Reviews

Sniper Elite III Review – Testicle Surgery With Bullets

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Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Rebellion
Publisher: 505 Games
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Having missed the previous two games, but heard from many people that Sniper Elite V2 was actually a title worth playing, I went into Rebellion’s later effort largely blind, having only an understanding garnered from videos and research rather than hands-on experience. I might have arrived late to the party, but I’m glad I got here.

There’s some sort of storyline going on in Sniper Elite involving a typical bad guy by the name of Vahlen and the most generic, gruff white male protagonist imaginable, but it’s not what you would call a gripping narrative. The plot centres around Vahlen building a super weapon somewhere in Africa and is mostly advanced through dull cutscenes between missions that are narrated by Karl Fairburne, the lead character and titular elite sniper/lone wolf. You venture from location to location, the links between each tenuous at best, attempting to discover Vahlen’s master plan.

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The writing never manages to drag itself above being utterly bland and there’s no memorable characters, as proven by the fact that I cannot actually remember a single person’s name outside of the main protagonist and the villain, although it must be said that’s only because I wrote down both names in a notebook purely for this review.  So generic is the script that, and I kid you not, there’s genuinely a “we’re not so different” speech by Vahlen, who might just take home the award for Villain With The Least Screen Time. As for Karl he talks to a grand total of two people throughout the entire campaign (one of which is Vahlen) which is understandable given his profession as a sniper, but it doesn’t lend itself to creating a lead character with personality. Nor does Sniper Elite III attempt to paint a picture of the hardships of being a sniper, the horrors of war or anything else for that matter, leaving an empty story devoid of substance. The closest thing to a compliment that could be paid is that as gruff, generic heroes go the voice actor for Karl does a good job of sounding really gruff and uncaring. Wait, is that even a compliment?

So, no, strength of narrative is not the reason to play Sniper Elite III, but that’s okay because it makes up for it in other ways. To put it simply Rebellion’s third effort has been the most pleasantly surprising game of 2014 thus far, managing to exceed my admittedly low expectations by delivering something rather fun, if not particularly well put together.

Naturally as a sniper you’ll spend a good chunk of your time patiently watching enemies from afar, waiting for the opportune moment to introduce their heads to your pet bullets. Aim down the scope and provided your heart rate is low enough you can enter a special  focus mode by tapping RB which steadies the scope and slows time down by a small amount. It also brings up a small red reticule showing exactly where the bullet will land, allowing you to perform impressive long-range shots without working out the ballistics involved yourself, such as bullet drop and wind. Things like sprinting and climbing all increase your heart rate, so if you go running up to cover and quickly look to take a shot then you’ll need to rely on your own natural abilities as focusing can only be down with a heart-rate below a certain amount. And of course the higher the heart rate the more the scope wobbles around. This system helps encourage a slower pace, gently prodding you into the mindset of a sniper who carefully assesses the surroundings, whips out the binoculars to tag some enemies, finds a good position to set up and then squeezes the trigger.

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Nail a killing shot and the camera will lovingly follow the bullet in slow-motion before switching to glorious X-ray, letting you to watch as the gleaming piece of metal drives through muscle, shatters bone and ruptures internal organs in an orgy of gratuitous violence which stands alongside Mortal Kombat’s brutal X-ray moves as the most pleasingly savage display of bodily destruction to ever appear in a videogame.  It is, to put it simply, magnificent. This is a game that clearly understands the strangely compelling brilliance of the sniper, of being a ghost who deals death to unsuspecting foes from afar, and it revels in that feeling. It’s actually a little worrying that through the 10 or so hours it took to complete the game and the countless times the slow-motion camera appeared it was never anything less than darkly satisfying, presumably indicating that I am the blood loving nutcase the mainstream media believes me to be. Still, for those that do find it a little much the option to turn the gore camera off entirely is present, or it can be adjusted to only show up sometimes.

Your ability to destroy a targets innards are rewarded with XP which in turn feeds into a levelling system that grants new equipment to play with, although as progression systems go Sniper Elite III’s is nothing to write home about. Naturally headshots tend to score the most, especially if the shot was taken over a great distance, but the game also recognizes other types of death, such as puncturing lungs, liver shots and, brilliantly, testicle shots. That’s right; nut shots are a thing. It never holds back: get it just right and you can witness the front of someone’s face almost disintegrate and the eyeballs vanish in a burst of blood, all accompanied by grisly audio effects.  But that’s not all as patient players can line up multiple kills with a single bullet, while the more savage gamer can choose to shatter a man’s kneecap with a well placed round and then wait for the victim’s agonised screams to draw another unsuspecting soldier into the open. My own personal favorite is shooting the grenades that some soldiers carry on their belts, causing a violent explosion.

Oh yes, this is a game that revels in the power fantasy of being a sniper and delivering invisible death. It’s sadistic, satisfying, brutal, bullet-cam brilliance! If this alone appeals to you, then you may as well stop reading now.

And yes despite its name there’s a sense that Sniper Elite is focused around the magical red reticule than the actual art of sniping. The reticule can only be disabled by turning off all the assists when creating a custom difficulty setting, meaning you’ll no longer have access to a mini-map or be able to tag enemies. More importantly it means you cannot use the Focus Time mechanic either to steady the scope, leaving it to wobble around quite a lot even when prone. Your only other option is to swap to Authentic difficulty, but that mode doesn’t allow you to save and also removes the assists. It would make far more sense to be allowed to disable to reticule on any difficulty setting, custom or not, without also needed to remove all other assists, that way you can enjoy lining up a shot based entirely on your own skill, judging bullet drop and using the wind indicator to work out where you need to be aiming.

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Since the four different sniper rifles available to you are not silenced in any way there’s a couple of different systems at work to allow you to remain nothing but a grim reaper to the enemy, the results of your actions felt but your physical presence never seen. At any given time you can take a single shot, at which point the enemy will become aware of your existence and the general direction that the shot came from, but won’t know your actual location. If you’re really trying to sink into the role of a sniper it’s best to slink away and take up position somewhere else before taking aim again. While it’s possible to get away with a second shot this usually alerts the enemy to your exact whereabouts, whereupon they’ll begin to attack you, occasionally managing to act intelligently, but mostly just hiding behind boxes. The only time enemies pose a genuine threat is when they attack en masse.

Once your location is known the Relocation System comes into play, which is also your cue to suspend your sense of disbelief because if you manage to get far enough away from your original location without being spotted by the enemy, you’ll be classed as having relocated and the foes hunting you will simply stop and go back to whatever they were doing beforehand.

From a design perspective I can see why this decision was made. The relocation system is a nice way of getting you to move around more rather than sit in a single position and gun down foes, but much of the tension is removed from the game when you realise that all you have to do is get far enough away for the enemy for them to forget about your existence and all of the dead bodies littering the ground. The enemy going back to their route let’s you return to the long-range action without being impeded, but so long as you’re careful thrilling cat and mouse chases don’t occur as often as one might hope. Clearly this mechanic was designed because Rebellion felt that having the enemy search for a player for the rest of the game as soon as they’ve been alerted would be an unfair punishment for a single slip-up, but it would have made for a far more tense experience, one in which you had to evade the patrols searching for you, and make the most of your shots. It’s a system that really divides my view: it allows the action to keep flowing, but utterly destroys my sense of immersion.

The AI is inconsistent in other areas, too. They are an effective force when attacking in large numbers only because of the sheer amount of firepower a sizable group can command, especially since you can’t take much punishment, but upon discovering the body of a dead comrade it doesn’t take them very long to dismiss the corpse, presumably assuming that the bloodthirsty sniper who decimated the deceased’s testicles wouldn’t have bothered hanging around to do the same to them. Wrong. When attacking you they tend to just hunker down behind a box with their head visible enough for a opportunistic sniper to strike, only ever occasionally trying to actually flank you. Indeed, death at the hands of the Germans, even on the hardest setting, usually only comes due to large amounts of focused fire and a poorly chosen piece of cover for yourself. Even then most death will be due to bullets managing to pass straight through certain things, such as solid, thick metal that is otherwise impenetrable to your own rounds.  In a small skirmish it’s disappointingly easy to decimate the German ranks. Their “searching” is also laughable, as they just trundle around about a 20ft square radius before giving up, again removing any sense of genuine tension from the game. There’s no sense that you’re being hunted. In fact, it honestly feels like you’re being hunted by that stereotypical lazy-ass Fed Ex delivery guy who half-heartedly tries to see if anyone is home before tossing the package over a handy wall and buggering off.

Perhaps the best example of enemy stupidity is how I found it was possible to shoot an enemy, and his only reaction was to look rather shocked, but since the gunfire was masked he simply carried on patrolling after a brief bit of searching. What?

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Going back to the topic of keeping your loud gunshots from waking up the entire bloody neighborhood, the report of your rifle can be masked by hiding it in other loud noises, such as airplanes passing over hear, flak guns firing or, the most common solution, sabotaged generators which emit loud popping sounds. Fire off a shot when the sound indicator is present on the screen and nobody will be any the wiser, unless they happen to directly witness a comrade dying, but even then they won’t even have an idea of the general direction of the shot, leaving you giggling like a toddler as you watch them scuttle around. It’s a damn good system, but it does also  potentially encourage players to only ever snipe from locations that can mask sounds, giving them a reason to simply stay in one spot for some time.

I did note a strange glitch in that if I raised the scope to my eyes in anticipation of a sound a few seconds before it was due the indicator wouldn’t show up, and any shot taken at that point would not be masked. This didn’t happen too often, but when it did it was a little irritating. As a result I began waiting for the indicator to appear before bringing up the scope, wasting valuable time.

There’s a couple of different traps available to you that can be utilised how you see fit.  A crafty sniper may choose to lay down a trip-wire attached to an explosive in order to cover their flank in case of an emergency, or line a path with landmines before calmly taking a couple of shots and then creeping off into the bushes in order to lure enemies to their death. Obviously patrols can be ambushed with anti-personnel mines, tanks blown up with dynamite and patrolling vehicles decimated up with a couple of well-placed landmines. Traps can also be picked back up if you need to move location

When you’re not sniping you’re likely going to be sneaking around, at which point Sniper Elite becomes a mostly mediocre stealth game. While there’s two other pistols to choose from its hard to imagine opting for anything other than the silenced Welrod, as that enables you to nail short-range headshots while maintaining a low profile. Close-quarters melee kills are also available to you, while the bodies of those you kill can be quickly looted for supplies and even weapon parts which allow for very limited customisation of your sniper rifle. Dead bodies can also be picked up and moved in order to ensure a patrol doesn’t stumble across them, although considering the enemy’s reaction to a corpse is a lackluster, quick search of a small area it really doesn’t matter. Generally speaking the rules surrounding when an enemy can see you are predictable enough, but there were also moments where I was spotted from an extreme distance or in situations where I was quite well hidden. Judging when an enemy will hear you jogging along can also be a little hit and miss, forcing you into a crouch much of the time in order to be safe.

Indeed, the game’s audio mix is quite poor at times. While the sound effects are all solid, the speech of enemy soldiers a good distance away often sounds remarkably close, something which can be mildly annoying when sneaking as it makes judging a foes position correctly  impossible. This becomes worse when using a surround sound headset, as voices and other sounds don’t quite come from the correct direction.

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Although the game does quite a bit to persuade players that the careful, stealth approach is the best way to the game, it doesn’t hold you back from simply grabbing a Thompson machine gun and going for the frontal assault, but it’s not advisable because as mediocre a stealth game Sniper Elite III is, it’s a far worse third-person shooter. Machine guns feel week and imprecise, while the cover system utilises the more organic approach of  putting you in cover when you simply push into it using the analogue stick, but feels spongy and often fails to work correctly. Getting yourself properly into cover is fiddly, and as a result when you go to emerge using the left trigger you find yourself aiming straight into a wall or some sandbags. This problem can also affect sniping. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was in cover, only to end up with a chunk of my view obscured. A more traditional Gears of War style cover system would have been preferable here.  Even the movement doesn’t feel quite responsive enough or smooth enough for straight forward machine gun battles, making this a weak action game in that regard. Stick to the mixture of sniping and stealth, as that’s more rewarding and far better implemented, leaving the machine guns purely for when the situation demands.

A few control issues were also present. Numerous times I hit the D-pad to swap to a different weapon quickly in the heat of battle followed by pulling the left trigger to aim down the sight, only for Karl to refuse to draw the other weapon, instead opting to follow my last command to look down the sights of the pistol he was currently holding. When a situation quickly devolves and you need to grab a machine gun to save your life, problems like this can be incredibly annoying. Likewise hitting the D-pad while you’re reloading won’t change weapon, an idiotic decision when swapping to a sidearm to save time is a standard tactic.

Rather than the linear corridors with carefully orchestrated moments for sniping that the previous games used, Rebellion have instead adopted a more organic approach, each of the eight levels being an open playground full of various routes to take, buildings to hide in and paths to discover. Indeed, Sniper Elite III is similar to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes in that its levels are essentially little sandboxs, each worth exploring more than once. There’s plenty of different routes to take, and scattered through the levels are secondary objectives that can be found and completed for bonus XP. To my surprise it was actually rather easy to miss these extra missions on a straightforward playthrough, again providing a reason to go back and fully explore the environments. While the game constantly encourages you to using a sniper rifle as your main weapon of domination and death, the open design of the levels mean you can tackle every mission how you wish, including just grabbing an MP40 and going for a full frontal assault, as there’s no penalty for being spotted.

In fact the level design is arguably the greatest success of Sniper Elite III. When combined with the satisfying sniper mechanics it makes for great fun as you hunt around for a good vantage point to hit that triple kill shot, or throw down some mines to blow up a passing patrol. A favorite moment of mine came when I laid a trap on the road for a truck, using the distraction it’s demise created to sneak through enemy lines into a fort. Sadly, though, the design of the levels and the mechanics don’t provide enough opportunities for little emergent moments like this, but nevertheless each level is a lot of fun to simply play around in. There’s plenty of collectibles scattered around to pick up as well, plus Sniper Nests, which are usually windows with planks of wood over them that can be yanked off or boxes that can be moved to make a nice area to settle down in. Sniper Nests bestow some extra XP for their discovery, but mostly they’re good as they tend to provide a fine view of the surroundings and opportunities for some long shots. Speaking of which, each level has a single Long Shot, and finding them is surprisingly tricky.

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Running on the Xbox 360 the game has the graphical look of something clearly built on a relatively tight budget, but nonetheless has moments where it sports genuinely nice visuals. The bloom is a bit too strong, but the lighting is decent and textures are pretty good, although foliage is poor. At first Africa is a nice environment for the game, but the constant brown and green wears thing pretty quickly. The lower resolution on the Xbox 360 can also make some shots a tad trickier as you attempt to figure out if what you’re aiming at is a soldier’s head or a freaking rock. The Xbox One, PC and PS4 versions are clearly the better option here, if available to you.

Of the limited selection of multiplayer modes on offer it’s arguably No Cross that is the highlight, adhering to the game’s namesake by forcing long-distance, tense combat. A line across the middle of the map is impassable by either team, and you must hunker down with your trusty sniper rifle without fear of being flanked, patiently searching the horizon for the telltale signs of movement or gunfire. Just darting from position to position feels like a gamble, but that’s contrasted by the beautiful satisfaction of destroying the skull of a well hidden opponent just before he or she spots you lining up the shot. It’s damn good fun, and I found myself willing to sink quite a bit of time into this mode. Interestingly you can also tag enemies for your team, and indeed teams with a dedicated spotter tended to perform better.

Second to that is Distance King, where the entire map is open to either team (or to each person, if you play the Deathmatch version where it’s every player for themselves), the catch being that victory goes to the person with the cumulative total distance achieved across all of their shots taken. It’s great fun to scramble around, looking for best shots, or opting to choose quantity over quality, taking easier shots but hopefully more of them.

Both Team Deathmatch and Deathmatch are included in the package, and while they’re not hugely entertaining they could provide a couple of hours of mild enjoyment. Because you can take trip mines and the like with you sniping is still possible since you can cover your six before setting up, but the weak cover and gunplay when using other weapons makes for uninspiring multiplayer action.

There’s sadly just a total of five multiplayer maps on offer, and while they are well designed, featuring plenty of hiding spots, such a small number just isn’t enough. Free maps are promised, though, but even this soon after launch the online community doesn’t seem very large, and this I wonder if there will be enough people around to enjoy them.

On the co-operative front Sniper Elite III manages to deliver the goods, with the entirety of the campaign able to be undertaken by two players, the open level design providing lots of opportunities for tandem sniping fun. Meanwhile Overwatch hands one player the binoculars to tag enemies and the other a sniper rifle, naturally meaning cock-ups ahoy. Grab a good mate and both modes are brilliant fun.

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Some other problems do need to be mentioned before we wrap this review up. There’s a lot of locations where the game refuses to let you go prone, despite Karl being in a big open bit of ground. This actually became quite frustrating for me, as I found nice spots for long shots and had to simply get down on one knee instead of lying prone. There’s a number of AI glitches to be found, such as them getting stuck in one spot, running into walls, forming odd conga lines and even firing in the opposite direction of you, yet still apparently hitting you. Invisible walls are also a bit of a pain in the ass, especially as I found a particularly brilliant one which actually killed me without warning, even though the layout of the map suggested I could go that way. I also encountered a glitch in which you’re told not to kill a specific target until he’s picked up some specific intel, but killing anybody else in the level also results in instant failure. Upon restarting checkpoints some vehicles and other things had a weird habit of  respawning, even though they shouldn’t. Finally the comedy effect of watching a bullet demolish a skeleton will be increased many times over as bodies become lodged in scenery.

Sniper Elite III definitely needs a good polishing and many of its mechanics need tightened up. Idiotic AI, the lack of a solid story and mediocre gameplay outside of the actual sniping are all holding this game back from true greatness, and yet despite these problems this is an easy game to love, its brilliant level design and satisfying sniping providing hours of fun. Challenge and enjoyment comes not so much from the enemy, but your own desire to pull off better shots and play around in the sands of Africa.

The Good:
+ BOOM! Headshot, bitch!
+ Great levels.
+ Nailing a long shot with zero assists.
+ Enjoyable multiplayer.

The Bad:
– Enemies are morons.
– Lack of polish.
– No story to speak of.
– No way of removing the red reticule without losing other assists.

The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Greatness lies within Sniper Elite III, but if you can accept its flaws you’ll have a blast.

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