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What We Don’t Do in the Shadows: Two of the Year’s Biggest Games Both Use Stealth Mode. But Does It Work?

‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’ and ‘Spider-Man: Miles Morales’ both invite gamers to make sneak attacks, but the games are both at their best when they place action in plain sight

Insomniac Games/Ubisoft/Ringer illustration

Our ogreish villain is distracted enough—weapons lowered, mid-speech, drunk on conquest. To get to this point of relief in Assassin’s Creed, a tedious half hour’s worth of crowd-wading, climbing, and scouting would be custom. A hooded, falcon-like figure emerges from the smoke to overtake its prey but, in a blink, gets heaped into a broken hay wagon on the edge of the battle area, like the overzealous little stowaway that he is. Everyone laughs. I pick up my axe to finish killing Kjotve the Cruel myself; I wonder why we even brought Hytham along on this raid.

Hytham’s brief role in the opening hours of Valhalla, Ubisoft’s 23rd Assassin’s Creed game, released last week, is a snide rejection of the series’ old feel and mechanics, which are well established. He is distant and nondistinctly “foreign” in the way all the assassins tend to be, sure, but his moppy hair and howling insistence on procedure betray his innocence, and his age. Occasionally, he sounds more like a fan than an apprentice. Valhalla does placate those gamers who may have wanted a more familiar Creed experience after 2018’s Odyssey, which all but completely abandoned the familiar, linear formula of running, stabbing, and hay-diving in favor of something that felt more like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. However, placation is all Valhalla’s efforts feel like: When Eivor, the game’s protagonist, receives their first hidden blade, the sacred tool of the assassins, they wear it on the outside of their leather gauntlet, because it’d be a shame to hide something so shiny and cool.

The first time Eivor watches a stealth attack, it fails; the first time they try one themselves is after the first big battle of the game is won. In the great hall amid the celebrations, Basim, Hytham’s teacher, explains that his apprentice will never fully recover from his spectacular failure on the battlefield, but would gladly teach Eivor the way of the Hidden Ones. Eivor finishes their mead and bangs the mug like a gavel: “There is no shame in using deception when honor is at stake!” There aren’t even the faintest hints of the consternation that defined July’s Ghost of Tsushimastealth isn’t a matter of tradition, or even really a tool of revenge. It’s a parlor trick.

Although the logic of Creed is flexible enough to allow for the story to be wherever, whenever, and whatever it wants, it remains that there’s nothing particularly Viking about striking from the shadows. The game’s creators have a ready-made reason to call attention away from where their work feels buggiest: Sentries are alerted and assuaged for equally unclear reasons, and the camera tends to stick to awnings and lintels as you skulk around encampments that are always less frustrating to just take with brute force. Valhalla is at its best when you are sailing the open waters on your longship, hopping from fjord to skerry, looting and collecting. The game has exactly two things going for it: its lush, natural beauty and the “press triangle to raid” feature. “Eagle Vision” reveals objectives but also hostile, restricted areas; early on it becomes apparent that access is largely limited by audacity and not “power level.” I wouldn’t call the combat “balanced” so much as I would call it gross and entertaining—axes and twirling maces do to enemies what you’d imagine they might do, in surprising, satisfying detail. It’s easy to drift into the mindless repetition of announcing your approach on the lur, closing sail, and hopping out loud and messy on a company of Saxons with several of your closest comrades. There’s little reason to sneak in Valhalla when there’s so much fun to be had storming.

But what if you’re all alone? And what if you’re actually overwhelmed? Stealth is a superpower and looks like a necessity from the outset of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, another new Playstation release that is available right now, today, whether or not you’ve managed to procure a PS5. Morales places Miles at the center of a series of explosive clashes between the vampiric, corporate behemoth “Roxxon” and the heavily-armed “Underground” throughout the five boroughs; the first clash is the most emotional. Miles has just thwarted a robbery but blown up Brooklyn Bridge in the process. Roxxon’s armed goons arrive on the scene, and the breathless accounts of the citizens Miles just rescued fall on deaf ears: The sentinels see only Spider-Man and the smoldering wreckage of their cargo. They raise their weapons as Miles pleads his case, the music builds to a mournful crescendo, and mercifully, Spider-Man turns invisible. The moment’s significance is pro forma—Miles is Hispanic, Black, and bilingual, facing an alien and lethal threat in his neighborhood—but there are no real statements being made. Roxxon is not the NYPD, and even if they were, there’s not much to learn in an unarmed black kid sprouting a new superpower out of desperation.

It is convenient, on occasion, to be able to disappear. Eventually the Roxxon hit squads are outfitted with “venom suppression” gear that mitigates Miles’s electricity powers, turning quick, routine skirmishes—before vital upgrades to melee damage and health—into sweaty, button-mashing slogs. In addition to the rocket launchers and energized night sticks, there are also EMP-like grenades and energy binds that briefly immobilize you—it’s at times like these that you remember Miles is canonically 17 years old. He packs a punch, but he gets a running start. Your “camouflage” ability is dictated by a blue bar in the top corner of your screen, and you can remain invisible for the time it takes that bar to be depleted. I found that Miles’s “camouflage” works a lot like the smoke bombs in Ghost—once activated, the surrounding enemies lose not only line of sight but object permanence. It is a little funny when gunfire suddenly evaporates; it is rewarding to then silently whittle down a warehouse full of henchmen, giving them head trauma and sticking them to crossbeams.

Although the stealth elements don’t feel as tacked on as in Valhalla, they do feel similarly unremarkable. The over-the-shoulder image of an unconscious body being reeled up to your darkened perch should be familiar if you’ve played any of the Batman: Arkham series. Just like in those games, there are gadgets to aid my fight for the Greater Good: trip wires, holographic doubles, mini-explosives, other things I won’t make much use of. Time and again I chose getting into near-death scrapes over setting traps and timing shift changes, because (1) it quickly becomes monotonous and (2) I’m a superhero who can shoot lightning from his hands. Valhalla succeeds when it doesn’t let things interfere with Eivor being a Viking, and Morales is at its best and brightest when Miles fails to do things by the book.

In one of Morales’s earlier missions, where I need to infiltrate a power plant and decommission it from the inside, I perform a webstrike takedown too soon and alert a room full of guards—one with a shield, two with assault rifles, one with an RPG, and a few more grunts. Instead of mission failure, a light show ensues.