Karl Fairburne, bane of Nazi testicles everywhere, is back – but this time, he and his rifle are heading across Italy in search of Nazis to shoot in the nuts. Good political climate to release a game that’s about shooting fascists in the face and/or balls, eh?
To my mind, Sniper Elite has always been in a genre of its own. It’s a shooter with a focus on sniper rifles; it’s a stealth game with a lot of gunplay. It’s about misdirection, stealth, and preparation more than it is quick reactions and snap-reflex killshots. Sniper Elite 4 does absolutely nothing to change this, and is entirely content to refine and polish what’s already there.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new. There are more kill-cams, more traps, bigger maps, and better AI, all of which creates a host of new opportunities for your sneaky murderfests. But all of this is there to support the core gameplay of, essentially, being a sneaky sniper-man behind enemy lines, who needs to use cunning and guile to succeed against superior numbers and weapons. Or you just slap the game onto an easy difficulty and shoot people in the balls from a distance of 500 metres. Different strokes.
Let’s start with the maps, both because they’re a big part of what makes Sniper Elite 4 work, and because they’re just bloody big. In terms of raw numbers they’re apparently at least three times bigger than those of previous games, but regardless of physical size, they feel both larger and more open. Where its predecessor’s maps tended to funnel you into relatively obvious paths or chokepoints, Sniper Elite 4 usually offers a greater number of paths and hides any linearity in those paths rather well.
One of the first sights you’ll see on the first level, for instance, is a wide-open field dotted with small houses. In the distance you can see your eventual goal – the mansion housing a Nazi officer. Regardless of how you opt to do the level, you will have to reach that mansion, as searching his corpse is one of the primary goals of the level.
On the other hand, how you get there and what you do on the way? That’s up to you. I mean, there are plenty of bushes that provide some nice sneaky options for crossing the field. There’s a route down to a beach, which leads to the base of a ravine that goes below the field. Searching the corpse of a nearby officer might give you a duty roster, instantly tagging an entire squad for you. And if you’re lucky and skilled, you can even spot your target as he wanders out of the building and maybe take him down when you’re still basically at the very start of the level. That isn’t even the entirety of the level, either: it’s multiple large segments like that, all seamlessly linked into one huge environment.
The improved AI and weapon functionality both let you tinker with these big sandboxes in interesting ways. As an example, let’s say you pop off a shot at the officer who’s 400 metres away, and miss by an inch. He’ll notice bits of scenery crumbling around him and will duck for cover and shout for help, alerting all the guards in the vicinity.
However, they won’t know where you are, barring a general idea of what direction you’re in. You’re too far away. They’ll panic, but they won’t really be able to do anything about it, and the distance means it won’t suddenly alert every guard on the map.
Mind you, the soldiers nearer you? They might’ve heard the shot, and they will have an idea of where you are. Keep firing from the same location and they’ll figure out where you are for sure. Move before you shoot, and they’ll be confused. Stay there and do nothing, and they may get up the courage to investigate… which is too bad for them, because you’ve already put down a trip mine and hopped out the window. Or maybe you did that after making sure to attract as much attention as possible, and set the trip mine to activate after a two-second delay to ensure you’d catch as many soldiers in it as possible. Tee hee.
Bonus “tee hee” if this triggers one of the new trap X-ray kill-cams, showcasing the trap detonating and sending shrapnel into the twisted bones of the enemies. As with its predecessor, this game glories in ridiculous over-the-top brutality in a way that makes Mortal Kombat cast a longing gaze. And good grief, but pulling off a 400 metre headshot with no assists remains one of the most satisfying things in the entire kingdom of gaming.
None of this really changes what you’re doing, of course. You’re sneaking your way through levels filled with a huge number of enemies, picking them off with your rifle and baiting them into traps. It’s just that you’ve got plenty of different ways to approach each situation, which tends to make every encounter feel fairly fresh and interesting. Admittedly, it’s “fresh and interesting” in the same way as something like Metal Gear Solid V, but Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t last 50+ hours which means the repetition doesn’t really get to you, and the vastly different map layouts offer plenty of opportunities.
Replayability is heavily emphasised in the game mechanics, in fact. Every mission has entirely optional secondary objectives, ranging from clearing out a checkpoint to finding some documents or destroying a tank. You can skip these, but in some cases that means avoiding almost half of the map, and going for full completion can make each mission last around 90 minutes.
Not only that, but each map also has five challenges revealed on completion, which demand you play in particular ways. You might be required to complete a certain objective within five minutes, or kill an enemy every two minutes, or go through the level killing fewer than 10 enemies. Actually completing these challenges tends to force you to play in a very unorthodox way, or carefully plan out your route through the level. As encouragement for trying new things and challenging yourself, it’s rather successful.
And finally on the replayability front, the weapons themselves can all be upgraded. Every single gun has three challenges associated with it (ten grenade-in-belt shots, or a combined kill distance of multiple kilometres, or something) and fulfilling those requirements increases its power in some way. More damage, or a greater zoom, or less recoil. It’s not something that’ll keep you playing over and over, but it’s certainly something to aim for when you’re going back to shoot more Nazis in the daddy bits.
Actually, that leads me onto one of the criticisms: it’s Nazis again. I get that Nazis are a very acceptable villain, but I’d sort of hoped that setting Sniper Elite 4 in Italy would lead to… well, shooting fascist Italians. Some of this might admittedly be my unfamiliarity with the invasion of Italy, and there may have been very few Italian units in the particular regions visited in this game, at the time of this game. I’m not quite sure. Still, I’m a little disappointed that almost every foe is once again German.
And yes, once again, you’re hunting for a German super-weapon that will change the course of the war. New to Sniper Elite 4 are little pre-mission sections where you can wander around and chat to people to get your mission details, but these conversations are not particularly interesting. Characters and plot are not this game’s strong point; you’ll see basically every attempt at a twist coming, and at least one character has such an outrageously over-the-top accent I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear “It’s-a me, Mario!” coming out of their digital mouth. (I fully expect to learn that the voice actor was in fact Italian within five hours of posting this, at which point I will feel like a shit.) There are some great little nods, though: in addition to the letters you find on corpses or on desks, tagging foes with binoculars reveals a bit of backstory or information, like how they love puppies or killed surrendering enemies or something.
These aren’t particularly big criticisms, so let’s move onto a slightly more important one: the Custom difficulty settings aren’t great. Don’t get me wrong: I love the fact that I can, say, set the rifle physics to hyper-realism but make the enemy soldiers so stupid they barely manage to avoid falling over when they walk, but there are a few issues with it.
For instance, the settings aren’t quite as detailed as I’d like, and some seem to be tied to really unusual things, with stuff like the in-game display showing where your objectives are apparently tied to the overall difficulty and not to the HUD slider. I’d also love a setting with the minimap enabled (so I know where I am) but enemy positions not shown on it, or at least not unless I’ve tagged them with binoculars. As far as I can tell, though, there’s no way to have this. It’s either “minimap with enemies” or “no minimap at all”. I’m sort of hoping this might be a bug with the pre-release press code.
My biggest complaint about Sniper Elite 4, though, is that it… kinda feels like Sniper Elite 3, again. I said at the start that it feels like a refinement of what its predecessor did, and that’s entirely true. It’s simultaneously the game’s greatest strength and also its biggest failing. The bigger maps, the improved AI, and the extra little tweaks like the binocular tag backstories make the game feel a lot more capable and robust. It’s a better, expanded version of Sniper Elite 3, and that is a good thing. This is also why I’ve been really torn on the score, because it does its thing very well – but I can’t help but wish it was a little more ambitious, or that it had fixed up some of the other annoyances. I’d like to be able to use vehicles as more than mobile bombs, or be able to climb over certain waist-high fences, or climb up things that aren’t specifically marked out as climbable.
But I recognise that those features are exceptionally difficult to add and would drastically change the game, and hell, I still love the damn thing. Every time I fire it up to check something or take a screenshot, I find myself shooting Nazis in the bollocks for 30 minutes, and that’s usually a really good sign. For another thing, if you have a friend with whom you can play co-op in either the asymmetrical sniper/commando Overwatch mode (sadly limited to two – admittedly huge – maps right now), or simply shout at each other throughout the campaign, it’s a million times more entertaining. In my heart, these two little things are enough to push aside most of my criticisms as something that Rebellion might take to heart for Sniper Elite 5, and I can simply enjoy the gleeful Nazi bollock-popping fest that is Sniper Elite 4. It executes its executions exquisitely, and I’m not yet at the point where I’m getting tired of it.