There is a simple test to see whether Sniper Elite 3 is for you.
It’s broad daylight in the desert, but you’re lying – undetected – on a low cliff, watching Nazis patrol an encampment below. You’ve been watching them for some time through your binoculars, tagging them off and working out which ones to take out and when. You don’t need to get all of them – indeed, you can probably sneak through the encampment if you only take out a few of the more well-placed guards – but you might have to if they raise the alarm.
Fortunately, you have one advantage: this encampment contains some huge guns that are firing every 20 seconds or so, and the sound of explosions as they launch shells will easily mask the crack of your sniper rifle. You still have to worry about the body being discovered, but you’ve noted that one guard’s patrol has a few spots that are completely out of sight of all of the others. So you wait, and you watch.
And then your moment arrives. The guard in question is walking through your designated killzone, and the guns are about to start up. You exhale, hold your breath, and take very careful aim. Then, when everything is just right – your aim is adjusted for wind and distance, the huge cannons are firing, and the guard is in the perfect position – you squeeze the trigger.
Immediately, Sniper Elite 3 goes into its vaunted X-Ray Killcam. You watch as the bullet, in slow-motion, whirls towards the soon-to-be-dead Nazi. As it approaches him, his skin vanishes, replaced with an eerie model of his skeleton and internal organs. There’s a sickening squelch as the bullet rips into his flesh, and blood and bone fragments spray out – again, in slow-motion – of the entrance wound. His cherries pop like… well, like cherries, as the bullet rips through them and then out of his body.
TESTICLE SHOT +35 XP appears on the screen, followed by SOUND-MASKED, PREMEDITATED, and ISOLATED.
Does that sound like your sort of game? Then you will probably love Sniper Elite 3.
That’s not really an exaggeration, either. I could honestly end the review here, and I doubt more information would change whatever your initial opinion is. Sniper Elite 3 is a solid stealth-action title with solid sniping mechanics set in a sandbox-y environment, which has an aesthetic shell that alternates between being comical and being macabre.
You play as Karl Somethingorother, a man with the superpower of having absolutely no personality whatsoever – a superpower so strong that I actually couldn’t remember what his name was until the multiplayer skin selection screen reminded me. He’s in Africa shooting Axis forces in the face during the Siege of Tobruk when British Intelligence pops along and asks him to investigate a naughty Nazi called Vahlen, who is apparently up to something that may involve the words “super-weapon.” Thus begins Karl’s eight-mission campaign to shoot a lot of Nazis, hopefully culminating in shooting Vahlen.
Sniper Elite 3 isn’t going to win any awards for story, but let’s be honest – that’s probably not why you’d play it anyway. It manages to hit pretty much every cliché on the Stereotypical Gaming Bingo Card, from “we’re not so different, you and I” monologues uttered by the villain through to… well, some stuff that I won’t spoil. You’ll see it coming a mile off, but I won’t spoil it regardless. Let’s just say that if this was a cop film, the protagonist cop would be a loose cannon who gets results, but would be forced to hand in his gun and badge to his angry boss. None of that stuff happens (because this isn’t Sniper Cop 3, which sounds like the sort of film Bruce Campbell would’ve starred in sometime circa 1985) but you get the picture. This isn’t the world’s best-written game, but as mentioned before, that was never really going to be its primary success.
Where Sniper Elite 3 does succeed – and at this it really, really succeeds – is in level design. Barring the tutorial-y first level and the rather linear final level, pretty much every map is a big wide-open space with a lot of cover, a lot of enemies, and a lot of sub-objectives for you to stumble upon. How you actually negotiate these levels is basically up to you: you’ve got plenty of alternate routes and wide-open areas, so plenty of room to navigate. In an old city, you can take a few routes through the streets or even duck through some of the buildings; in a fortified camp set near an oasis, there’ll be plenty of rocks and grass to use for cover but also a fair amount of open sand you can crawl through.
You can move like a ghost crawling through tall grass and finding gaps in patrol routes. You can run in with a Tommy gun, spraying bullets everywhere (although on most higher difficulties this will cause you to die very quickly; you can’t regenerate much health at all and Nazis are not bad shots). You can lay traps and then attract attention. You can use a knife and a silenced pistol to cut your way through your opposition. Or you can take your cues from the game’s name, and go sniping.
The sniping is the recommended route, so it’s a good thing that it’s both smart and satisfying. You have to adjust for wind, distance, and the movement of your target, and getting the shot right usually triggers a (thankfully skippable) killcam showing your bullet arcing towards its target and then gorily splitting their head/heart/lungs/kidneys/intestines/manparts apart. It can be a little excessive, particularly as – by default – it triggers after pretty much every bloody kill, but there’s no denying that it adds a lot to the satisfaction when you pull off a ridiculously difficult shot at long range.
However, sniping is a risky business and has to be done with some intelligence. For one thing, your assortment of rifles lack silencers, so – unless there’s some other noise, like a storm or a backfiring generator, to mask the sound – you’re only going to get off one shot before people start paying attention. This is where relocation comes in.
Unless you’re in full view of enemies, firing a single shot means that they only know which rough direction you’re in, and everyone who noticed will immediately take cover from that direction while one or two of the more adventurous might cautiously move to investigate. Fire more and they’ll very quickly figure out where you are, and at that point you’re going to be rushed by angry Axis soldiers with grenades and machine guns. However! If you move somewhere else, and then fire again… well, that doesn’t really give them much more in the way of clues. They just know you’ve moved, and now shots are coming from a different angle.
The amount of work put in to make the sniping feel both skilful and satisfying (not to mention the game’s name) means that this is very clearly Rebellion’s suggested method of play, but this is really a playground of a game, and getting the most enjoyment means taking advantage of every option available. There are times when one method of progression is obviously preferred on a particular section of a level – an early assault on a fort tells you, repeatedly, that using your rifle before you at least get to high ground is probably suicide – but even then, you won’t automatically fail if you get detected. Stealth is highly suggested there, but only through the gameplay mechanic of “you’re going to be covered in Germans if you get detected”, and you can still escape from even that dire situation.
This is the crux of the game: a really good sniping mechanic, combined with really good levels. You can even customise the difficulty to tweak things to your liking; my preferred option is to have ballistic realism on full, but also leave the HUD assists on, and leave the enemy difficulty reasonably low. If you want preternaturally talented enemies and simplified sniping, you can do that. If you’re a maniac you can go for Authentic, which removes the ability to tag foes, removes the minimap, removes the health bar, removes saving, and… well, yes. That turns it into something reminiscent of a very old-school stealth game, in terms of raw, punishing difficulty.
I sort of wish there were more levels, mind you: there are a grand total of only eight in the campaign, and two of those are pretty linear. The remaining six are a joy, but – even though there are plenty of bonuses, sub-objectives, and alternate ways you can approach them – I still wish there were just a couple more open maps. You can easily get through the campaign once in around eight hours, so a fair bit of your future enjoyment might depend on just how often you want to try new things on the same levels.
On the plus side, there’s a robust co-op option to add to replayability, and it’s good enough that I’d pretty much call this a must-buy if you have a reliable co-op partner with whom to play. The entire campaign is playable in co-op, which opens up all sorts of new strategies and near-emergent situations; you might attract a tonne of attention and have to run for your life while your partner alternately tries to pick off the foes and distract them away from you. Of course, he might distract them for just long enough for you to set up traps…
You’ve also got a lovely asymmetrical mode called Overwatch, which has one player as a sniper and one as an on-the-ground operative, tagging targets and sneaking through the level while the sniper covers them. There’s a Survival mode, and competitive multiplayer that at least tries to do something a bit unique, with modes built to focus on the game’s core mechanic of shooting people at very long distances. Again, though, these bonus modes smack a little bit of being too short for their own good – there are two (large) Overwatch maps, and two Survival maps, so depending on just how much you get out of the raw mechanics you can probably be done with both of those in an afternoon of co-op.
Which is perhaps a bit unfair, because what’s here is of a sufficiently high quality that I didn’t feel particularly cheated, and I fully intend to wade back in sometime soon. I’m actually hoping for DLC that’ll offer some more single-player levels and maybe a few more Overwatch maps, because if they’re of similar quality to what’s here, they’re probably going to be worth the asking price.
So, that’s Sniper Elite 3, and as mentioned above you probably knew a fair few paragraphs back whether this was for you or not. In a lot of ways, it’s basically what I’ve always wanted from a sniping game – it’s got solid sniping that relies on skill but isn’t overcomplicated, solid stealth that requires thought but isn’t in a pure stealth game, and big broad levels with optional objectives that let you approach things in all sorts of different ways.
It also lets you shoot men in the balls. Y’know, just in case you forgot.