It’s strange to think where videogaming would be today were it not for Metal Gear Solid. It introduced stealth to the masses and the masses seemed to want it, so it’s all we’ve had ever since. It was 2004 when the King of the World passed a law stating that every game must contain a stealth segment, leading to some bizarre occurrences such as the race in Gran Turismo 5 where you’re not allowed to be seen by any of the other cars. If we’re honest, though, Metal Gear Solid had a flaw.
It’s obviously a tremendous game, but the fact is that you play it in 2D. The radar contains more important information than the game-screen, and you’ll often find yourself controlling a dot on a radar more than you’re controlling Snake himself. The problem is that the shift to 3D removes the player’s ability to see all around them, and it’s this which is essential in a stealth game.
Mark of the Ninja is the best stealth game since Metal Gear Solid, and actually plays a better game of stealth, though there’s a fitting tribute within which shows how much Klei respect Konami’s masterpiece. That it plays a better game of stealth isn’t mere hyperbole, either. What it does is take MGS’s radar and transplant it onto a 2D platformer, so now it’s possible to see in real-time, on the game-screen, exactly what your enemies can perceive. Each baddie comes with its own vision cone and they can usually see the area just in front of themselves (it’s dark, you’re a ninja), as long as you don’t stray into some light they will only see you once you enter that cone. Noise, too, is handled similarly. Anything you do which makes noise will send out shockwaves so you can see how far the noise carries, and from this you can deduce whether an enemy will react.
Every piece of information you could possibly need is right there in front of you (save for a marvellous “fog of war” effect for areas you can hear but not see) and means that you can always be prepared for every situation. Seeing two guards facing one another and knowing that each can’t see the other means you can sneak up behind and pick one of them off in a brutal stealth kill completely undetected by the other. Knowing how much noise will be created by a dart you shoot at a light means you can catch the attention of a guard and as he walks past your hiding place and emerge for a brutal stealth kill. Hanging silently above an enemy whos looking the other way means you can make your move undetected and, of course, brutally.
Oh, yes, the game is violent all right. The very first guard you kill almost comes as a surprise in its violence, but then if you feel thats too much you can always play the game and kill not a single soldier. There are multitudes of ways to handle every situation, and the player is always in control. All the game does is give you the tools, how you use them is up to you. Maybe you want to use a dead guard to freak out another guard, get yourself a nice little “friendly fire” bonus as he shoots wildly hoping to catch you in the darkness and hitting a colleague instead.
It’s not just you who’s violent. The game does an incredible job of making you feel super-human while constantly reminding you that you’re not. Creeping around and stealth killing enemies while completely unseen is amazing but if you get spotted, even the lowliest of grunts will take you out in two seconds of machine-gun fire. Checkpoints are kind, though, always offering you the chance to approach a problem another way if your first solution went wrong.
All this talk of enemies may make Mark of the Ninja sound like an action game but it’s not; it’s a puzzle game in an action game’s skin; the enemies are your puzzles. Each enemy must be approached silently, the situation assessed slowly, until you work out how to pass safely – either with extreme violence or pacifism. Puzzle solved. Either solution will work, too, you just need to discover how to carry it out.
There are so many possibilities, that when you finish a level it’s hard not to go right back and just play it again, to see how differently you can do it. To manipulate guards some other way, to kill everyone, to kill no one. The game’s only weakness is in its scoring mechanic, which gives points for every action. A guard passing you and not detecting you. Distracting a guard. Stealth killing them (or performing a special kill such as friendly fire). Hiding their body. Unfortunately, it means that to maximise your score for each level you have to maximise each kill, and this can be a tedious way to play the game. There’s no pressure to top leaderboards though, because the game is just so much fun however you want to play it that there’s no need to play it any other way.
The game is linear and there’s very little backtracking (beyond those levels you want to replay). There’s a lot of content though, levels are long and full of secrets to find if you explore thoroughly (and safely), including challenge rooms. These are small areas where the focus is more on platforming than stealth, and they’re an interesting change of pace, though they can be as puzzling as the toughest enemy.
The challenge rooms would be nothing without the game’s exquisite controls which it’s hard to describe as anything other than “tight.” You cling to everything, and pressing the jump button will pull you around or underneath corners before it jumps – it sounds counter-intuitive but in practice it works brilliantly; you’ll never accidentally perform any action leading to your death because the controls make it almost impossible, and that’s essential in a game in which the challenge should always be in the planning rather than the execution.
The execution is just there because it’s fun.
Metal Gear Solid made the world take notice of stealth gameplay, and for nearly 15 years developers have been trying to better it. Mark of the Ninja may not be a better package than Snake’s outing (few games are) but it does stealth better, and for a game whose sole focus is stealth that’s high praise. Indeed, its difficult to consider Mark of the Ninjas stealth gameplay as anything other than perfect.