Since launch, 505 Games’ Sniper Elite V2 has gunned its way to the top of the UK charts, stepping over the likes of Prototype 2 and Starhawk along the way. With the top 40 usually composed of EA power-sellers, Call of Duty and Wii party sensations, taking the two top spots is nothing to be scoffed at, especially for a budget third person shooter.
However, as we know all too well, sales aren’t everything. Sure, they go a long way in buttering up boardrooms for a sequel, but when all is said and done will wannabe sharp-shooters be pining for more Sniper Elite when the final body drops?[boxout]The final days of World War II have almost run their course; the remaining Nazi contingent clings to the ruins of Berlin as Soviet troops overrun the city. It’s absolute chaos to say the least, and perhaps not the best time to be sifting through the rubble for turncoat rocket scientists.
However, OSS operative Karl Fairburne has his orders, and with rifle in hand, takes to the peppered streets and burnt out alleys of Berlin in search of a small cluster of men capable of bringing the world to its knees.
It’s fair to say that exposition is in short supply, V2 immediately reaching for the blinkers before catapulting players down a one-way street, bearing no deviation. After spending a fair few hours staring into the protagonist’s right shoulder, I could only envision him as a mass of polygons and nothing else.
There’s no character development here whatsoever, and if it weren’t for a quick bit bout of preliminary research, I wouldn’t have even picked up on his name. Even the game’s cast of villainous fascist boffins are left untouched, given a brief few seconds of glory before you demonstrate the wonders of DIY facial re-construction.[drop2]An in-depth canonical page turner is strictly off the cards then, although, to be fair, a complex narrative thread wouldn’t have suited V2’s “shooting gallery” nature anyway. Still, without even a smattering of thoughtful story beats, Sniper Elite soon becomes a flat-out A to B Nazi hunt.
Spanning at least five hours depending on your approach, the game’s singleplayer campaign is solid for the most part. Although set in Berlin, Rebellion has ensured that players won’t be milling through the same derelict outposts and abandoned streets, with a number of stages taking place in silos, quarries, and even at the Brandenburg Gate. Each chapter opens with a short briefing, usually outlining the next individual about to be erased from Karl’s “least favourite Nazis” list. Unfortunately, level design also suffers from this same degree of linearity.
In this respect, V2 becomes much more like you conventional run n’ gun third person shooter. There will always be a small array of vantage points to choose from, though this multiplicity has no real bearing; you’re still bound to a template in which progression is achieved solely by clearing pockets of enemies and triggering set pieces. You never feel too hemmed in, but compared to the luscious open jungle of City Interactive’s Sniper: Ghost Warrior, there’s little room for tactical navigation.
When ogling through the scope of a sniper rifle however, it’s quite easy to detach from such scathing criticism. Despite their somewhat-constricted design pattern, levels are padded out to make full use of V2’s lifelike ballistics.
Pulling off the perfect shot in Sniper Elite requires an ample dose of patience; height, angle, distance and motion are all taken into account when playing on the default or “Elite” difficulty settings. Needless to say, yanking on the trigger whenever an enemy pops into the cross-hairs won’t always cut it, the majority of kill shots forcing players to either aim above or to the side of their target.
Gunplay is intense to say the least, at least for those who have a grasp on ballistics. To the less attuned, it may seem hit and miss, a sizeable departure from Call of Duty’s distinct brand of competitive “no-scope” sniping. However Sniper Elite offers a crutch to such players.
Whenever static or prone, Karl’s heart rate will gradually drop in pace, filling a gauge that can then be used to trigger a guidance system. Not only does the “Empty Lung” action slow down on-screen enemies, it also displays a red marker, indicating exactly where to shoot.
No matter how you approach V2’s unique brand of shooting, the pay-off is immensely gratifying. Well-placed shots are rewarded with a intuitive bullet-cam sequence, following the fatal projectile from barrel to target in visceral slow motion. We’ve seen similar visual techniques used in similar games, though Sniper Elite’s Mortal Kombat-esque X-ray overlay adds a tangible layer of brutality.
Both the entry point and exit wound of each shot is made clearly visible, displaying the shattered bones and splintered organs in between. Out of the five hundred or so shots I’d taken throughout multiple runs of the campaign, my personal highlight was quite the cracker. What seemed like a complete miss saw a single bullet bounce on the edge of a knee-high wall before embedding itself in a Nazi’s private parts (which actually showed up on the X-ray) only to pass straight through and nip another poor sod through the eye.[drop]It may have a strong core, but Sniper Elite is eventually let down by the surrounding scaffold of half-baked gameplay mechanics, the stealth system being a prime example. With no mini-map or HUD to go by, the chance of clearing an entire stage without being spotted is close to impossible.
It may not have been perfect in Ghost Warrior, but the presence of a map allowed players to plan ahead and pick out targets in a methodical order. In Sniper Elite there is no such liberty, impounded further by the racket your rifle makes every time it goes off. Once alarmed, guards won’t hesitate in pursuing you, and considering the abyssal close-range gunplay, it doesn’t take long for the whole experience to come tumbling down.
For what you get -a few lines of spoken dialogue in between missions- voice acting is fair as is the accompanying soundtrack. For a budget title the visual presentation is actually in good nick. Lighting effects are handled well, and enemies react organically upon being shot, despite a middling degree of polish.
- Weapon ballistics are done well.
- X-ray bullet cam is immensely satisfying.
- World War II setting proves refreshing at times.
- Overwatch online co-op is unique in premise.
- A stealth system that is ironically nowhere to be seen.
- Desultory close-range combat.
- Narrative fails to make an impact, let alone leave one.
- Lack of competitive multiplayer.
- Hit and miss cover mechanic.
Sniper Elite holds just as many pleasant surprises as it does disappointments. Despite the well-done gunplay and unique aesthetic flares, there are simply too many areas in which the game feels underdeveloped. Without a sound stealth mechanic in place, you never feel as empowered as you ought to, the absence of a HUD or any sort of tactical overlay coating on an additional layer of fragility.
It may not be a triumphant return for the series, but with V2’s sudden commercial success, a sequel isn’t completely out of the question. A Cold War setting, competitive online multiplayer, organic open level design and at least some degree of AI predictability could easily turn Sniper Elite into a series worthy of flagship status.
Whilst many will be holding out for the upcoming Ghost Warrior 2, particularly as it’s coming at a budget price, V2 is substantive enough to keep sniping aficionados ticking over for a good few months.