Stealth Gameplay Isn't Enough: Give Me The Thrill Of The Hunt

I finally finished Crytek's Crysis 2 last week and surprised myself by immediately firing up a new game and starting it over from the beginning. Sure, Crysis 2 is a slick, well-made first-person shooter, but it's fairly unremarkable on the surface. So why, when I had so many other games I could (or should) be playing, was I nano-suiting up yet another time?

A few minutes into my new game, I hit the right shoulder button to engage my cloaking device and slunk out of an office window and onto a balcony overlooking one of Crysis 2's trademark sun-dappled urban arenas. I surveyed the scene — a group of Cell soldiers were standing across a small park while nearby, another manned the machine gun on the back of an armoured car. I slipped, cat-like, into an alleyway, bits of their conversation drifting along as I drew nearer. Carefully, I began to flank them.

And that was when I realised what it is that makes the game so appealing: Crysis 2 evokes the thrill of the hunt.

A friend of mine was talking about Crysis 2 on a podcast earlier this year, and when asked to explain why he enjoyed the game as much as he said, essentially, "It's really fun to hunt people down." After saying that, he paused and kind of laughed, backpedaling a bit. "I realise that sounds a little creepy… but it's true! It's really fun!"

He's right: there's something uniquely satisfying about games that allow me to play the predator. And he's also right that it sounds kind of strange admitting that out loud… I swear I'm not a weirdo! I don't hunt people in my neighbourhood after dark or anything! I just like games like Crysis 2, games that engage a natural, animal instinct through a confluence of stealth mechanics, flexible level design and strong enemy AI.

The essence of Batman is that predator in the dark, two white eyes glowing in the shadows, striking fear into the wicked.

Batman: Arkham Asylum had a lot going for it, but my favourite parts of the game were its predatory stealth segments. As the Bat picked off Joker's goons one by one, their increasingly panicked reactions and erratic behaviour gave me a sick thrill. This is what people are talking about when they say that game feels like a "BatmanSimulator." Crime-solving, exploration and brawling are all fun, but the essence of Batman is that predator in the dark, two white eyes glowing in the shadows, striking fear into the wicked. Arkham Asylum perfectly captured that feeling.

Predatory games hinge upon the freedom to be spotted and then hide again without resetting everything — call it "dynamic stealth." Early Splinter Cells fall mostly into the "pure stealth" category. Protagonist Sam Fisher must remain unseen for the most part, and so most of the game is spent lurking in corners, waiting for guards to pass by or turn their backs. Splinter Cell: Conviction did a lot to move the gameplay in a more predatory, engaging direction. And while I do love early Splinter Cell games, I had a absolute blast playing and re-playing Conviction, and at this point I think I prefer it.

While doing a second spin through Deus Ex for our letter series on the game, I realised that as much as the game encourages stealth-based, predatory gameplay, it doesn't quite feel right. The moment I get spotted, enemies start running about all willy-nilly, setting off alarms and charging my position. The levels are too narrow to allow for any escape or improvisation, and in most instances, enemy AI doesn't have any layers between "unaware" and "alert." Striking, setting off the alarm, and then sneakily circling back while enemies close in on your last known position is one of the sublime thrills of a predatory game; but AI has to be advanced enough to pull it off.

Beyond the enemy's intelligence, overall enemy design is also very important. Both Crysis 2 and its predecessor Crysis start off brilliantly, but both games get quite a bit less fun as they go on. This is almost entirely due to the fact that both games introduced a new, different type of enemy at the midpoint. When the Ceph were introduced in Crysis, what had been a game about prowling through the underbrush suddenly hinged upon big, open-field shootouts against flying squid-monsters. It wasn't half as much fun. Crytek smartly kept the Ceph on the ground in Crysis 2, but they still weren't as much fun to take on as the hapless PMC drones from the earlier parts of the game.

These sorts of games dig at something deeper, something darker: the hunter in all of us.

The sprawling savannas of Far Cry 2 present a remarkably pure dilution of chaotic, predatory gameplay. Pure stealth is rarely an option in that game, mainly because enemies are annoyingly hyper-aware and can spot you a couple clicks away. The key, then, is to move in carefully, strike from a distance and then close quickly, circling at all times while using the natural environment (bodies of water, bluffs and vantage points) to your advantage.

The dynamic nature of Far Cry 2's encounters make it enjoyable for hours at a time. Even better, the game adheres to its core design from beginning to end, dodging the switcheroo-itis that has plagued Crytek's games, including the first Far Cry. It is truly a wonderful thing that there are no extraterrestrial cephalopods or mutant killer apes in the latter half of Far Cry 2.

But there's something else about the game too, a certain quickening of the pulse as I come up over a bluff, crouch, and take aim. These games dig at something deeper, something darker: the hunter in all of us.

When I've used a wounded enemy for bait and drawn out an entire camp of mercenaries, I get a sense of bloody accomplishment that doesn't just derive from in-game progression or increased leaderboard status. It's grim, but it's very real — my predatory nature, working its way to the surface.

The guard post has been decimated, gutted by fire; there are bodies strewn all about. The last man standing has lost his cool and snapped. He's whirling around in circles, shouting false bravado into the shadows in the jungle. "That all you got? You got nothing! Where are you hiding? Where are you?"

I'll tell you where I am, buddy. I'm circling, circling… closing in for the kill…


Comments

    those were the best parts of Assassin's Creed too - picking off guards without being seen in order to get to a target. In AC:B sometimes this was nigh impossible, almost.

      I agree. It was occasionally frustrating trying to pick off people in the right order, but ultimately rewarding when you got it right.

      You've reminded me of one of my favourite glitches in 2 or Brotherhood (forget which). I had to assassinate a knight on a boat. I picked off all his soldiers one by one till he was the only one left, then disarmed him. His response? Stand completely rigid in his armour and start screaming incessantly! Spent a couple of minutes giggling at the absurdity of the situation before completing my task.

      Thinking about it even now is making me giggle. Tee hee.

      Yeah, totally agree.

      The 'thrill of the hunt' thing can equally be applied to the AC games.

    No mention of Thief or Thief 2?

      Most people nowadays wouldn't have played it - hell I haven't played and I'm 35! But I never used a PC for gaming - they should do something new with the Theif brand because it does sound interesting.

        There actually is, albeit no information at all:
        http://www.thief4.com/

    being the hunter is nice and all, but not nearly as thrilling as being the hunted, which is what 'pure' stealth games are about. it's the difference between stealth as a tool, and stealth as a necessity, the latter holding more tension.

      I think you're on to something here, but you can combine the two. If you're the hunter but are still vulnerable, you get the best of both worlds. IMO the reason to use stealth, to accomplish your objective (therefore as a tool) should be that, while being a powerful hunter, is you are not all-powerful.

      I think that's part of what FarCry 2 got so right, even when you have the full set of weapons, you are still vulnerable. You can still be killed, your weapons might even jam. So you need to be efficient.

      Think of the big cats, which is the perfect model for hunting in this paradigm. They are terribly powerful, but still sneak up on zebra and other prey because those animals can kill a lion with one swift kick to the head. On top of that they (particularly gazelles and such) can run faster, for longer, and get away. So its a necessity (so they don't get hurt) and a tool (so they can catch things faster than they are).

      MGS3/4 does a great job of mixing the two. Once caught, you're being chased by groups of guards that have set, complex rules about how they chase you. So rewarding to escape.

      Then once you escape you have the thrill of the hunt again, along with the massive risk/reward of being caught.

      MGS is so amazing.

        MGS4 is on my pile of shame. I tried it for about an hour when I got my PS3 but just couldn't get into it. Might be worth trying again, as I'm much better at console games now than I was 3 years ago. Is it still rewarding for someone who hasn't played any previous MGS games? Oh and can we still be friends having admitted that to you? :P

        I wish they'd just make Assassin's Creed harder. I really do. They have some pretty solid mechanics, but there's no penalty if you get caught. You can literally drop the controller and watch them beat you with hammers and broadswords for two or three minutes before you die.

      This is why the Assassin's Creed Brotherhood multiplayer was so addictive. You were an awesome killing machine, but inevitably you are always being hunted by other killing machines!

    I love games that allow you to be the predator. MGS4 and Hitman series are other good examples. All the games mentioned by Kirk I played for that very reason. Agree completely, good article.

    “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

      Hemingway...care of Predators...
      Funnily enough, one of the first things I thought of too.

    Thief or gtfo

    I think I gravitate towards these games to - Conviction is one of the best games I've played since getting a 360 and the co-op and Face Off modes are even better. Currently playing Crysis 2 for the first time and its immense fun to toy with your enemies.

      I enjoyed Crysis 2, but if we're talking "toying with your enemies", nothing in the sequel beats doubling back through the jungle to pick off members of the squad trying to track you down.

    Just don't take it to Manhunt-like extremes.

    you are so right, this nails why my favourite games are so much fun.

    Skill, strategy and careful execution are nessisary for a good stealth hunter game to be fun.

    The thing I liked the most about Crysis 2 was the challenge of being the hunter against the Ceph. With the CELL troops it was fairly easy, just get a SCARAB with a suppressor, semi auto 'mod' and reflex sight, switch to single shot and you can take down 3 leaving just enough energy to sneak back into cover to decloak & recharge.

    Against the Ceph, your only real options were the sniper rifle which only let you do one shot before you decloaked or the knife which was FAR more fun! Having to monitor your power whist sneaking up on an unpredictable foe, waiting till noone was looking then stab him & run like the clappers until you get to some safe cover... great fun

    I had a moment in GTA San Andreas that unfortunately played into the murder simulator accusations against the game.

    It was pretty early in the story and I wanted to buy a shotgun but was a few dollars short. I could have lept in a car and run over a bunch of people, or got the police attention and then stolen their car, getting the free shotty that comes with every cop car in San Andreas. But I had a knife and decided instead, to be different, to stalk a chubby business man down the stairs to a pedestian under pass and stealth kill him (did you even know you could stealth kill in GTA? I found out by accident) away from witnesses, then take them money and buy my gun. It was a different way to tackle the problem, but it definitely gave me a creepy Zodiac vibe.

      I remember those stealth knife kills, actually the thing that disturbed me more about San Andreas is when you get hold of a Katana, the death animation was not something I'll forget - and I note that they left this weapon out of the more high-fidelity sequel.

        Maybe no-one will ever read this comment, but:
        1. Play San Andreas co-op.
        2. Have Player 2 execute CJ with a katana.
        3. Return to single-player with a blood-spurting stump where your head was.

          AH HA HA !!!

          Dusting off the PS2 as I type this!

    An entire article on predatory gameplay and you didn't mention the Predator! Concrete Jungle and the latest AVP game captured that feeling well, although perhaps didn't focus on it enough as their core strength.

    Hitman series is up there with the best stealth games

    I had a great time with the old Commando game. One thing I really liked was the unrealistic fields of view the enemies had. Those "triangles/cones" they can see in really add to the enjoyability. I found Splinter Cell a bit too difficult to actually enjoy, whereas Metal Gear Solid dialed down the realism just enough to enjoy it.

    The hunter is my best strategy in most FPS games, especially in Bad Company 2 on the PC.. Exciting stuff when it's going right.

    Yes, the thrill of the hunt is definitely an appealing aspect of games. The one that springs to mind for me was the Spy versus Mercenaries multiplayer, the satisfaction of managing to break a merc's neck or blow him up with his own mine was immense. There was also a hunting aspect to playing the merc, you set up traps to funnel them into particular paths and then when you find them, there is usually a literal chase. That game was one of the best asymetrical multiplayer games where the hunted could easily become the hunter in mere seconds. Unfortunately being made by Ubisoft meant the mutliplayer was poorly supported, and errors in the netcode, some balance issues and lack of good tutorials meant a small community which dwindled and died off.

    It always makes me sad that whenever stealth games come up, no one ever mentions Tenchu. Sure it kind of didn't move forward fast enough to keep up with the stealth game genre and faded into niche game territory but it was one of the series that influenced mechanics in the genre (or popularised them).

    It was the series that started me down the path of appreciating the thrill of the hunt and made me a huge fan of stealth games. I wish they'd revive the series using more modern mechanics but as I recall, From Software has the rights and killed it with Tenchu Z. *Frownie face*

    This is why I play spy in TF2. Picking off isolated members. Putting on a show, playing the part, acting a friend before cutting them down. Playing mind-games of hide-and-go-stab. Watching as they start to get more and more jumpy, always chasing after nothing, when they should turn around. Looking over their shoulder when they should be looking up.

    Then come the pyros. The cool satisfaction of avoiding their seeking flames to slice your way through their vulnerable backs. Perhaps pulling a gun on one and watching him panic as he realises the kill won't be as easy as he thought. Then stepping lightly over his corpse as it falls at your feet, to slink back into shadow as more come running to investigate.

    Then, when paranoia and fear reaches a critical level, when no corner is left unchecked, no team member left untrialed and when they abandon everything to hunt you down; the absolute thrill of the escape. Striking back in frenzied bursts before vanishing, metal and fire swirling all around. When you realise what a knife-edge you were on all along.

    Several people have brought it up before and I know I have used only one game as an example, but I think this is what makes for good stealth. It's the satisfaction and macabre joy of out-witting, out-manouvering and out-playing your opponents. This, coupled with the high tension adrenaline rush of vulnerabilty, of being caught in the act. Death often comes quickly to a careless rogue and even to one who is simply unlucky. I love that. Yes, it's a weird outlook, but I can see that many feel the same way.

    For me, I always rely on stealth to get the job done. It's the elegant way.

    Nothing beats the thrill of cleaning an entire base of koreans in crysis 1 with nothing more than a pistol with a silencer... Without the enemy even noticing

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