It’s no secret that a great deal of the mainstream gaming industry thrives on crafting bombastic shootouts and massive explosions. Modern and sci fi warfare shooters are huge draws—consider such tent pole franchises as Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield and Gears of War—and chances are studios will keep pumping them out until someone develops a console so powerful it creates a small black hole and sucks everything in (who will make it first—Sony or Microsoft? Definitely not Nintendo).
But for those who enjoy a more subtle brand of violence, there’s an entire subgenre of stealth-based games out there, though admittedly it’s restricted to about four or five major franchises. If you prefer to play cat and mouse over emptying magazine after magazine of bullets into your enemies, the following games—based on their aggregate scores on GameRankings—should be right up your alley.
10 Assassin’s Creed II, 2009 – 90.71%
The second entry in Ubisoft’s now-famous franchise, Assassin’s Creed II is a “historical” science fiction game, which technically puts players in the shoes of former bartender Desmond Miles, who through the use of a genetic memory-powered virtual reality apparatus relives the escapades of his ancestor, assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Living in Renaissance-era Itality, Ezio dons the tools and takes up the trade of the Assassin Brotherhood following the murder of his father and brothers by a shady conspiracy. As Ezio, players can run across the rooftops of Florence, Venice and Rome, blend in with the crowd, and silently take down corrupt authorities and politicians.
Assassin’s Creed II remains the highest-rated game in the franchise, and won game of the year awards from publications such as IGN, Game Informer and even the New York Times. It also received several nominations for the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Interactive Achievement Awards, chief among them Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction and Outstanding Achievement in Animation.
9 Batman: Arkham Asylum, 2009 – 92.34%
Very loosely based on the unsettling graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, Batman: Arkham Asylum follows the Dark Knight over the course of a chaotic night as he attempts to restore order to the titular mental hospital, which has been taken over by the Joker. Though Arkham Asylum contains many action sequences—it pioneered a rhythm-based combat system that stood from the combos usually utilized in virtual melees—it also places considerable emphasis on stealth. As Batman, players can swoop from gargoyle to gargoyle (even indoors, oddly enough) and use psychological tactics to intimidate the Joker’s goons.
Prior to Rocksteady’s 2009 effort, the Batman franchise wasn’t too successful in the gaming medium. The Batman Begins tie-in game received middle-of-the-road reviews, and Batman: Dark Tomorrow, released in 2003, was roundly panned. Batman: Arkham Asylum turned everything around, and now the “Arkham” franchise is one of the most successful in gaming. This first entry was praised for its level of detail, fluid combat and voice acting, especially Mark Hamill’s work as the Joker. As well, until the release of Arkham City two years later, it held the Guinness World Record for Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever.
8 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, 2004 - 92.37%
The follow-up to the ground-breaking first game in Ubisoft’s now widely respected Splinter Cell series, Pandora Tomorrow was quite similar to its predecessor, depicting the stealthy adventures of grizzled Third Echelon agent Sam Fisher (voiced by Michael Ironside of Scanners and Total Recall fame). Pandora Tomorrow also included a competitive multiplayer mode that pitted physically vulnerable but nevertheless deadly spies against heavily-armed mercenaries.
Pandora Tomorrow received general critical acclaim, with reviewers praising its new multiplayer mode specifically, though some took issue with the level of trial and error required to succeed in the single-player campaign. Its Nintendo GameCube and Game Boy Advance ports also didn’t fare particularly well, with the former garnering a 55% “Rotten” consensus on Rotten Tomatoes.
7 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, 2002 – 92.49%
Upon its release in the early 2000s, Splinter Cell became the first game to truly challenge Metal Gear Solid for the title of “best stealth franchise.” Originally an Xbox exclusive, it gave players a dynamic range of movement, allowing them to hang from ledges below the enemy’s line of sight or even hide in the shadows of a corridor ceiling. Apart from its flexible gameplay, the game also featured some of the most advanced lighting for the time, though Greg Kasavin, then writing for GameSpot, wrote that the rendered cut scenes failed to look as good as the in-engine graphics.
6 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence, 2004/2006 – 92.97%
Though it’s the third game in the Metal Gear Solid series, Snake Eater is chronologically the first in the entire Metal Gear franchise. Rather than focusing on long-time series protagonist Solid Snake, it puts players in the role of Big Boss, from whom Snake would eventually be cloned (for this reason, the character—going by “Naked Snake”—is voiced by Solid Snake’s long-time actor David Hayter).
While the original version of the game is still rated fairly highly, Snake Eater’s most acclaimed form is Subsistence, a 2006 upgrade that features a user-controllable gameplay camera—as opposed to the predetermined angles that were in the 2004 release and its predecessors—and a new online multiplayer mode. As with other Metal Gear Solid games, Snake Eater was critically acclaimed, though it lost points for having a slower frame rate and what was seen as an awkward-sounding script; as well, its new camouflage system was divisive.
5 Metal Gear Solid, 1998 – 93.24%
As with the original Metal Gear, which debuted on the MSX2 in 1987, Metal Gear Solid once again saw special operative Solid Snake infiltrate an enemy base. This time, Snake, his allies and enemies, and his environments were fully realized in three dimensions for the Sony PlayStation. Traversing the base, players were made to avoid patrolling guards, security cameras and laser trip wires, while at the same time enduring minutes-long cut scenes and radio conversations and designer/director Hideo Kojima’s self-referential sense of humour (for example, the only way players could find the radio frequency for a major character is by looking at a screenshot on the back of the physical CD case).
Since its release, Metal Gear Solid is considered to have founded the stealth game genre by IGN and GameTrailers.
4 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, 2008 – 93.53%
Again with the Metal Gear. Guns of the Patriots is chronologically the last game in the Metal Gear franchise, and depicts the final mission of series mainstay Solid Snake. MGS4 features more flexible gameplay than its predecessors and introduces an “OctoCamo” system that allows Snake to blend in with the colours of his surroundings.
Critically lauded upon its release and still now, six years on, Guns of the Patriots received particular praise for its depth of characterization and refined gameplay, though IGN UK took issue with its lengthy cinematics—which come in at over eight hours overall.
3 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, 2005 – 94.02%
Though the third game in the series, Chaos Theory was only the second developed by original Splinter Cell studio Ubisoft Montreal (Pandora Tomorrow was made by Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft Milan while Chaos Theory was being developed). Chaos Theory remains Sam Fisher’s highest-rated outing, though as with the previous Splinter Cell entries, Chaos Theory was criticized for the trial-and-error nature of its gameplay.
2 Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, 2001 – 95.09%
Okay, last Metal Gear, we swear.
The eagerly-awaited sequel to Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty pulled a surprising bait-and-switch on its players, with series lead Solid Snake playable only for the game’s prologue before disappearing and being replaced by the younger, katana-wielding Raiden. The sequel maintained much of the gameplay mechanics of the previous entry, though it also allowed players to aim weapons in a first-person mode, allowing them to pinpoint enemies just out of frame.
Sons of Liberty was and still remains one of the most praised video games of all time, with some critics even considering it a postmodernist work. To a minority, it was overly-complex and downright confusing, eventually ending up on GameSpy’s list of most overrated games. Players also took issue with the ousting of Solid Snake by new character Raiden.
1 Batman: Arkham City, 2011 – 96.12%
Set some time after the first game, Batman: Arkham City reveals that in the wake of the Asylum incident, the hospital's former chief of staff ran for mayor and turned Gotham City's partially-submerged old downtown into an Escape from New York-esque superprison. Batman infiltrates the open-air facility and finds himself caught in a gang war between the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, and other, shadowy forces. City improved on the already-lauded melee and stealth aspects of Arkham Asylum and incorporated an open-world aspect akin to Grand Theft Auto.
Arkham City managed to surpass even the considerable praise of the first game, with Game Informer considering it the "best licensed video game ever made" and the Australian Official PlayStation Magazine called it one of the best games of all time.