Sniper Elite as a series has managed to maintain a great formula for tactical marksman style combat since it debuted on the Xbox and PlayStation 2 back in 2005. It was always apparent that the inherent idea behind focusing on realistic ballistics and technicalities was something that could blossom into thrilling stealth combat experience. Rebellion Developments have been hard at work with their sites set on making their 3rd person sniper series into the perfect sharpshooting experience, while expanding the combat to fit the theme of infiltration within their World War II setting. Most gamers will recognise the Sniper Elite series for it’s X-ray kill cam feature, which will reward the player with a cut scene of their bullet tearing its way through the Nazi enemy. This hilariously lead to the classic sniper head-shot taking a back seat to the satisfying testicle explosion when the player lands a crotch shot. Today we are going to have a look at Sniper Elite 4, a game that hopes to build upon the substantial improvements achieved by the previous game in 2013.
The fourth instalment in the series is a direct sequel to Sniper Elite 3 and takes place within 1943 Italy. Our protagonist Karl Fairburne joins forces with the Italian resistance in order to combat the threat of the Nazi fascist regime. This is summarised within some artsy cut-scenes at the beginning of the games story mode, however the monotone narration provided by our hero Karl doesn’t to much to engage the player in the story that is about to unfold. It would have been nice to see an intriguing bread crumb plot that leads nicely into the game play, but lets be honest, most people who pick this one up will mainly just want to play out their stealthy sniper god fantasies. Once we jump into the action, we are immersed in a vibrant Mediterranean environment which would put every other WWII themed sepia drenched title out there to shame. The game does commit some hand holding sins when it comes to an initial tutorial, stopping the player from proceeding unless they have completed a specific action, but I’ll let it off since that action involves crushing Nazi’s with some suspended cannons.
The first area of the game familiarises the player with sniper tactics, having a path that leads straight to conveniently placed a crows nest, perfect for picking off the enemy. One of the mechanics that works really well in this game is the ability to mark out the enemy and spots of interest with binoculars, which creates a sense of tactical drive and suspense when planning your next move. As much as this is meant to be the best tactic, there is nothing stopping the player from tackling the enemy in any fashion they see fit. Your inventory allows the sharpshooter to carry a a rifle, pistol and assault weapon, as well as various traps and explosives, meaning you can either eliminate enemy one at a time, or cremate them with some one man army nonsense. That being said, there is a price to pay if you want to go in loud, as the enemy will rush to your locale once your position is known. This is implemented by the use of a triangulation mechanic, in which the enemy will locate you based on where you last fired a shot, which in turn allows the player to preemptively evade detection if they haven’t already been found. The system works on a similar level to other stealth games, an amber directional symbol fills up if you are in enemy sights and will eventually turn red if the enemy realises you’re there. Being a silent assassin is pretty easy if you get to know the mechanics behind detection, using the silenced pistol is an obvious way to avoid detection, but the player can also use loud environmental objects such as generators and artillery to mask the bang of the sniper rifle, as suitable suppressors didn’t exist in the 1940’s.
The sniping mechanics of the game are set up to feel like you’re a skilled sharpshooter, allowing for toggling of distance settings to ensure your shot reaches its target. There is also the handy ability to empty your lungs and stabilise your shot, which also displays a handy crosshair to help with accuracy. As previously mentioned, the game has gained a reputation for displaying the brutal results of your sharpshooting expertise in the form of an x-ray kill cam, which can be disabled if you’re the inpatient type. The kill cam in this game is basically the same set up as in Sniper Elite 3, with some tweaks made to the detail displayed with bullet damage, adding some specific visceral detail. As great as these shots can be, on occasion the kill cam doesn’t use the x-ray function and instead we just see the bullet fly through the face of a Nazi without so much as a break in the skin, although I am not sure if this is an intentional aspect of the kill cam. There’s quite a lot of fun to be has with the rifle, aside from obliterating Nazi manhood, such as hitting suspended objects above enemy heads and explosives, which has a strange looney toons vibe to wiping out the enemy, which isn’t a complaint. If you’re skilled enough, you can also hit two birds with the one bullet by carefully placing your shot to hit two enemies at once, which is another satisfying way to combat fascism. There is also an experience based skill tree system, of which the player can select different attributes as they gain levels, giving more control over play style and customisation. The sniping mechanics of the game may be directly inherent of the third instalment of the series, but rest assure that Rebellion has really focused on improving this already great sniping system.
As well refined as the stealth aspects of the game are, the enemy AI sometimes detracts from the illusion that living enemies are an intelligent threat. First off, enemy bodies are supposed pose a risk to detection in this game, as the enemy will notice their fallen comrades while on patrol, however throughout my play-through this only happened once, meaning either the Nazis don’t care much for their friends or they think they’re asleep on the job. This made it far too easy for me to go into ‘hand gun hero’ mode, of which comprises of me striding through the battlefield popping heads with my trusty Welrod pistol, which while still enjoyable it defeats the purpose of mechanics that the developers put time into refining. That being said, you could argue that the enemy AI is best designed to react to your presence when actually sniping, which in it’s defence it does handle well. The enemy will try to get out of sight based on the triangulation of trajectory, making it more satisfying when their foolish heads peak from behind a wall, allowing you to turn their brain into jam. It feels like there has been some improvement to the enemy AI since Sniper Elite 3, it still however falls slightly short of what would be an ideal enemy design.
One of the most noticeable improvements of the game is the structure of the environments, of which are now much larger and intricate than in the previous instalments. This paired with the vibrant and colourful textures that Italy comprises of in this game make exploring the map a pleasure, which means you’re more likely to get engaged with optional tasks on each map. There is a really good mix of environments within the game, on a structural level as well as style. Some of the more built up areas prevent the player from constantly using the rifle and send them out onto the battlefield, whilst leaving some really creative vantage points amongst the environment, which made each stage that bit more engaging. Each stage is also littered with collectables, such as letters from soldiers loved ones and consumable items such as ammo and guns, which might just make the player more likely to explore buildings and areas in finer detail. On the subject of guns, there is a shop that can be accessed before missions in order to purchase new load outs before beginning your game, which motivates the player to complete tasks while on a mission, however some items were locked behind a DLC paywall, which demotivated me when browsing. The level design was something that many critics thought needed improving in earlier Sniper Elite games and it seems that Rebellion really took on board the criticism, having further improved on it’s shortcomings since the third instalment of the series.
There is a story going on amongst all the action of Sniper Elite 4, although I didn’t feel like it cared if I was invested or not. During the second mission you are introduced to the members of the Italian resistance, know as the Partisans, and their leader Sofia, who is bitter due to the demise of her father at the hands of Nazis. The story is developed through small areas at the start of stages, that contain NPC’s that you can interact with as well as a radio where you can be briefed about your upcoming mission by a woman with a rather forced English accent. A strong story arc isn’t a necessity, however as someone who enjoys a good plot and well written characters, it would have been nice to experience some substance alongside the stylish gameplay. Karl Fairburne also comes across as a generic meat head, and not the lovable kind like Blaskowitz from Wolfenstein, which isn’t a huge problem considering we don’t have to constantly listen to him. This isn’t something I condemn the game for however, as the developers clearly focused on getting their main mechanics as refined as possible, however it intrigues me to think of how well a game like this could potentially do if it had a strong story behind it.
I also spent a short amount of time with the multiplayer, which made for a fun experience. The matches that I played were team based and this highlighted the potential for this game to host a good competitive environment. Taking on roles within your matched team appeared to be the best way to play, one member doing the scouting with the binoculars while another picks a clever crows nest. I don’t feel that I am qualified to speak on behalf of the multiplayer’s technical competence, but it ran quite well from what I could see. Since competitive multiplayer isn’t my forte, I probably looked like a lost child at an amusement park, too busy nervously looking around me to spot immediate danger. That being said, actually spotting a smart assed player that thinks he is out of sight and delivering a big fat bullet though his letterbox was quite a fulfilling experience. I’m just glad that no one shot my digital manhood to pieces.
Sniper Elite 4 was an absolute pleasure to play. It was a fun experience that didn’t feel repetitive or boring, which similar titles often suffer from. Without any major flaws or issues, my only suggestions are that the story and purpose of the game could have had a little more substance, which would have made the game a little bit more memorable. That being said, the game did enough with it’s game play to make me want to play it again, as long as a new 3rd person stealth game doesn’t emerge equipped with a good story. Overall, Sniper Elite 4 is a prime example of how a game series can improve as time goes on. The main mechanics of the series have been refined to a high standard, hopefully leaving scope for improvements to characters and story. Who knows, maybe we will see a reboot in the future using Rebellion’s mastered game mechanics.