Shooting someone from miles away with absolutely no risk of physical harm to yourself. Is Sniper Elite 3 Nick Horth's ideal game?
In any shooter I play my strategy is simple; always pick the weapon with the longest range you can find, sit in a corner of the map where no-one can see you, and start picking people off while chortling manically. You'd think then that Rebellion's Sniper Elite series would be the perfect fit for me. As it turns out, that's not really been the case. Despite some admittedly satisfying sniper mechanics and an admirable dedication to over the top gore, previous entries have left me rather cold, lacking the supporting framework and polish necessary to elevate a solid sniping system into anything more than a gimmick. Enter Sniper Elite 3, a far more rounded and confident experience that, while still not perfect, marks a big leap forward for the franchise.
The first thing you notice is the presentation. Clean, crisp menus with a simple and attractive style set against a colourful African backdrop that is immediately more striking than the familiar drab palette of the previous games. It's surprising just how much the new setting does to make SE3 feel refreshingly new. The polish stretches to the attractive in-game graphics, with Rebellion's reworked in-house Asura engine and an excellent lighting system rendering vibrant locations in impressive detail. It's not a Crysis-style monster of a game, and most medium to high PCs will have little trouble handling it, but SE3 can be very pleasant to look at.
Vehicle kills are now slightly more complex multi-stage affairs, but remain just as entertainingly ludicrous
For the third game in the series, boring protagonist Karl Fairburne is romping about in 1940s Africa during heavy fighting between Axis and British forces. He's on the trail of a German officer with a fondness for building great big bloody tanks, and his journey takes him from the siege of Tobruk to a night-time desert oasis to a secret cliff-side research base. Don't expect anything more than the most basic story set-up. There's no relateable characters or interesting plot points here, just a steady stream of new locations to visit and new objectives to over come. The key point is simply this; set against our hero are hordes of faceless German and Italian soldiers, every single one of which has an unfortunate weakness for small lumps of metal propelled at high speeds from the muzzle of a Carcano rifle.
Polished and refined, this is the best and most satisfying sniping that Rebellion has ever crafted. All the existing features remain - breath control, heart rate, bullet drop and so on- but it all feels tighter, more responsive, with improved sound effects and a greater sense of weight. Combined with the returning kill-cam (now with added musculature!) and improved vehicle kills, sniping in SE3 is one of the most schlockily addictive guilty pleasures in gaming. You will feel sort of bad when you first shoot someone through the testicle in slow motion. Then you will do it again and again.
It's also massively improved by actually having a proper game built around it. Sniper Elite V2 often felt like the developers had focussed all their energy on the sniping, then hastily slapped together the rest of the game. Here, rather than a series of long corridors which soon descend into repetitive duck-shoots as soon as someone notices you, you're set loose in a large, open area with a set of tools and expected to sort things out for yourself.
New one-hit melee kills and improved stealth mechanics mean that outside long-range kills, most of your time will be spent scouting out entry points, removing sentries and planning your assault. It's now possible to make your way around a map quietly, avoiding areas packed with guards and organising various nasty surprises with your respectable array of tools and explosives. Mines and dynamite can be used to set a distraction, masking the retort of a critical rifle shot, using the 'sound-masking' mechanic of previous games. Conveniently engines can also be tinkered into misfiring, giving you yet more sound cover for your covert assassinations. The best thing is that these are all just options – SE3 never demands that you play one way, and that makes messing about in its open playgrounds all the more fun.
There are four different sniper rifles to wield, all of which can be customised with a selection of stocks, scopes, cross-hairs and barrels
Further freeing the player is a new relocation mechanic, which neatly avoids the problem of having the entire map's contingent of enemies swarming all over you as soon as you open fire. Once you've popped off a shot, you've got a few moments to scarper before enemy soldiers pinpoint your location. Even getting directly spotted doesn't mean the end of your plans, as long as you can get away in time and find somewhere to hide. Successfully relocating, typically to cower in a bush or an abandoned tent, will cause them to eventually stop looking for you, a bit like how you hide from alarms in the Metal Gear Solid games. It's a smart solution that encourages careful play, but doesn’t punish you excessively for a mistake.
The singleplayer campaign isn't lengthy, probably taking most players around eight to ten hours or so to complete, but it's a far more entertaining affair than the collection of claustrophobic corridors seen in SEV2. Levels are open enough that you can come at them from several different angles of approach, objectives generally avoid funnelling you towards one route. The much improved graphics and level design makes each separate mission area feel distinct, with creative and sometimes spectacular arenas full of high and low ground, secrets to find and tactical options to explore. It's not a long campaign, but in some ways that's a good thing. SE3 focuses on one thing and does it well, and the campaign ends just before the stalking and sniping starts to feel repetitive.
Outside of the solo modes, you've got a bevy of different multiplayer and co-op options. The big draw here would seem to be the opportunity to play the entire campaign with a friend, a far better co-op experience than the half-arsed missions from SEV2. Those new, expansive mission zones cry out for a second player, and sneaking around causing chaos with a friend is a great deal of fun. It's a bit of a shame that two players is your limit, but I suspect adding three or four would make things a little too hectic. If you're done with all that you can try out a functional, if somewhat unspectacular, competitive multiplayer suite. Even if not all of it's successful, there's a bunch of stuff to do here.
As enjoyable as SE3 is, it's not without flaws. Aside from your rifle the third-person shooting feels imprecise and woolly, with pistols and machine-guns too inaccurate. They lack the weight and impact of your sniper weapon, and every time you have to use them the game suffers. Luckily the focus is firmly on stealth and careful planning, so it's rare that you're forced into close-range combat.
Two player co-op is great fun, and the entire campaign is available to play through with a friend
The other main issue is with enemy intelligence. The AI is often slow to catch on when it notices you, guards often staring for what seems like minutes before they work out you're about to pop their lungs like two party balloons. It can be smart – the moments after a clumsy assassination attempt where scores of enemy soldiers converge on your position can be wonderfully tense – but it can also be capable of quite stupendous stupidity. One amusing moment involved a carefree Italian soldier absent-mindedly strolling past a pair of bloodied legs sticking up prominently over a sandbag. It's certainly an improvement on previous games, no longer will hordes of enemies charge gleefully into your rifle fire, but there's still work to be done. The game also has some slightly wonky physics, with enemy corpses flopping about weirdly or soldiers flying off at strange angles when you pop them in the head.
SNIPER ELITE 3 VERDICT
None of those issues are enough to distract from what is a very fun experience. Sniper Elite 3 is the game I always wanted from this franchise, a highly enjoyable shooter that finally backs up that sweet sniping system with solid gameplay foundations. Despite occasional missteps with the AI, Rebellion have otherwise improved almost every aspect of the series, resulting in a title that both looks and plays far better than the rather lacklustre SEV2. This, finally, feels like a game which knows how to play to its strengths and minimise its weaknesses. Anyone who enjoys a good tactical shooter, especially those with an affinity for the long-range kill, would do well to check it out.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Using the cacophony of a detonating motor pool to cover the sound of a perfectly lined up sniper kill. I managed to do this once. It was largely accidental.