Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Action / Stealth
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 7.5 = Good
After nearly seven years, developer Rebellion has revisited one of their lesser-known releases, a last-generation action title called Sniper Elite. Set during the latter days of World War II, players took on the role of an American sniper attempting to prevent the Soviet Union from obtaining Germany’s atomic weapons research. In going back and reading my review of the original, I’ve found that for a game a half-decade-plus removed, the recently released remake Sniper Elite V2, not much has changed. This line in particular especially holds true: “In the beginning, I was a sniper; in the end, I was a soldier with a sniper rifle.”
In fact, much of the original review is as true now as it was then. Taking into account that a game based on sniping would require a little more action than a true sim would allow for—few people would want to sit in a virtual field for days on end waiting for the perfect shot—the update is as much a run-and-gun shooter as its predecessor. With the significant jump in hardware, I was expecting greater sophistication in terms of physics, variable impacts, and cover mechanics, but what I got was a game sporting only marginal refinements. And yet, despite its shortcomings, Sniper Elite V2 still offers a few thrills.
As the Second World War comes to a close, players take on the role of special ops sharpshooter Karl Fairburne. With the Soviet Union closing in from the East and the Allies from the West, he has been tasked with accumulating and safeguarding as much information about Germany’s V2 rocket program as possible. This involves taking down key personnel and facilities, especially those likely to fall into Soviet hands. This is a slight twist from the original, but the premise is the same: undermine Soviet efforts for the inevitable US-USSR showdown. Karl is on his own this time around, though, with only a few gadgets and a sniper rifle, Tommy gun, and silenced Welrod pistol for help. Being the hardnosed, tough-talking lone wolf that he is, that’s all he needs.
How players see Fairburne through his trials will largely depend on the chosen difficulty level. Not only are some of the original’s more prominent mechanics (e.g., wind) determined by the choice, so are some of the newer aides. The easiest level is Cadet, which includes all tactical aides and no modeled ballistics: where the player shoots is where they hit. Jumping up to Marksman means a tougher shot, with adjustments required for gravity and scope sway in relation to stance. All tactical aides remain, however, which includes a ghost image, indicating where the enemy last spotted Fairburne; the ability to mark targets when using the binoculars, which places an arrow icon over their head that shows their position even when there isn’t a direct line of sight; and a general threat indicator in the form of a large white arrow that narrows and turns red as the enemy closes in and begins to engage. Sniper Elite adds wind as a shot variable, removes all aides, and makes the enemy even more dangerous. Stance also has a greater impact on shots, as does heart rate: the faster the beat, the greater the scope sway. And then there is my favorite option: Custom.
The ability to customize the difficulty level is one of the best parts about single player. As with the original, V2 frequently veers into traditional action territory, and that’s primarily because of the AI. Enemy behavior can fluctuate wildly between absolutely dense and hyper aware. A patrolling guard will run directly back to the location where their comrade was shot and they were shot at, while at other times, they will somehow pick out the player’s location from a block of half-destroyed buildings and let their sub-machineguns rip with alarming accuracy. Going with Sniper Elite just exacerbates this problem by making enemies even tougher and even more belligerent, despite the seemingly greater emphasis on realism. By making the enemies so gung ho so often, it’s hard to actually be a sniper; soldiers will make a fuss when fired upon, some might even duck, but they will still charge ahead so recklessly that relying on sniping isn’t feasible in many situations. By going the Custom route, however, players can choose between three different settings each for Ballistic Realism, Enemy Skill, and Tactical Assistance for a better balance.
A carryover from the original is the heartbeat mechanic. Even though Sniper Elite places greater emphasis on Fairburne’s heartbeat, it is a prominent feature on all levels. The greater the player exerts Fairburne, the more difficult it is for him to take a well-aimed shot. The longer he stays still, the calmer he becomes and the slower his heart beats. Whenever his heart is beating 80 beats per minute or lower, an option will become available for him to empty his lungs, which causes an aim assistance reticle to appear (save for Sniper Elite) and minimizes sway. If his heart is beating below 65 beats per minute, then Empty Lung changes to Focus Time, which has all of the previous benefits of emptying his lungs as well as the added perk of slowing down time.
An entirely new mechanic is the cover system. Similar to other titles, Fairburne can crouch behind objects as well as lean against them. The system is serviceable but unrefined, especially in a game all about sneaking around. While he can vault over lower objects, he can’t, for instance, dash between cover nor stand up with his back against the wall without disengaging the connection. He can also fire around corners, but for whatever reason, he pivots out from cover and exposes his entire body whenever he wants to shoot from the hip or with a sidearm or throw an object. That one is a real headscratcher, given how unsubtle and needlessly dangerous it is.
But there are a number of headscratchers throughout the game. Some are because of the enemy AI and others because of design mismatches. Fairburne doesn’t just have access to a sniper rifle; he begins every level with two fully loaded side arms. Using the pistol really brings to light some of the AI problems, with enemies taking three or four rounds without even bothering to return fire. Even with the ability to go in for stealth kills and take down enemies with a silenced gun, the game frequently erupts into chaotic firefights. This can cause problems when taking into account that the enemies are fairly effective bullet sponges, taking several rounds from the machinegun at close range without having to do so much as take a knee before resuming the attack. It’s a different story, of course, when the enemy lets rip with their MP40s and PPSh-41s. These are also those moments when the player’s idea of a sniper veers sharply from the game’s idea of being a sniper. Players can still cause havoc by shooting an enemy’s grenade and performing trick shots—two-for-one hits are always great—but the real joy comes when the game allows for players to be the silent assassins they signed on to be.
Fairburne’s toys include landmines, tripwires, and dynamite. These can all be set up to cause a chain reaction, making chokepoints a deadly proposition for enemies. Before the troops just rush in and detonate everything with little regard for their lives, save for the occasional “Medic!”, elaborate traps can be set up to stave off the hordes. A common scenario would be to get a guard’s attention by tossing a rock, then shoot them as they enter, only so that his comrades rush in to trip a wire which detonates the nearby landmine and dynamite; with a little luck, entire squads can be cleared with the proper setup. But the game doesn’t allow for too many of these moments, in part because of limited means, with scavenged corpses only providing so many explosives, and in part because of the level design. The playable areas are a bit of an optical illusion, seemingly offering a number of choices in regards to navigable lanes and perches to snipe from, but it doesn’t take much scuttling around to realize that many areas aren’t all that useful and others arbitrarily cut off; I could only sigh in frustration at seeing the rest of an alley that circumvented a deadly chokepoint between the hinges of a rickety wooden gate but being unable to crawl under it or blow the locks off. The areas of limited use are often made useless by the enemy’s keen sense of space by—again—knowing just where to head amidst the rubble after a shot rings out. And those random chokepoints make escape difficult, forcing those aforementioned close encounters that are the antithesis of death from afar.
None of this is to say that firefights have no place in a game based around being a sniper. I’d say that the game actually proves how well the mixture between quiet kills and all-out action can be by their solo and online challenge modes. In addition to the story mode, players can take on a Horde-style mode solo called Kill Tally, which offers several maps where they must fend off waves of enemies. The real excitement comes from online, though, with Kill Tally being only one of four multiplayer modes. The others, Co-op Campaign, Bombing Run, and Overwatch, offer some surprisingly unique objectives and a better sense of what the game can offer.
Aside from a fussy matchmaking system (game found, looking for game, game found, looking for game) and a modest player base, actual in-mission performance was solid. Co-op Campaign simply adds another player to the levels, with cutscenes only showing Fairburne and no noticeable increase in difficulty. Kill Tally is similar in its approach, with a second player simply being added to the map; though if I have one complaint here, it’s that the five-second break between waves isn’t nearly enough time to reposition much less rearm, but that does make the desperate ammo runs all the more nail biting. Bombing Run involves searching for parts to repair a getaway vehicle before the area is bombed, with enemies only engaging after noticing that something’s going on. Overwatch has a nice twist to the game’s long- and close-range combat by having one player rove about with a Tommy gun and pair of binoculars, performing objectives and marking targets for the other player to take out as the sniper. The slow-motion and x-ray shots of bullets ripping through appendages and organs are played for both players as well, so everyone gets to enjoy the carnage. Skilled players really elevate the campaign and offer some exhilarating sessions, and to top it off, all difficulty levels, including Custom, are available. This is one area where the remake definitely surpasses its predecessor, as well as managing to offer a unique multiplayer experience.
Sniper Elite V2 is neither on the sim side of the scale nor on the arcade side, instead resting somewhere in the middle. While this definitely causes some frustrating moments, and is bound to be disappointing to those wanting a more stealth-oriented offering, it serves up some decent action. The real selling point is the online play, with players able to go through the campaign together, fend off waves of attackers together, and play off each other’s strengths in a collection of clever, addictive modes. Solo gamers will find less to like, but multiplayer fanatics will definitely want to check out Sniper Elite V2.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)