Sniper Elite 4 feels like the culmination of gameplay perfected over the course of the four-game series.
Playing once again as Karl Fairburne, an American sniper extraordinaire who has served as the main character through all four Sniper Elite titles thus far, you make your way (slowly, if you’re me) through various war-torn maps on your seemingly unending quest to take down the Nazi’s once and for all.
Really, it’s a simple set up for a game series, and the developers behind the titles, Rebellion, has never quite managed to make the story anything more than bland cutscenes featuring mostly forgettable characters that you’re forced to pay attention to in between missions so you can keep track of the various tasks at hand.
Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t quite break that tradition, but I will admit that I was more invested in the story than I was during the previous game. Karl himself remains a disappointment, a ‘stone cold badass’ caricature that would be better suited for a forgotten 90’s Sylvester Stallone war movie than he is in a game which otherwise attempts to realistically paint one of the most famous conflicts in human history. Karl is gruff, and a man’s man, and I feel as though a story could really be told with a more humanized main character, one who is affected by the sheer amount of killing he has done, and will continue to do to win the day, instead of a borderline sociopath who thinks murdering seventy people is just another Monday.
Another disappointment with the game that has plagued the series since the beginning is the graphics. In my mind, Sniper Elite has never managed to be on the cutting edge when it comes to graphically impressive games. It’s always been serviceable, and that’s alright. The Sniper Elite games make me think of a scrappy underdog. They seem to be toeing the line between AAA and something a little less. Whether due to limited budgets, or someone slipping something into my drink and making me loopy, I don’t know, but it’s always been that way. So it’s somewhat extra frustrating when, for the first time in the series, I’m blown away with how some of it looks. The clothing is the high point to me. The outfits are (as far as I know) authentic to the time period, and in SE4 they look top notch. You can see the stitching, the buttons, the patches that are sewn on. Looking at Karl up close, I really appreciate the effort and time which obviously went into his character model. Facial expressions are another standout. The characters in this game look really, really good. Judging on that alone, it would mean Sniper Elite 4 has finally beaten that underdog status. Something happened between the third and fourth game, and Rebellion has put their foot down and said “This is us! We are here! We can do gaming as well as anyone else!”
So then, it’s a shame that the water looks the way it does. The game begins right next to some water, and when I saw it I made a face and said, “yeesh.” Okay, though, Karl isn’t in the Navy, right? Water doesn’t matter. For the most part, the maps look great, and sometimes even gorgeous. But there are things that stick out like a sore thumb. There are clumps of wildflowers strewn about the maps which you can hide in. They’re flat and ugly and would look more at home on the last generation. The ground, in general, is rough, another shame when the buildings are so impressively rendered. Sneaking through the center of town down a small alley with crumbling stone buildings looming over you can really take your breath away. And so those graphical hiccups hurt even more. For the first time Sniper Elite looks as though it could have been a contender for best-looking game of the year if only more time and care had gone into a few aspects of the graphics.
It sounds as though I’m beating up on the title, and Rebellion in general, but I’m not. The Sniper Elite series is one I genuinely enjoy, and it’s hard not to root for the games and the minds behind it, if only because they’re trying to do something almost no one else is. Sniper Elite 4 is a game which can genuinely be played any way you see fit. You have your marching orders, and you’re free to get them done however you would like. The game does not try to force you down a certain path. If you go in guns blazing, well that’s fine. You’ll never ben penalized. Want to take it slow and pick everyone off from afar? That’s great too. Both ways work, and often in the course of a single mission, you’ll find yourself switching back and forth. A large warehouse may get sketchy, and you whip out your machine gun and mow the Nazi’s down. After you leave, you may find a spot to hunch down and get to sniping.
The maps themselves are leaps and bounds better than the previous entry. As fun as Sniper Elite 3 was, I really disliked most of the maps. They were large and expansive, but it felt like a cheat, as they often had you snaking through enemy territory along a line. There might be a big lake in the center, forcing you up and to the left. Or rocks in your way, or any other arbitrary blockage that kept you going one way through a level.
In Sniper Elite 4, I never once felt as though I couldn’t go anywhere I wanted in a map, or fulfill my various objectives in any order. The maps are absolutely huge and filled with great sniping points. Most have a loud sound that occurs occasionally to help mask your shots, whether the sound came from passing planes or a massive railway gun firing. Of course, there are various machines you can kick, causing them to chug and make sounds as well, so you can crouch beside them and fire at will. Finding the best spots to clear out heavily contested spots on the maps was one of the most enjoyable features for me, and the spots aren’t always the most obvious. I overlooked tall towers multiple times to get low and fire under fences, keeping close to a sound creator and keeping my AI enemies confused to my location, even as I blew away their buddy standing two feet away from them.
The AI in Sniper Elite 4 is really a shining example of a game doing it right. Too many times in games I’ll start killing the enemy and set everyone on alert, but after hiding a few moments they roving guards return to normal, as though I didn’t just kill half their number. Sniper Elite 4 never feels like that. The soldiers will doggedly hunt you down, and even after they drop from their alert phase, they’re still talking about you. To my eyes, it appeared often that setting them into alert changed their guard routes when they returned to their normal behavior. It really helps add a layer of realism to the game, and it sets Sniper Elite 4 apart from other stealthy titles.
Once you kill a Nazi you can search his body. Often he’ll have ammo, and you can swap one of your guns for him. Sometimes the Nazi has a letter on his person. It might be from his wife, or his kids, or a letter that’s meant to be sent to his loved ones when he dies. These letters represent the most shocking bit of Sniper Elite 4 for me. They made me care about my enemy. Sure they’re Nazi’s, and they’re also not real, but reading a letter to some poor saps wife about how he can’t wait to return home in a months time after I shot him in the head (or often, the balls), it bummed me out. For a series that has never quite managed to get me to become invested in the story it was telling, the fact that I felt an emotional connection to my enemies (except that one asshole with the letter from his daughter telling him to kill as many Americans as he can) is a massive achievement. Hats off to Rebellion for somewhat humanizing a group of people which are so often portrayed as boogymen. Nazis are the worst of the worst all of the time, but here’s a game that portrays them often as simply men trying to do right by their country and family. Of course, Hitler sucks (and once again there is DLC for the series which lets you kill that jerk) but the guys your fighting in Sniper Elite 4 are just soldiers like Karl himself.
With each title in the series, Sniper Elite has slowly perfected its gameplay. Sniper Elite 4 is clearly the culmination of that process, and the gameplay it presents is some of the most fun you can have in gaming today. The sniping is satisfying and includes a few toggles you can turn on or off to make the game more challenging. Want to know exactly where your bullet is going to go after the wind and distance are factored in? Well, you can. Want to try to figure it out yourself? You can do that too. And don’t forget the impressively gory kill cams, where a bullet flies from your rifle in slow motion, slamming into an enemy that looks as though he’s being X-rayed so you can see his jaw shatter, or his eyeball pop, or yes, even his testicles explode as hot lead slices through them. It’s really one of the most satisfying mechanics in modern gaming.
The difficulty in Sniper Elite 4 was a sore spot for me at first, if only because the game seemed way too simple. You can tag enemies with your binoculars, and they’ll glow white for the rest of the mission, even when they’re behind things. Often, though, on normal difficulty, it seemed as though everyone was showing up on my radar without even having to be tagged. I didn’t really have to work for anything.
In the menu you can choose from other difficulties, or even better, you can go through various mechanics one by one and make a custom difficulty setting. I recommend doing this. For the rest of my playthrough I played with no radar, though I wasn’t willing to lose that bullet preview. I wanted to feel like a world class sniper, without having to worry about the drop and wind direction myself. It made the game challenging, but never frustrating. There was one mission I died over and over on, but when I finally figured out how to cut through a heavily patrolled area I felt as though I had accomplished something. Had I still been playing on normal, I would have known where everyone was without having to look for them first, and I doubt I would have died even once. I like a challenge when I play, and I was thankful for the custom options.
At the end of the day, Sniper Elite 4 is easily the best of the series. It’s a ton of fun, which to me is the most important thing for a game, and though it does have its faults, the good outweighs them so much that they’re easy to overlook. Sniper Elite 4 is an easy recommendation. Pick it up.
Note: Multiplayer was unavailable during the review period for the Xbox One. I hope to play some soon, and I’ll make a separate post and share my thoughts.
-slow-motion bullet effect is one of the coolest things in gaming
-the maps are massive and there’s a ton to do in them
-the game never forces you into something you don’t want to do: truly play your way
-manages to make Nazi’s human
-the story doesn’t grip you the way short letters found on your enemies can
-water and fauna look a generation behind the rest of the graphics
-the main character is dull