Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Action / Stealth
Players: 1-2 (Local co-op)/12 (Online versus)
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 6 = Fair
Sniper Elite III once again puts players in the boots of a daring Allied sniper who must undertake several dangerous missions far behind enemy lines. Players return to the role of soldier Karl Fairburne, though he’s a slightly younger, gruffer version of the man last seen in Sniper Elite V2. Set in 1942, Fairburne is at this time a regular OSS sniper serving in the North African campaign, beginning his duty at Tobruk. From there, he sets out across seven more locations to track down and destroy a new massive superweapon under construction, a tank called the Ratte.
From the beginning, the game strikes a different tone from its predecessors. For whatever reason, Fairburne is now not just a grizzled soldier but an overly gruff caricature of a grizzled soldier, spouting lines about how the other soldiers don’t want to serve with the likes of him. The game never says what about him is so off-putting to the others, aside from maybe his attitude, but I immediately found myself siding with the average English tommy. That odd tone was consistent throughout the game, as Fairburne has so many ridiculously over-the-top lines that it’s difficult not to take the narration as a joke. Luckily, he only talks between missions, and since there are only eight, he’s restrained from going full Judge Dredd.
Characterization aside, much of the game is reminiscent of previous Sniper Elite titles: players are able to sneak around buildings, crawl through brush, mark targets with binoculars, and mask shots with nearby sounds. However, while the formula is the same, the approach taken is much different. Levels are now more open, which offers players greater freedom to reposition themselves after firing or find a hiding spot once enemies begin their search after stumbling upon a dead body. This makes the combat less linear than in previous games, where it was more predictable due to enemies being funneled down a handful of passageways by invisible walls and conveniently placed piles of rubble. Less linearity doesn’t translate to greater variety, though. Players are frequently steered towards engaging in close combat (and, to a lesser extent, mid-range combat) by every element in the game, from the level design to enemy patrol patterns and item placement.
Many levels feature various means by which players can mask their shots. Crates of explosives and easily sabotaged generators create loud noises that can obscure the player’s location, even if an enemy is seen being hit. The operational areas are quite large, however, and these items are located are often in areas that need to be reached first. If they are spotted early on, then they will need to be damaged without any means to obfuscate the player’s location. In either event, the player will need to engage in close-quarters stealth and combat for most of the missions to see them to their objective. The items were often placed too far away from the starting location or in the open without a means to reach them without sneaking through guarded areas so much so that I frequently just went in and took care of business with the silenced pistol and knife. External distractions, such as planes routinely passing overhead, are often used in place of the noise-producing items, but even when they’re not, these tended take so long to reoccur that I again found it much quicker to go in like Sam Fisher. The enemy patrol patterns are laid out in such a way that it’s difficult to act as a sniper in the traditional sense because much of the safest cover that allows for clear shots will dictate that players fight from mid-range rather than afar. Sniping an enemy from the side of a building, running away to a tent, and then sniping another before finally falling back to a pile of sandbags or grouping of palm trees doesn’t convey the patient hunt of a sniper nearly as well as it does the stop-and-go rhythm of rifle fire. Other levels are set indoors or include many indoor areas which again limit the distance of combat, as these are much more restrictive than the outdoor portions. By the end, the overall balance shifted the game from being about a sniper that would occasionally engage in close combat to one about a soldier who happened to have a sniper rifle.
The stealth elements are also fairly rudimentary. Fairburne can crouch, go prone, vault over objects, and lean around a corner when looking down the rifle’s scope. However, the contextual leaning does not always work properly, as the animation will sometimes have the gun face the side of a wall, and tilt the camera in that direction, but shoot straight. There is no way to switch the camera from over one shoulder to the other so that the camera faces down a hallway or inside a doorway rather than directly into a wall or object; there is no way to traverse objects other than vaulting over them; and in general, stealth is simply equated to crouching when walking or prone when stationary. The ability to distract enemies with rocks and fire helps to circumvent heavily guarded spots or distract some enemies, but again, this is primarily in service of close-range operations. Enemies aren’t very bright, either, which means that it’s often very easy to successfully relocate after taking a shot. A gauge and meter marker indicate how far the player needs to be from the location where they were spotted, but this can often be as easy as going directly backwards, with enemies going to the area and stopping the search or not even going the entire distance to investigate. Around 30-some-odd sniper nests are scattered throughout the levels to allow for easier shooting, but these seem to replace the more natural perches that players should be able to find in the wild or amongst debris. The emphasis on movement serves to highlight the larger playing areas, but it also shifts the game away from its theme by aligning it more closely with a standard stealth title.
The game is at its best when the design encourages long-range combat. Whenever all of the various elements are layered to take into account the role of the sniper, players will be able to connect progress in a way more suitable to the theme; for example, after using an outside factor to mask their shot to destroy a box of explosives, players will be able to close in on a generator, silently kill the guard, sabotage the machine, then find a perch from which to take out the remaining soldiers running around in confusion half a map away. This is when the game uses its stealth mechanics as a means to advance the function of the sniper rather than replace it, and these moments are quite good. The action of sniping is satisfying, and to ensure that players make the most of it, the game rewards additional experience for well-executed kills. Marking enemies with the binoculars demonstrates how well this approach works, as targets not only remain highlighted through structures but they also net more points when taken down. The controller’s feedback is also well implemented, with the controller vibrating whenever looking down the scope in relation to Fairburne’s heartbeats per minute: rush to take down a target and the controller will rumble constantly and the scope will sway wildly. Scope sway can frequently be minimized by engaging a focus mode that reduces the beats per minute as well as displaying a targeting reticule for easier aiming, but duration is limited for however long Fairburne can hold his breath. Focused shots are also those most likely to engage the series’ trademark x-ray shot kill cam, which is even gorier than before, as bullets enter into bodies and are shown ripping through muscle and tissue. These might occur a bit too often now for some fans of the series, but the animation can be sped through. The bonus of additional experience makes clean kills all the more worthwhile, since that opens up new weapons, weapon upgrades, and side items (e.g., landmines, grenades, bandages, etc.).
Experience is also shared with multiplayer, which can a big boost when you’re actually able to jump in. Not only are there connectivity issues and glitches, but the options are more limited than they appear. For starters, the ability to play the campaign online with another player sounds great, but it’s by invite only. The same goes for Overwatch, where one player is the spotter and the other the shooter, and Survival, which is a wave-based mode where players choose a map and attempt to last as long as possible by scavenging ammo from dead enemies and ammo deposits. These are actually enjoyable in solo mode, but they are much better when played with others. Local splitscreen multiplayer is also out, further limiting playability.
Online multiplayer can be spotty both before and during play, with connection issues cropping up prior to a session and numerous graphical glitches once in a game. I ran into a handful of bugs in single player as well, with enemies finding their way through solid structures (one guard was partly into a stairway and partly into a walkway) and custom loadouts switching back to default until edited again (at which point all changes suddenly appear), but the most consistent problem both off and online are the graphical glitches. When playing through the story, I noticed that polygons would quickly shift between different states, such as damaged and undamaged, and entire objects would suddenly pop into view. Blurry textures would also appear, with the rest of the detail appearing in large squares. Although these problems were common throughout all areas in single player, many of the objects loaded fine and appeared as they should, but the same cannot be said when playing online. In multiplayer, the polygon pop-in and stuttering is so bad that it can be distracting. The biggest gameplay issue is that objects resemble other players. One of the best parts about multiplayer is that it takes on the form of the slow, methodic hunt that is rare in single player, which often means there are large distances between players, and at those distances, it’s easy to mistake a flickering polygon as the glint off of a scope or sudden shading as someone darting between cover. The problem is so persistent that one simply has to pan left or right and see large chunks of buildings and objects pop through one another, such as a structure through a blanket hanging off the side, or all of the shadow on the edge of debris flicker between state light, dark, and some mess in-between. A few patches are definitely needed.
Despite the encouraging switch from linear areas to more open battlefields, Sniper Elite III isn’t as strong a title as its predecessor. Rebellion rarely takes advantage of this greater freedom, the game’s most significant addition to the series, and instead shifts the dynamics in the opposite direction, drawing players into a by-the-book stealth title with plenty of close combat that is the antithesis of the sniper’s role. On top of that, multiplayer, which provides the sort of tense long-range combat lacking in single player, has too many restrictions and glitches to make a sound replacement. The game has some enjoyable moments, but it focuses too much on cookie-cutter stealth and less on the actual thrill of being a sniper.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)