Video games are usually power fantasies. Players want to control avatars capable of unleashing wanton destruction upon their enemies. That’s on the reasons why games like Doom, Halo, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft are all so popular–they let you live out your fantasies of being a superhero. However, sometimes you want something a bit more elegant than kicking down doors and lighting up bad guys.
Sometimes, you want to become a specter. In a stealth game, you’re not really encouraged to “go loud” and take down every villain in every level. Instead, the game’s design encourages you to be sneaky, avoid detection, and, ideally, leave no trace of your presence in the game world. When these kinds of games work well, they make you feel like a super-spy, slipping undetected through tightly-guarded locations and completing your mission without anyone realizing you were even there.
Today, we’re looking at the best stealth games ever made. As an important note, to keep things simple, we only allowed one entry from each series, despite each of these games coming from a series with a strong pedigree of great titles. In no particular order, here are some of the best stealth games ever made.
The Hitman series is as much about solving puzzles as sneaking. Social deception is a critical element of the franchise, with protagonist Agent 47 capable of donning numerous disguises to infiltrate various locations and isolate his targets with clinical precision. Watching a seasoned Hitman player walk into a level, coax the target out, take them down, and then exfiltrate without breaking a sweat is a thing of beauty.
Hitman succeeds because it offers players a sandbox within which they can play around and figure out what works best for their playstyle. If you want to be a stealthy assassin who never gets detected, you can just try to avoid detection altogether. If you don’t care about making a mess, you can get the biggest weapons and just blast through your opponents.
The series is at its best when you engage with its social deception mechanics, though. Dressing up as a chef to infiltrate a high-end party and then poisoning your target’s favorite meal is just as effective as slipping into his room with a silenced weapon, and the former makes for a much better story–and a higher final score on the mission.
Dishonored is developer Arkane’s crowning achievement. The stylish, well-made stealth action game tasks you in the role of Corvo Attano, a former royal bodyguard who must now prove his innocence and use newly-acquired superpowers to stop a dangerous political faction from completing a coup. The game’s setting, Dunwall, is remarkably detailed and well-realized, with everything in the environment clearly stemming from a cohesive place that feels like it could exist in a version of our own world.
Dishonored is full of clever, brain-teasing levels that ask the player to memorize enemy patterns, probe strongholds for weaknesses, and employ their superpowers in creative ways. You can use the short-range teleport, called Blink, to scramble up to a rooftop before slipping into an attic and avoiding all ground-level guards. You can use temporary invisibility to avoid detection in otherwise tight quarters. It’s up to the player to determine how they want to approach every challenge.
The game is also renowned among fans for its flexibility in playstyles. If you want to play as a ghost who never even touches enemies, it supports that. If you want to blitz through every level like a madman, you might find it a bit harder–but that’s an option available to you. Just be warned: if you employ lethal force too much, the plague rampaging through Dunwall will only get worse, as more bodies in the streets summons more rats, and more rats mean more fleas carrying the deadly illness.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Splinter Cell was the standard-bearer for tactical stealth action for an entire console generation. The third entry in the series, Chaos Theory, took the stealth genre to new heights by implementing numerous new technologies to make things tenser and more realistic than ever before. A brand-new dynamic lighting system overhauled enemy AI, and realistic sound design all combined to make the game a unique experience.
Players take the role of Sam Fisher, a government operative deployed in high-stakes black ops missions. The game’s new aural detection meter makes it vital for the player to make less noise than their surroundings. If you’re in a noisy factory, you can basically sprint around without anyone hearing you. In a quiet office building, even moving slowly through ventilation shafts could result in detection.
The game features top-notch stealth level design and impressive graphics for its era. An enhanced port was released in 2010 for the PlayStation 3, though the series has been somewhat dormant in the intervening years. Still, Chaos Theory is among one of the best games ever made and marked a major milestone for the stealth genre.
The stylish and cartoony PlayStation-exclusive Sly Cooper franchise is one of the most recognizable stealth game series. Players control the titular raccoon, who is the head of a criminal organization that uses its sneaking skills to quietly rob wealthy villains, high-security museums, and well-defended bank vaults. The gameplay emphasizes stylized sneaking, such as running on wires high above street level and moving slowly behind enemies to pickpocket them.
Sly Cooper’s cartoony graphics inform its gameplay, sound design, and storytelling, too. When Sly moves, there are Looney Tunes-like strings that play over each footstep. When he dodges, his body elongates in one direction before shrinking around a corner. It’s like playing a Saturday morning cartoon that has sprung to life. More recent entries in the series also allow you to play as some of Sly’s friends, like the towering hippo Murray or the brainy turtle Bentley.
The likable cast of characters is all expertly voiced, too. The storylines aren’t particularly memorable, but the characters’ motivations are believable enough given the cartoony stakes and simplified storytelling. It’s easy to root for Sly and his friends when they’re trying to steal from spoiled criminals and corrupt bankers, giving the game a Robin Hood-inspired ethos that is easy to get behind.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Deus Ex series is full of stellar stealth games, but it perhaps hit its high-water mark with 2011’s Human Revolution. This cyberpunk-inspired game asks deep questions about the nature of the human body. If you willingly throw away your organic limbs to “upgrade” to robotic replacements, does that say something about your relationship with the divine? These heady questions float over the top of an equally thought-provoking gameplay loop.
In Human Revolution, players control Adam Jensen, a corporate security specialist who was seriously injured in a terrorist attack and given extensive cybernetic prosthetics to survive. When Jensen awakens from his attack, he’s greeted by a metallic body that he never asked for. It’s up to the player to decide how their avatar feels about his fate–will he embrace the tech and become a well-oiled murder machine, or will he use his newfound cybernetics to stealthily avoid combat and complete his goals without causing further bloodshed?
The game features one of the most compelling storylines in modern games. If you’ve never played a Deus Ex game before, you might miss some of the interesting callbacks Human Revolution makes to its predecessors, but it’s still a fantastic standalone title in its own right.
Batman: Arkham City
Developer Rocksteady caught lightning in a bottle with its 2009 game Batman: Arkham Asylum. Its 2011 follow-up, Arkham City, took everything that worked from Asylum and turned it up to 11. It turns out, Batman is a fantastic protagonist for a Metroidvania-style game.
The stealth elements of Arkham City are even more fun than the sneaking missions in Asylum because of the added emphasis on verticality in City. Batman can now slip up to the rooftops and stalk criminals from the shadows over vast playable areas. When faced with a problem, Bruce’s first answer is usually “grapple up to a nearby gargoyle”.
Arkham City also features an all-time great storyline, tasking Batman with containing countless villains who have taken over most of Gotham and cut the city off from the rest of the world. It’s partly an adaptation of two different classic Batman stories: No Man’s Land and The Long Halloween.
Metal Gear Solid 3
Any entry in the storied Metal Gear Solid series could earn a spot on this list, but then the whole list would just be Metal Gear. Director Hideyo Kojima proved himself the master of stealth action with the original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation in 1998. Its sequels have all lived up to that legacy, too.
Metal Gear Solid 3 deserves special praise for its unique design in the series. Rather than the claustrophobic indoor locales of its predecessors, the third entry is set mainly in the dense forests of Western Russia, giving the game a survivalist undertone and informing many of its design decisions. The vast, open areas Snake can explore are beautifully-realized, and Metal Gear Solid 3 does an excellent job of making the action equal parts addictive and tense.
Moreover, MGS3 features some of the most memorable villains in the series history, with enemies like The End and The Sorrow sticking with players long after their respective boss fights end. MGS3 might be the best entry in its franchise, but it’s almost assuredly the best stealth game ever made.