Sniper Elite is one of the few series still carrying the torch of World War 2. It’s also one of the few series to magnify and capitalise on that level from Call of Duty 4. What made that mission so memorable, apart from the calming mentorship and eagle-focus, was the brevity. Enlarging such an experience into a full game has the risk of outstaying its welcome. And while Sniper Elite 4 largely avoids this problem, its temptation to stock up on features and tropes of the wider action genre unfocuses its sight from the scope it's meant to be looking down.
Sniper Elite 4 has clearly taken notes from other stealth games. It resembles Hitman’s assassination playground, coupled with Metal Gear Solid V’s scouting and strategising, utilising binoculars to mark sentries. Main mission and optional objectives are dispersed throughout the map, more-or-less allowing freedom-of-approach. But whereas Hitman benefits from a single objective, Snipe Elite 4 overbears itself with more than it should handle.
Sniping is by nature a singular and concentrative task. Any game that wants to be effective at this activity should be built around the core mechanic it not only touts, but names itself after. Sniper Elite 4 feels more like an action arena where your weapon of choice just so happens to be a sniper rifle. For more than one reason will you find yourself using the Sam Fisher school of stealth - tip-toeing for quiet takedowns because the game almost penalises you for being a sniper.
Sounds plays a significant role if you’re trying to play quietly. Your shots can be audibly masked against equally loud sounds (such as cannon fire), or you can turn on machines for the same effect. Either of these usually require coming within intimate distance, by which point sniping can seem pointless.
While not large enough to call itself an open-world (I keep coming back to the word ‘playground’), the environments have enough scale, they’re just not designed well for sharpshooting. The introductory missions have you measuring bullet fall against movement, versus wind and pollen density across vast Italian fields, while latter missions confine your marksmanship to claustrophobic terrain. Buildings obstruct every corner, firefights divulge into pot shots across the street, and the closing acts relegate your far-sighted super weapon to corridors.
One particular objective charged me with assassinating a German officer held up inside a mansion. Try as I might, there were no vantage points by which I could snipe him from afar through the window because nobody had trimmed the hedges. I had to sneak up and shoot him from the driveway.
And the game does this all all too often. Situations where dream-like sniping should be possible simply aren’t because of little to no vantage points. Your close-quarters presence is expected, whether you RSVP or not. Playing the campaign in co-op unfortunately doesn’t fix this problem either.
So Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t exactly play to its strengths. The peer pressure of open-world actions games is evident in the design. The levels are chock-littered with objectives that don’t complement the central tenet of sniping; retrieving documents, sabotaging anti-aircraft, destroying armour - instead of one all-satisfying kill-shot you spent all level preparing for. Eventually I stopped doing the optional objectives because all you get is experience, which gives you money, which lets you buy weapons that are probably worse than the ones you’re using.
Though in all this design clutter, Sniper Elite 4 does feature some good qualities. This is not a game that hands stealth to you. Like the Phantom Pain, infiltrating asks for patience and planning, as the NPCs are aurally twitchy and naturally curious. But if you’re actually playing for stealth (like the game wants you to), you can fall back on the soft cushy mattress of anytime save games. Though what it gains in humane design it loses in flow, as your many blunders develop into paranoia, and paranoia turns Sniper Elite 4 into a sporadic game of menu-pause.
Ironically where the game does better is the place nobody would expect. Sniper Elite 4 actually has some unique multiplayer modes, making better use of its main idea than the campaign. ‘No Cross’ is a team mode with practically the same rules as TDM, save the uncrossable barrier splitting the map in two for tense frontline gameplay reminiscent of trench warfare. The other is ‘Distance King,’ where the winning player or team is not the one with the most kills, but the furthest total kill distance.
Survival is another trend that’s found common inclusion in games, in no small influence from Treyarch’s zombies. Sniper Elite 4 may only have survival to follow the current of popularity, yet that wouldn’t change the fact it’s more appropriate than most. Holing up in a high nest and rearranging colons wave after wave like a walk-in surgical clinic is much more natural for a game that’s supposed to be all about the scope.
The same could be said for Overwatch (not to be confused with the Blizzard game), a returning mode from Sniper Elite 3. Essentially asymmetric multiplayer where one player is a sniper and another is the poor bugger who works the field and spots.
The elephant going against all these creative modes is one of expectation. No one really plays these games for their multiplayer, especially when they’re marketed for campaigns. So while they’re worth playing for anyone with a mind for something different, it’s likely their longevity may eventually undermine their imagination.
X-ray takedowns with melee kills, X-ray kills with explosions, or X-ray takedowns with testicle intent – some things really don’t get less funny with age. But Sniper Elite is ruled by competing forces; one that wants to be a sniping game, and another that wants the close and personal action experience. As a result, Sniper Elite 4 is conflicted and unsettled. Here’s a series that would benefit from Fumito Ueda’s school of thought; design by subtraction – stripping out everything that doesn’t support your primary philosophy. The only part of the game that gets close to doing so, is also the part most won’t pay much attention to.
Ben received a digital copy of Sniper Elite 4 from GDE for review.