It’s a well-known fact snipers are by far the best class in any shooter-orientated game when it comes to both abilities offered and abilities [often] used by the players themselves.There’s a gratifying zeal to garner from taking one’s foe out from a distance — concealed, hidden and more importantly, orchestrated by way of careful strategy as opposed to bold, perhaps brash guns blazing. Whether or not the Sniper Elite series’ persistence is purely down to its recognizing the joy in such a simple premise — of taking out targets from long-range, watching as your good work unfolds in rather Hollywood-esque dramatics and bone/organ-obliterating delight — will of course vary from person to person. But the series pits player satisfaction against player patience; I may very well like a Sunday Roast, but having it for every meal of every day…it’s perhaps the best comparison to be made on how a game’s lone strength (appealing as it might be) can also, potentially, be its undoing.
Yet for a genre trying its utmost to please anyone and everyone (shareholders included), you can’t help but balance that line of thought out with some due appreciation for a studio like Rebellion. After a rather safe third outing, Sniper Elite 4 could give V2 a run for its money as the best the series has offered to date as an experience that is more in-depth for veterans, yet still wholly accessible for complete newcomers alike. Be it the core mechanics — of simulating near-realistic wind and physical conditions in taking out targets — or indeed its structure, Sniper Elite 4 may not win any awards for its expected, though not astounding, step-up in graphical quality, but it will be admired for one of the more satisfying game premises to trek through.
There’s no sign of Rebellion trying to carve out a newfangled gripping or otherwise heart-tugging tale to protagonist, OSS Sniper, Karl Fairburne’s Mediterranean-orientated mission this time around. With the backdrop being the Allies’ operations in Italy circa-1943 this time round, the story involving taking out yet another suspected Nazi “super weapon” will surprise no one, but it’s clear the story is fastened down in the back-seat here and gameplay is what sits neatly at the wheel. Intentional foresight or not, Rebellion’s choice of setting this time round actually offers up a massive pay-off as far as variety and general presentation goes. Again, Sniper Elite 4 isn’t the most visually jaw-dropping or otherwise immersive game to look at — it’s not going to be used to benchmark PC builds — yet there’s no getting away from just how much Rebellion’s artistic and level design shines through.
And impressively so; the first three missions alone taking players across sloping Italian countryside, a coastal market-town and dense woodland alike. One after another, each offering up a well-blended and well-arranged assortment of close-net verticality and more open spaces alike. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t intentionally deter from the main objective just to soak one’s self into the environments on show. Players are even rewarded for such exploration with collectibles that while don’t drastically improve or otherwise alter the state of play at that time, do at least offer a plethora of optional distraction (and risk) to turn a potentially half-hour confident mission into a two-hour scour of the entire environment tainted by player-made error of which Rebellion, so clearly, have added as a clever little, last-minute trip-me-up. Indeed, the first mission alone had me clock in well over two hours — taking in every pocket of the surprisingly detailed level design both structurally and gameplay-wise in asking of the player to frequently shift tactics on the fly. Though the choice of execution may not be extravagant, there’s a definite Hitman vibe that only now comes across with the series’ forth entry: a sudden urge to test the limits and generally soak one’s self into the scenery on show.
With that noted, the formula for success is indeed still relatively the same when simplified to its most basic components. More often than not you’ll be required to recon an area to tag both enemies and exploitable objects alike (such as hanging cranes with accompanying red ring’s of deadly lethality) in one of an assortment of possible sniper nests — be it the top of a tower, the edge of a cliff or simply hidden in the overgrowth. The challenge comes in taking your shot at the right time, using the cover of nearby loud noises to mask your rifle fire, while taking such things as distance and indeed the layout of a nearby plot of land into consideration. The game loop isn’t the most lavish or complex of procedures — left relatively unaltered here — yet that doesn’t mean the ongoing series of taking cover, neutralising a target and moving on (be it AI slowly becoming aware of your presence or still none the wiser) is any less gratifying to get right. Regardless of the changing circumstances as far as AI goes — which here is much improved upon; enemies now moving on a possible fix on your position, or even changing patrol routes altogether, requiring players to be at the top of their A-game stealth-wise — Sniper Elite 4‘s Predator-like picking-off of your targets, like a role reverse of good guys and the one big-bad, keeps the in-moment gameplay fresh, entertaining yet wholly rewarding at the same time.
The only real variety or potential avenues as far as altering how actual events unfold go — outside of the levels themselves and of course the difficulty one chooses, though I recommend going into the single-player on Sniper Elite/Hard mode to get a proper feel of how the game’s mechanics can make or break a good rhythm — come by way of the game’s assortment of weaponry. While the weapons themselves don’t pose or offer any significant differences in either their capabilities or indeed their visual vigor (outside of minor stat differences), the option — neither a perk nor hinderance on the overall experience — is there should players want to master the use of other weapons if desired. Similar to the stand-alone target range mode or extra challenges that get added on to completed missions as temptation to return to former maps, or of course the multiplayer (which I’ll get to), Rebellion can’t be faulted for thinking up as many avenues of investment without making each one disjointedly out-of-place. Such is the case too with optional objectives. Though not necessarily deviating that wildly from off the goal of taking out Nazi soldiers (destroying ammunition in one instance for example, or looking for specific items in another); Sniper Elite 4‘s charm and as such its success, lies in the journey undertaken rather than the criteria finally being met.
We may be four games in, with only the most major of changes being spent on AI behaviour, but it goes without saying the signature bullet cam retains all of its entertaining lust. Be it smiling in glee as a Nazi soldier has his skull (or his testicles) shattered by an impending bullet or due satisfaction at seeing your shot squeeze through the opening in a staircase to take out a similarly-effective hostile sniper. Whether it’s the first shot or the hundredth, Sniper Elite 4 may well (it can be argued) assist the player in getting one’s shot right, but it doesn’t grate or likewise degrade the natural flow of moving in and out of safe cover like a near-invincible silent assassin.
So once you’re done with the single-player, there is of course the return of online multiplayer; in its current shape, housing six competitive modes spanning across maps that, like a lot of competitive shooters, base their geometry and design around single-player mission environments. Outside of the rather sub-standard Deathmatch, Sniper Elite 4 makes sure to spice up the content by adding some due one-more-game hooks in mixing up the conventional 6v6 fixture with modes like “Distance King” that reward teams based on the distance of their kills or even “No Cross” which plays out essentially like Deathmatch only it divides teams into two enclosed sections of the map — carving out a “no man’s land” in the middle. Not only are these modes generally well balanced and stable (outside of a few laggy animations and secondary weapon fire, like sub-machine guns, not inflicting damage on players, which does annoy), they’re also surprisingly tense and involving for what is a rather less-than-bombastic style of play. A fitting tone for such a thing as a sniper battle certainly, but it’s only when you’re in the thick of it — naught but the creak of floorboards or birds tweeting providing the only audio — do these possibly add-on experiences actually carry some significant weight and worthwhile presence in the game’s overall package.
Had the all-round package not be troubled by some rather frustrating restrictions and notable low-points, Sniper Elite 4 might well have had a strong argument to be riding the crest of brilliance in video games this year. But as it turns out, the game can often frustrate (albeit in short spells) with some rather short-sighted restrictions or dictations on play. Where plodding the same square foot of ground to get the correct button prompt to appear (for example, simply wanting to put a dead soldier’s body down means finding the exact point with which that’s available) could be forgiven in the long-run, some puzzling restrictions on which parts of the environment can be traversed — a twelve-foot wall can be climbed, but I can’t simply jump over a knee-high fence for whatever reason — along with some outright unfair “logic” from the AI does, like a lot of stealth games, feel like situations forcibly placed on the player’s shoulders rather than coming by way of actual player action.
An enemy squadron is currently trying to pin-point my location yet somehow, conveniently, converges on my precise position at the first time of asking — having, I’m led to believe, no idea I’m actually there? At its most frustrating, it’s easy to throw a flattened palm out to the logic governing Sniper Elite 4’s methods and be it single-player or indeed multiplayer, some ocassional less-than-polished controls can mean a perfect strategy is tainted (though not entirely ruined) by some unresponsive and clunky actions. Yet having come away from E3 last year, striving to jump straight back into what I played then, it goes without saying Rebellion have done the series proud with what can only be regarded as the best entry in this line of third-person shooters to date. Sniper Elite 4 isn’t perfect, the occasionally unfair intelligence of enemies and rather picky context of certain abilities and prompts let’s that be known. But it’s without doubt the current-gen step-up the series not so much needed — in a successful string of titles that never really did much wrong — but receives instead with plentiful improvements and subtle tweaks to make the less-than-stellar moments quickly wash over.
If you’re willing to look past the graphics and animation in certain pockets, the self-contained loop that is Sniper Elite 4‘s gameplay offers some of the more surprisingly striking moments of well-implemented level design and genuine curiosity you can have in a shooter. This is before of course you factor in the abundance of extra content that’ll keep players coming back for more long-range Nazi slaying. Praise should of course be given to the game, but it’s Rebellion themselves who deserve highlighting, striking a careful balance between assisting their players and leaving them entirely to their own devices-come-mistakes. There aren’t many games out there — acclaimed or not — that can say their multiplayer isn’t just tacked on and Sniper Elite 4‘s efforts not just accompany but actually add value to the final product. Making the argument that, if treated carefully, added modes such as this can indeed work. For everyone else, Sniper Elite 4 is an engrossing single-player experience that makes the greatest strides for the series as a whole, creating not just an entertaining shooter, but a thoroughly well-thought and constructed one at that. Certainly the best Sniper Elite to date, but Rebellion’s best work too? Hey, it just might be.