Now you see me and now you don't

Upon the release of one of the most anticipated stealth action games to date (Tom Clancy's: Splinter Cell - Double Agent), we thought it might be a good idea to see where the genre's heading and what is in the future for games of this type.

So here's the first article that focuses upon the way that stealth has evolved in the computer and console entertainment field.

I can't really say what was the first ever stealth related game on any platform, but I can point out certain games that have changed and influenced the genre above all others. On the PC for me one of the best stealth games that really raised the bar back in the heyday of Looking Glass Studios was the excellent: Thief: The Dark Project.

Thief really shone as far as stealth was concerned and it gave the player a certain leeway to play the game how they wanted. Of course the protagonist Garrett wasn't a hands-on battler, he had to rely on subterfuge and an arsenal of clever tricks like rope arrows, moss arrows and his own wits to survive in the brutal world that the developers created.

It used light and shadow to great effect and allowed the player to take advantage of new gameplay mechanics, dynamics and design in levels.

Thief spawned a sequel that built on those concepts and refined them, and of course influenced later generations of games.

But stealth was soon to change once more, with the advent of Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation. - this game brought a decidedly over the top action focus to the genre and still allowed the protagonist, Solid Snake to move around the environments sneaking from place to place, take cover and use his array of gadgets - who can forget the carboard box?

MGS transformed the genre into 3rd person and fixed the camera however, it didn't really allow for a full view of your surroundings and it was certainly quirky, full of mini-games and dark over the top humour (as well as some of the most impressive action sequences at the time). It has become one of the best stealth action game franchises on Sony's platform and the grizzled hero, Snake, is definitely a character - like Garrett, his gravely voice helps to define the special forces soldier in a definitive way - I can think of no other voice actor for him.

Gabe Logan's outings on Sony's consoles (the Syphon Filter games) built on the 3rd person stealth, action, gadget type of gameplay - with a terrorist around every corner and a variety of in-game objectives. Against MGS though Gabe carved a little niche out for himself, but didn't quite make it to mainstream love like Snake.

As the games evolved with the march of technology the gameplay didn't really change, we had numerous sequels to various titles and the genre looked to be fairly stale. There was a bright sliver of hope in the future just waiting around the corner.

Tom Clancy's: Splinter Cell set the gaming world aflame with a new way to play stealth action games. The SC franchise took off in a major way and the gruff hero, Sam Fisher (voiced by veteran actor: Michael Ironside) brought with him numerous enhancements to the game genre.

There was now a gritty and fairly realistic real-world scenario, fantastic enemies were replaced by dangerous gun-toting terrorists and Sam had to rely on stealth, shadows and dynamic light to outwit his foes, rather like Garrett in the technomagic world of Thief.

It brought with it a few problems; the current gen technology wasn't quite advanced enough to support the true vision of the series. Environments had really only one path of progression and the original gameplay element of body detection relied upon you having to move the victims into dark areas, or they'd be discovered at the end of a level.

Sam could hang, he could shimmy and he was fairly acrobatic - he was armed to the teeth with new spy gadgets, sticky-cameras and sticky-shockers. His tri-vision goggles were the trademark of the NSA superspy and they provided an eerie image when we first saw him slide out of the darkness. He could shoot out lights and make areas dark for himself and the AI could react to changes in their environment, through light and sound.

His story continued in Pandora Tomorrow and that changed the genre again, it introduced new stealth gameplay and acrobatic moves. Sam could perform a Swat Turn and a few new tricks. The AI was improved and they became a little more dangerous. He became a little darker due to the events in the game and the developers took the franchise online for the first time.

We could now play as Spies vs. Argus Mercenaries and for the most part that game-mode was met with joy from the players.

The genre was gaining ground now; it was slipping into other games in bits and pieces. One of the Hulk games allowed you to stealth around as Bruce Banner and Snake had a new outing with MGS 3 on the cards.

We took a detour down the violent path of stealth when Vin Diesel and Starbreeze Studios made their excellent FPS-stealth game - the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. This combined intense FPS action with the dynamic light/shadow/stealth from games like Thief and Splinter Cell - add into this Riddick's vicious personality and one of the best console FP combat systems at the time and the genre took a turn for the better.

Taking cover and using all these techniques entered virtually every game, be it FPS or 3rd person. There were exciting rumours that a new SC game was on the way, one that would change the genre again and make some significant advancements in the way stealth worked.

When Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory hit the Xbox it delivered on those promises. Once again introducing a near-future possible scenario of global terror Sam Fisher was called into action to save the day (and the world) again.

The range of gadgets and weapons changed, new techniques were implemented and Sam could now go close combat with some powerful new moves. It was now possible to hang upside down from pipes and break your enemy's necks, or subdue them, the controls were tweaked for performance and the number of options for Sam's weapon increased - it could now be modified with various extra additions.

The knife could sever petrol lines, cut materials and of course end a terrorist's life in one smooth motion.

But the biggest change was to the environments, they became multiple path environments and there was no segmented loading. All of SC: CT's levels were now completely loaded in, larger than ever and required a good degree of skill/stealth to get around them without compromising your mission.

The AI was taken up a few notches, it could recognise broken door locks, doors that were left open and things that were out of place. Sam had to work harder than ever to get around the problems and various puzzles, hacking was improved and the franchise had changed to the online element.

Co-op was the by-word and Chaos Theory stands to this day as one of the best co-op experiences online or off - ever made.

While playing 2 v 2 co-op as Spies and Mercenaries was great, the true greatness came in the form of co-operative story mode. This was a separate story from the main game (yet tied in to the main game) and featured two agents who were working as part of Third Echelon.

It introduced a whole new level of gameplay as agents needed to cooperate fully to get around the environments, tag-team enemies and smooth their path by taking out lights and disabling security systems. The co-op moves such as human ladder, rappelling and hang-over were excellent and they worked extremely well, there was even a Tomo-Nage move where one agent could throw another to get across gaps or even knock out a guard.

The developers took it one stage further for online co-op as they added an audio-recognition to the AI that allowed them to hear you over the comms, if you spoke too loudly.

A downed player could be revived and it was possible to feed camera signals to your friend's HUD, it was the best adrenaline shot the genre could have had.

Other games came and went but Chaos Theory held its own, against the likes of Stolen, where they introduced a female protagonist and armed her with lots of high-tech equipment, non-lethal martial arts and weapons, as well as an interesting comic-book style story.

IO brought us an interesting mix of disguise and stealth when they released their popular Hitman game, which has spawned numerous sequels, each building on the previous - where you can play the game with stealth or just blaze away - freedom of choice definitely became a by-word with that franchise.

The future of the genre

The next generation platforms will offer new game technologies and directions for the genre to go in. Splinter Cell 4 (Double Agent) looks set to blast the genre in the face once more with fresh innovative content and a completely reworked gameplay mechanic for Sam's stealth. Only next Friday will truly tell if SC: DA has the formula right of course.

And looking to knock both Garrett and Sam off the top spot is Altair, the hero of Assassin's Creed - a next gen title for both PS3 and Xbox 360. Assassin's Creed promises an innovative one-hit one-kill combat system and a free-running dynamic for the sprawling open-ended (massive) game levels that are set in recreations of authentic Holy Cities and something known as social stealth, this is of course something that I'd like to see in the Hitman games, but Assassin's Creed really pushes the boundaries - making crowds an important part of the game's core experience.

Altair can melt in with certain groups, like some monks, and get closer to his target by adopting mannerisms that seem normal to guards and wary folk. With the Parkour (free-running) system the game takes on a new dimension, since for the first time, it won't just be key points in a level (like pipes and ledges) that you can climb (sorry Sam) but Altair will be able to grab onto any surface and do something with it, running across beams effortlessly and working out what the best way to approach a jump is.

It looks as though it's going to be interesting to see how much of Assassin's Creed influences games to come, especially Splinter Cell 5 (which is set to be Xbox 360 only) and another MGS title (that's sure to be on the cards after 4).

And talking of MGS 4 - that's shaping up quite nicely and promises to deliver the same kind of gameplay the fans know and love, details are still shrouded in secrecy for this game and the trailers have been pretty stunning.

The Nintendo Wii (Revolution damn-it: Ed!) promises to allow players a greater degree of control over Sam Fisher's lock-picking and other elements, but we'll have to wait and see how that works in the game when it comes out.

With the recently released Live Vision camera there should be ample chance for developers to put in a gimmicky retinal vision detector and so on, simulating such systems to further immerse the player. Sprawling mutli-objective levels should be the corner stone, inventive take-down close combat moves and other acrobatics should become more popular and of course the amount of gadget choices should also increase.

I don't know about you, but I love my cool toys when playing these kinds of games. There's something highly amusing about letting the enemy sniff CS gas from one of the sticky-cameras in Chaos Theory as you watch them peer at it confusedly.

Assassin's Creed should be a big wakeup call to everyone regarding the stealth genre and looks set to deliver an intense and satisfying experience in 2007.

It's a shame that Starcraft: Ghost is now in development hell, since that was shaping up as a nice futuristic game involving one of my favourite game universes and games of all time, not to mention it was focussed around stealth.

Perhaps Games Workshop will take a leaf out of Blizzard's book and produce Vindicare along the same lines, about the missions of an Imperial Assassin.

I can but hope.