Number Four With A Bullet
Look, Nazis don’t like to be called Nazis anymore. They prefer alternative nomenclature these days, such as ‘the alt-right’, or perhaps ‘massive tossers’. We here at NGB are very understanding and not ones to offend or exclude anyone from our reviews, so we will respectfully decline from using the ’n’ word for this review.
Title: Sniper Elite 4
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Rebellion Developments
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC (PS4 version reviewed, code provided by publisher)
Between 1939 and 1945, some alt-right Germans caused the second world war and it’s been a fertile ground for books, movies and games ever since. You probably already know this; it’s fairly common knowledge, even though a fairly sizeable part of America seem to have recently forgotten what happens when you elect fascists to a position of power. While your enduring image of this earlier conflict may be waves of troops battling through mud and indescribable horror, this doesn’t really scream of glamour. In the interests of keeping things light, it’s a common trope to focus on just one brave soldier, fighting against the odds without fear or support, to tell the story.
Enter Sniper Elite 4; one such game that casts you in the role of American sniper Karl Fairburne and ignores all that other nastiness with trenches and uncountable death. Karl is sort of the first sticking point for Sniper Elite 4, and indeed it’s predecessors; square-jawed, deep of voice and usually fairly emotionless, he’s something of a throwback (perhaps deliberately) to the masculine heroes of early WW2 movies. In a world of far more deep and multi-layered characters, he is not particularly interesting.
The game very much hinges on the catharsis of putting bullets through virtual alt-right skulls as a selling point. And boy, does it go to town with it. The Sniper Elite games became well-known for the graphic, slow-mo x-ray replays of bullets entering targets’ bodies. On paper this sounds pretty grim, akin to Mortal Kombat’s recent incarnation doing the same, but far more grounded in reality. It’s bizarrely entertaining, though; not one for gratuitous violence, I nevertheless frequently shouted ‘LOOK AT HIS HEAD GO!’ when replaying these macabre moments. Livers pop, brains shudder and bones crack in enormous detail as ammunition flies in and then out again. I use the Evil Dead analogy frequently, but it’s no less apt here than ever; the death replays are so needlessly graphic it becomes vaguely hilarious and provides infinitely more satisfaction when taking out distant targets to get such a close-up, rather than just seeing a distant figure drop to the floor. It’s also vaguely educational; I reckon I could have easily drawn a decent diagram of the circulatory system after reaching only the third level.
Not willing to be pigeonholed, Karl also deals death in a few other ways. In fact, with the array of weapons available including pistols, submachine guns, explosives and melee attacks, you could probably play the game as a standard shooter if you felt so inclined. You’d be missing out, though; sneaking around to pinpoint the best sniping location, holding your breath and knocking helmets off soldier’s heads with well-placed bullets is far more satisfying than blasting your way around. The stealth required to find such a sweet spot has been criticised, particularly in Sniper Elite 3, but here it feels reasonable. It’s some way off a game like Metal Gear Solid 5; The Phantom Pain, which despite having a story like someone vomiting after swallowing a whole crate of fortune cookies, did sneaking, shooting and stealth in general excellently. You therefore do not reach anything near the same sense of peril upon getting discovered; German troops in this period apparently had a fairly serious amnesia epidemic, and will happily forget foreigners carrying huge sniper rifles in a matter of minutes. Anything for a quiet life, eh? Indeed, I very rarely made any effort to hide bodies or not alert other nearby troops when taking shots and found I could get through most parts of the game without much difficulty. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, it just isn’t the most intense, serious sneaking sim out there. But that’s fine; we already have Metal Gear Solid 5, we don’t need two.
This causes something of a dissonance in the game, though. Bullet physics are taken incredibly seriously, with aim adjustment and varying levels of ballistics available, but the realism is shattered when you can escape guards by essentially playing peekaboo. The game feels far more throwaway than other stealth-em-ups like Hitman or the aforementioned MGSV as a result, as if you could probably just fluff and bumble through most of it without needing to plan or strategise that much. It feels akin to Just Cause 3, not just because of the sunny island settings but also because it isn’t taking itself particularly seriously. It shares certain mechanics with Metal Gear, such as the ability to tag enemies using binoculars for future reference, and hiding bodies. The ability to hide in cover doesn’t feel quite as solid as it should; there’s no definitive ‘snap’ or groove to it, you just sort of loiter near a wall and it gives you the option to pop out if you fancy it. Karl also seems a bit too picky about changing stance, often refusing to go into a prone position if there’s a particularly sharp looking rock on the ground. You also can’t move the camera in this stance without him turning his entire body around, even though you can do this in other stances. There’s also the nice addition of sound-masking, meaning you can use the noise from aircraft or nearby machinery to cover the noise from your weapon, adding an extra variable to consider when plotting your next kill.
Those island settings are wonderful, though. Making the most of the bright Mediterranean vibes in Italy, you could easily be in an interactive holiday programme if it wasn’t for all the blood and exploding organs. It’s almost disappointing when the game throws a night-time level at you, after making you accustomed to sunny beaches, harbours and old sleepy towns early on in your quest. Separated into differing areas rather than following the prevailing trend for an open world, these are well designed and pack a large variety of different settings and styles into an area that provides opportunities to approach targets in different ways while not feeling overwhelming or leaving you travelling for long periods of time. You can hit side missions, triggered by talking to other members of your resistance squad you acquire in later stages, or just bounce straight to the main goals. There’s also a serious amount of collectibles to find, meaning you can really take your time and stretch things out if you’re not in a hurry to stop the march of fascism or anything.
Things show surprising potential in the online multiplayer. Using the traditional arena-shooter format, the pace of most deathmatch shooters is slowed considerably by the emphasis on sniping rather than simply tearing around and throwing grenades. Games are often tense, more so than the single player, as your fellow players pose more of a threat than the forgetful AI in the campaign. Maps are sizeable and detailed, meaning the potential for hiding places and surprise kills is huge. I had no problem with the matchmaking even prior to release of the game, although that said some issues with lag and flickering surfaces hindered me at points. This was pre-release though, so there’s every chance this will have been ironed out for the public launch.
Less surprising is how enjoyable the co-op mode can be when playing through with a friend. Teaming up with Editor Ben, it quickly became apparent that the Resident Evil 5 rules apply here; what is enjoyable in single player becomes amplified when you can coordinate your attacks, either spreading out to strike groups of opponents from different sides or just competing to see who can get the most gruesome replays and best shots. Other than that it’s the same game, with your two players becoming one in cut-scenes in some real Fight Club twist, but with twice as much potential for dealing death.
Not as realistic as it thinks it is, but nevertheless a grimly entertaining alternative to the vast majority of console shooters, packing in a good gun-feel, satisfying kills and some beautiful scenery to what may have otherwise been another fairly unremarkable WW2 shooter. It’s also out on Valentines Day, if you’re feeling particularly bitter about being alone (or perhaps being with someone, I don’t know your story) and fancy piercing some organs instead of paying £75 for soup. Factor in the tense pace of the multiplayer and opportunities for strategy in the co-op and this is showing strong promise from what seemed like a very B-tier franchise to a first timer going in.
Definitely ‘nazi’ worst shooter.