There’s something about the gaze of a snipers scope. The cold lens that scans the horizon for an unsuspecting victim, gliding between a soldier cleaning his rifle, or another one writing a letter home, to an officer giving a lecture to his men. Shooting a rifle like this will be loud, it’ll be a shock to the system, and without any sound to cover the shot, the skilled marksmen would need to move away in an instant or risk getting caught. The cross-hairs of a scope are cold, brutal. Hard lines that cross together to signal death to a young lad in a uniform. From up here in this tower, a sniper is death incarnate. Indiscriminately picking its targets from a distance, disconnected, uncaring.
The problem with sniping in games is that it often only captures one side of a snipers job. The very nature of a sniper is in long distance killing. It’s not like other soldiers, who kill close enough to see the whites your eyes. Snipers operate from miles away, disconnected from the war, and by extension, from the trauma and shock of death. In much the same way, when we watch war and conflict on TV we don’t truly feel the carnage. The lens offers us a cloak of protection because we don’t deal with the aftermath. A sniper is no different. A hitman who can play executioner from a mile away. Games have often tried to replicate the strange, silent job of a sniper and we are yet to have a sniper narrative that seems to accurately portray this oddly distant form of killing.
Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t really change that, but it does challenge it by deliberatly making you feel guilty. On the surface Sniper Elite 4 seems to delight in the death of a man in a way that almost looks puerile or childish. By slowing down your shots and showing the path of your bullet as it enters the skull of a Nazi it appears to outwardly revel in the gory details of your long distance execution. It’s quite fun, actually. It’s a bit of a thrill to line up the perfect headshot and let rip. Its exciting to watch the surviving soldiers of a platoon scatter and dive for cover in response to your sniper fire. That’s not really anything new for video games, afterall, we’ve been excited about death and killing since Doom made it cool in the 90’s. But the interesting part is what happens afterwards when you’re pouring over the remains of those you’ve just killed. Rebellion aren’t just content with you being proud of your destruction, they treat your handiwork as though you’re combing the scene of a crime where all the evidence points to you. The aftermath of killing in Sniper Elite feels a bit like an intervention. Dead soldiers will leave blood stained letters to their family stuffed inside their uniforms. Spotting targets with your binoculars will give you snippets of Intel on them, often detailing menial but intimately human details about your future victims. Nearby soldiers will discuss how much they miss their children, their families. Soldiers quarters will have their deceased inhabitants possessions and homely goods scattered across the room, now owner-less thanks to your rifle. For a game that revels so much in killing it sure does want you to feel terrible. The adrenaline rush of pulling off the perfect shot, watching the bullet tear up the insides of a soldier comes to a crashing stop when you finally make it over to your target and read his blood stained letters. That riotous high followed by the angst of death introduces a lot of pathos to a game that could have so easily phoned it in as yet another stealth game. It might not be an existential journey through the nature of killing, but it’s a start, and Sniper Elite 4 twists the knife in an interesting way.
The real draw for me, though, is the level design. Following on from the previous title, it increases not only the map size to gigantic proportions but also the number of tactical directions you can take at any one time. You’re not limited in what you can do or where you can go, and the game openly invites you to tackle the objectives in any way you please. Your goals are simple, sure, but this game supplements this simplicity with a wide array of tools and accoutrements to encourage experimentation and tactical planning. Assassinating an officer can be done in a host of different ways, and despite this being a game about a sniper, your rifle isn’t your only instrument of death. In fact you’re as much of a commando as you are an expert marksman. Sneaking into a bunker to knife an officer is just as viable as lacing every doorway with trip wires and mines. Even dead bodies can be rigged with explosives, automatically detonating when a Nazi goes to investigate. You can also play the game like Wolfenstein and use your machine gun like a garden hose and although I think the game purposely makes this a harder strategy to follow through with, it’s there all the same and sometimes, after sneaking into somewhere you’re only way out is by killing a hell of a lot of Nazis. The immense variety of options and tiny little decisions you make along the way make all the difference, and adds a much more tactical edge to the game that not all the previous titles had.
Visually each map has had ludicrous amounts of detailed poured into them, despite the game engine not changing between 3 and 4 the game still manages to knock the ball out of the park with gorgeous locales. Italy never gets boring, with some real effort being put into sheer variety of game environments. You could be in a Sun soaked Italian village one minute or crawling through moonlit German outposts the next, with my current favourite being a railway line in the heart of a misty forest which, when followed, gives way to a bridge over a vast, rocky chasm – the railway itself overgrown with shrubbery and tall grass for you to hide in and poke your rifle out of. The individually detailed areas of each mini-open world that constitutes the levels of Sniper Elite 4 recalls the best parts of the recent Hitman games – soaked in detail and environmental character, it tells subtle little stories all on its own. This is supported in the openness of the environments too. You’re never constrained to certain areas and nothing is ever off limits. if you want to run to the other side of the map and finish a task over there, you can. The game also likes to distrupt your progress with the occasional minefield or machinegun nest, forcing you to switch tactics or divert direction altogether, especially when completion of certain tasks introduces unexpected surprises and forks in the road in the form of armoured reinforcements or ad-hoc tasks to finish. With all of these elements in place it ends up as a melting pot of gorgeous details and clever tactical level design where entering a new mission is actually an exciting prospect, almost like the anticipation of a holiday to a tiny little breathing world. It’s really incredibly well made, and this I think is the feather in Rebellions sniper cap.
Not everything is as well designed, though. The story is, sadly, not much to write home to your mother about, but there is some marked improvement over the diabolical Nazi Zombie entries to this series, and while game takes itself much more seriously, it still doesn’t entirely shake it’s hokey b-movie styling’s. The cut scenes are vastly improved for this series of games and are quite well made all things considered but they really only mark an iterative improvement on previous games. Each mission starts in an isolated safe space away from the main map which operates as a kind of expositionary area removed from the map itself where you can make idle chit chat with other characters. Be under no illusions, though – these people exist to give you a reason to kill. Nothing more and nothing less. And because of this, the protagonist of this game feels like an empty uniform, a no one. He is woefully generic in a way that is startlingly outdated by today’s standards. It’s not exactly game-breaking, as the real star of the show is the level design, but the slight increase in quality only highlights the missed opportunity for a well written snipers story. Instead what we get is a bland action man with a long-ranged rifle. And as the story winds on it slowly becomes more comic book with each mission, to the point where you just no longer feel like a sniper anymore, just a uniform doing actions in vague world war 2 scenarios. This also kills any momentum that the game builds in the first few missions. All the discord between killing and remorse, between death and guilt is quietly put to sleep in the bizarre b-movie ending. There could have been room here for a great story, but it scuppers it by doing the generic comic book world war two thing with dodgy science labs and mega weapons.
But in reality, it really doesn’t matter. Each map will easily soak up entire evenings of your time. The environments are the shining, glittering star in Rebellions long running sniper series and in Sniper Elite 4 they’ve really pushed the boat out. With what feels like tiny open worlds combined with free form mission design you are let loose to explore and experiment within the boundaries of each of the games huge levels. The objectives are simple but they encourage experimentation with the games various systems and tools which is really a lot of fun. Sniper Elite 4 isn’t a genre defining classic, and it won’t really change your life, but it is exceedingly well made, making this an extremely fun 12 hours that I will have no problem revisiting again sometime soon.