The Stealth Dilemma

As I mentioned last week, I have started playing Kingdoms of Amalur. At one point during the tutorial, the game showcased the ability to perform stealth kills.

Surprisingly brutal.

Surprisingly brutal.

So, now I have a dilemma. Do I actually trust the designers to have gone all the way?

Stealth is always a risky game design concept. By its very nature, stealth avoids traditional combat; yet unless a game is stealth-centric – such as Tenchu, Metal Gear Solid, etc – it must feature traditional combat robust enough to satisfy a more action-oriented playstyle. The more robust the traditional combat is though, the more powerful stealth itself becomes. Indeed, as players become stronger and enemies increase in deadliness, stealth can pass a certain threshold of absurdness that makes any other strategy seem poor in comparison.

Few mixed-gameplay games handle stealth well, and even fewer take stealth “all the way.” When I started up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time, I chose to make a dwarf rogue. My thought process at the time was that I always wanted access to lockpicking and trap detection, but the thought of those sneak attack criticals also appealed to the tactical gamer in me.

As it turns out, playing a rogue in DA:O was a pain in the ass. While you can scout out rooms and such, the nature of these sort of games (and most games, actually) is that ambushes are controlled by invisible programming triggers, such as “enter this room.” Sometimes this let me pull some counter-ambush maneuvers, such as flooding a room I knew to be occupied by hidden enemies with fireballs and poison gas. Other times, my rogue was made visible automatically by mini-boss or cut-scene decree. While I could still occasionally score sneak attacks in combat, doing so basically removed my main character from the battle until she could slowly move into position while the rest of the party got battered.

There are only two games in recent memory that I feel handled stealth well. The first is Dishonored. While it is true that the game is stealth-centric and thus shouldn’t really “count,” I was nevertheless impressed by the designers’ gumption to take the stealth mechanics all the way, i.e. even usable on the last boss. Unfortunately, killing the final boss with a single shot also felt horribly dumb, all things considered; it should not have been easier taking out the last boss than the very first enemy you encountered. The opposite wherein bosses are immune to stealth isn’t much fun either, as Deus Ex: Human Revolution demonstrated.

The second game that I felt supported stealth all the way was Skyrim. While I am not entirely sure if you could actually stealth around the last boss (such as it is), there was a talent at the end of the Sneak tree that allowed you to temporarily cloak long enough to activate your heightened Sneak Attack critical multipliers for an attack or two. Like with Dishonored, it felt sort of cheesy, but I had been two-shotting sleeping dragons with my bow for hours beforehand, so I already knew the absurd stealth line had been crossed.

Now that I think about it, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also supported stealth gameplay all the way. Indeed, sometimes I feel like my playthroughs would have been 20-30 hours shorter, had I not been crouch-crawling through most of the game.

And so now I am left with the Amalur decision. As I level, shall I invest in stealth-based skills and abilities in the hopes they won’t be made irrelevant by boss battles and dungeon design? Or should I ignore the fig-leaf stealth design and instead focus on more mundane, useful abilities that I can actually utilize against 100% of the enemies I face, including the final boss? Or perhaps I should trust in my moment-to-moment stealth gameplay joys, having what fun I can in whatever percentage of the game allows me to stealth through?

It remains a dilemma either way. Many people celebrate having these sort of choices in their videogames, but choice requires trust in designers that one’s choices will actually be meaningful, and most importantly: balanced. When it comes stealth, as fun as it is, sometimes it is not worth letting the player have his or her way.

Posted on April 17, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Isn’t the problem you describe mainly that stealth characters lack straight combat abilities, such that you feel gimped when you can’t perform your special sneak attacks? The challenge would be to enable stealth characters to stand up in toe-to-toe combat, but not necessarily in the same way as a warrior type. WoW actually does this pretty well with rogues due to their array of cooldowns, openers, and finishers. Feral druids, lacking most of these, feel much weaker.


    • Yes and no. There are two dimensions at work. The first is what you mention, that stealth characters are frequently balanced around being weaker in straight-up combat, only to usually end up not being able to use stealth enough (in boss fights, etc) to actually compensate.

      The other dimension is when things are balanced, but stealth ends up being ridiculously overpowered. My post was mainly refering to single-player games, but let’s look at WoW. The difference between rogue leveling and, say, warrior leveling is night and day. Which is good in a way (less class homogenization), but the specifics of a leveling rogue’s rotation means that mob abilities are 100% irrelevant. Cheap Shot –> Kidney Shot –> Dead. Or simply Cheap Shot –> Dead. Warriors kill fast too, but ocassionally they still take damage and/or need to avoid some mechanic.

      Or for a level cap example, look at soloing the Zandalari Warscouts. Since the Warscouts are susceptible to CC, what ends up happening is that you can force them to not use some of the more annoying abilities. For example, if you interrupt the summoning of the ghost or the meteors enough, the Warscout will end up using a different ability instead (probably due to some internal timer). Rogues need all the interrupting effects to make their stealth gameplay viable, but the end result is a much easier time taking out CC-able mobs than, say, an Elemental shaman. The survivability might be the same in theory, but in practice most non-stealth classes have to worry about mechanics that rogues do not. When said mechanics start (nearly) one-shotting those that fail them, having the tools to avoid mechanics altogether is much more powerful than anything else.


  2. Eh, in Amalur you’re not sacrificing combat prowess for stealth. You’re sacrificing things like better persuasion checks or crafting (which is grossly overpowered, if that’s your kind of thing). So there’s no good reason to *not* invest in stealth if that’s something that appeals to you.

    That said, there are lots of situations where stealth won’t be useful, such as ambushes, most bosses, or when messily stabbing someone to death alerts all of his friends to your presence.

    The only real sacrifice is having to use daggers or faeblades, if you want the special stealth attacks. But that’s only if you don’t like them, aesthetically. They’re perfectly viable weapons without stealth. And you can still sneak around with a greatsword, and just avoid things, if you prefer.

    Personally though, I found the time spent sneaking up on something was better spent stabbing several somethings to death. So, outside of its relevance for a goodly number of quests, I’d say it’s mostly just for fun.


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