Slipping into position, I don't think I've been seen. Taking a chance, I peek over the wall for a brief second and survey the enemy, quickly dropping back down out of sight. The scene doesn't look good; the fortifications are strong and I don't like the sniper set up on that perch. Processing the information, thinking about the possibilities - where the enemy is, where they are going, who is paying attention to what, who is the biggest threat - a plan begins to form. My disguise fixed, my equipment checked, I climb down and head into the midst of the enemy, a knife in my heart.
Stealth classes in FPS games are something else. I mean nothing give me a bigger thrill in a multiplayer game than pulling off a heartbreaking backstab, or sabotaging the enemies efforts at the perfect moment, or sneaking past an entire team and capturing an objective under their nose. And nothing inspires the same level of crushing despair and rage as when I get instantly found out by the enemy and smacked back to the respawn screen for the eighth time in a row with nothing to show for it. Whether you've played as the dastardly Spy in TF2
, the Wookie suited Recon in Battlefield
, the mysteriously silent Assassin in Monday Night Combat
, or the much maligned Operative in Brink
, you probably know what I'm talking about
Its that thrill you get when you know you've managed to pull a fast one on someone else. The pride of majorly upsetting the equilibrium of a game. Its the joy of being the wild card. I love playing stealth classes because they can reward (and frustrate) you in ways other classes just can't.
There are no set standards for what a stealth class needs to have in a game, but they tend to run along the same guidelines. They always have someway to help them sneak around, be it a cloak or camouflage, possibly disguises, or maybe the ability to stay off the radar screen. They tend to have weird equipment, stuff that is over specialized or funky – A pocket knife that can instantly kill with a backstab, a grenade launcher that can also work as an EMP pulse to disable vehicles, a suicide bomb implanted in the brain stem - you know, standard fare. Invariably they are weak in head-to-head confrontations, usually the most frail and spindly class in the game.
Weirdly enough, that weakness is part of what makes these classes so much fun to play. When things go your way, you are a God. Magnificently dancing passed hapless dunces and eliminating your foes with the most stylish means possible. And the rest of the time you are the gutshot doofus curled up in the fetal position begging for the sweet release of death. Maybe its just the compulsive gambler in me talking, but I love that dichotomy, that potential for wild high and low emotional swings.
Sure, there are lots of games that provide you with the chance to be subtle and sneaky, but its not the same in other genres. RPGs and MMOs have long been the domain of the sneaky Rouge and Assassin character types that many stealth class mechanics draw their inspiration from. But while it can be fun to activate your cloak toggle, wait for the Tank to draw aggro, and deliver ungodly DPS to an monster's flank, it pales in comparison to out manoeuvring a real breathing opponent. Stealth based single player games like the Metal Gear series can be amazing play experiences, Snake Eater
is one of my favourite games. But in truth sneaking through those Soviet bases often boils down to more of a puzzle and timing game than anything else. You are presented with a room, a number of guards and obstacles, a limited selection of tools, and its up to you to find the best way through without being seen. Success depends on your observation skills, imagination, and no small amount of trial and error. It is exhilarating, but in a different way from sneaking past a real person who may be getting wise to your tricks.
Its that interaction, the mental process that goes on when playing stealth class that really makes them pop. You can't win in a firefight, if some troglodyte soldier catches you skulking about their secret HQ he's going to beat you to death with the butt of his oversized rifle and send whats left of you back to your CIA contact in a mason jar. So you have to be smart. You have to know where you are going, what you plan to do. You have to put yourself into the mindset of your enemy team and try to imagine what they are doing. Are they just sitting there keeping their gun trained on the hidden entrance hatch waiting for someone to stick their head through? Or are they distracted by your teammates trying to break in through the main gate? Are they likely to be looking for you? Is there anything you can do to blunt an attack on your team? Its all about knowing your enemy, playing to work against them, and a little bit of luck. After all, the best laid plan can be torn to pieces by one hapless noob running the wrong way in his base.
Subtlety is the name of the game when you play a stealth class. Those square jawed front-line troops and gallant medics get all the glory, what with their winning the game
and saving people's lives
antics, and all too often the important work of the stealth class goes unnoticed. But that's fine, its just adds to the mystique. A good stealth class isn't playing for a massive K/D, and the kind of support they offer is more indirect than shoving a syringe of adrenalin into a quasi-cadaver. A professional operative helps his team by doing things no one else can. Getting behind the enemy and telling
your team where they are doesn't add anything to the scoreboard, but can often win a game. Small things, even getting the enemy to waste time looking around for a suspected agent amongst them in a paranoid frenzy helps. After all, enemies checking every nook and cranny for a phantom foe are too busy to help out on the front-lines. According to the points, taking out an enemy is just another notch no matter who it was, but a good Spy knows that eliminating that one pesky medic did more to help the team win than half the cannon fodder cluttering up the map.
Indirect support and asymmetrical solutions are the domain to the stealth class. Your teammates might not notice what you are doing, the score board might never reflect the truth of your contribution, and everything you do accomplish was the result of an upward battle against the forces of game mechanics and random luck, but at the end of the day you know that no other class could have pulled it off.
One of these guys is winning the game. The other will be bragging about his sick kill count later
But stealth classes offer another service to gameplay that, true to form, might not be as obvious on first blush. The presence of a stealth class in a game allows for more distinct contrast between classes and a deepening of the meta-game. By playing the role of both "over-specialized super predator" and "incredibly endangered prey" in a game's eco-system, the stealth class adds a dash of spice to the game and allows developers to increase the prowess of other classes without chucking balance out the window.
Classes like snipers can be allowed to have powerful one-hit kill rifles without ruining everyone elses fun because a stealth class has a good chance of sneaking up on them and taking them out. A wave of enemy tanks coming over the ridge-line and descending on your M-Com station doesn't have to mean doom if a tricky Recon agent can manage to stick some C4 on them, meaning the developers have a free hand to make maps with stacked vehicle options available to the teams. Large brute style classes like the Tank and Gunner, not to mention the massive Jackbot, in MNC
can be allowed to be veritable walking fortresses with huge health pools and crazy weapons since they have a pretty stiff counter force in the form of an Assassin sneaking up from behind and taking all that health off in one shot. When TF2
just came out, the overwhelming fire of lv3 sentry guns were such a huge obstacle that it was all but essential to have a decent Spy on your team sabotaging them.
In all of those examples, you don't need a Spy or Assassin to do the job, but without them I doubt the devs would have gone so crazy giving say a Heavy with a Medic attached to him such incredible fortitude, or made some M-Com bases so unassailable without Recon's there to motor and C4 them into the ground. Stealth classes and the weird options that come part and parcel with them free up the developers to really exaggerate the advantages and downfalls of other classes and game mechanics, and that means more variety and fun for everybody.
Remember this the next-time you are sprawled out on the floor with a knife in your back, lamenting the inclusion of such cheesy stealth classes in your beloved FPS - the game just wouldn't be the same without them.