Saturday, 1 September 2012

Too tough to be sneaky - by Edmund Colley

My lack of my new PS3 games has led me to scour my old collection of PS2 games as a source of entertainment and mild nostalgia. In doing so I've been playing through some of my old stealth games. Mainly a game called Stolen, in which you play a Lara Croft like cat burglar as she goes through museums and high-tech facilities while being in denial of her obvious unexplained and unmentioned kleptomania. Her suppression of this plot hole has an adverse effect on that manifests in her behaviour, taking the form of cringe worthy one-liners and need to leave as much DNA at crime scenes as possible. 

The story involves a conspiracy surround an upcoming an election in which "Good Guy McMayor's" sole policy involves bring new treasures and artwork to the city's galleries and museums and "Bad Guy Joe's" policies involve clamping down on the city's extremely high crime rates. Rose tinted glasses much?

Game-play-wise, Stolen is very similar to Metal Gear Solid (cardboard box excluded) in its stealth mechanics, guard tactics and use guns to stun guards and take out security cameras. The stealth mechanics of Stolen are the only really notable point about the game. The game manages to maintain a balance between characters ability and threat of being found that most games fail to meet. Although the protagonist, Anya, has an arsenal of high-tech gadgets and some acrobatic skills, being discovered generally means that retreat and re-strategizing is a better option as confrontation with guards is the fastest way to a game over. In doing so puts an emphasis on the need for stealth and cunning makes for very engaging game-play.

Though we all know the correct way to sneak into facility is tip-toeing to Minnie the Moocher. 

This balance is one I find that too many stealth based games seem to miss the mark on. The Assassins Creed series being a long time suffer from this. Personally, I thought the first Assassins Creed has used stealth mechanics best in the franchise as guards were very quick to mark you as an assassin and chases could have you go all the way from one side of the map to the other in an attempt to flee your pursuers. Sneaking into compounds, taking out all of the archers silently and pouncing upon your unsuspecting target was the best tactic as you weren't likely to succeed in a head-on or mad dash approach due to vast amounts of guards surrounding you long enough for your target escape in the struggle. My main issue was that there was no real threat from any opponents. Altair could defeat any number of enemies in open combat if the player was willing to stand still and spam counter until every adversary is defeated one by one (similar to me standing around awkwardly at a New Year's Eve party high 5-ing relatives drunker than I am until they let me leave or at least play guitar hero in the corner).

However, all of the additional mechanics added in the sequels only served to undermine the stealth elements further. The notoriety meter resulted in guards being thoroughly disinterested in Ezio's activities to the point he can run full speed past them, climb a building and jump off it on to the minstrel that had the audacity to ask you for spare change without batting a city guard's eyelid. Even at full notoriety guards weren't as suspicious as in AC1 and at most you'd only have two or three run after you on roof tops. The gun mechanic meant that even high priority targets could be killed from a far without challenge and Ezio could still somehow teleport and have a chat with them before they die. By the time of Revelations, Ezio is the walking arsenal of Italy and in possession more pointy objects stuck to him than on a hedgehog being treated with acupuncture. To top it all off, the addition of large pouches of medicine, our favourite Italian assassin is also gifted with instantly regenerating health. Why would this guy ever need to hide from anyone?

Assassin's Hidden Blade™. Now with hook blade, spatula knife and web shooter attachments. 

In fairness that missions and guard strengths have been changed in Revelations; and to an extent Brotherhood, but neither problem is fully resolved. Missions will force you to go undetected while stalking a target, but it feels rather unnatural like most forced stealth sections in action games do with sections that have you follow a guy and jump in to cover every time he turns around for a second thinking forgot his keys. The guards have been altered to be more aggressive in later games to stop the "counter spamming" but it's still not compensated for the fact you have a gun, crossbow and now an array of explosives to fight people armed with swords. The developers seem to be turning the assassins into acrobatic mercenaries/soldiers rather than skilled infiltrators. By the looks of the trailer, Assassin's Creed 3 seems to put you in the middle of a full sized battle. If you're an assassin and you’re having to hide behind cover from an army of soldiers that can clearly see you, you're doing it wrong. You should be disguised as the targets horse in a pantomime configuration or at least hiding in a nearby bin.

I feel that the perfect balance comes in stealth when the player feels that they have enough abilities to get around the situation, but barely any power to protect them if they are discovered. The looming threat of discovery countered by the feeling of skill and cunning when you satisfyingly duck and weave past enemies is perhaps a metaphor of brains vs. brawn that stealth fans find so appealing. With Assassin's Creed 3 on the horizon, I hope that Ubisoft can put back some of the challenge to being a skilled infiltrator and assassin while continuing a stand-out triple A series.

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