Karl Fairburne isn’t exactly the most emotive of videogame characters. Then again, he’s everything that you’d want in an elite sniper, heading deep into enemy territory time and again on missions that alter the course of the Second World War. After helping to stall and turn the tide of the war in North Africa in Sniper Elite 3, his latest mission takes him across the Mediterranean and into Italy.
Sniper Elite 3’s North African setting made for a lovely change of pace, compared to the vast majority of World War 2 games, which almost invariably focus on the Allies’ push through Europe and into Germany. Yet, over the course of the campaign, even that setting could become a little stale. Italy has a lot more environmental variety, going from the gorgeous Mediterranean weather of the south up to the freezing cold of the Alps. This is sure to be the most diverse looking game in the series so far.
Speaking to us a couple months ago, Lead Designer Paul Wright said, “Every single level offers something kind of unique, and I can’t talk too much about it. It’s tough to talk about, but we are capitalising on Italy pre-war, I think that’s a fair thing to say.”
The more mountainous regions give more than a few opportunities for interesting level design. The mission I played, which has done the rounds throughout 2016, saw Karl tasked with blowing up a viaduct high up in the mountains with a heavy artillery train sat right in the middle of it. It’s a large sandbox area, larger than anything that was in previous games, and just inviting you to explore and find a path through.
Paul explained, “From my point of view, sniping’s about long distance shooting, and in Sniper Elite 3 we really tried to push the boundaries on that, but I think we were hampered a little bit hampered by the the fact that we had to straddle and make it for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC as well. We wanted to make the levels longer, bigger, freer, but I think it was a technical restriction.
“We’ve got rid of last gen now, so the levels are the size we were thinking about. The viaduct level has 500, 600 metre sight lines on it – bullet drop goes down quite a way at that range. There’s lot of height vantage, so you can snipe from high point, draw distances are longer… we just didn’t have the technological oomph back then to do all these things. We have it now and we’re capitalising on it and using it.”
The sniping on offer is just as good as ever, catering to different levels of player ability with various assists, like showing the bullet drop that you will see when taking a deep and steadying breath. Spotting and marking enemies with your binoculars will now show more information about them, such as the weapons they’re carrying and how far away they are – something that a trained sniper ought to be able to work out, but your average gamer won’t intuitively know. Amusingly, hovering over them for long enough might bring up some personal facts about those soldiers as well.
As you’d expect, there’s also the gruesome joy of the X-Ray kill cam, which peels back the outer layers of an enemy soldier to show the bullet passing through their body in slow motion, breaking bones and tearing muscles in the process. It’s schlocky and gratuitous, and potentially quite distasteful depending on your point of view – you can turn it off, as always – but its reach is being broadened. Kill cams can now be triggered by shrapnel kills from explosives, melee kills and stealth kills, bringing them to the fore even more often and in more situations.
The radial inventory menu now has more layers to it, allowing you to use many of your items in different ways. For co-op, medkits now let you heal or stabilise, grenades can be stuck to surfaces with tape, and so you. Nothing has a single purpose anymore.
“Sniper Elite 3 had quite a broad range of items that you could use, like TNT and grenades and stuff, but for Sniper Elite 4, we kind of thought that, well, Karl hasn’t got many more things that they used in WW2 that he could really have on him. So we had a look at what we could do and introduced dual functionality to every item, actually.
“Even the rock from Sniper Elite 3 has dual functionality of whistling. When you throw the rock, the enemy goes toward the rock, and so you could throw it towards an explosive that you’ve set up, but the whistle is quite handy as well, because it draws the enemy towards where the sound is. Combine that with the foliage system we now have, you can call a guy over, melee him and drag him into the bush. If I’m hanging off a ledge, which you can now do in ths game, you can whistle, he comes over and you drag him off a ledge.”
The more action oriented game has certainly been enhanced, but the more purist stealth approach is still enticing to play with and there’s still just as much possibility to sneak through with a silenced Welrod in hand. Helping to facilitate that and making the game feel more natural as you flow from one style of play to another, one of the key areas that Sniper Elite 4 improves upon is the enemy AI.
“In Sniper Elite 3, we moved away from Sniper Elite V2 by allowing the player to de-escalate the situation with this relocation system,” Paul explained. “It’s quite similar to what snipers do in real life, they snipe and move and they rarely fire two shots from the same place because you get found out. At the beginning of Sniper Elite 4, that was one of the things I wanted to change further, to make it a bit more freeform and flexible. So the AI guys and the designers basically asked the question: What would happen in real life?”
Sniper Elite 4 shifts that from being an on-of toggle of awareness to something much more analogue. A single rifle crack from a long way away is going to loudly echo around the map, certainly – there’s something quite cinematic about the notion of this – but those echoes bounce off the hills and buildings, coming from all directions. Suddenly the AI are now on alert, but they now have to try and triangulate your position. It’s only if you stay in the same place for too long and fire several shots that they’ll be able to narrow down your position and hunt you down.
It even depends on the type of gun you’re using at a given moment, as Paul said, “It’s all based on the audio of the weapon that you’re firing. Pistols and SMGs make less sound, so people aren’t going to hear you that far away when you’re using those, and obviously the Welrod on Marksman and Sniper Elite difficulty is suppressed, so you can’t hear it.”
There’s the potential for a new and quite different feel to the gameplay in Sniper Elite 4. The old approach of sneaking through to your objective, using noise as a cover, silenced weaponry and stealth takedowns to get ahead, but now there’s more possibilities open to you, with larger maps and more dynamic AI. With co-op running all the way through the campaign once again, maybe my regular co-op buddy and I won’t be reloading a save if we get discovered, but actively planning to strike quickly and fade into the background.