Stealth games occupy a curious niche in PC gaming. Occasionally, the best stealth games are their own thing, a result of a developer channelling all of the mechanics of a game into the suspense and satisfaction of killing, stealing, and infiltrating unnoticed. Most of the time, though, stealth is just one of several means by which you can navigate a game, as you consciously opt for the path of the shadowy rogue or incisive assassin over more forceful approaches.
Any game that features stealth is eligible for our best stealth games list, but it needs to do it damn well (sorry Skyrim, you had your chance. Sorry Assassin’s Creed, you had about 20 chances).
The best stealth games highlight that neat joy of entering a space and leaving it unchanged except for the briefcase you were told to extract, or that one person who was your target now laying dead without anyone having noticed – the alarms going off at the precise moment you coolly walk away from the scene undetected. Nothing beats the thrill of doing things on the down-low.
The best stealth games are:
Some of the best stealth games can feel turn-based – even those that are not Invisible, Inc. They are the ones that have you marking targets, mapping patrol routes, and mentally solving problems – all before uncloaking and triggering the action when you are ready. The Dishonored series is the epitome of that style of stealth game, and as an added bonus, is just as good for combo-slinging predatory combat when you are spotted. It is nice to have the freedom to embark on a violent Dishonored playthrough.
Beyond that, Arkane’s games are a ghoster’s dream, with mission stats screens that track not only how many civvies you have killed, but also whether you have been detected, raised any alarms, or left bodies in plain sight. Perhaps most enticing of all for stealth game purists is the opportunity to refuse the magical powers offered to you at the beginning of Dishonored 2 and approach the game as a contemporary Thief sequel. Only, er, a good one
Better still, if you have completed the first and second Dishonored and still want more of the best stealth games going then the standalone Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is brilliant.
Remember that thing about some of the best stealth games taking well-established game mechanics and dedicating them all to creating the quintessential sneaking experience? Well, this is precisely that.
Invisible Inc. is instantly accessible thanks to its turn-based mechanics. And there is almost endless challenge to be found in its randomised levels and permadeath design. It is a stealth game of sci-fi gadgetry, hacking, and slinking to and fro as you attempt to steal things from tightly-guarded bases, creating untold moments of weighty decision-making. Do you haul your incapacitated buddy to the extraction point, knowing that if you do not you will lose them for the rest of the campaign, or do you use that precious time to try and steal a power-up that could make the rest of the campaign much easier?
Even though we associate the best stealth games with real-time suspense, Invisible, Inc. still captures that thanks to cleverly implemented time limits. This is a game for the tinkering stealth tactician.
Hitman: Blood Money
Hitman 2016 is incredible in its own right, and we will get to that. But the bald barcoded one known as Agent 47 has had a consistently solid career in stealth games – taking us on globetrotting, sprawling missions of slick, clinical killings since 2000. He really hit his stride with Blood Money, with fantastic level design that was believable while offering some of the most entertaining, diverse ways to carry out hits.
There is a twisted comedy to taking out a target by shooting out the glass bottom of his outdoor hot tub during a Christmas party. Or dressing up as the shiftiest clown since John Wayne Gacy to garotte a Mafioso snitch in his comfortable suburban home – making assassin games fun is no mean feat.
Just as with every Hitman game, Blood Money rewards stealth, encouraging you to get in, dress up in 100 disguises, kill your target, and get out. It also has one of the best end-of-level features, where you would read newspaper stories about your hits, describing how much evidence and bloodshed you left in your wake.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
The Splinter Cell series has always been inspired by Thief’s extreme focus on light and sound in levels. And with Chaos Theory the series mastered it, even taking into account details like your noise relative to the environment.
Chaos Theory is ripe with innovative stealth game mechanics that still feel good today. You can extract information from enemies by holding knives to their throats (and relishing the startled looks on their faces), pull them over edges, hang upside-down from rafters to break necks, and phht-phht them with a silenced pistol. With his night-vision goggles, Sam Fisher is a master of the game’s nocturnal, shadowy environments, and it is great fun shooting out lights and tormenting your disoriented enemies like a less ostentatious Batman.
It’s also one of the few stealth games to do co-op properly, letting you take on dedicated missions with a buddy – complete with co-op stealth moves like holding a cable while the other player reels down it and hurling each other like cannonballs into enemies.
Few people have ever been any good at Commandos but everyone respects is as one of the best stealth games going. The grizzled WW2 game puts you in control of a squad of elite soldiers, each with their own skills, and chucks you into gruelling puzzle-like levels to sneak and sabotage your way through.
Each mission takes a long time, and ‘taking things as they come’ is the worst strategy you could possibly adopt. You always have to plan several steps ahead, monitoring enemies’ lines of sight, patrol patterns, and notable hiding spots. One wrong move, and you won’t be able to click your mouse fast enough to get out of it. Fail to control the situation and it’s a swift execution.
With its pre-rendered backgrounds and isometric perspective, Commandos 2 is one of those stealth games where you can grumble that ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’, and ponder wistfully about what a faithful modern rendition of it would look like.
When Square Enix announced the next Hitman game would be episodic, there were few believers. But six wonderfully crafted levels, an endless stream of special Elusive Targets, and plenty of quirky challenges later, Hitman became one of the best games of 2016, not to mention one of the best assassin games of all time.
In a way, it makes perfect sense. This reimagining cuts out much of the story nonsense that damaged its predecessors, offering almost endless combinations of assassination challenges across six of the best-designed levels in the series so far. Alongside the standard mission targets, you get the absurd Escalation challenges, which demand that you do things like kill a chef using a pan while wearing a magician’s outfit in five minutes without being spotted, in addition to player-created missions and the one-try-only Elusive Targets.
None of this would have worked if Hitman did not offer the familiar, cold-hearted stealth games experience we have come to expect from the series, and on that front this is the most polished entry yet. There’s a Hitman free trial, too, in case you want to get a feel for the game without spending any money.
It might be regarded as one of the best horror games, but what do you actually do? You hide in lockers, you hardly ever stop crouching, and you stay out of sight, desperately trying not to attract the attention of an insta-killing xenomorph. Sure, Alien: Isolation’s atmosphere evokes pure horror, but mechanically it is also one of the best stealth games around.
What makes it special is that, unlike many of its peers, your enemy is volatile and unpredictable, and there is no way to anticipate its patterns other than by tracking that foreboding blip on your radar. Noise is both your best friend and your worst enemy. An ill-judged sprint can result in an alien tail through the stomach, but a noisemaker chucked into an enemy patrol can lead to their swift deaths and your equally swift getaway.
Sadly, Alien: Isolation 2 is not in the works.
Metal Gear Solid V
MGS V is many things: an open-world adventure, an explosive action game, and a sandbox game packed with fantastic systems that you can toy with to your heart’s content. Despite all this, it does not forget its roots and remains a high-water mark for stealth games, provided you can resist the urge to open fire with an MG when skulking through an enemy base.
Snake’s movement flows smoothly between crouching, diving, and crawling, as you infiltrate outposts from any angle using knives, heavily customisable firearms, and the classic cardboard box that MGS enemies still have not grown suspicious of after all these years. It is a joy to sneak up on an enemy and interrogate him for valuable information, before dispatching him into the cosmos with the devilishly fun Fulton Balloon.
Encouraging the silent approach is the new Reflex Mode, which grants you a couple of slow-mo seconds after you have been spotted to take out your enemy and continue your mission undetected. After all these years, Snake’s repertoire of moves keeps him among our most beloved stealth games protagonists.
Mark of the Ninja
Those versatile folks at Klei Entertainment make their second appearance in this list – clearly, they have got more than one hidden blade in their sheath. While Invisible Inc. focuses on tactics and big decisions, Mark of the Ninja ingeniously squeezes mechanics from stealth games into the form of a 2D platformer.
Lighting, sound, and hiding spots are crucial, as you stick to the shadows and leap between vantage points before swooping down on your prey with shurikens, blades, and smoke bombs. It is mechanically simple stuff, allowing you to plan out and focus purely on concise kills and swift 3-4 step combos – jump down, kill, roll through shadows, and kill some more.
The 2D plane makes the stealth gameplay feel wonderfully focused, letting you fully assess all available means of dealing with obstacles, and in the quietest possible way. Mark of the Ninja transcends stealth games and 2D platforming, managing to be a unique masterclass of both.
It may be old, and at points it is as creaky as the Mechanist Sentinels patrolling its later levels, but Thief II is peerless among pure stealth games – others only dare to borrow elements from it, rather than try to replicate it wholesale.
That is because Thief II does not pander to the cheap thrills, slick action, and bloodshed that we modern gamers crave. It is almost stark in its stealthiness, as you wander around the seminal, sprawling levels while staying out of sight at all costs. It remains one of the few games to utilise lighting as a viable stealth mechanic, and your ideal conditions are those in which you can hardly see a thing, because that means your enemies cannot see you either.
Its open levels are brilliantly designed, set around grand mansions and cathedrals that you do not feel the least bit guilty about robbing blind. But you will not be exploring them using radars, x-ray vision, or fancy abilities à la modern stealth games like Splinter Cell and MGS; it is just you, your senses, and your blackjack if you really need it.
There we have it: 10 of the very best sneak ’em ups available to play on your stealthy PC. Wait, no, not yours: you need to calm down your GPU’s fans a bit. You won’t get by undetected with all that whirring going on. Anyway, if you’re into being both silent and terrified at the same time, try some of the best horror games. But for now, we must disappear into the shadows. And so should you…