Sniper Elite 4
At this point it is safe to say I am a big fan of the Sniper Elite series. With Sniper Elite V2 I had a fascinating, if frustrating experience. It was a great concept that was poorly executed in places. However Zombie Army Trilogy span out of that title. Whilst I cannot say I like ZAT, it certainly was a life changing experience I am extremely glad I had. Sniper Elite III was the proof of concept. A totally open Nazi killing playground. It is exactly as hard or as easy as you want it to be. Its core objects and side objects are always memorable. A true play it your way game if there ever was one. Every level was its own tightly designed individual open world and the game did this long before Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain tried to make it popular. And whilst Sniper Elite III didn’t invent the concept of a video game as an ‘anecdote creator’, it performs this job far better than any Far Cry game ever has.
What is a Dreaded Backlog?
Now I am aware I am talking about Sniper Elite III a lot without mentioning the actual focus of this piece; Sniper Elite 4. This is because Sniper Elite 4 plays more or less exactly the same as its predecessor from button controls to the identical HUD (so read my piece about that if the series is foreign to you). Except Sniper Elite 4 is just so much bigger. It isn’t so much if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it as it is if it ain’t broke, expand it! The biggest map of Sniper Elite III is smaller than the smallest of Sniper Elite 4. And the maps in Sniper Elite III were not small even by contemporary standards. The enemy AI is bolstered so that all the opposing combatants are aware of things going on elsewhere, however distant the action might be. What they specifically know is determined by what they can glean. They’ll hear gunshots and only be alerted for the duration of the play session if you can limit the communication efforts there and then, but if you fail to stop a runner or a radio call everyone for miles around you will know what’s up and get ready for you. Sometimes you can do something perfectly and a sniper that’s miles away will spot you and start hunting you. If you can see that far, so can they! Not to say that this new approach is perfect. The Sniper Elite series is still very much a mid-budget series aiming for triple-A status. And when you stretch the size of the maps and the scope of the game’s systems, things do go wrong.
If you imagine Sniper Elite III as a tightly woven and imperfect shawl, but then you make it bigger (Sniper Elite 4) you sort of pull it looser and rip it in places. That’s often how Sniper Elite 4 feels. It’s buggier than its already buggy predecessor. The shooting has glitches and close quarters silent assassinations are significantly less reliable than one would like. Then the game has significant issues with objective markers (as well as the game’s explanations of what the objectives actually are). The game’s start up loading time is gargantuan. I felt sour more often in this title than its immediate predecessor. However it never got to the levels of sheer aggravation felt in Sniper Elite V2 and Zombie Army Trilogy. The game still gives you its greatest asset from Sniper Elite III; you can manually save whenever you want as much as you like. Sometimes I’d accept bugs screwing me over I’d treat it like my character stepped on a twig and alerted the enemies, or that simple human error led the systems to go wrong. If there is a grievous fuck up I don’t want to accept I’ll just reload at whatever point I felt is fair. As said before; the game lets you decide how hard or how easy you want it to be.
Generally speaking I would only reload in the case of bugs and if I was killed in a way I deemed fair I let the game reload automatically rather than cherry picking my own re-entry point. Even if I got pursued by over 50 men (the game is capable of doing that) I wouldn’t reload. It’d make completing a level hours longer, but trying to escape extreme situations is part of the fun. Getting pinned down in a bunker (with only one way out) by a few tanks, aerial bombardment and dozens of infantrymen makes for a fascinating challenge. I have many anecdotes from this game and they’re all long, complex and I don’t want to have to pick my favourite. So I just suggest you either get the game or watch risk taking players like me do Let’s Play videos. I actually purchased the full edition of the game with all DLC content (a while after a release so it was only £40) and my goodness it worth it.
The base game is well over ten hours of content with plenty of unlockables. The DLC is a river of icing on the base game cake. There’s a whole new DLC campaign (that is similar in length to the main campaign) as well as a few extra individual levels including a non-canonical one based around the ultimate catharsis of killing Hitler. Whilst the game’s systems are more compromised than I’d like, the level design is the best it’s ever been. There’s the usual array of submarine dockyards, countryside village assaults, massive towns, castles and so on. However the level of detail put into every level is what makes every one of them stand out. They’ve clearly play tested every part of the level design into perfection, which is impressive for a game with open level design catered to every sort of player ranging from ghost-like stealth master to Rambo-esque run and gunners. As someone who sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum I got to see most sides of every level. It’s hard to put into words how well they predict what players will do and thus provide ways for you to hide from danger, but many more ways for the AI to easily turn the tables on you. The levels aren’t memorable because of cool locations, of which there are many, but because the unique situations they force the player into are always unique (contextually and geographically) and tense and dramatic.
Thus you have to be prepared for everything! I’ve learned the flaws of my own play style and therefore in the generously varied pre-mission prep stage I make sure I pack bandages, a single grenade, trip wires and dynamite. The game wisely limits your item and ammo carrying capacity more than previous titles. This forces you into bold choices often if you need to restock your supplies. It certainly made me carry German weaponry (besides my sniper rifle) when going into a new mission. These pre-mission prep stages are also no longer just before the loading screen. They’re now a miniature hub just off of the main mission area. Inside this hub is a series of people to talk to and radios to listen to! You get to talk to civilians and resistance fighters and so on. In addition to this there is a lot more collectible content in the main mission areas. Even the German soldiers get a lot more personalised things to collect that actually humanise them a lot. This manages to avoid feeling crass, in a game with slow-mo gory bullet time killing, by providing significant context by means of actually having a story and proper characters this time.
Sniper Elite 4 has our usual protagonist in Karl Fairburne. In previous titles he was the most generic sort of stubbly white man video game protagonist. His voice acting gave him some life, but he was still more of an outline of a person than a living and breathing human being. On the other hand that sort of game play purity always worked for what the series wants to achieve. Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t really change that “characterisation” formula as much as push it slightly further. Karl’s mission is based in Italy, there’s a big bad Nazi called Bohm who is heading up a big bad rocket project. This is literally the same plot as Sniper Elite V2 and III. But this time things are very different in how the story plays out! This time Karl has no choice but to work with the local resistance movement led by a shrewd woman named Sofia. The game makes it clear Karl and Sofia make both work for allied forces, but their specific agendas shift from moment to moment. Simply put, Sofia isn’t going to send her people in danger for the overall military gains of the Allied forces. Obviously Italy itself was allied with Nazi Germany in World War Two; so Sofia carries the undercurrent of guilt and shame that comes with not necessarily always standing with the majority of her people, as the French resistance did. Sniper Elite 4 still has a stripped down purity to its storytelling, but it does understand character and storytelling. Karl and Sofia work for different entities, they are both driven people with goals that don’t always align. Thus they are both arrogant and not always co-operative with each other and this does actually lead to them both making costly decisions in the narrative that drive where the story goes next. There are beats, reversals and even multiple encounters with a Bond-like Nazi villain who is surprisingly devious and proactive. The game’s widened scope means there are civilian NPCs in combat zones. You can interact with them and they also have related collectibles betraying a more nuanced inner life than just “civilian NPC”.
None of what I have described about the story and characters above is particularly deep; none of it would make for “great literature”, but when it’s all stacked up together it means you relate to and care about the character’s desires and in turn their missions. Sniper Elite 4 has been pushed beyond just being a nihilistic Nazi-murdering simulator, but without unbalancing the focus on game play by robbing it of its trademark purity. Now that Karl has a character to play off against in Sofia, it means he becomes a character with flaws that lead to bad things happening that change of the course of what happens next. When these bad things happen in a world that has great level design and full of humanised NPCs (from various factions) it makes events relatable. It’s one thing to have a tense stealth game where levels are hours long with great risk, it’s another when it comes with actual personal stakes. I didn’t even get into interesting historical touches such as Karl and Sofia having to work with the Sicilian Mafia and desperately trying to turn a cancer-ridden Nazi scientist to their side. I’ve not really gone into all the game play stuff either. There’s a variety of weaponry including silenced weapons, which again you can choose to use or not use depending on your feelings on difficulty and immersion. There’s optional outfits and there’s a co-op mode I cannot wait to get to on replaying the game. And I am definitely replaying Sniper Elite 4. Halfway through writing this piece I decided to re-install it. This is very honest gushing. I think I’ll find a co-op partner and then put the difficulty (and realism settings) up much higher. It’ll be hours upon hours of a game I already love, but also an entirely new game in a way. Isn’t that just fucking fantastic?
Played on Xbox One and Xbox One X
(This isn’t important and is just a very silly aside, but the numbering of this series is weird. Sniper Elite V2 is called that because it’s about V2 rockets, but also a remake of Sniper Elite; thus “version 2”. So they can’t number the following game as the second one as they need to avoid confusion. So the title Sniper Elite III makes sense, but then with Sniper Elite 4 the game isn’t titled with Roman numerals like its predecessor. III and 4 are also both set years before V2 which hints at sequels set in the Cold War, which we obviously never got. Like I said, this aside is not important.)