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Stealth-based games (occasionally referred to as "Sneak 'em ups"), unlike action games, revolve around patience, lurking, and avoiding detection (or getting rid of an enemy silently and quickly without calling attention) in order to complete missions. The genre of stealth-based games is fairly old, but there are still few games that fall strictly within the genre. However, since the popularisation of the Metal Gear series with Metal Gear Solid in 1998, many recent action games have borrowed elements from stealth-based games.
The earliest game to feature stealth elements was Castle Wolfenstein (not to be confused with the unrelated Wolfenstein 3D), released in 1981 by Muse Software. Stealth elements were not used again until Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear, released in 1987 by Konami for the MSX2, and shortly thereafter for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game became a success, particularly in North America, after selling over a million units.
Metal Gear was followed by two independently-produced sequels that were both released in 1990: Snake's Revenge (the non-canonical sequel produced without Hideo Kojima's involvement) in North America and Europe for the NES and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (the official canonical sequel produced by Hideo Kojima) in Japan for the MSX2. While Snake's Revenge offered only minor improvements to the concept, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake expanded the genre significantly, including a greatly improved enemy AI, placing an even greater emphasis on stealth. While the early Metal Gear games were moderately successful, the concept did not develop beyond those few games for almost a decade.
During the development of Wolfenstein 3D, developer id Software experimented with several stealth features, such as sneaking behind the guards or dressing in enemy uniform, but none of these features made it into the final game. The genre didn't expand much further until the release of Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64 in 1997, which involved various areas where either a brute force or stealth approach could be used, with stealth often being safer. Other times stealth was essential for survival- particularly in escape situations. Next came Thief: The Dark Project on the PC, closely followed by Metal Gear Solid, and Tenchu: Stealth Assassins on the PlayStation, all released in 1998. System Shock 2 also encouraged the player to use stealth through use of respawning enemies, severely limited ammunition and weapons that wear down with repeated firing.
Stealth-based games did not gain mass popularity until the release of Metal Gear Solid. Since then, it was followed by a sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and a prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, along with many more games in this genre, most notably the Splinter Cell, Manhunt and Hitman series. Other games incorporated a stealth approach as an option to players, notably Deus Ex and Bungie's Oni. Many action games, such as Medal of Honor and Syphon Filter, include stealth-based levels. Some survival horror games (Siren being one example) implement aspects of this genre, as well as platform games such as Sly Cooper.
In recent times, stealth games have grown even further in popularity, so much so that some mainstream first-person shooters, such as No One Lives Forever and Goldeneye's sequels Perfect Dark and Perfect Dark Zero, have included stealth and spying elements in their gameplay. Closely related to the intermingling of first-person shooters and stealth games is the first-person shooter subgenre tactical shooters, such as Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. Far Cry expanded on this genre by having a lush outdoor environment (the player may hide behind boulders and trees or in shrubs).
The dynamics of stealth games are quite different from first-person shooters or other action games. Players of stealth-based games can die very quickly if they approach problems in the same way as a traditional action game. Stealth games generally emphasize accuracy, planning, keen observation, and puzzle-solving skills, whereas other action games revolve more around quick reflexes.
Whereas the excitement in most action games is the adrenaline rush of combat, the enjoyment in a stealth game is usually (but not always) cerebral in nature. The ability to silently stalk an opponent or be within arm's reach of a potentially dangerous enemy and yet be completely unseen appeals to many gamers. These games also tend to have more emphasis on story, as part of a stealth-based game's impact comes from the ambience that the game has, emphasizing urgency and the need to remain hidden. Likewise, stealth-based games also tend to contain more visual and sound cues than other games, again to heighten the experience. Fans of stealth-based games often find great excitement in the high-risk, high-tension gameplay and cinematic experience that is typical of the genre, whereas other gamers may find stealth-based unenjoyable due to the lack of frantic action and occasional frustration at the high finesse that is often required.
Selected important games and major series in stealth-based game development
- Metal Gear (1987): First mainstream stealth game.
- Thief: The Dark Project (1998): First 3D stealth game, pioneering 'first person sneaker' (as opposed to 'shooter'). First to rely on light and shadow to hide, instead of just line-of-sight.
- Metal Gear Solid (1998): First 3D stealth game on a console.
- Thievery UT (2001): First to incorporate multiplayer.
- Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005): First to incorporate cooperative multiplayer.
- Shinobido: Way of the Ninja (2006): From Acquire Software, the original creators of the Tenchu series, Shinobido is also a ninja title set in Fuedal Japan which is similar in gameplay and style to its predecessors. It offers open-ended gameplay in which the character must choose to ally with (and betray as necessary) one of three powerful warlords.
- Thief (computer game series) : Thief: The Dark Project; Thief II: The Metal Age; Thief: Deadly Shadows
- Metal Gear series: Pioneered stealth gameplay, most popular series in the stealth genre.
- Splinter Cell series: best-selling, critically acclaimed.
- Syphon Filter series: Established as a hybrid of both sneaking and shooting; oftentimes the player was allowed to play the game however he/she pleased (although by sneaking through the level more points were awarded.)
- Hitman series: Open ended game where the goal of each mission is to assassinate a target or targets (with some other sub-objectives).
- Tenchu series: Ninja game incorporating stealth as a large part of its gameplay. The overall score on each level is determined by how many stealth kills the player has subtracted by how many times the player has been spotted.
- No One Lives Forever series: One of the most acclaimed stealth-oriented FPS featuring a female agent called Cate Archer. The NOLF series is highly praised for both its challenging gameplay and some hilarious in-game elements and dialogue.
- Project IGI series