Sniper Elite III – Review
by Mark R
As someone who has had something of a rocky relationship with shooters in the past, the first thing I tend to do is find ways to avoid the typical route expected by the developer and will invariably force some pretty severe limitations on myself by attempting to play through the entire campaign in either sniper or stealth mode even if it means having to spend twice as long in order to do so. With games such as Borderlands, it’s not too difficult as there’s a sniper class – even though stealthing is nigh on impossible – and in Crysis it got considerably more difficult to do so as it switched from jungle terrain to alien base, but with Wolfenstein: The New Order it was relatively simple to play through the entire game in a near-silent mode, rather than opt for the standard run-and-gun method, even though all ‘sniping’ was done with a silenced pistol rather than a high-calibre rifle and observatory-class scope.
It would therefore make sense to stick to dedicated sniper games but, as ignorant as it undoubtedly is, I wrongly assumed that the gameplay would be something akin to those deer-hunting titles we see popping up now and again. The expectation was that you’d be placed within an area with one or two locations suitable for sniping and would do nothing more than pick the targets off one by one as they mulled around shrugging about whomever was firing at them from the shadows. I didn’t expect retaliation, weapon/ammo pick-ups, or that they’d take cover, and I certainly hadn’t considered the prospect of an actual storyline. To my mind, they’d be militarised versions of the arcade classic Duck Shoot. Then I got a look at Sniper Elite III at this year’s E3, loved what I saw, and immediately shunted it to the top of my to-play list.
Set in North Africa during the Second World War, Sniper Elite III follows Office of Strategic Services sniper Karl Fairburne once again as he attempts to thwart the Nazis’ plans to develop and unleash a ‘super weapon’. Beyond that, there’s not really much of a story. One could argue that Wolfenstein: The New Order‘s storyline was simply “stop the Nazis from doing their thing“, and they’d be right, as it could easily be boiled down to that one single premise, but there was a lot more going on under the surface and the characterisation served it well. With Sniper Elite III, however, there’s no sub-plot or red-mist-invoking antagonist who makes it so compelling to reach the end-game just so you can see him get his comeuppance. There is an antagonist, and he does deserve to be punished because he’s ‘the baddie’, but there’s never any real explanation as to why, or any character exploration. It’s a cut-and-dried case of ‘good guy versus bad guys’ and, for once, that isn’t a problem.
It may be a very isolated opinion, but I tend to view snipers as assassins rather than soldiers. They have a single objective – neutralise the target and get out – and, in my mind, they won’t necessarily ask questions or consider why their target needs to be taken out. They just do. To that end, Sniper Elite III serves that premise well as every level comes with an initial mission objective and, depending on whether you care or not, a set of optional requests. If you choose to simply be a man on a mission then it’s easy to forge ahead and take care of the job at hand, leaving a considerable number of enemies alive if they’re not obstructing you in any way, while those with a need to cross all the Ts and dot all the Is have the option to leave the table with a clean plate and take care of everything in between.
There’s an equally open choice on offer when it comes to tactics, with four very different play styles on the cards. The first, and most obvious, would be the role of sniper where the order of the day would be to immediately seek out a clear vantage point on high ground, offering clear views of the unfolding landscape, allowing for enemies to be taken out with relative ease (and a decent amount of skill) but at a safe enough distance from your targets so that you’re not simultaneously playing the role of sitting duck.
The second option would be that of stealth, where it’s entirely plausible to make your way through the lion’s share of each mission undetected. This can easily be achieved by combining the Welrod – a short-range, silenced pistol – with the close-combat technique of knifing the fuck out of the enemy. In some ways it’s more tactical and carries more potential danger than the sniping option as it does mean that you have to sneak up from behind and hope that you’re quiet enough to get the knife into their throat before being spotted. Even with the Welrod, it’s necessary to get relatively close to an enemy before the pistol is effective enough to cause any real damage, and in later levels it takes more than a single shot to kill most enemies, so you run the risk of them either shooting you or raising the alarm for reinforcements before the kill shot.
Third would be to go down the gung-ho route, forego the sniping option for the most part, keep the knife sheathed, and go Arnie on their asses with your Sten or MP40 vomiting out a dozen rounds a second. It’s all very Call of Duty, or Battlefield, so the chances of anyone picking up a sniper game and opting for this style is highly unlikely but the option is there if that’s what floats your gunboat. For those who would rather not tie themselves down to any particular route, however, the fourth option – the on-the-fly choice – is perhaps the best way to approach it as it allows for split-second decisions as to the best way forward for any given scenario.
Having played around with all four variants, I found that the most rewarding way to play was to ignore the submachine guns until they became absolutely necessary and play a mixture of stealth and sniping. If you find that you’re having to use your submachine gun at all, however, I’d suggest that you’re making one too many errors in judgement, tactically speaking.
Regardless of which gameplay route you take, your success will depend on how enemies react to your presence. Taking a shot at a lone target, or moreso one within a group, will immediately raise their suspicion, so it’s important that your first round takes them out. Although suspicion may be raised, it invariably amounts to nothing more than them taking cover unless you take a second shot, which will put them on high alert and have them search the area to see where the shots had come from. At this point it’s wise to change location, leaving a ghost of your character at your last position, and take yourself far enough away that the search ceases – your HUD will show a distance meter for when you leave their area of suspicion. Firing off a round after searching has completed and everyone has returned to their post will simply start the entire process over, but if you shoot while a search is going on you will immediately reveal your location and become their target.
In order to get away with firing at enemies from cover, it’s possible to mask gunfire by utilising distractive sounds such as a low-flying plane overhead, or by sabotaging any of the machinery dotted around the area. A carefully timed shot will mean that nobody is alerted to your presence, allowing you to continue on your campaign without having to relocate or make a sudden run for it. A small gripe at this stage would be the fact that any soldiers you’d previously been taking pot shots at, and some of whom you may even have hit, will suddenly become oblivious after suspicion dies and go about their business as usual… even if the corpses of their fallen comrades lie at their feet. It’s a little out of character for meticulously trained soldiers.
Leaving a corpse to be found is another way for your cover to be blown, as anyone who happens across one of your victims will immediately become suspicious and this, in turn, will mean that you’ve lost one of the three stages of retaliation as your first shot will then put them straight into search mode. You can overcome this by carrying victims off to an out-of-the-way location or one in cover, depending on how long you intend to spend in any given area. Defending your position is also possible by using mines and trip explosives, and you have dynamite and grenades to use against larger targets such as vehicles. It is, however, possible to take vehicles out using your regular weapons as long as you target their weak points.
Also at your disposal are binoculars, which are useful for spotting distant enemies and tagging them so you’re always aware of their location. Should a tagged enemy venture inside a building or behind cover, their movements can still be tracked by following a white silhouette showing their every move. The farther an enemy is from you when taken out, the more XP will be awarded. The more precise the shot, the more XP you’ll receive. Kill a tagged enemy, and you’ll pick up even more. In fact, for every creative way there is to take an enemy out, there is further reward, and these points are used to progress Fairburne through the ranks, unlocking new weapons and weapon upgrades as they accumulate.
Ultimately, however, Sniper Elite III is about sniping more than character development, and that could be where single-player replayability comes in. On global leaderboards, and within your own combat stats, your longest kill-shot is listed. While in-game challenges include at least one long shot for each mission, it becomes more than just that single notch on the bed post; the thrill of the long-distance kill takes over and it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to find the farthest vantage point from any given enemy to see exactly how far they are from you. Indeed, most evenings I’d spend more time hunting down that elusive 500m+ kill than I would on the task at hand, and picking up my 617.9m headshot was one of those moments where a typically laconic gamer actually punched the air in satisfaction.
This wouldn’t be a Sniper Elite III review without mentioning the X-Ray kill shots, but it’s sad to see that most of the buzz surrounding the game is due to this particular gimmick. Granted, that’s what pulled me towards the booth at E3 in the first place, and I was suitably impressed by the level of detail brought to the fore as the enemy takes a bullet to various organs, but the game is better than this one particular trait. And, as rewarding as it is to see your first few kills in glorious slow-mo as someone’s insides are torn apart, it wasn’t long before I was hitting ‘X’ as soon as I knew it was a direct hit, so that I could just move on to the next target. It’s a great concept, and beautifully realised, but it certainly doesn’t make the game.
If living within the fringes is your thing, and taking out enemies while others meander around oblivious to your actions gives you any thrill whatsoever then Sniper Elite III is the game for you. Being rewarded by bullet-time kill shots where X-Ray mode kicks in may be an aesthetic cherry on top, but the cake itself is all about remaining undetected whilst simultaneously picking an entire encampment off one by one. The choice of weapons isn’t exactly great, but those on offer do everything that you could possibly need and the game does exactly what it says on the tin. It would perhaps be more rewarding if Rebellion had put as much thought into a storyline as they did into making it a sniper simulation, albeit a definitive one.Pros
- Markets itself as a sniping game and is exactly that, and is beautifully executed
- Varied gameplay options
- Stealth works well if you ignore the fact that the AI is practically braindead
- Seriously enjoyable
- X-Ray kill shots, while entirely unnecessary, are presented well
- The in-game challenges make it more than just a sniping game
- Story is practically non existent
- AI deserve to be shot, purely to put them out of their misery
- Would have liked few more weapon choices
- The XP, while interesting to earn through creative thinking, didn't have much of a pay-off
Sniper Elite III is one of those games that you expect to be sub par, and perhaps a little over-the-top, but which turns out to be pretty solid aside from a few odd choices here and there. The sniping element itself, from making adjustments for wind speed/direction, to emptying the lungs, is handled perfectly and will likely encourage you to go for longer kill shots as the game progresses.
The lack of story is a let down but, as mentioned already, it doesn't actually detract from gameplay in any way and still produces a well-though-out sniper simulation. If you like your kills to be quick, graphic, and from an overly safe distance, Sniper Elite III may end up being the best game you play this year.
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