I've been having a lot of fun with Dunwall City Trials, the first downloadable add-on to October's fantastic stealth game Dishonored. I've beaten the core game almost two times now, and while it's such a brilliant bit of design, I'd found myself hungry for new, different challenges.
It's always felt like the game would benefit from an extra mode in addition to the single-player story, one that let us really put the game's many enjoyable systems to the test. Dunwall City Trials, which costs $5 to download, adds just that.
It's a collection of 10 challenge maps that put players through a gauntlet of stealth, combat, and puzzle challenges, each one designed to stand on its own as a leaderboard-focused trial. Master those, and you'll unlock five more 'expert' maps that make the existing challenges even harder.
The DLC, while perhaps a bit slight, feels like just what Dishonored needed. While the ten challenges are great, I can already tell that I'm going to want more of them.
The stealth challenge "Mystery Foe" puts you into a "Lady Boyle's Last Party"-type scenario, where you'll have to sneak about a party undetected and gather clues about who your target is before taking him or her out. The fewer clues you need to take down your target, the higher you score. The best bit is that the target is randomly selected each time, making the level feel a bit like something out of Hitman: Absolution's smart Contracts Mode.
"Burglar" has you robbing a house (that floats, awesomely, in the same dream-zone in which you meet The Stranger), and remaining undetected. There are wave-based attack challenges, too, as well as one of my favorites, "Kill Cascade," which has you chaining those oh-so-satisfying aerial kills together as quickly as possible.
I've only played an hour or so of Dunwall City Trials, but it already feels like a solid add-on for anyone who liked the core game. It's hard not to wish for a couple more stealth challenges, as those are the best of the bunch, but each challenge offers a welcomely stiff challenge and some good optional objectives, and certainly feels worth five bucks. As with the challenge rooms in Batman: Arkham City, the trials are a fun way to stress-test Dishonored's systems without worrying about your chaos level or which powers you've chosen.
I hope that, as Bethesda releases more DLC for the game, we get to see another slew of challenge rooms in addition to whatever else they may be planning. Dishonored deserves even more of this kind of thing.
2012 was a banner year for stealth games. From January up through December, we got to play a healthy variety of games involving dozens of different types of sneaking, skulking, lurking, and sklurking. (It's a thing.)
You could say that these games… crept up on us.
We really… didn't see them coming.
Jason and I have already talked at length about why we love stealth games. While many video games set a series of systems in motion and toss you into the middle, stealth games operate a bit differently. They're about staying outside of those systems, creeping about the periphery while poking here, prodding there, and deciding how to engage. You really play with stealth games, and that's what lends them their unique rhythm and makes them so satisfying.
It's also why we come away from stealth games with such great stories. Every stealth game I played this year, I came away with a handful of stories, moments that captured the best (and sometimes, worst) sorts of stealth-game unpredictability.
Rather than just run down all the stealth games that came out this year, I thought it might be fun to share some stories, then open the floor for y'all to share your own tales. Here goes:
Klei Entertainment's Mark of the Ninja was interesting because it was both a tight, polished stealth game, and something of a treatise on stealth games themselves. Helped along by its two-dimensional design, the game gave clear visual feedback for every aspect of sneaking—footstep audio burst visually outward from the protagonist, while lights illuminated exactly where they were pointing. There was never a question whether you were hidden or visible, and the enemy artificial intelligence clearly signaled its status and intent. My moment from MotN comes from early in the game, when I was tasked with sneaking through a building and freeing several of my captured compatriots. I decided I was going to do the entire bit nonlethal, and that was where I discovered the most rewarding way to play Mark of the Ninja: Without killing anyone at all. As I freed the final captive without being spotted, I felt the kind of satisfaction I rarely feel by playing nonviolent in sneaking games.
No, seriously: There were so many stealth games in 2012 that even Journey had a stealth segment. This marks what I think of as the "low point" of the protagonist, the darkest, tensest hour. As the robed wanderer fights its way across a snowy field, it is hunted by those terrifying flying fish-golem monsters. I've rarely felt such unexpected dread, and even replaying the game, I fear this section.
I don't think I felt more uneasy about stealth than I did in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. As I mentioned in my review, the game is at its best when you're pulling off carefully orchestrated stealth-kills with your entire team, slipping through an area undetected. But no game has made me feel as uncomfortable. Particularly during the early Africa levels, as my stealth-cloak enabled cybersoldier squad wiped out wave after wave of ill-equipped third-world junta soldiers, it became clearer and clearer that this battle was horribly uneven. So, it's not so much an emergent stealth moment that I remember, more a feeling of how totally overpowered my team and I were.
It is very difficult to pick a single stealth moment from Dishonored, a game in which I've forgotten more classic moments than I experience in most games. But one comes to mind: In the mission in the Golden Cat brothel, you're tasked with taking down a couple of n'er do-wells located at various points throughout the building. One of them is holed up behind closed doors near to a body of water, and there are a number of ways I could sneak in to get him. But the way I chose was a doozy: I possessed a fish, swam through a small passage and into the room, then slowed down time and burst from the water in slow-mo before stabbing the dude in the neck. It was one of those moments that you see in movies, and yet I got to do it myself. In real time. Pretty much my Ultimate Dishonored Moment.
Here's a game I liked more than some, but I'm still playing it to this day, and still enjoying it quite a bit. If there's one thing I retrospectively could have talked about more in my review, it's how Absolution does feel different from Blood Money in many of its levels—it's much more of a traditional stealth game than its most recent predecessor. That said, there were still so many times when I felt that old Hitman groove—particularly during the mission "Shaving Lenny." Outside of Lenny's BBQ, I snuck over to a storage shed and took out the guard inside, before slowly but surely taking down guard after guard, and returning to the shed to stash them all. Over the course of the next twenty or so minutes, that shed became my macabre base of operations, the place NPCs went to decompose.
This game is the one to get a mention due to bad stealth. Perhaps chief among the many ways Assassin's Creed III disappointed me was the fact that the game's stealth was, for lack of a better word, busted. Two memories stick with me, and both involve bushes. The first involved failing the George Washington eavesdropping mission for the umpteenth time, entirely because for some unknown reason, Connor stood up for a moment while prowling in the bushes. The second involved taking out Pitcairn during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The infuriating thing about bushes in the game is that the moment you've been spotted, you simply can't crouch down again. The game ejects you from cover, and you have to find another way. This works okay in some sequences, but is a disaster in others, particularly if detection means failing the mission. The sneaking bits were tense, but for the wrong reasons. I wasn't worried I'd get spotted, I was worried Connor would do something dumb of his own accord and fail the mission for me.
More than perhaps every other game on this list, Far Cry 3 is a game that inspires stealth stories. I have a bunch: The time I lurked outside an outpost, luring dudes away one by one using pebbles, in an attempt to get my second no-alert outpost clearing, only to fuck it up at the last minute and get spotted by a roving patrol, have them trigger the alarm, and get killed. Or another time, when I shot the lock off of a tiger cage and had it immediately charge straight for me (and shortly afterward, managed to get a bear to clear out an entire outpost for me). Or the time, as I shared at the start of my review, when I hang-glided in behind enemies and snuck in to take them down, only to have everything go wonderfully wrong. Far Cry 3 was, as much if not more than Dishonored, a stealth game that was at its best when things went awry.
Those were my most memorable moments of sneaking in 2012. What were yours?
There’s no question that Dishonored’s Heart deserves celebration. Fortunately RPS contributor Paul Walker has done that in fine style, digging in to what makes the object so significant to the game, and speaking to co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio about how it came to exist, and their feelings about its part in the game.>
Dishonored’s Heart is an object which lives up to its name in many ways. It breathes life into the game’s characters, imbues the city of Dunwall with soul, and helps the player to feel the melancholy tone which permeates all facets of its world. Characterised by the intersection of the mystical and the technological, it distills the very essence of the pseudo-Victorian steampunk landscape in which Dishonored’s tale unfolds. It is presented to the player as a navigation tool — a guide to lead players to the occult items littered throughout the fictional city of Dunwall. But, as co-creative directors Harvey Smith and Raphael Colantonio told me, “It also plays a part related to informing their decisions about when to apply violence or not, making it a really interesting, more subtle part of the power fantasy.” Here we start to get to grips with what it is the makes the Heart so compelling.
That impeccable taste is on full display in this guest essay he wrote for Penny Arcade Report about why he thinks Far Cry 2 is brilliant.
Smith shares some smart musings on the nature of embedded ("We have written this story for you") and emergent ("Woah, this story randomly happened to me!") narrative in video games, and how Dishonored was his and his co-creative director Raphael Colantonio's attempt at blending the two playstyles. (I'd say they did a pretty good job.)
Smith wraps it up thusly:
If games focused on embedded narrative are more polished, why do many of us prefer games that focus on the dynamics of emergent narrative? Is it some intuitive sense that ferrets out what is most meaningful in games? Is this a situation akin to independent film, where an audience steeped in the critical aspects of the medium wants a bare experience, uncluttered by bombast, filler or special effects, delivered in an understated or experimental way? On initial contact, Far Cry 2 was somewhat unwelcoming in that it did not invite players in; the subject matter was brutal and the game's advancement curve and difficulty tuning required patience.
The reward for those who stayed with the game was potent. Some of the most interesting game design commentary of the year orbited the game, including the Permadeath experiments conducted by Ben Abraham and others, which I take as an indication of how thought-provoking and challenging (to video game conventions) Far Cry 2 was. The game stands as the shooter title that has given me the most compelling, player-driven moments to date.
See? It's not just me and everyone else with good taste in video games who thinks Far Cry 2 is great. HARVEY SMITH AGREES, YOU GUYS. I think we can finally close the book on this once and for all.
In all seriousness, give the whole article a read, it's good.
Dishonored's Harvey Smith explains the genius of Far Cry 2 [Penny Arcade Report]