The Flight of the Stealth Bomber
Assassin’s Creed 3, Hitman: Absolution, Dishonored: what a rare sight to behold! Three triple-A stealth games gracing us at the end of 2012 – not counting the inevitable delay of AC3’s PC port. One could ask the question: why all the sudden interest from the industry’s big guys towards a genre that is far farther from the limelight than your everyday FPS or RPG?
The autumn of 2012 is a good time to be a fan of stealth games. It is nice to see multiple major releases for a niche genre you care about. After all, the Thief and Hitman franchises are what you could consider the flagships of the sneak-and-stab-o-thon and the latest entry for one of these was 2006’s Blood Money with Thief 4 nowhere in sight. Why could this be? What could these games offer that can make up for the risk of… well, not being CoD for the publishers?
I think the answer is that all these games have made a major push towards mainstream audiences. We all know that Assassin’s Creed is a lot more action-oriented than stealthy, Dishonored has all those insane powers and tools for you to play with, and the latest Hitman game has already received so much flak in the early stages of marketing (library map, I’m looking at you) for being nothing more than a shoot-em-up, that I don’t think I need to provide additional examples here.
All these games still give the player the option to play through the missions as, to steal the phrase from the Hitman franchise, a „silent assassin”. Sure, you could do that before as well to a certain extent, I still fondly remember my Hitman 2 playthrough where I massacred absolutely everyone I could find on the map.
Wait. That was all of my playthroughs. Anyway…
The games give you the stealthy playgrounds alright but they also make the game more accessible – therefore, more marketable and a safer bet for publishers – by putting a significant emphasis on various methods of butchering everyone on the goddamn map. Since none of these games are out yet, we can only hope that this didn’t mean that the stealth will be nothing but an afterthought. It is important because it is what the core audience is looking for – obviously, neglecting them would be a terrible idea.
Hitman: Absolution is not the first Hitman game that focuses on action in its promo materials, but the gameplay footage they released almost exactly a year ago has caused some outcry – because it features a level where 47 is basically fleeing Chicago and has to get out of a library full of cops. It involved a lot of shooting and killing, too. In an impressive display of awful marketing choices, they decided to follow this up with a video of stealth nuns in revealing clothes trying to take down our cloned buddy who casually murders them. It was self-defence, officer! Now would you mind turning around for a second so I can insert this knife somewhere between your ribs? Thank you.
Then again, if the developers of these games have actually managed to nail the stealth parts and are also able to deliver a satisfying action experience more accessible for a mainstream audience, then I fail to see how this is a bad thing. I think the new X-COM game is trying to do something similar as well, though it might be a bit more on the side of simplifying. Dumbing down a game for marketability is nothing new, but adding significantly more to make a niche genre accessible seems like a new concept.
I find this fascinating, but I am not sure how could it be applied to other examples. For instance, space sims have been on hibernation for over a decade now, with the last notable big release being FreeSpace 2. ( That game tells a great story and has great combat which is actually not too difficult on lower difficulties, looked and sounded gorgeous around its release but is was still a flop commercially. Seeing how the game won multiple GOTY awards, it is hard not to blame the almost nonexistent marketing for the failure of a successful space sim’s sequel.) If this interesting direction of „expansion” works out well for these games, we could see some very neat high-budget games coming out in the upcoming years next to, of course, the nth version of Call of Duty.