As we entered the 21st Century, stealth wasted no time kicking things off with a bang. In the Summer of 2000, the world was introduced to operative JC Denton in the cyberpunk thriller, Deus Ex. The game combined action, role-playing, and, above all, stealth. You could go in killing everyone around you by crafting your character to be skilled with weapons, or take a quieter approach by making Denton skilled in computer hacking. The game gave you the choice to eliminate enemies loudly, quietly, or not at all. Yes, if you played it carefully and skillfully, you could go the entire game by not killing a single person.
Later that year, we would see another secret agent sneak across the PC and go on to spawn one of the most successful franchises of the generation. Hitman: Codename 47 put us in the shoes of a bald, barcoded, suit-wearing contract killer who simply went by Agent 47. The concept was basic: eliminate your target while avoiding civilians and armed guards. The execution, on the other hand, not so much. You could approach the situation however you wanted, but stealth was the preferred option. You were rewarded with a higher payout if you kept civilians alive, and this helped in the purchase of weapons and ammo for later in the game. 47 could also dress as anyone he took out. This helped for a closer and more direct line to your target. Hitman might not have been the biggest hit right away, but coupled with Deus Ex, which was a phenomenon, it was clear that stealth was ready to throw down in the sixth generation.
Another often over-looked game that appeared that same year was The Operative: No One Lives Forever. This Austin Powers spoof, puts us in control of 60s spy Cate Archer who, in first-person, can tackle most missions the quiet way. Using things like silencers, sleeping gas disguised as perfume, mine-detecting sunglasses, and lock-picking barettes, Cate could go unseen and unheard throughout the majority of the game. The game, which is still largely unheard of, earned several Game of the Year awards, and even got a sequel in 2002.
Keeping up with this quick, stealthy start, we saw the return of Solid Snake (and the birth of Raiden), in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.
Expanding greatly upon Metal Gear Solid‘s gameplay, players could now pop out from cover, shoot out enemy radios so they couldn’t call backup, and hang off ledges to sneak by guards. Enemy AI greatly improved as guards had riot shields and worked in packs to hunt you down. The biggest addition to the game though was the tranquilizer gun. This made it possible to go the whole game without killing a single guard, or boss.
The game was a smash hit, going on to sell over seven million copies and averaging a 96% on Metacritic, the highest for a Metal Gear Solid title to date. Unfortunately, the surprise introduction of Raiden (trailers had only shown Snake), and convoluted story created a mixed reception amongst fans. It created a controversy that continues today.
That initial anger and confusion would be subsided though the following year when an NSA agent, and a cane-wielding raccoon would continue to keep stealth in the spotlight.
When Sly Cooper and the gang took us on their Scooby-Doo adventure, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, in the Summer of 2002, everyone was delighted, but also a bit melancholic. Sly combined quirky, Pink Panther stealth with 3D platforming. It’s something that would’ve been absolute treasure, and instrumental for the stealth genre if it had existed in the 80s or 90s.
While Sly made us laugh, Third Echelon’s Sam Fisher most certainly did not. When Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell arrived in the Winter of 2002, it was official: stealth was here to stay. Much like Thief: The Dark Project, all emphasis was on sneaking. You began every mission with a silenced semi-automatic pistol, and eventually gained access to silenced assault rifles halfway through. Sam also came equipped with gadgets like sticky shockers, gas grenades, and ring airfoil projectiles for non-lethal options. You could also peer under doors with a camera to get the advantage on enemies, or drop on them from above by doing a spit high up between walls.
Sam could whistle to draw enemies away, and take them down with his bare hands. He could see with night-vision as well as thermal goggles. With all this, and such a heavy accentuation on sound and light, stealth had never been taken so seriously in video games before.
These franchises each made large impacts on the industry and spun numerous sequels. But the generation would also go on to see stealth emerge in standalone entries, or only birth one sequel crossing generations, or existing exclusively in the other entirely. Three games in particular standout: Beyond Good & Evil, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and Manhunt. In Beyond Good & Evil, released in 2003, we played Jade, who used her photography skills to uncover the truth about aliens. She was able to move stealthily through levels, and take down enemies from behind in her quest. It was met with much esteem, but played by so few that it was quite a surprise when a sequel was unveiled in in May of 2008. It is yet to be released.
Moving on to Riddick, which came in 2004 and was published by Vin Diesel’s own Tigon Studios, you used stealth when crouching, all from a first-person perspective. You could kill enemies quietly, drag their bodies from view, and even see in the dark for a short amount of time thanks to the “eyeshine” ability. The game went on to become a cult classic garnering praise from critics and fans. It would later be remade and included in the 2009 sequel, Assault on Dark Athena.
Earlier in 2004, a game with much more emphasis on stealth was released. It was, and still is, one of the most disturbing games of all-time. It’s labeled, the “snuff film of video games” by many. It sparked controversy that would humble Grand Theft Auto. It was banned by Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, who deemed the possession of the game an offense. Members of the US Congress wanted it off the shelves, or to fine those who sold it to underage children. It was even blamed for a murder in 2004. The game, which went on to receive positive reviews and sales topping seven figures, was Rockstar’s Manhunt.
Most stealth games have you try to avoid enemies, or give you an option for non-lethal disposals. In Manhunt, that was not the case. As an inmate on death row, James Earl Cash is promised freedom by a former producer who wants you to carry out executions in the vein of a snuff film. Cash carries out executions by hiding in the shadows and sneaking up on gang members known as “Hunters,” using such weapons as: crowbars, baseball bats, and plastic bags. Cash could lure enemies torward the shadows by making noise, or you yourself could by using the microphone on PS2 or Xbox. You could then proceed to execute a gang member by choosing three levels of brutality, which became gorier as the number increased. This was definitely not a game for everyone, but it implemented stealth very well despite its gruesome nature.
Things lighten up though – and get a bit more historical – in our conclusion of the history of the stealth genre next week. As we enter the high-definition era, we’ll take a good look at the time-jumping assassin that would become an icon the moment the first trailer hit.
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.