[one_third]The definitive verdict on Klei Entertainment’s sidescrolling stealth game, Mark of the Ninja.[/one_third]
Let’s talk about reactionary play. It’s an incredibly important aspect of the stealth genre; the support for it governs how players can recover after treading beyond their territory and into the sight lines of their enemies. Zero support turns getting spotted into a fail-state. That’s annoying. Too much support, and the stealth game segues into action. Sometimes, that can be the point, as in Deus Ex. But it’s all about balance; about giving players the tools and abilities to salvage the situation, “reset” the system’s hostile state and return to accomplishing their goal. Sometimes the goal might still be accomplished within that reactionary flurry. That’s awesome.
Permit me to make a small departure by way of a comparison to Dishonored, for its reactionary play is surprisingly similar to that of Mark of the Ninja. Getting spotted in Dishonored is not game over – however, it is very much a cause for panic. To survive, you need to make some snap, reactionary decisions – all whilst accounting for your mana and inventory resources. There’s barely time to think. Opening your inventory selection wheel does slow time to a crawl – but it does not stop it entirely. You can still get shot whilst tossing up between incendiary bolts or sleep darts. (A couple of caveats, here – the three hours I’ve played over Dishonored’s multiple preview sessions have had all powers unlocked, so panic moments will no doubt be easier to manage with a character whom you’re familiar with from the start. And yes, there exists the power to stop time entirely – but as mana goes, it is an expensive resource, so using it to stop and think seems wasteful.) The point I’m making is that Dishonored’s hostile state promotes equal parts reactionary play and improvisation, though the latter tends to give way to the former.
Mark of the Ninja is similar in that it absolutely promotes improvisation through a wide array of tools (for which resources, too, are scarce) but it’s unique in that this improvisation is not at all reactionary. Holding the left trigger at any time enters “focus mode” – time stops, and multiple items can be individually aimed with expert precision, queued up and then deployed at once when the trigger is released. At any time, you can take as much time as you need to observe the situation and improvise a way through it. This applies just as much to whether you’re in the safety of the shadows, or have a guard’s underslung flashlight pointed at your face and a guard dog bounding in from the opposite direction. (In that situation, you’d pause, queue up a smoke bomb at the guard, then a spike mine in the path of the dog, then a grapple point above, then release the trigger and take down the guard from on high as he splutters in the smoke and the hound triggers its own piercing demise. You’re welcome.)
Constant interplay between power and vulnerability results in one of the most absorbing stealth experiences ever created.
That observation phase is usually reserved for moments when you haven’t upset the balance. Here, observation is constant, ongoing. That your actions after releasing focus mode unfold so rapidly, and yet so deliberately, is why Mark of the Ninja actually makes you feel like a bloody ninja. Cementing this sensation is in the introduction of a new enemy archetype whose senses, and ability to manoeuvre through the environment, almost match your own. Suddenly, nowhere is safe, and the game demands constant improvisation to survive. Mark of the Ninja continually pushes you out of the comfort zones established by its light-and-shadow stealth systems, coaxing you into tip-toeing on the razor’s edge of safety and hostility. This constant interplay between power and vulnerability results in one of the most absorbing stealth experiences ever created.
This wouldn’t happen so smoothly if not for the fact that Mark of the Ninja is one of the most clear and concise stealth games I’ve ever played. Guards, light sources, vision cones – even how far a guard dog can smell – are all immediately visualised. Before undertaking any audible action, the range that the sound it causes can travel, and who will hear it, is displayed before committing. Every object in the environment, and its function, is easily readible. AI characters are easily understood and consistent in their actions, which makes them predictable – in a good way. Taking their behaviour into account is all a part of the planning phase – so much so that you’ll be tactically terrorising one goon so that his buddies are caught in the friendly fire.
Such AI interactions open a wide variety of possibly playstyles, even within the hardcore stealth niche. These systems promote the kind of experimentation that games like Thief offer the chance to undertake. Flitting on the edges of the AI’s awareness, poking and prodding at their domain from your own, or exploiting your symbiotic relationship with the environment, are all approaches that are as valid as each other. Mark of the Ninja’s granular scoring system and resulting leaderboards only punish sloppy work, rather than discriminate against style. Every level can be ghosted. Every guard can be killed. No combination of items or abilities ever precludes you from completing any level. Mark of the Ninja trusts you to play how you want and never artificially interferes. Klei has complete confidence in the stealth systems that are the wind at the ninja’s back – and confidence in players to use that momentum to observe and exploit.
Mark of the Ninja is a proud new member of the clan that comprises stealth gaming’s greats. It is a thrilling translation of the genre’s core tenets into a two-dimensional world, whilst never compromising depth, substance or style. This is a game that every single sneaky bastard needs to play. For Klei, there is no higher honour.