“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
The Assassin’s Creed promoted three tenets: never compensate the brotherhood, spare innocents, and hide in plain sight. We had always been restricted to the shadows, or behind structures. If we did go out in the open, without a cardboard box to hide under, the mission would be ruined. But when Assassin’s Creed launched in 2007, it gave us that option.
Set during the Third Crusade in Jerusalem, Masyaf, Acre, and Damascus, this historical stealth adventure put us in the shoes of Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad, a member of the Assassin Order. In his quest to assassinate Templars and find the “pieces of Eden,” Altaïr must do so in broad daylight. Assassin’s Creed did not give you perfectly-placed walls to hide behind or shadowy areas to hide in. You had to blend in with praying monks, citizens on benches, and haystacks scattered throughout the environment. You could also travel via rooftop as the game – and series – put an emphasis on platforming and parkour. It was something that Tenchu could only have dreamt of in ’98. Sadly, Assassin’s Creed was received rather poorly. Bland combat, a confusing narrative, and repetitive missions kept it from being the blockbuster everyone had anticipated.
Before Assassin’s Creed could redeem itself though, an old – really old – face would redefine stealth yet again, and allow us to hide in the open like never before. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was Solid -err Old Snake’s last adventure. It was supposed to be the final game, but we all know how that’s turned out. In this PS3-exclusive, we saw Snake be given OctoCamo, a suit that allowed him to blend in with anything and everything he touched. Much like the camo system in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Snake’s camo index would go up, making it difficult for enemies to see him.
And this time around, Snake’s eye patch wasn’t just a piece of fabric. The SolidEye could be night-vision goggles as well as binoculars. It could also act as a map and show a threat ring around Snake that would reverberate when enemies were within a certain distance. Snake was also joined by a little robot called Mk. II, later III, that could scout ahead for him and even stun enemies with an electric shock. The game gave you numerous options, and made stealth more accessible than ever. Unfortunately, most people mistake the game for being too action-centered when it’s not the case at all. The game allows you to use your trigger finger more than ever before, but stealth is still there for the taking. And much like MGS3: Subsistence did, MGS4 had us take our sneaking skills online in competitive multiplayer with Metal Gear Online.
Now, as mentioned earlier, Assassin’s Creed would bounce back. In 2009, the slick-tongue, lady-killing Ezio Auditore da Firenze would give us the game we wanted all along. Set during the Renaissance, the game introduced hiding amongst courtesans, and hiring mercenaries and thieves to distract guards while you proceeded forward. You could blend in with a crowd of random strangers to avoid detection. Ezio could even toss sand in guard’s eyes to escape a tight jam.
Then there were da Vinci’s inventions. A hang-glider to drop down on enemies from. Smoke bombs to blind guards. Dual hidden blades for double-kills. There was even a gun to eliminate targets from afar. Group all of this together with better parkour and platforming for easier movement and greater stealth options, and you have one sneaky adventure on your hands. On top of being a very stealthy experience, Assassin’s Creed II was also very educational. Landmarks, historical figures, and battles all had options for you to select and read up on.
And they say you can’t learn anything from a video game.
As the generation wound on, we would see Ezio return a few more times in Brotherhood and Revelations. These games introduced a band of assassin’s that you could recruit and train, and have them carry out take downs by a simple command. This kept you in the clear, and made sneaking all that much easier. We would also see the return of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Conviction. The game took a much faster, more action-packed route than ever before, but introduced a new feature called “Mark & Execute” that allowed Sam to pinpoint a number of targets and eliminate them successively in a timely fashion. It was a slick feature that fit for such a gritty installment. But the slickest feature would be saved for a game a little ways down the road. A game that would go on to fill the void left by the disappearance of Thief.
Dishonored, released last year, introduced us to the grim, Orwellian-city of Dunwall. This first-person stealth adventure has you Corvo Attano framed for the assassination of Jessamine Kaldwin, Dunwall’s Empress. Thanks to a rogue group, you manage break out, and must extract revenge and restore order. There are countless ways to approach every level, and you were given six abilities, on top of weapons like a poisoned cross-bow, to do so. Dark Vision allowed you to see through walls. Devouring Swarm surrounded enemies in rats. Wind Blast could bowl guards over. Shadow Kill could disintegrate bodies to conceal them. Bend Time allowed Corvo to…bend time. He could slow it down and run away from enemies, sneak by them, or pick them off carefully. Then there was the coolest of all, Blink. With this power, Corvo could teleport short distances – longer if he upgraded – giving him the power to quickly take out an opponent, cross a gap, or get out of sight. The game would give you numerous options how to get into places, and how to carry the plan out once you got in. You could also go for the loud and bloody route, but it would impact the ending if you left too high of a body count. Dishonored went on to become a major hit, and many agree that it saved the holiday, from a stealth standpoint, from the massively disappointing Assassin’s Creed III which seemed to back off the series stealthy approach.
It’s been a long journey for the stealth game. From humble arcade beginnings in the 80s with 005, to terrifying, post-apocalyptic survival-stealth games like The Last of Us just this past month. The genre has changed a lot. We’ve gone from hiding, to sniping, to blending in and teleporting. But what has never changed in over 30 years is the core of stealth games: don’t get caught. You can simply hide behind a crate, or shiv a Clicker from behind, but all that matters in the end is staying out of sight. And it looks like that’s going to carry into the next generation as we’re set to start it off with a bang in a cyber-thriller that’ll have you hacking the city of Chicago in a connected online world.
Stealthy Sunday is a weekly column where we talk about all things around stealth gaming. From the latest games, to the annals of its history, we step out from the darkness to reveal the fascinating world of sleuthing, spying, and assassinating.