Assassin's Creed has a Stealth Problem

October 31, 2015

The clock is ticking. The guards I’ve knocked out will soon regain consciousness, and once they do, they’ll alert everyone in the area to my presence. Additionally, it will soon be sunrise, and with it more exposure, new guard shifts, and limited exit points. I have to not only make it out alive, but also make sure my high value asset makes it out alive as well. Luckily, during the night as I made my way into the inner area of the outpost, I made sure to plant C-4 charges on all communication and anti-aircraft radar satellites. Not only will this let my helicopter land right at the base for fast extraction, but it will ensure the enemy can’t signal reinforcements. I activate all the charges and call in my helicopter transport. I made sure to upgrade my helicopter with guns and rockets before the mission so it could clear a path for me as I made my way to the chopper with the package, safe and sound. I make it to the chopper, and it lifts off as I continue to blast away at the surrounding forces with my minigun. Mission complete.

There are a number of missions in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that can end in this manner, and every time it’s just as satisfying as the first. Quite simply put, MGSV is the most taxing and rewarding stealth game I’ve played in a very long time and it’s the benchmark that all other games that attempt stealth should be judged against.

Enter Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest in the now long running series. Assassin’s Creed has always been a series that’s had one foot in the stealth game without really committing to it. Yes, you could use vantage points to scout an area, and you have tools at your disposal to eliminate enemies quietly, but your options always felt limited, and in most cases, there was no real punishment for being exposed other than facing guards in head to head combat. Sure, there are some missions that reward you for not being exposed, but they only make up a handful of the bonus objectives that are suggested to you.

This has changed in recent years as Ubisoft has begun to add more stealth elements to the series, most notably in last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, which finally added a full blown stealth mode that allows the player to crouch behind cover, sneak up on targets, and post up against entrances. Syndicate improves further by adding whistling back into the game, allowing you attract targets to your location for quick assassination. Additionally, skill trees have been added to the game, which allow the player to upgrade in key areas, one of which is stealth. All that said though, the series feels behind the times when compared to its contemporaries.

The initial four abilities in the stealth tree are unlocked from the start and are more so basic Assassin’s tactics than stealth abilities. You can upgrade your character to be detected less easily and make less noise as you progress through the game, but half of the skill tree is regulated to abilities such as lock picking chests for items, preventing kidnapped enemies from running away from you, automatically looting enemies you assassinate, and inflicting mass damage to enemies just before they enter combat with you. None of these abilities really feel like they belong in a skill tree titled “stealth”, and more so just feels tacked on to build out the skill tree.

The biggest complaint though, is that in Assassin’s Creed, playing stealthily really just means assassinating everyone around you as quietly as possible, clearing a path to your main objective. Honestly, with all the upgrades in equipment and the new controls, it offers very little challenge to those who have some patience, and have a full inventory of tools at their disposal. It’s boring, simple, and repetitive. I stood on a roof with a courtyard full of enemies, tossing knives at their heads for one shot kills, using hallucinogenic darts to make them take each other out, and performing air assassinations at isolated targets. Within minutes, I can clear out the courtyard, making my main kill as simple as whistling the target over to my location for a quick meeting with my hidden blade. There is very little risk involved, and honestly there’s very little reward as well.

Game series like Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex, Far Cry, Splinter Cell, and Dishonored do stealth so well because they make you think about your actions, and explore your environment for new ways to accomplish your objectives. Dishonored will let you kill folks just as quickly as Assassin’s Creed, but the city responds over time. More city guards are posted in the streets, and plague spreads making weepers (think zombies) and rats more rampant. Your choice to kill even goes so far as to affect the ending of the game.  In games like Deus Ex and Splinter Cell, it means waves of more enemies that become more powerful the longer your presence is known, almost certainly resulting in death if the confrontations run on for too long. Killing someone in these games is often loud, and a certain way to start down this dangerous path. Additionally, if you don’t hide bodies well, enemies will detect them, resulting in more troops and more heightened searches for your position.

Metal Gear Solid V takes it to a whole different level. The simplest impact is that loud confrontations lower your mission score, which greatly reduces the income earned from a mission. Any sound of gunfire or explosion starts a chain reaction that alerts everyone in the general area, often causing reinforcements to be deployed. Guards have shifts with different patterns based on the time of day. Any guard that is killed must be hidden, and hidden well, as guards explore the whole outpost. If you do any tactic too often, guards will adjust to your tendencies, such as wearing night vision goggles, wearing helmets to counteract headshots, and guard vulnerable assets that you tend to disable. But the biggest cost of killing in Metal Gear Solid V is lost opportunity. You can extract enemy soldiers using a Fulton device, similar to the one seen in The Dark Knight’s Hong Kong scene. These soldiers are added to your growing base, allowing you to upgrade your gear, intel, and army. Simply put, killing a solider on the battlefield is taking away an opportunity to expand your abilities, gain new equipment, and generate more income. Metal Gear Solid V demands excellence, but it rewards you for it, not only in upgrades but for experiences that just are not found in many other games right now.

At its core, Assassin’s Creed is first an action adventure game, offering platforming on scale not seen anywhere else in video games. It delves into history, exploring figures and events that most will have forgotten or were never aware of. It wrote the book for the combat we’ve seen in recent great games like the Batman Arkham series and last year’s surprise hit, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. The newest entry features breathtaking visuals, solid characters, and some very fun missions. With that in mind though, it’s important that we criticize when an area of a game is weak. If the game wants to encourage stealth, then it needs to evolve. An evolution on any of the tactics used in the other games mentioned could greatly impact the series in a positive way. Until then though, I’ll be playing Assassin’s Creed like I’m Ingino Montoya. It’s fun, sometimes challenging, and there’s really no punishment for doing so. Prepare to die, London.

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