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[Yes I am perfectly aware that this post is hideously out of date- I’m working through a backlog here]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

The almost slightly actually not quite triumphant return

Hello to all who may be listening- I have returned to my little corner of the blogoverse! My time off has given me, among other things, a lot of time to muse upon potential topics for me to cover in the coming weeks (in part due to the fact that I have been watching way too much TV), but to begin I thought I might wander away from my normal format. Rather than an essay, here’s a story idea I’ve been toying with for a while- for a laugh more than anything else. Brownie points to whoever can guess the setting before the end.

Jake sprinted forward as the shockwave from the explosion hit him.

He had known the chopper was coming down- it always did- but an untimely bit of suppressing fire had kept in him his spot for a moment too long. The chest-high wall behind which he had been crouched mere seconds before was now smothered in a heap of burning, twisted metal and, somewhere amidst the wreckage, the corpse of some poor pilot. Jake would have felt sympathy for him, had all his thought not currently been occupied with the ball of flame and shrapnel currently flying towards him. One slug of metal caught him hard in the back, pitching him forward with a sharp cry of agonising pain. He lay there, face buried in the dust, his eyes swimming. Everything was blurred, out of focus- droplets of sweat and blood clouding his vision. His ears seemed to slowly switch off, the once crystal-clear noises of the battlefield now seeming dull and quiet, like listening through cotton wool. He was very aware of his breathing, taking short, sharp, gasping breaths, as if determined to savour each if it were to prove his last. The world seemed distant now, his world consumed by the pain of his back. The edges of his sight were closing in, as if he were staring down a tunnel, his peripheral vision reduced to near blackness. He was close to unconsciousness.

Suddenly, a harsh rattling sound yanked his senses back into reality. The noise and chaos of the battle returned into sharp focus, and Jake wished they hadn’t- the sudden assault on his ears sent almost sent his brain into shock after the momentary lull. He was lucky to be alive, and knew it. Had he been a nanosecond slower, then the sound of the explosion might have been the last he heard. Jake’s instincts as a soldier quickly returned to the fore; he flicked his head round to his right, ignoring the crick in his neck, and was faced with a wall of concrete. Good- another wall. That was why he wasn’t a colander of bullet holes right now.

Jake gave himself a few seconds to recover. Despite the ferocity of the explosion and his proximity to it, he seemed to have fared remarkably well- a testament, no doubt, to the human body’s almost superhuman resilience and ability to recover in times of crisis. In a but a few short moments, it had recovered almost completely, and Jake was able to pull himself up into a crouch without too much difficulty. Almost instinctively, he pulled his weapon up to his shoulder. ACR, standard army issue. Not the best, but it was resilient and a damn sight better than the AK’s the terrorists used.

As if reading his thoughts, the sound of sub-machine gun fire split the air near his head once again. Jake dipped his head, and cautiously peered around the edge of his wall. Two obviously Middle Eastern men, heads draped in simple red turbans, were crouched behind another wall a few metres in front of him, both holding weapons perched over the wall. Jake would have giggled at the blatant stereotype had one of the men not immediately spotted him, jumped out from behind his cover, and sprinted towards him. Big mistake. In one fluid movement, Jake turned his body to face his attacker and brought his gun up to his eye. For the briefest of moments, a red dot sat square on his target’s head. A long burst of fire later, and he was down, dead before he hit the floor. Boom, headshot.

The other man, perhaps slightly in fear after what had happened to his comrade, seemed more cautious. After a short while, Jake realised that he would be quite happy sitting behind his wall and firing bursts at regular intervals, meaning Jake would have to go on the offensive in order to reach his objective. However, he did not favour a frontal assault- risky at the best of times, employing one against an armed, aware opponent across a 15-metre stretch of open ground with no  support was verging on suicidal. But, there was more than one way to skin a cat…

Jake’s vision changed. Somehow, he seemed to visualise himself in his field of view, as if suddenly in the third person. Himself, pressed against the wall, his aggressor, ducked below his barricade in between bursts. Slowly, Jake poked the nose of his weapon around the edge of the barricade, waiting. His opponent popped up, and began another burst, but Jake was ready. His gun aligned itself with his target almost of its own accord, as if guided by some benevolent computer rather than Jake’s hand. One deadly burst of fire later, and the other man was slumped over the barrier.

Shaking himself, Jake’s vision restored itself and he cast a quick glance around to check his position. To his left rear lay the still-smouldering remains of the helicopter, forming just another part of the landscape of destruction. Around half a mile back lay the drop zone, where Jake’s team had arrived a short while ago. The battle was meant to be just over a small suspected weapons facility stuck in the middle of an otherwise empty desert, but it was clear from the number of people defending it that it was a far more important target than the top brass had envisaged. Artillery fire had forced Jake to find cover in a crashed, but still surprisingly intact, aircraft, and he had become separated from the rest of his team, hemmed into a single alleyway of death by walls of debris, wreckage and barbed wire. If it hadn’t been for the concrete walls providing cover, Jake very much doubted he’d be alive. Still, he was close now- the compound lay ahead.

After a final check that there were no hidden gunmen waiting for a pot-shot, Jake tucked his weapon into his belly and sprinted towards the recently-vacated barrier. As he passed the body of the man who’d run at him, something caught Jake’s eye. Not the corpse itself, but the weapon lying next to it. Stubby-nosed, with a short barrel and big stock, the weapon was obviously a shotgun, and Jake had been in enough firefights to attest to the power of the version the terrorists used. Unfortunately, he only had space to carry two weapons… but what the hell, HQ could cover the cost of one missing weapon.

As he swept by the body, Jake’s free left hand reached down to the holster on his leg and flicked out a standard-issue army handgun. Whilst manoeuvrable and quick to aim, they were no match for the shotgun for clearing out a room, and Jake’s was dropped by the corpse. He then used the same hand to grab the shotgun and, still running, slipped it into the now-vacated holster. The holster itself was a masterpiece of design- intuitive to use and allowing for quick storing & readying of weapons, Jake had seen it take weapons ranging from pistols to RPGs, and had never seen one lose its grip on a weapon, even when hanging from a rock face. Not that the design mattered excessively- it made staying alive easier, and that was all he cared about.

As he skidded in behind the barrier, and tried desperately to ignore the smell of the corpse draped over it next to him, Jake surveyed the scene ahead of him. Around 20 metres away, a doorway lay open, leading into the main compound. Judging by the view through both it and the window next to it, the room appeared to be deserted. But Jake knew better- that room would always have someone in it to guard against overly cocky intruders. Quickly switching weapons, the shotgun’s power more use than the assault rifle’s accuracy in this situation, Jake charged towards the door, weapon at the ready. As expected, another terrorist was seated at a table within the small room, but before he could reach for his weapon Jake had emptied two shells into his chest. Satisfied that he was out of the picture, Jake readied himself, and moved to the next doorway, before stealing a glance down it.

The corridor ahead appeared deserted. Plain, ugly concrete walls decorated with wires and seemingly pointless control panels were all that greeted him. He stepped through and proceeded cautiously, keeping his weapon at the ready. Reaching the first door, Jake bodily booted it down and was inside in an instant. Nothing- just an empty desk and a few papers. Nothing important- at least, nothing related to the mission in any case.

The next door yielded a similar result, but the third, at the end of the corridor, was far more interesting. It was what looked like a large canteen area, tables and chairs scattered about the place and several on their sides. However, more of a pressing concern was the four terrorists currently occupying the space.

Jake leapt forward, just about avoiding the streams of bullets erupting from the terrorist’s assault rifles as he skidded behind an upturned table. He turned quickly, and saw another man, previously been hidden behind the door. Jake reacted first, and unloaded another shot into him- the terrorist collapsed, limp and lifeless. Jake swung back around to see a retreating back as another enemy made for the safety of a dividing wall- another shot, and he too was down.

Jake quickly surveyed the scene in front of him- of the two remaining men, one had taken refuge behind another table and one was currently shooting from a window onto another man down below. He had to move fast- if he delayed then whoever was on the ground could be killed, which would free up another gun to train on him. Jake ran out from behind his cover and immediately launched another shot at the terrorist’s hiding place. It was as much for a distraction as anything else, but he was surprised that the wooden table held so well. Running an angled line off to his left, Jake dodged around the side of the table and, before his adversary could so much as squeeze a trigger, unloaded a slug into him that sent his body collapsing into the floor. As he leapt over the corpse, a small part of Jake idly wondered why he hadn’t moved the table.

It didn’t matter though- he was on the last man. He was trying to bring his rifle round to face Jake, but he stood no chance of getting there in time- Jake’s shotgun already had him in its sights. He squeezed the trigger.

*Click*. Out of ammo.

“Oh f-“

Suddenly, vision went to third person again as Jake’s limp corpse was flung backwards by the force of a clip of bullets  slamming into his chest. He fell back onto the floor, arms loose like a rag doll. Everything faded to black.

“DAMMIT”, screamed Jake in frustration as the kill cam replayed his failure. For a moment, he considered throwing his controller at the wall- he’d been playing for a couple of hours already now, and the weather looked pretty nice outside. Well, for a moment, before the obsession returned and he settled down for another crack at this b*stard of a mission.

-Yeah, sorry, I don’t play FPS’s, so I may be a bit out with the specifics here. Hope you enjoyed it anyway, even considering that this is twice as long as the average post.