Everyone knows that the Sniper Elite series is a guilty pleasure. Any game where time slows to a crawl, the camera following a bullet’s trajectory through a Nazi’s testicle, can’t be taken seriously. It turns out this morbid, immensely gratifying gimmick is enough to carry a franchise, moving away from the European theatre of war towards the sands of the African campaign (we’ll forget the turgid Nazi Zombie expansion like some bad dream). So the staccato ring of a sniper’s shot sounds once more, now on current-gen consoles as well as the lumbering beasts that preceded them, expanding on Sniper Elite V2’s tantalising prospect of pointing guns at people very far away and pulling the trigger.
First impressions are good; rather than the linear, trial and error campaign of Sniper Elite V2, Rebellion’s latest places you in large, open maps with a few main objectives to complete. Like Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, these maps are contained enough that paths loop around and intersect, but large enough to avoid delineated routes. Ambling across them reveals additional secondary objectives, optional but worth doing to really play the game to the fullest as larger maps also means fewer levels. It also means a new ideal way to play – one of near constant relocation and heightened alerts.
But first things first. The tissue-paper wrapping that constitutes a story is present once more, your gruff and forgettable protagonist tasked with tracking down an evil Nazi general who intends to make a secret Nazi weapon to ultimately blah blah blah. Story is irrelevant in Sniper Elite. What matters is the way it feels to line up the perfect shot and the inevitably gruesome outcome. It’s here that Rebellion up the ante yet somehow make kills less satisfying. Perhaps it’s diminishing returns at play, but the kill-cam moments in Sniper Elite don’t have the same impact as in its predecessor. Despite higher detail in anatomical destruction – jawbones shattering, eyes popping, organs deforming – it doesn’t feel as morbidly satisfying. The slow-mo sequences can often stutter or end with a bizarre ragdoll glitch – possibly down to the Xbox One being the most underperforming of the versions.
Moving things to larger maps has its benefits but also brings a whole new set of downsides. Scouting for vantage points amidst the desert locations brings a welcome sense of freedom – there are even designated sniper nests to discover, one of a few tallies to fulfil alongside other collectables. The problem lies in what you, as a gamer, are looking for in a Sniper Elite game. If you’re simply after pure sniping then you’ll likely be disappointed. Enemies are far more alert when it comes to the crack of a rifle – if you don’t use sound to mask your shot then firing twice will have soldiers investigating your location while three will see everyone on the map instantly turn and fire at you. When you are using sound to cover your shots – either planes flying overhead or by sabotaging generators to emit sporadic sputters – the game is hit-and-miss in deciding whether your shot was actually disguised. An indicator appears at the top to show when to fire but enemies still heard the shot on numerous occasions, rather deflating the time and patience spent waiting for that sound loop to kick back in.
When your location is compromised (which happens quite a bit), you’ll have to relocate to allow your alert meter to drop. Run more than 40 feet from your previous location and enemies won’t know where you are at all. While this sounds fun – and more realistic – in theory, in practice it leaves the game feeling padded and unsatisfying, especially when you’re set up in a sniper nest with an excellent view over the map. Three shots and you’ll have to leave the vantage point for somewhere less useful, all the while waiting for enemies to forget where you are. Of course, you can just take out every enemy alerted but this turns the game into something more like a standard third-person shooter, as you’ll often resort to your machine gun as enemies swarm your position.
It’s also telling that the majority of my kills in the game came from the barrel of a silenced pistol, rather than a sniper rifle. The temptation to avoid alerts is so prevalent that most levels were traversed in the shadows, offing Nazis with a simple headshot from a few feet away. Often the levels will encourage this, warning you against alerts or by placing you in tight, confined corridors. For a game that lives by its sniping gimmick, this is a poor choice, resulting in many a frustrating trial-and-error sequence.
The increased importance of vehicle adversaries is also new, although it’s easy to miss the one-shot fuel-tank caps from V2 given most vehicles in the game require a minimum of three shots to down. The game is transparent in its AI routines as well – vehicles will often let you get two shots without a problem, but the instant the second bullet hits the vehicle it spins on a dime to line up a retaliatory shot right back at you, hiding its weak-point. Even tanks will turn in a flash, losing any realism in a bid to deny an easy takedown.
At least there’s some customisation to your weapons; your loadout can be adjusted before each mission, with new unlocks allowing your selected rifle to be tweaked. It’s not hugely in-depth, but gives a patina of choice. What’s very welcome is the ability to customise the difficulty, with the option to allow bullet physics, wind adjustment and the like in isolation. This goes some way to getting rid of one of the game’s biggest sins – a red indicator on every difficulty but the highest, that shows you where your bullet will hit given drop and wind. Where’s the fun in marksmanship if the game will tell you where your bullet with land every time?! Thankfully this can be switched off, allowing purists to gauge the distance themselves.
In terms of visuals, Sniper Elite III isn’t a giant leap beyond V2 running on a decent PC. Depth of field is put to good use and motion blur has been ratcheted up, but playing the game on the Xbox One was hugely disappointing. Perhaps the blame lies at the foot of Microsoft, but some of the slowdown present in the game is unforgivable. One mission, set inside a castle fort, performed abysmally, slowing to a crawl as if the hordes of Hitler were descending on to that one north African outpost. In fact there were only about ten soldiers, but the game couldn’t handle it whatsoever, making it nearly unplayable. On other occasions the game froze on the initial load screen, requiring a full console reset. Additionally, although not a glitch the checkpoints in the game are oddly placed – at times setting you back a long way, at others doing so mid-objective in the worst place possible.
A few other modes flesh out the rest of Rebellion’s offering. A horde mode lumped under ‘Challenges’ pits gruff Sniper fellow against waves of enemies and is as nondescript as that sounds. Co-op livens up the sniper formula, adding a new strategy to ambushing enemies as you deploy pincer movements – all stemming from the new emphasis on relocation. Multiplayer was a surprisingly tense affair – there isn’t any slow-motion kill-cam business, but scanning the horizon for the slightest movement works pretty well. Everything runs in a different rhythm to other multiplayer shooters; less run and gun and more contemplated movements, camping and a sudden rush of action. In a way, it works very similarly to Assassin’s Creed multiplayer. Whether it suffers the same fate in terms of players merely sprinting across the map, caution thrown to the wind, remains to be seen.
Sniper Elite III continues to evolve the series and it’s evident that Rebellion have attempted to open up the franchise, offering more freedom. Unfortunately this comes at the cost of a pure sniping experience – something most will be looking for, given the title. It comes across as a budget title –both graphically and thanks to the bugs that make it feel unfinished. This used to be acceptable – it was, after all, the epitome of a guilty pleasure, some gory ridiculousness to pass the time. Now it feels overstretched and too reliant on that gimmick, diluting the core sniper experience. In the shadow of Wolfenstein: The New Order, even shooting a digital Hitler (and, yes, even the legend that is Charlie Brooker) feels underwhelming. A greater focus on ballistics, not ballsacks, would serve Rebellion well.