As prolific as sniping is in gaming, the virtual recreation of the act is a far cry from its real life counterpart, and for good reason. Sitting in a single spot for hours on end while patiently waiting for your spotter to identify a target wouldn’t exactly translate to a thrilling gameplay experience. As a result, sniper rifles are commonplace in nearly all genres, but rather than a primary focus they’re generally implemented as ultra-powerful secondary weapons with limited ammunition, while often being restricted to specific levels of a game’s campaign. Despite being a daunting task, there are a couple of series which have attempted to provide us with more authentic sniper-centric experiences, with perhaps the most prolific being Rebellion Developments’ Sniper Elite franchise. While still much more action-oriented than actual sniping, Rebellions’ series–which debuted in 2005–has found continued success in its attempt to bring the sharpshooter experience to life by ensuring that each new entry in the series has made significant steps forward in terms of both scale and scope.
Picking up right where its precursor left off, Sniper Elite 4 takes place in 1943 and puts players back in the shoes of American OSS agent Karl Fairburne as he breaches the Axis lines in Italy. The game’s plot is near identical to that of its predecessor: the Germans are making a new super weapon, and Karl must gain intel on its creators and its location, with the end-goal of dismantling its production. As with other entries in the series, SE4’s campaign makes references to real-life figures who played major roles in World War 2, such as Hitler and Eisenhower, but its main focus is on fictional characters, events, and technology. Where Sniper Elite 4 takes a step forward is in its attempt to make its original characters memorable, but unfortunately Rebellion’s efforts seem half-baked. After a complete playthrough of Sniper Elite III most players probably walked away not even knowing the name of the game’s protagonist, and while that’s been remedied this time around, most players are going to walk away from Sniper Elite 4 and forget about its entire cast in a matter of minutes.
Karl has more dialog this time around, and more NPCs to interact with, but said interactions are so mundane that I often wondered if their inclusion hurt the experience more than it helped. Neither the game’s secondary characters nor Karl himself have interesting personalities, and while their dialog and voice performances aren’t terrible, they certainly aren’t anything to write home about either. Most levels feature a staging area that allows the player to speak with several NPCs to gain context on the upcoming mission’s side objectives, but the overall presentation during these exchanges is both unenthusiastic and bland, making it seem like they were simply tacked on as a result of someone on Rebellion’s staff suggesting that the game’s narrative be more present. Plus, these interactions aren’t even necessary, as you’ll be given the secondary objectives regardless of whether or not you interacted with any of the side characters. Even Sniper Elite 4 itself treats its story and characters as if they don’t matter, until the very end when the game has a scene that attempts to evoke emotion, but by then it’s far too late. Much like a bullet through the brainpan, the game’s narrative will go in one ear and right out the other, forgotten almost immediately.
While Rebellion’s attempt to expand on the series’ narrative components doesn’t exactly succeed, their additions to the game’s mechanics and environments are greatly appreciated. Sniper Elite 4 takes very noticeable steps forward in terms of level design, with stages that are larger than anything seen in the series prior, and options for traversal like jumping through windows and shimmying along ledges offer players a nice variety of choices when it comes to how they navigate their surroundings. Objectives can be tackled in any order, and the sheer size of the wide-open areas allow the player to approach their goals in a myriad of different ways. Rebellion claims that Sniper Elite 4’s smallest zone is at least three times bigger than any area from previous titles, and it feels that way when playing. Maps feature a wide diversity of landscapes, from open vistas to cramped city streets; some locals offer a good number of buildings that can be entered at your leisure, while others offer plenty of cover in the form of trees and hills. Some maps feature sound dampening effects like planes flying overhead and artillery fire, which can be used to mask the sound of your rifle, but some maps don’t, which lead to different styles of play depending on your surroundings. The game’s Italian backdrop allows for a nice assortment of geographical zones, with nearly each level being unique in some way. Minor issues like waist-high walls that are mountable from one side but not the other can be found on nearly all the maps, but these problems are rare enough that they’re practically insignificant when looking at the game as a whole. It’s a shame that more of the game’s budget wasn’t pulled away from the narrative and poured into creating more environments–as the campaign only features 8 levels–or at least funneled into beefing up the graphical fidelity of the existing levels. That’s not to say that Sniper Elite 4 looks bad per se, but when compared to other games releasing in 2017, it would be fair to say the game’s visuals are merely average.
In terms of gameplay, the series doesn’t take a quantum leap forward but instead focuses on making minor refinements. As with its predecessors, Sniper Elite 4 is a game that’s predominantly played in the third person perspective, unless you’re looking down the scope of your rifle, which is done in a first person view. Players are given an assortment of weaponry, including submachine guns and a wide variety of explosives, all of which now have secondary firing modes/uses, but the game is best played as a stealth-action title, with the player using their sniper to take out enemy forces from far enough away that they can’t even retaliate. Everything from shooting to simple movement and the act of taking cover all feel and function at least a bit better than in Sniper Elite III, which shows the series is still moving in the right direction, but these minor enhancements, while appreciated, aren’t enough to propel the series to the next tier, as they ignore some of the major issues that plagued the last game.
The mass majority of your mission objectives will ask you to clear an area of enemies, eliminate a specific target, collect some intel, or blow up some artillery unit. Regardless of your current goal, if you’re going to put an emphasis on sniping, then the core gameplay loop will essentially involve getting yourself in an advantageous position, and picking off your enemies from a good distance away. Once you’ve fired your first shot enemies will begin to triangulate your position, and if you fire 2 more shots from the exact same location they’ll pinpoint you and begin to collapse on your position. Unfortunately, as with prior entries in the series, the A.I. is just too easy to exploit. If you fire your first shot, and then move 10 feet to the left and fire your second shot, their triangulation will reset. It’s far too easy to simply fire, move a couple of feet, rinse and repeat till an area is clear. Long time players will notice an overall improvement in enemy A.I., as they’re much less likely to glitch-out while doing simple patrols (though I still ran into a few guards who would warp down ladders and those who would get caught on random geometry resulting in them to being stuck in a constant walking animation yet not moving anywhere), but their biggest issues still remain intact. Enemies will scurry for cover when one of their nearby allies gets killed, but if the player is shooting from great distance away, the A.I. is prone to sitting behind cover–usually with their head exposed–just waiting to get picked off.
The act of sniping itself feels great. The bullet physics, the slow-mo tracking shots, and the X-Ray camera all do a great job in making each shot feel special. Taking out groups of enemies–even if they do act like sitting ducks–is fun, at least for a while, until you realize that the aim assist function (which is toggled on by default for every difficulty setting except the game’s hardest) really takes any skill component out of the game. Playing on the Authentic difficulty setting, which completely disables both aim assist and the mini-map, almost feels like a different game entirely. Without having a clear guide telling you exactly where your bullet is going to land, this setting forces the player to gauge bullet drop for themselves, making each headshot feel like a glorious achievement.
When not picking enemies off from afar, I found myself either taking them out with my trusty silenced pistol or via my new favorite style of execution: close range melee stealth kills. As with most every aspect of Sniper Elite 4, none of the game’s animations are sub-par, but none truly impress, except for the melee kills that is. Depending on your angle of approach, when in melee range Karl will execute an enemy in one of many different ways, all of which are brutal, and all of which are animated excellently.
Aside from its A.I. issues and the general generic feel the game has, its largest flaw is the amount of inconsistencies that can be found within its world. Why is it that sometimes enemies can triangulate my position despite the fact that the sound of my shot was masked by an environmental effect? How is it that enemies cannot hear a bullet from my silenced pistol penetrate their buddy’s helmet, but they can hear my knife slit their friend’s throat? Why does throwing a pebble not only alert the enemy 2 feet away but also the one who’s on the upper floor of the house 100 yards away? How come no one can hear me when I do a crouched-sprint right behind them, but if stand upright and take a single step, all guards within a 200-foot radius will come running? All of these issues may seem minor, but they occur non-stop, and when compounded by rest of the game’s issue, it truly feels like Sniper Elite 4 is lacking the polish needed to be mentioned in the same sentence as other Stealth-Action titles like Dishonored 2 and Metal Gear Solid V.
Those that don’t enjoy going solo will be glad to hear that the game’s campaign can be played in its entirety as a co-op experience. The wide-open maps and multiple objectives make for an interesting cooperative romp, as players can opt to stick together and systematically go from point-to-point capturing their goals, or split up and have each player go about their own business before meeting up at mission’s end. When playing solo on the game’s higher difficulty settings you can expect each mission to last between 60-90 minutes if you’re completing all available objectives, where as playing co-op slices that time in about half, not only because having two people makes everything twice as quick, but also because the A.I. is even easier to exploit as a group of two. Aside from the campaign Sniper Elite 4 also features a Survival mode, which is essentially the series’ take on the ever popular Horde Mode. It puts an interesting spin on things because having enemies constantly rushing towards the capture point is certainly different than anything you’ll experience during the campaign, but it grows tiresome rather quickly. The game also has a suite of competitive multiplayer options, which will certainly carve out its own niche following, but only hardcore fans of the series’ mechanics will opt to stick around long, as other shooters like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 simply offer deeper and more robust options for PVP.
With each successive bullet they’ve released from the chamber, Rebellion continues to get closer and closer to the bullseye, but unfortunately Sniper Elite 4 is still a few inches off the mark. The game’s maps set a new standard for the series, and the accuracy of its Authentic difficulty bring the thrill of sniping to new heights, but the game’s lackluster A.I., middling presentation, and poor central gameplay loop all scream “mediocre”.