Why Stealth Features Make Not A Stealth Game

After a lukewarm reception to Assassin’s Creed III following its release that some fear may have disillusioned some fans, Ubisoft went all-out in their marketing campaign for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the series. As a fan of the series (and, incidentally, one who didn’t buy AC3 following the less than perfect feedback it got), I have no problem with this, and was intrigued and excited to see some of the features being implemented get put to use. However, one particular bit of promo material that caught my eye was the stealth gameplay walkthrough, which talks up the various stealth features employed in the game.

[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]

Y’see, watching that video got me thinking about the role of stealth in the Assassin’s Creed games, and eventually led me to the conclusion that, at its heart, the Assassin’s Creed series is not a stealth franchise. I could justify that statement by pointing out the huge variety of stuff the game offers beyond stealth (free-running, the admittedly awkward ‘wait around for counter chances’ combat, and traversing the high seas spring instantly to mind), or by pointing out the extent Ubisoft is prepared to go to to ensure you don’t ever actually have to use stealth if you don’t want to- I mean for heaven’s sake, they’ve just announced a new mobile game based on Black Flag called Assassin’s Creed Pirates, which allows you to do all the sailing around and piratey things without any of the exciting running around on rooftops that made the game so popular in the first place. But this wouldn’t actually address the core reason behind the AC franchise’s non-stealthness- for that we must consider exactly where the stealth genre comes from.

To explain: every game genre is basically defined by a single, core game concept, a sort of combination of mechanics and the emotional hooks that get us to enjoy (or not, as the case may be) games of that genre. In an RPG it’s about the characters and your advancing skills, in a strategy game it’s about the concept of ‘playing god’ and dictating how a whole system works rather than an individual, and in a stealth game the core concept involves hiding. This central concept naturally extrapolates itself into a series of other features after a while. In many (but not necessarily all) cases, waiting becomes a core mechanic too, as once our protagonist has hidden from whichever bad guy is appropriate it would be strange for him to be able to move out of cover immediately- as Extra Credits said during their episode on the subject of stealth, the trick to making a good stealth game is to make waiting fun. Not only that, but a key part of making the experience of hiding compelling and fun is for the player to be able to use it aggressively to their advantage. Thus, protagonists in stealth games are also generally able to make highly effective sneak attacks on an unaware enemy, frequently one hit kills such as slitting the throat or the Dishonored choke hold.

Thus far, Assassin’s Creed is sounding very like a stealth game, and it’s true the games have always featured stealth gameplay heavily. The game’s most characteristic feature is, of course, the hidden blade, intended specifically for insta-killing an unaware enemy (with the option for a suitably dramatic dive throwing them to the ground for good measure), and in later games this can be adapted to allow an enemy to be poisoned, meaning he won’t die until you’re well out of reach of any blame. AC2’s introduction of attacks from ledges, hide spots and rooftops also expanded on this, introducing a new range of ways for a player to get into a killing position whilst remaining undetected. Not only does the series’ ever expanding array of hide spots help this, but they also give the option of helping a player to run away from a fight if they so choose, meaning fighting need not be the only option. But then again these features alone aren’t enough to make a stealth game: by way of example, Skyrim had a sneaking system that allowed for high-powered sneak attacks on unaware enemies, but is quite clearly an RPG with a few stealth elements rather than a true stealth game.

Thus, mere adoption of stealth gameplay features does not make Assassin’s Creed a stealth game, and it fundamentally is not one for the following reason: for hiding and waiting to become a game’s central features the player must have a reason for doing so; hiding must benefit the player in some way. Not only that, but the usually slower-paced stealth approach must some how become the more attractive option compared to a full-frontal assault, which from the start has the advantage of being faster, more direct and more exciting. One can attempt to railroad the player down this route by making the player instantly fail if they are detected (as the AC series has done on multiple occasions), but this is a clumsy way of doing things that fails to make the stealth experience more fun and only serves to frustrate the player as to why they can’t just rush in all guns blazing. In most true stealth games, the player is forced into hiding by making it the most favourable defensive tactic (ie the best way to stay alive), which is achieved by making sure they have relatively little health/armour/defensive ability so can’t really stand up in proper combat.

And this, really, is what distinguishes Assassin’s Creed as not fundamentally being a stealth game. The combat in AC games is frequently (and rightly) criticised for being formulaic and repetitive, and part of the reason behind this is that all AC characters are really good at defending. To block just about all incoming attacks merely requires the ‘high profile’ button to be held down, and if the counter button is pressed at the appropriate moment then almost every incoming enemy can be killed the moment they attack. If countering isn’t your style, then many a foe can be taken down by simply bashing the attack button, and as later games allow you to upgrade your weapons by the end this can result in a very quick death for any NPC foolish enough to get in your way. And all that’s presuming the player wants to stand and fight; even in AC1 enemies could be taken out from afar with throwing knives (which I suppose could be tenuously considered stealth weapons), and by later games our protagonist has grenades and a ****ing gun* at his disposal, which aren’t stealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

By making it so easy to fight, to cut through swathes of enemies with hardly a thought, the developers of Assassin’s Creed have ensured the focus of their game is not about stealth, and although this is by no means a bad thing (not every game need be stealthy) this fact does, I feel, somewhat undermine many of the stealth features they have chosen to include in their various games. Just so I can consider my point proven, some months ago the Assassin’s Creed Facebook page asked its readers which series was their favourite: Assassin’s Creed or Thief, the series that almost single-handedly invented the stealth genre and had recently announced a new game (the fact that this game has subsequently turned out to be terrible is, of course, an entire other point). How did these people, who I shall remind you were writing on the official Assassin’s Creed Facebook page, respond? Why, overwhelmingly in favour of Thief, of course.

This was, however, before AC4 was released.

*That list doesn’t even mention stuff like the hookblade and parachutes which, cool though they are, do nothing for the games’ stealth elements other than distract from them.

Fire and Forget

By the end of my last post, we’d got as far as the 1950s in terms of the development of air warfare, an interesting period of transition, particularly for fighter technology. With the development of the jet engine and supersonic flight, the potential of these faster, lighter aircraft was beginning to outstrip that of the slow, lumbering bombers they ostensibly served. Lessons were quickly learned during the chaos of the Korean war, the first of the second half of the twentieth century, during which American & Allied forces fought a back-and-forth swinging conflict against the North Koreans and Chinese. Air power proved a key feature of the conflict; the new American jet fighters took apart the North Korean air force, consisting mainly of old propellor-driven aircraft, as they swept north past the 52nd parallel and toward the Chinese border, but when China joined in they brought with them a fleet of Soviet Mig-15 jet fighters, and suddenly the US and her allies were on the retreat. The American-lead UN campaign did embark on a bombing campaign using B-29 bombers, utterly annihilating vast swathes of North Korea and persuading the high command that carpet bombing was still a legitimate strategy, but it was the fast aerial fighter combat that really stole the show.

One of the key innovations that won the Allies the Battle of Britain during WWII proved during the Korean war to be particularly valuable during the realm of air warfare; radar. British radar technology during the war was designed to utilise massive-scale machinery to detect the approximate positions of incoming German raids, but post-war developments had refined it to use far smaller bits of equipment to identify objects more precisely and over a smaller range. This was then combined with the exponentially advancing electronics technology and the deadly, but so far difficult to use accurately, rocketeering technology developed during the two world wars to create a new weapon; the guided missile, based on the technology used on the German V2. The air-to-air missile (AAM) subsequently proved both more accurate & destructive than the machine guns previously used for air combat, whilst air-to-surface missiles (ASM’s) began to offer fighters the ability to take out ground targets in the same way as bombers, but with far superior speed and efficiency; with the development of the guided missile, fighters began to gain a capability in firepower to match their capability in airspeed and agility.

The earliest missiles were ‘beam riders’, using radar equipment attached to either an aircraft or (more typically) ground-based platform to aim at a target and then simply allowing a small bit of electronics, a rocket motor and some fins on the missile to follow the radar beam. These were somewhat tricky to use, especially as quite a lot of early radar sets had to be aimed manually rather than ‘locking on’ to a target, and the beam tended to fade when used over long range, so as technology improved post-Korea these beam riders were largely abandoned; but during the Korean war itself, these weapons proved deadly, accurate alternatives to machine guns capable of attacking from great range and many angles. Most importantly, the technology showed great potential for improvement; as more sensitive radiation-detecting equipment was developed, IR-seeking missiles (aka heat seekers) were developed, and once they were sensitive enough to detect something cooler than the exhaust gases from a jet engine (requiring all missiles to be fired from behind; tricky in a dogfight) these proved tricky customers to deal with. Later developments of the ‘beam riding’ system detected radiation being reflected from the target and tracked with their own inbuilt radar, which did away with the decreasing accuracy of an expanding beam in a system known as semi-active radar homing, and another modern guidance technique to target radar installations or communications hubs is to simply follow the trail of radiation they emit and explode upon hitting something. Most modern missiles however use fully active radar homing (ARH), whereby they carry their own radar system capable of sending out a beam to find a target, identify and lock onto its position ever-changing position, steering itself to follow the reflected radiation and doing the final, destructive deed entirely of its own accord. The greatest advantage to this is what is known as the ‘fire and forget’ capability, whereby one can fire the missile and start doing something else whilst safe in the knowledge that somebody will be exploding in the near future, with no input required from the aircraft.

As missile technology has advanced, so too have the techniques for fighting back against it; dropping reflective material behind an aircraft can confuse some basic radar systems, whilst dropping flares can distract heat seekers. As an ‘if all else fails’ procedure, heavy material can be dropped behind the aircraft for the missile to hit and blow up. However, only one aircraft has ever managed a totally failsafe method of avoiding missiles; the previously mentioned Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the fastest aircraft ever, had as its standard missile avoidance procedure to speed up and simply outrun the things. You may have noticed that I think this plane is insanely cool.

But now to drag us back to the correct time period. With the advancement of military technology and shrinking military budgets, it was realised that one highly capable jet fighter could do the work of many more basic design, and many forsaw the day when all fighter combat would concern beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile warfare. To this end, the interceptor began to evolve as a fighter concept; very fast aircraft (such as the ‘two engines and a seat’ design of the British Lightning) with a high ceiling, large missile inventories and powerful radars, they aimed to intercept (hence the name) long-range bombers travelling at high altitudes. To ensure the lower skies were not left empty, the fighter-bomber also began to develop as a design; this aimed to use the natural speed of fighter aircraft to make hit-and-run attacks on ground targets, whilst keeping a smaller arsenal of missiles to engage other fighters and any interceptors that decided to come after them. Korea had made the top brass decide that dogfights were rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and that future air combat would become a war of sneaky delivery of missiles as much as anything; but it hadn’t yet persuaded them that fighter-bombers could ever replace carpet bombing as an acceptable strategy or focus for air warfare. It would take some years for these two fallacies to be challenged, as I shall explore in next post’s, hopefully final, chapter.