A sniper; precise, calculating, patient with skills polished to perfection, trained to never miss his mark. So does Rebellion hit the mark with the third installment of the Sniper Elite series?
Let us get one thing straight before I continue; I am a massive fan of this series – both its debut on PC and the less ambitious Sniper Elite V2 . The gameplay is something that’s yet to be replicated in any other franchise, be it the signature bullet cam with x-ray slow-motion, or the authenticity of emptying your lungs before squeezing the trigger during controlled heart-rates.
Sniper Elite pretty much has its own genre to itself and as such can be an acquired taste. For me, I love it. But Sniper Elite V2 took a much more linear take on the gameplay, putting the player on rails with only a handful of options in which to take on the missions throughout the campaign. Perhaps in an effort to reach a wider audience, the second in the series felt somewhat simplified, holding your hand like a parent on the way to the park when all you want is to be let free and go at it.
Therefore it fell on welcome ears when Rebellion announced a much larger, free and ambitious level design throughout the campaign within the deserts of Africa. The second instalment gave small doses of stealth and action but never a true choice of either throughout an entire mission. It was disappointing to reach a point on the map whereby no matter how ghost-like you had been, it was sadly going to get loud as Hitler, his dog and his entire army suddenly knew where you are, what you ate for breakfast, and the precise moment you are going to raise your head in that window. It ruined it – for me anyway.
So as you can see, I had great expectations for Sniper Elite 3, and for the most part it delivers. With the setting in Africa it offers vast oceans of sand and plenty of territory to traverse. You would be forgiven for assuming this would make for a boring setting and repetitive visuals, but you would be wrong. Ruins, forts, caves and the odd oasis break it all up nicely and keep things fresh in each level. The levels get substantial pretty quick here too, with multiple objectives spanning miles, leading to route planning and quick one stops to off a few sentries scattered throughout.
On both new-generation versions it all looks superb, though there are the occasional hitches with performance, most noticeably in the Xbox One version of the game. Shadows cast by the blazing sun look superb and in great contrast; textures are sharp and there is little loss in detail when zooming over great distance. The bullet camera and x-ray effects have been ramped up to display bone fragments and gore through a skeletal and muscular representation which may have some wincing before a satisfying smile following a well planned shot. All in all it looks great, though not consistently, but enough to impress around most corners and when looking through the scope.
The campaign has a similar structure the previous title. Playing the lone sniper, Karl Fairburne, sneaking through North Africa during World War II, you are tasked with preventing the Nazis creating a super weapon. Vastly outnumbered, our unsung hero is up against the odds with Axis forces everywhere, providing many key objectives and this time around offering secondary objectives often needed to be discovered first.
As a sniper the odds become tilted with well planned strikes and following the sniping for dummies valuable pointers. Eight levels will test your abilities to scout areas, plan your attacks and execute them as a ghost or be prepared to react to an aggressive threat should you be discovered. The most enjoyment here will be found on the higher difficulties which introduce realistic physics and much more suspense. With collectibles scattered throughout, secondary objectives running alongside and upgrades to weapons and gear, there is a lot on offer to keep it interesting and progressive.
Where the game falls short though is with regards to enemy AI and a handful of visual glitches that can ruin the moment in the simplest of ways. The AI for example have a narrow field of view, allowing you to creep up almost sideways on before taking out you knife to sever a jugular. When performing one of these “stealth takedowns” the animation is limited and often sees the enemy moving position entirely as he magically appears in you grasp no matter what his original position.
Occasionally, the newly dead will start twitching as you drop them, clipping boxes or walls and completely ruining what would otherwise have been a nice bit of stealth action. I have never stood next to someone as they have been sniped, brains suddenly spraying from their forehead, but I am pretty sure if the time ever comes, I won’t just be alert for two minutes before casually returning to the exact same position my comrade was shot, with a sudden bout of amnesia awaiting my turn to decorate the camp with grey matter. On easy difficulty levels you could forgive this AI behavior in the interest of keeping the option of stealth flowing. However, on authentic difficulty it would have been a welcome mechanic to have the enemy AI continue looking for the lurking predator that has just been detected.
There is the option to relocate after detection, which then lowers a bar indicating the enemy alert status. Should the bar turn red then the enemy will indeed assault your last known position and the relocation works well, but the suspense is then quashed when the bar empties and it is back to biscuits and tea for the Axis forces immune to the fear of a sniper still out there scoping them.
Despite its flaws the same plan, aim, shoot and then watch the bullet in slow-motion mechanic that makes the series, dilutes any major impact on enjoyment the random glitches threaten. Completing a level without being detected and having shot numerous foe over a total distance spanning miles is as satisfying as it has ever been, perhaps more so thanks to the much larger scale in each level.
The merits and flaws of this game can be enjoyed and endured in co-operative gameplay too. This can be great fun as there are now two views to every kill and the options to work as an effective team are brilliant. The levels have been well designed to make sure co-operative gameplay is not just an add-on or holding hands experience. You can separate from your partner at any time, take different routes and then converge on the same objective from multiple angles.
Having a partner also means having a life line in the authentic difficulty setting should you be dropped and bleeding out. In single player the authentic difficulty option means death is permanent, no retry, no loading saves, and no second chances. Certainly only for the hardcore and in my opinion the best way to enjoy the game as it promotes patience, a good eye and memory and being certain before committing to the execution.
Multiplayer makes a return, offering more modes and much bigger levels. Team based modes are on offer for those looking for support and less tension, or solo modes are present for those looking for the kind of glory of which non is share. A mode called “Distance King” for instance determines the winner (or winners) based on the overall distance accumulated from successful shots. The level design is good, large enough to pull off truly spectacular shots but not too big as to seem empty so long as it is a relatively busy lobby.
Custom loadouts carry from the campaign into multiplayer and vice-versa, as does any experience gained towards levelling up. In addition to the campaign and multiplayer there are challenges to complete and overwatch makes a return to offer co-operative play outside the campaign missions. All in all there is a healthy amount of content on offer and if it this type of gameplay is your cup of tea it will keep you busy for quite some time.
Sniper Elite III is a worthy instalment in the series, offering a handful of new features on a much bigger stage. Enjoyed alone or with a partner, even with a team in multiplayer, the core mechanics have been given a new coat of paint and many more ways in which to implement them.
There are flaws that will leap out on occasion, but are soon forgotten until the next time you spot them, ironically much like the behavior of the enemy AI as regards their attitude to your presence. Without the last-gen anchor the game could look and perform better no doubt, but as it stands it still impresses enough to be forgiven for any odd interruptions in the flow.