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Stealth & Spatial Awareness
I love the stealth genre. It may be a remnant of my childhood antics, burrowed deep in my brain. Climbing over walls into peoples private property, running away from hotel garden-keepers, playing hide and seek in urban environments. Stealth games make me re-live these moments while also allowing me to knock people unconscious and hide them in cupboards.
As a fan of stealth, I find myself judging how a game populates its world with guards and how good their spatial awareness is. Spatial awareness is very important to me. I can barely put into words my unbridled rage at people who stop to tie their shoe laces without even bothering to look around themselves while in a busy street. People who for some reason feel it’s acceptable behaviour to stop walking upon stepping off an escalator. People who walk forward while looking anywhere but. If there were any gamma radiation around me at the time I witnessed such horrors, shirts would be ripped and biceps would be bulged!
Uh, anyway, back to stealth.
Metal Gear Solid remains the benchmark for NPCs with decent behavioural traits; poor souls left frustrated in the wake of your sneaky journey to traverse their domain. As far back as the first MGS on PS1 they were noticing your footprints in the snow and following them. Hideo Kojima embraced these bait-inspired reactions with the next few games, utilising such techniques as knocking on walls, and chucking dirty magazines on floors for unsuspecting perverts.
I found the underrated, if massively flawed, Far Cry 2 pretty decent as well. Most notably the dialogue of the NPCs as they attempted to root you out of your hiding place. The better you got at the game, the more it was reflected in the way they reacted to you. If your stats weren’t that impressive, you were treated like dirt. If you were a killing machine however, the NPCs would act like they had been cursed. Even walking past them in daytime in a small town would have me laughing at how they trembled and squeaked in fear at my mere presence. Good times.
Back to spatial awareness though. After playing Hitman: Absolution earlier in the year, I’ve been pondering the ways in which NPCs notice your character. With Hitman it was erratic and as a result unsatisfying. You know the feeling, when you suddenly realise you’re playing a game with broken rules.
Oh, so it’s perfectly fine for me to snap a dude’s neck parallel to his buddy and nobody is the wiser. Five minutes later I’m in a library and the guard on the other side is suddenly suspicious of my corner. Oh it’s that kind of game, where anything goes.
MGS had a mini-map which showed a cone of visibility available to guards, for both what they would see and hear. This made things much clearer. Though I’m not a fan of mini-maps or most HUD displays in general, favouring the way the Dead Space franchise has tackled it, by literally inserting HUD elements into the character via his suit and his weapon.
Maybe that kind of implementation can be a balance between a MGS style visual signifier for what a NPC can hear or see, and no hand-holding mini-maps.
Or maybe games can just be coded better. No mini-maps, and no happy-go-lucky NPCs. If my character drops from a ledge into a puddle, then he should be heard at the correct amount of distance. I probably wouldn’t even want a visual sign to show which direction a guard’s “huh?” came from either.
Stealth games are about suspense. And upping the realism will aid in that endeavour. I want NPCs to react accordingly if they find a comrade killed. Hitman did make strides in that respect, their dialogue was great and they did up the security, however like any game they also included a ‘cool off’ period, so after five minutes or something, they went back to their rounds as if nothing had happened. (I guess they believed I’d left the area…)
What I would have liked was upped security for the remainder of the level, and a couple guards to drag the killed dude off somewhere. The upped security would be a punishment for messing up, and the two dudes dragging the third is not just realism, but is also a possible solution for you. Maybe you could follow them and find an alternate way out of the level, or ambush them for more gear or items, etc.
Taking a guard out should also arouse suspicion from his superiors once he doesn’t check in via his walkie-talkie. Another form of punishment for being too needlessly violent. Though maybe another feature available could be impersonating the guard via walkie too. (dunno how, either mini-game, or use your own mic!)
After Hitman: Absolution, I played Far Cry 3, a franchise that likes to mix action with stealth depending on how you feel like approaching a target. The jungle environment had a substantial impact on this, which was great. Sneaking up on guards only to be interrupted by a crazy tiger was hilarious. But alas the guards’ AI still forgot that a maniac like me was prowling out there in the jungle gunning for them.
So to sum up, I want guards with long memories, realistic stress depicted by them in reaction to my excessive actions, and environments that conspire to thrust you into the light.
One of my favourite films is Die Hard, and I would love a game to replicate the experience of one man up against a gang that skilfully apply physical and emotional pressure to force the hero to come out of the shadows. I can’t think of any game off the top of my head that’s remotely like Die Hard. Games are usually about saving the planet which is so boring, I’ve saved the world countless times now! Saving my estranged wife from a skyscraper besieged by Euro-trash is infinitely more entertaining.
Just don’t leave the first level without picking up your shoes, you’ll regret it.