Stealth is a funny old genre. Occasionally it's a category unto itself, when a developer channels all the mechanics of a game into the suspense and satisfaction of killing, stealing and infiltrating unnoticed. Most of the time, though, it's 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.
Read more: for those moments when you get spotted and your impotent rage boils over, try the PC's greatest shooters.
So it's a broad one. In this list, any game that features stealth is eligible, but it needs to do it damn well (sorry Skyrim, you had your chance. Sorry Ass 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.
Here are the ten PC games that best capture the thrill of doing things on the down-low.
Dishonored 1 & 2
Some of the best stealth games can feel turn-based – even those that aren’t Invisible, Inc. They’re the ones that have you marking targets, mapping patrol routes, and mentally solving problems – all before uncloaking and triggering the action when you’re ready.
The Dishonored series is the epitome of that style of stealth, and as an added bonus, is just as good for combo-slinging predatory combat when you’re spotted. It’s nice not to have to reload the moment those well-made plans go awry.
Beyond that, Arkane’s games are a ghoster’s dream, with mission stats screens that track not only how many civvies you’ve killed, but also whether you’ve been detected, raised any alarms, or left bodies in plain sight.
Perhaps most enticing of all for purists is the opportunity to refuse the magical powers offered you at the beginning of Dishonored 2 and approach the game as a contemporary Thief sequel. Only, er, a good one.
Want more? Here's our Dishonored 2 review.
Remember that thing I said about some games taking well-established game mechanics and dedicating them all to creating the quintessential stealth 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's a 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 team-mate to the extraction point, knowing that if you don't you'll 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 stealth 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
The more recent Hitman is incredible in its own right, and we'll get to that. But the bald barcoded one known as Agent 47 has had a consistently solid career – 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's 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.
Just as with every Hitman game, Blood Money rewards stealth, encouraging you to get in, dress up in 1000 disguises, kill your target, and get out. It also has one of my favourite end-of-level features, where you'd 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 inherited the extreme focus on light and sound levels from the Thief series. 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 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, and hang upside-down from rafters to break necks and phht-phht them with a silencer. With his night-vision goggles, Sam Fisher is a master of the game's nocturnal, shadowy environments, and it's great fun shooting out lights and tormenting your disoriented enemies like a less ostentatious Batman.
It's also one of the few games to do stealth 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, errr, hurling each other like cannonballs into enemies.
Commandos 2: Men of Courage
I have never been any good at Commandos – few people I know are – but I'll be damned if I don't respect it and call it 'Sir'. The grizzled WWII stealther 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. We may never know...
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 most talked-about games of 2016.
In a way, it makes perfect sense. This reimagining cuts out much of the story nonsense that damaged its predecessor, 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’ve worked if Hitman didn’t offer the familiar, cold-hearted stealth experience we’ve come to expect from the series, and on that front this is the most polished entry yet.
This game is regarded as one of the powerhouses of survival horror, but let's look at what you actually do: you hide in lockers, you hardly ever come out of a crouch, and you stay out of sight, desperately trying not to fire off your gun so as not to attract the attention of an insta-killing xenomorph.
While its atmosphere evokes pure horror, mechanically Alien: Isolation is a stealth game. 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 as swift getaway.
Want more? Here's our Alien: Isolation review.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
MGS V is many things – an open-world adventure, an explosive action game, and a sandbox of fantastic systems that you can toy with to your heart's content. Despite all this, it doesn't forget its roots, and remains an incredible stealth experience should you choose to play it that way.
Snake's movement flows smoothly between crouching, diving, and crawling, as you infiltrate enemy bases from any angle using knives, heavily customisable firearms, and the classic cardboard box that MGS enemies still haven't grown suspicious of after all these years. It’s 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've been spotted to take out your enemy and continue your mission undetected. After all these years, Snake's stealth repertoire remains one of the best.
Want more? Here's our Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review.
Mark of the Ninja
Those versatile folks at Klei Entertainment make their second appearance in this list – clearly, they’ve got more than one hidden blade in their sheath. While Invisible Inc. focuses on tactics and big decisions, Mark of the Ninja ingeniously squeezes stealth 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’s 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, kill.
The 2D plane makes the stealth 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 and 2D platforming, managing to be a unique masterclass of both.
Thief II: The Metal Age
It may be old, and at points it's as creaky as the Mechanist Sentinels patrolling its later levels, but Thief II is a high tide mark of pure stealth that many games only dare to borrow elements from, rather than try to replicate wholesale.
That's because Thief II doesn't pander to the cheap thrills, slick action, and bloodshed that we modern gamers crave. It's 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 can't see you either.
Its open levels are brilliantly designed, set around grand mansions and cathedrals that you don't feel the least bit guilty about robbing blind. But you won’t be exploring them using radars, x-ray vision, or fancy abilities; it’s just you, your senses, and your blackjack if you really need it.