Stealth games are difficult to get right. By their very nature, they make failure a binary state – either you’re seen or you’re not.
In an action game, being hit by one sword blow doesn’t kill you, you have a chance to react to your mistake and avoid the next swing. If you mess up in a stealth game, one of three things happens: either it’s an instant game over, or the game allows you to shrug off stealth and fight your way through, or the game allows you to in some way recover your hidden state. If it’s a game over, then you’ve failed because of one mistake. If you’re allowed to fight, then you’ve shrugged off the stealth game entirely and are essentially playing something else. If you’re allowed to recover (perhaps by fleeing and avoiding the line-of-sight of guards for a set period of time) then the game continues, but often your suspension of disbelief is shattered – if they’ve seen me once, why would the guards stop looking for me?
This is what makes it so difficult to get stealth games right. Failure comes as the result of one mistake. This is only alright if you feel full responsibility for every mistake that you make, and feel it was within your power and knowledge to avoid it. Too often stealth games don’t give you the information you need to make informed decisions, don’t give you the tools you need to know you can overcome a particular obstacle, don’t give you enough vision of what’s around you, forcing you to guess at what may lie ahead, what routes the guards will be patrolling. You have to guess whether you’ll be able to do this or that – can I knock this guard out without this other guard noticing, then knock him out too? Or will he turn round part way through? Can I make it from over here to over there before the security camera turns to face me?
Mark of the Ninja is, to my mind, one of the best stealth games ever made, because of how deftly it side-steps these problems. You play that paragon archetype of stealth, a ninja (this, perhaps, is obvious from the title). It’s set in modern times however; your enemies are soldiers outfitted with body armour, assault rifles, and near-future gadgetry, while you must rely on the ancient traditions of your clan, besting them with blades, traps, poisons, and your wits.
You are provided with all the information you could possibly need, presented visually and cleanly. Sounds are represented by circles expanding outward from the source – if the circle hits a guard, you know they’ve heard the sound, and when you see circles in the distance you know a guard is walking there. Your own visibility is represented on your body – when you are out of the light, unseen, you are simply a silhouette, outlined in white. The vision cones of guards conform exactly to the torches attached to their guns, which they wave about in search of you. Perhaps most importantly, the game is in 2D, with a wide and expansive view, allowing you to see and analyse your entire surroundings. Every decision you make is an informed one – you will never be unfairly surprised.
You are provided too with the tools you need. Your character is fast and supremely agile, your freedom of movement near-total. You can climb up walls, crawl along ceilings, sneak through air vents, grapple between fixtures. Wherever you want to be, wherever you need to be, it is fast and easy to get there.
At your disposal is a full array of items, each precise and clear in its use. Darts that let you smash lights and cause distractions, smoke bombs that disorient and blind your foes, spike traps that lie undetectable in wait to impale the first guard to trip them. When aiming these items, you are able to stop time, allowing you to decide exactly where you want them to land and take effect. Total control.
When you fail, it is your fault, totally and utterly. When you succeed, you are a master of the shadows, enacting your plans with unparalleled brilliance. When things start to get too easy, the intricate points system and optional objectives allow you to push yourself to greater, more complex machinations.
Mark of the Ninja is a triumph – one of the best the genre has to offer, by any standards. It’s a game that puts the player first, and understands exactly what is and what is not fun. It presents a hostile world, gives you everything you need to tame it, and turns you loose – and I defy you not to enjoy wrangling that light-and-dark, guard-infested beast.