I thought Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 was going to teach me (in an abstract, videogame kinda way) about being a modern-day military sniper. The tension of lining up a kill under the constant threat of discovery. The dizzying rush from infiltrating a compound, doing my deadly work, and slipping away into the night. Maybe the exhaustion of laying in a ditch for fifteen hours waiting for a target to show up. Instead, it taught me this: the game I really want is Spotter Ghost Choice-Maker 2.
If the missions of SGW2 are any indication, it’s the spotter who holds all the power in this two-man team. He’s very much the ‘top’ in the relationship; making all the calls about who lives and who dies, all the choices on where to go and what to do, and even figuring out which order to execute people in. I kept gazing longingly at his back as I followed him through another curiously narrow stretch of jungle/city/Tibet, wishing I could take his place.
Oh Diaz, I just want to be you.
SGW2 is a game with plenty of choices, but few of them are made by the player. It’s a sniping game where the target order is picked out for you by a spotter or a disembodied voice beamed into your ear from HQ. It’s a stealth game where you’re (more often than not) told exactly where to go to avoid detection. It’s an oddly militaristic game of tag, in which your oft-ghillie suited buddy is ‘it’ and you can never actually win.
Get set for a travelogue tour, as you pursue your spotter through the jungle!
… hop in a time machine and chase a different fellow along the streets of war-torn, 1990s Sarajavo!
… and then zoom back to the present day to leg it through the imposing mountains of Tibet!
This three act narrative of Keystone Sniper Cops will take you about five hours, and includes extended sessions of shooting a succession of people in the head.
Each mission goes a little something like this. After a bit of military alphabet banter (“If we don’t extract the VBH ASAP, then this B-TEC is FUBAR’d!” is … something I made up, but close enough,) you’re dropped in and either dash off after your spotter or towards some ever-present waypoint markers. Not that you’ll really need the markers, since the paths through levels are pretty straightforward. Interesting botany fact: jungles in the Philippines are mostly shaped like wide corridors.
Anyway, you make your way towards whatever your objective happens to be, pausing only to murder an unwitting mercenary or two along the way. Sometimes you’ll stumble across a group of four or five, and the game advises you to sneak around them rather than cause a fuss. This means throwing yourself face first into the floor and crawling through whichever fairly obvious gap in the patrol routes the game has pointed out to you. It’s a bit like playing a rubbish, parallel universe version of Thief where there’s a magical voice in your head saying “Mr. Garrett, extinguish the torch on your left. Mm, very good, now use the carpeted area to avoid the archer. Ok, now stay still until the other guard has left.”
Occasionally, for whatever reason, SGW2 decides you can’t sneak past a certain group, so you’d better ‘clear the area’ instead. If it’s a rare mission where you’re fortunate enough to be unaccompanied, these sections tend to offer the most freedom you’ll see in the game. You get to choose who to shoot, and can pick your moments accordingly. If you screw up and a body is discovered, the AI will engage its eerie powers of perception and come running at your exact location. This is the time to deploy your handy silenced pistol, hide around a corner like the special ops genius you are and wait for most of them to lollop into your crosshairs.
After a little of the above (sometimes very little, at least four of the ten missions last less than 15 minutes,) you’ll reach a fixed sniping position.
In the early levels this is fairly interesting. You have to cover a group of closer-quarters infantry as they storm various positions, and end up doing useful things like shattering search-lights or stopping a guy toting a rocket launcher before he gets a shot off. There’s a sense of pressure and excitement, which prodded some faint echoes of reaction-based, Light Gun arcade games out of my brain.
I thought these opening sections might be offering tantalising hints to future missions, where I’d be having to think and act on my own accord; choosing whether to blow a fuel tank as a distraction, or take down a power box to dim some lights and conceal my next shots. They were not. It never happens. I was a credulous fool.
If anything the fixed-view segments get less interesting and more guided as the game progresses, and they reach peak-weirdness when you find yourself exposing Serbian war crimes through a photography mini-game. This attempt to address some of the horrors of the Bosnian War is an admirable one, but SGW2 is not, perhaps, the medium through which to do it justice.
The sniping itself is pitched between arcade and simulation, skewing closer to the former. You have to deal with wind and ballistic drop-off, but that’s about it. When crouched or prone your scope gets a fair bit more stable, and you can hold your breath to steady it up further. On medium difficulty and below a red dot will fade into view to show you where your shot is going to hit.
This has the unfortunate side-effect of making the mid-tier difficulty far too easy. Aside from a few heart-in-mouth moments when you have to act NOW, RIGHT NOW, you can just rely on the red dot to guide every shot. It turns the skill requirement between medium and expert into something of a gulf, because you’re moving directly from “You should shoot here” to “Whatever man, you’re on your own.”
I’m not going to criticise a game for making its expert mode properly hard, but it seems like there’s a step missing in-between the two. Something that isn’t such a cakewalk, and can ease people in to the demands of expert sniping.
The sadists out there won’t be impressed by the periodic ‘kill cam’ that kicks in whenever you murder the last guy in a given area. It follows the bullet from barrel to body, but there’s no dismemberment or really much of anything beyond a stock ragdoll animation of the merc falling down with a blood spurt. I mean, yes, it’s pretty damn weird to turn this stuff into a cinematic replay in the first place, but if you’re going to court that crowd it at least do it well.
SGW2 partially redeems itself with a multiplayer mode that manages to sidestep many of the irritating restrictions of single player. It’s rather minimalist (only four maps are available, three for Team Deathmatch and a lone effort for Deathmatch,) but multiplayer puts the freedom of positioning in the players hands and ends up feeling much more like a tense, concentration-heavy snipe-fest. Matches are slow, patient affairs, punctuated by short bursts of activity.
There’s a neat risk-reward tradeoff between finding a spot that offers a wide field of view (but may be quite exposed,) and one that provides better cover but blocks your ability to spy on the whole field. Letting off a shot is also a risk, as it will briefly flash up your position to the opposition. Multiplayer shooters are usually full of people cursing the camping snipers; here, everybody yells at the guys who run around with pistols.
It’s a bit too bare-bones to be worth the $30 price of admission, but multiplayer is a whole lot more satisfying than the hand-holding nonsense of “you’re leaving the mission area!!” and enforced narrative failures (I re-did a particular section several times until I realised my being spotted was scripted) that single player has to offer.
SGW2 is a game that seems unwilling or unable to let the player fully off its leash. Glimpses of interesting gameplay are relegated to set-piece events and low-resolution cut-scenes, as if the designers never quite trusted our ability to retain and apply these strategies to later missions. If the majority of outposts and installations had a more free-reign approach (and options like taking out light sources, destroying power boxes and sniping grenades on enemy’s belts were regular, emergent possibilities,) then maybe there’d be something here worth recommending.
As it is, there are few flutters of excitement outside of multiplayer and the all-too-infrequent sequences where you’re under some sort of time pressure. With its overbearing spotters, oppressive lack of freedom and rigid A-to-B level design, SGW2 is one for submissive snipers only.