a strict ninja code- the ninja’s sword may only be used once per opponent: to kill them.
Unusual in sidescrollers is the ‘dynamic light’ gambit. Light sources in the game cast real-time shadows which the player must hide within, and in a 2D game this makes for an interesting image of light cones shifting around on screen. Intelligently, sounds in the environment are graphically displayed- if you’re on one side of a doorway and a guard is on the other, out of your line of sight, his footsteps are represented by little shockwaves of sound, like ripples on water. This mechanic becomes key in the game’s New Game + mode, where after completing the story once you may play it again with your own vision restricted by light and line-of-sight, like the guards’. Keeping track of bad guys all around while you hide becomes an exercise in keeping track of all their footsteps. It’s not easy. But it’s thrilling.
The reason the game is so high on the list is due to its breadth of stealthy options. Taking hints from sidescrolling platformers like N or Super Meat Boy,the ninja is extremely agile and can cling to walls or ceilings- leading to multiple stealth approaches to completing objectives, and exciting stealth moments of leaping over guys just before they notice you or dodging above doorways before they open. Split-second finger twitch stealth is as its best in Klei Entertainment’s game.
Unlike in most contemporary stealth games, as well as being able to kill every guard and shatter every light with knives, the player is also heftily rewarded for ghosting each level. In order to 100% the game, you have to collect three scrolls, fulfill three secondary objectives, and reach three point milestones per level. The fact that killing no enemies and not being seen provides a points bonus actually incentivises stealth play- something which most of the games on this list never do. The player also has a good collection of costumes and gadgets to help them- be they aggressive or stealthy. One costume doesn’t allow a sword, but makes the ninja’s movements noiseless- perfect for ‘ghosting’ playthroughs where you don’t want to touch a guard, but need the speed to sprint anywhere without gaining attention.
The only thing which prevents this title from sliding any higher up the list is its length. Although highly replayable, it’s an Xbox Live Arcade game, and as such you only get 6-8 hours play from it, over New Game and New Game Plus. The stealth, however, is often sublime. I’m still finding new sneaky routes through levels; hiding on unnoticed walls directly above guards and dropping right behind them to slink off, or creeping through ducts I never knew existed. In the games lush, dark watercolour aesthetic, stealthiness becomes even more compelling.
4. Far Cry 3.
Like Amnesia, this may appear to be a bit of a misnomer in such a list. FarCry games are, primarily, first-person action games set in tropical or exotic locations. They definitely don’t fit the stealth genre, and stealth doesn’t usually feature in any trailers or publicity for them.
And indeed, it’s difficult to ghost many of the missions in the series third outing. It was completely impossible to do so in FarCry and FarCry 2- but Far Cry 3 achieved something which outweighs this frequent inability to do ‘pure stealth’. Which is why I’m going to do my damnedest to justify why it holds a place here, on this “hardcore” stealth list:
It achieved a functioning system of open world stealth.
Most open world games either don’t even have a go at stealth, or manage it in a relatively restrictive way. Thief: Deadly Shadows’ open world was barely what you would call “open”- each area is about half the size of one of the game’s actual missions; and while I like Skyrim for what it is, the ‘by the numbers’ stealth system, based on a skill and experience and environment factor number-crunching, will never be wholly satisfying.
Enter FarCry 3: over the gameworld’s tens of square kilometers, it is possible to hide from enemies anywhere. Lifted from other stealth games, FarCry 3 introduced an ‘awareness meter’ which takes the form of a circle around the centre of the screen. If a bad guy notices you, a thin white line appears in their direction, and the more a guy notices you, the wider the line becomes. Once it’s totally filled, you’re noticed, and shouting and killing begins. You can halt the meter by reducing your profile (crouching or buying camouflage), breaking line of sight (hiding behind things, hiding in bushes), distracting the enemy (rocks can be thrown at any moment) or by killing the person who’s looking at you. So even if a convoy shows up unexpectedly in the jungle and you really can’t afford a firefight, it’s easy to duck into the brush and hide from them immediately, skirting around trees and such, or throwing rocks to distract them (a seminal mechanic brought in from the first Far Cry). The system’s a real achievement.
Now, as I stated above, a lot of the game cannot be completed through ghosting. A lot of levels, the story campaign ones primarily, require you to shoot tons of guys and be noticed a lot. Which goes against how this list is constructed.
However, ambient open world events in FarCry 3 can almost all be ghosted.
For example: take my favorite mechanic in the game, the liberating of enemy outposts. Save points, fast travel points, new side quests and shops are housed in various outposts held by pirates- and the only way to unlock access to these services is to kill all the pirates patrolling the position. If you’re spotted while you kill them, you get 500 experience points which you can use to level up, and get points to upgrade your abilities with. If you disable the alarm system inside the outpost before liberating it, you get an extra 50 xp.
But for liberating an outpost without being spotted at all? You get 1,500 xp.
I’ll put it this way: shooting the hell out of all of the outposts will get you a ‘level up’ in four or five liberations. Using stealth to pick off all the guys in an outpose will get you at least one level in two liberations.
This is a pattern we’ll see further up the list- the game is strongly incentivising ‘ghost’ gameplay. You get a seriously hefty reward for stealth-killing or sniping the whole outpost (and it’s satisfying as heck).
The fact that the game has a whole tree of fantastic stealth options only incentivises getting this xp bonus further. You can get upgrades which let you chain stealth kills together, stabbing one guy then another nearby then another, and so on. You can get upgrades which let you jump on guys from above- then a further upgrade letting you do two at once with this method. You can get an upgrade which lets you throw a knife after you stealth kill a guy, killing another in your line of sight (the first time you do it is definitely a ‘squee’ of excitement moment). And there’s the ingenious ‘kill drag’ where after stealth-stabbing a guy, you can drag his body backwards to hide it more efficiently. Unlike Deus Ex, the game’s xp system actually allows the player to develop stealth approaches in gameplay- which will allow them to ghost missions and outposts more effectively.
In outposts one even gets hunter animals like tigers or bears in cages- which a well placed silenced sniper shot will release. Without even setting foot in an outpost, and by firing one shot, you can kill every single inhabitant and get that 1,500xp bonus. Even if the animal doesn’t get everyone, the player is still treated to a highly emergent, enjoyable spectacle as the two AI groups crash against each other. This stuff happens emergently anyway- I’ve seen a horde of kimodo dragons attack a random patrol of dudes while I hid in the brush by the side of the road.
A complete surprise to me when I first booted it up- Far Cry 3 is one of the best stealth games I’ve ever played. Where Thief introduced first-person predatory stealth gameplay, and Escape from Butcher Bay made it economical and satisfying- Far Cry 3 added fathoms of depth to the system, all the while building it into an open world, sandbox framework, which alone is an achievement of itself. Before this I’d never played a ‘sandbox’ stealth game, I couldn’t understand how one would work. Now I know.
3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Does this even need an introduction?
Out of all of the iterations of this classic “Tactical Espionage Action” series, Snake Eater is, in my opinion, the strongest.
MGS1 is great, but clunky and dated. MGS2 is also great, but feels like it’s mostly cutscene, and the stealth is a little basic. MGS4 has some of the greatest gameplay I’ve ever experienced, but is arguably too easy, and is also 75% cutscene.
MGS3, as well as being the game with the most actual gameplay, has the most complex, atmospheric and deep stealth.
I remember upon first hearing that the game would be set in the jungle, my excitement for it dropped almost to nothing. I just wasn’t interested in the jungle, and didn’t see how classic corner-hiding stealth could work in it. Then when the game came out, I saw the reviews, I heard the buzz. So I played it.
This is a game where you spend many an hour crawling slowly through long grass, traversing kilometers of jungle, often passing within inches of guard’s feet. A game where you are spotted by a bad guy and run away in panic, and while using the game’s original ‘Camouflage Index system’, you hide in plain sight while a squad of men hunt you down- they miss you again by inches. A game where after sneaking through several areas in a row, a tummy grumble betraying Snake’s hunger causes a guard to nearly catch you- you realise you’re out of food, and a desperate hunt for prey to eat becomes your priority.
My only issue with the game is that, really, it’s too hard. Once in the later, indoor militay complex settings, stealth becomes difficult as camouflage isn’t an option. Disguise is usually an option in its place, but a couple of scenarios drop you with an inescapably low camo index into an area with painfully savvy and aware guards. On the hardest difficulties, guards are also unbelievably tough and once spotted you have an extremely thin chance of escape.
Still, the jungle and survival gameplay coupled with the long and flexible adventure puts MGS3 at the number three position.
2. Thief: Deadly Shadows
You’ve no idea how long I deliberated over whether the Thief entry on this list should be Deadly Shadows or Thief II: The Metal Age.
Honestly I think Thief II may be the slightly better game- with it’s larger, more complex and open levels and its far more intensely intellectual tone.
But this is an article about stealth. And Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in Looking Glass Studios’ truly seminal series, got stealth nearly perfect.
For one thing, all the lighting in the game is 100% dynamic. There are no ‘ambient’ lighting systems whereby the sky shines down a blanket of artificial light. All the light comes from legit sources: fires, torches, electric lamps, the moon. The quality and reactions of light in the game made it look incredibly real even if some of the graphics were a little odd.
For another, the level design is brilliant. There are the aforementioned smallish open-world hub levels comprised of several neighbourhoods of “The City”, which are fun to explore and have small side quests. The actual levels are fairly sprawling, highly atmospheric affairs, with dashings of horror and the gothic in their bones.
The stealth mechanics are bread and butter, done to a tee. This is the way I like it.
You have to move from shadow to shadow. You have to find routes around bad guys. If strictly necessary, you distract bad guys so that you may slip past them.
You can do every level in the game with these three techniques, if you observe well enough and approach them well enough. Making your own maps or overhearing conversations helps. And of course, you have the Thief series’ staple Water arrows to extinguish flame torches, moss arrows to cover up noise-making stone, noise-maker arrows to distract bad guys. But I’m a purist- I like to use only my body to navigate levels, and this is entirely possible in Thief: Deadly Shadows.
And your incentive to do well in missions? You get more loot. Unlike in many games on this list, combat should be avoided simply because Garret isn’t much good at it. So instead, stealth is an option of survival, and the more you explore, requiring good stealth to get into the most secure of locations, the more loot you will find.
Why get more loot? In Deadly Shadows, it means you can buy more kit. Better lock picks, or items like the Climbing Gloves which let you climb non-flat brick walls.
As the game progresses the opportunities for stealth ramp up- but so does the horror. The Shalebridge Cradle is notoriously one of the scariest levels ever made- easily matching Amnesia’s narrative and terrifying peaks, and the labyrinthine nature of later levels only adds to the necessity of good stealth. Bad guys come from anywhere, and you need to be ready to slink into shadows at any opportunity. The AI is sometimes a bit funky and movement is odd and jittery, but if you’re trying not to be spotted, this usually isn’t an issue.
Thief is a stealth game where, to play it right, the predatory approach isn’t the right one. It’s close to pure stealth. Very close. But not quite as close as #1 on the list.
1. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
I’ll argue it until the cows come home: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is the greatest stealth game ever created.
It’s almost a stealth simulation.
Every game mechanic is fine tuned and precisely perfected into allowing the player an absolute capability to circumvent individuals. When you pull it off- and sometimes it’s not easy- stealth is unbelievably rewarding, more so than any other game on the list. Not counting gadgets to make your life generally easier, the game has these mechanics to help you sneak:
The simple light meter which was introduced in Thief: The Dark Project, is developed into a proper light spectrum, showing exactly where Sam Fisher’s body is sitting in ambient light.
Chaos Theory also has a ‘sound meter’, which abruptly fills up with appropriate sound waves whenever Sam makes a clutter or loud foodsteps. This lets you keep track of your sound with perfect accuracy- when sneaking past a guy Fisher’s animation changes into a ‘creep walk’ where he is stepping as softly as possible, and even pushing an analog stick a millimeter too far will generate one block of noise on the meter- and the guy will notice you. Even more ingeniously, the sound meter also has an icon displaying background noise. This means if the player happens to be navigating past a jet engine with its engines turned on- the background noise icon will be at the top of the sound range, meaning even if the player does a full-blown sprint, nearby guards won’t hear a pin drop. Relatively speaking.
The refreshing thing about Chaos Theory is that it is unabashedly, realistically high tech. And rather than like in previous Splinter Cell games, where I felt the gadgetry was somewhat a gimmick, in Chaos Theory it feels fully functional and justified. It works to the end of stealth perfection, rather than arbitrary gadgets for the completion of one-off objectives.
In addition to the light and sound meters mentioned above, take the game’s hacking system. Not only is it the most realistic hacking system I’ve ever seen, where the player uses a microcomputer to isolate which IP ports on a security system will release its locks, it can also be done via wifi. Chaos Theory is the stealth game of the contemporary wifi era. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to crawl along a pip above a dude, hang down in the corner away from him, and from there use a scope and a wifi connection to hack his computer while he’s using it.
This leads onto something which the game has also captured perfectly: intimate stealth.
Chaos Theory brings you closer to the places and people you’re infiltrating unlike any other game. In the second or third mission, set on a boat, there is a small room about a third into the level. It’s the only way to progress ahead. And it’s a room about five feet by ten feet. Tiny. In it is a desk on the left, covered in tools, a desk at the end with a grindstone on it, and machinery on the right you can’t bypass. A man is standing at the back desk, working with the grindstone. The only way to pass is immediately to his left- a vent high up in a wall. In my first two playthroughs of the game, I thought there was no way past the guy by ghosting- so I knocked him out and walked on by. But once I committed myself fully to the ghost method, I found that one could climb onto the left table, use the mini-EMP in your pistol to knock out the light, and creep past the man within inches of him in pitch-darkness, and climb into the vent unnoticed.
When I first did this, the thrill was greater than I’ve experienced in any other stealth game. It felt like real stealth.
The level design is incredible. I booted up the game and started a one-life playthrough, out of boredom, a couple of months back- and in the fourth level I found a route I’d never seen before. Nearly ten years later, the game is still giving. Couple this degree of complexity in design with secondary objectives and parametric objectives, and you get a high degree of stealth challenge and replayability. When, on top of your primary objective, you have to hack 5 computers throughout a level, each in tight offices with at least on guy in them, the difficulty and depth of stealth is taken up a notch. Chaos Theory also does an ingenious job of throwing tight miniature challenges at the player- a short time limit to open a missile casing and hack into it’s internal flight computer, or the inability to fire a weapon without igniting a gas-filled room, an open area suddenly being filled with enemies. All of which are fun and empowering to overcome- as well as being challenging to ghost. Chaos Theory incentivises ghosting to a certain extent, but again it’s a system in keeping with a simulation. At the end of each level you get a percentage. Beginning at 100%, you lose 2% per knock-out, and 5% per kill or alarm (IIRC). You get no actual gameplay benefit- but seeing that much-lauded “100%” grade is a legendary reward unto itself.
As well as giving a slow, deep, fulfilling stealth experience, Chaos Theory excels at having open level design, a high level of replayability, and a sense of intimately realistic stealth. Not to mention, the game has a co-op mode which gives this exact experience, perhaps in a slightly more linear fashion, for two spies with all of Sam’s capabilities and more… Incredible.
I hope the list has given an indication of which stealth games you should definitely, unequivocally play if you’re into the actual act of stealth. Now get ready for one huge-ass sentence.
Honourable Mentions: Splinter Cell Conviction (for making ‘action stealth’ work and featuring the best cover system I’ve ever seen), Manhunt (for having a damn clever narrative and good level design, even if the actual gameplay is dated and weak), Tenchu 2: Birth of the Stealth Assassins (for having seriously spot-on stealth, even if it was painfully clunky and you could only see twenty feet), Assassin’s Creed III (for having the occasional moment of pitch-perfect stealth gameplay, usually ruined by samey fights or foppy controls), The Operative: No One Lives Forever (for being possibly the funniest FPS ever made, and for using this in its stealth parts where we may listen to henchmen’s hilarious dialogue).
Feel free to mention any other great stealth games you feel should be included in the comments section!