Y’know, as soon as I learned about Sniper Elite VR I though, “Actually, that makes complete and total sense.” What’s not to love about hefting a sniper rifle in VR and delivering a perfect long-shot straight through the ball-sacks of Nazis? This spin-off is developed by a different team with Rebellion mainly acting as the publishers, probably so they can carry on working on the inevitable Sniper Elite 5. So how does Sniper Elite handle the jump into VR? Is bringing a rifle to your face, aiming down the sight and pulling the trigger as much fun as it sounds?
The story is framed as an old man sitting in his garden, reminiscing of his days as a sniper for the Italian resistance during World War 2. Between missions you get to watch the old man’s family messing about in the garden and flick through available missions in a scrap book.
The actual plot is delivered through narration only, with no other characters ever speaking or properly interacting with you. That makes the story tricky to connect with, especially since a heavy portion of it revolves around trust and betrayal. It’s hard to care about a possible traitor in your midst when you’ve never even spoken to any of them. Likewise as the old man speaks of friendships forged it’s hard to care when you’ve barely seen them. After spending over a dozen hours shooting Nazi’s, I still don’t have a clue who anyone is. I can’t even remember the old man’s name, or give you any idea of who he is or what he’s like.
The narrative is an excuse to propel you through a variety of locations and objectives. Sometimes you’re standing in a small area, fending off waves of enemy soldiers, and sometimes you’re sneaking into a base while whistling the James Bond theme tune.
Sniper Elite 4 offered some sizeable levels with different routes and a decent sense of freedom. Exploration of the various pretty locales could reveal opportunities for some seriously lengthy shots and ways to cover up the noise so you could remain hidden. I was hopeful, then, that Sniper Elite VR would aim to replicate this style, but alas it doesn’t. Levels are very linear and quite short, with a lot of areas featuring heavily restrictive fences and doors to coral you along. Sniping spots are obvious and there’s very little reason to leave them, and what little exploration you can do isn’t worth the effort. It’s less playful than its flat-screen counterparts, and there’s no particularly exciting ideas or moments like Sniper Elite 4 has. Aside from shooting a high-ranking Nazi on a moving vehicle, I have no strong memories from Sniper Elite VR’s campaign.
The controls follow the basic template followed by most VR shooters at this point; two main weapons can be slung over your shoulders with a sidearm on your belt. Finally, there’s room for two grenades on your belt as well. I also appreciate the Half-Life: Alyx method of flicking your wrist to pull ammo boxes and guns to you, even if it isn’t quite as fun because you don’t get to catch them nor quite as slick. There is, though, something immensely pleasurable about snatching up MP40s, stripping their magazine and tossing the gun away.
For the most part the controls work well enough. And there’s the typical range of options for comfort, like snap turning and teleporting in case normal locomotion makes you feel ill. I can’t imagine a sniper who vomits up their breakfast is too helpful, after all. I do wish there was a way of getting rid of the vignetting effect when crouched, though, because that becomes annoying fast. And while we’re on the subject, the game doesn’t class you as crouched and thus quieter when you physically crouch down. If you want to be stealthy you have to press the physical crouch button. It’s a small thing, but it’s attention to detail like this that can make or break VR games. It also makes getting down on one-knee to steady yourself look bloody stupid when you’re also crouched in-game to avoid being spotted.
Playing Sniper Elite VR, though, is a constant reminder that two-handed weapons are tricky things to handle when you don’t actually have a physical object linking your hands together. The developers do okay by using a lot of smoothing, but there’s definitely going to be moments where your hands go out of line and cause issues. It’s a good excuse to bust out something like a ProtubeVR or Salaki. Sniper Elite VR feels so much better when you can physically lift something up, ram it against your shoulder and line up the perfect shot.
The other issue stems from what should be one of the most enjoyable parts of Sniper Elite VR; pulling the bolt back and then slamming it home again. There’s something so satisfying about a bolt-action sniper rifle, but because the developers opted to use the grip button for both holding the rifle and pulling the bolt that satisfaction is lost. It’s far, far too easy to accidentally grip the bolt when you were trying to hold the rifle and vice versa. In the middle of a pitched battle where you’re trying to get shots off as fast as possible, bringing the scope up to your eye and pulling the trigger only to find you actually pulled the bolt back kills the enjoyment and immersion.
I’m loathe to say that turning off manual reloading is probably the better way to play the game, that way you can keep your hands aligned and don’t have to worry about priming your gun when you actually wanted to pull the trigger. The other option is to disregard how actual sniper rifles work and operate the bolt with your off-hand, that way you can keep your primary hand on the trigger. You aren’t going to win any points for authenticity, but it works and solves the problem of grabbing the wrong thing.
These blemishes are a crying shame because when Sniper Elite VR is working properly it’s bloody good fun. Just like the mainline games there are loud noises that can cover the explosive bang of your rifle, and timing a perfect headshot so that nobody hears it feels great. It’s even better when you start racking up a chain of kills, hitting shot after shot in quick succession without even needing to use Focus. The game’s a bit more forgiving, mind you; wind and drop-off seem less significant than in the mainline series. That’s probably smart considering you have to contend with the score wobbling around more, though. In fact, it’s because the sniping does feel so good that I’m willing to forgive the game’s numerous other faults, and would even tentatively suggest that you do the same, dear reader.
Oh, and if you are lucky enough to have some sort of gunstock then Sniper Elite’s shooting is awesome. With a physical object in your hands, popping heads is excellent. It’s definitely the way I would recommend playing, if at all possible.
The franchise’s signature slow-motion kill cams are even more gloriously gory and awesome in VR, letting you revel in a job well done. Of course, it can be turned off entirely if you’d prefer, and you can choose whether to have the camera follow the bullet or just show the destruction at the end of the bullet’s path. Personally, I found following the bullet’s trajectory to be a tad disorientating, so I stuck with just watching the X-ray view of flesh, bone and organs being ripped to pieces.
There’s a light dusting of stealth throughout the campaign, but it’s a somewhat half-hearted feature. To take an enemy out you have to smack them with the butt of your gun, but sometimes it fails to register and there’s no sense of impact. But worse is when an enemy turns around because at that point you have to smack them a few times to kill ’em, so you just wind up ineffectively flailing at the air, hoping the game will properly register it. The better option is the wellrod, a silenced pistol perfect for popping skulls.
Speaking of which, there’s no option for two-handing side-arms, so you’re going to have to go gangster and one-hand it. That’s probably why pistols have almost no notable recoil. If you do try to get a second hand on the pistol grip you wind up yanking the magazine out, which might be hilarious for the German soldiers but is far less amusing for you. And no, throwing a magazine at the enemy doesn’t seem to work. Bummer.
Enemy AI proves to be another weak-point. The Nazis in the main Sniper Elite games were never the smartest bunch to ever pick up a gun, but at least in those games the easily manipulated AI gave the whole thing Hitman vibe. You could lay traps, pull flanking moves, setup long shots and more. Because the levels are more restrictive in Sniper Elite VR the shortcomings of the AI are much more up-front and in-your-face. If they find a body it’ll take ’em no time at all to decide it isn’t a problem and go back to regular patrolling. If they do actually come looking for you the level design means there are not many places to hide. And once alerted the enemy will happily funnel into doorways, perfect for whipping out an MP40 and gunning them down. Their only advantage is that they are shocking accurate even at long range with all-manner of weapons.
It’s more fun to whip out a shotgun or an StG 44 and ignore the dumb AI by charging through rooms and gunning them all down. There’s nothing special about the gunplay, but it’s solid enough to let you have a good time.
Each mission ends in a screenful of points that are awarded for your sniping skills, and you’ll be granted Stars for achieving the primary objectives such as hitting 5 shots over 25m without using Focus or finishing the mission in under 10-minute. And if you use a weapon enough it’ll level up, increasing the points you earn with it. In other words, there’s an arcade veneer on Sniper Elite VR that attempts to give you a reason to replay levels, especially because later missions won’t unlock unless you have enough Stars. Some people may really enjoy this element of the game but I have to admit it wasn’t for me. The levels just don’t offer enough variety or freedom to justify repeat plays.
It’s missing a lot of the polish of other titles, too, especially in terms of interactivity. Aside from picking up empty bottles that can be tossed to cause distractions, there’s very little you can touch or mess about with. Of course, interactivity isn’t really the focus of the game so I can let that slide, but there are a few instances where the lack of interactivity is a blatant missed opportunity. Using a radio to save the game or planting explosives is done by holding down the grip button for a few seconds – hardly immersive or fun. I do understand that interacting with the world adds a lot of work for the developers, but immersion is king in VR and the extra work is well worth it.
Finally, the graphics are absolutely fine. There are a few nice environments, some decent lighting and the guns are reasonably detailed. More importantly is that the performance is rock-solid, which I view as more important on a platform where framerate hitches can make your lunch hit the wall.
There’s a damn good game in Sniper Elite VR but it needed more time or more money (probably both) to fulfil that potential. Once this one has had a few updates I’d love to see them start working on a sequel that focuses on more open level design and more interactivity within those levels. But back to this game: if you’re looking for a compelling World War II tale, this isn’t it. And if you’re seeking the more open style of the main games, this isn’t it either. However, if the idea of picking up a WWII era sniper rifle in VR and using it to mow down Nazis is appealing, and you’re willing to forgive its obvious shortcomings, then Sniper Elite VR can be a very good time.