If you had told Sniper Elite developers, Rebellion, back in 2005 that their franchise would go on to sell over ten million copies by 2016, they’d have probably laughed in your face. Today, the Sniper Elite franchise has become the go-to sniper game for casual and hardcore audiences alike.
We were given the opportunity to chat with Tim Jones, Head of Creative at Rebellion, about its upcoming game, Sniper Elite 4. He sheds some light on the new addition to the Sniper Elite series and gives us an insight on the series as a whole.
GameWatcher: What changes have you made to the gameplay since you brought out Sniper Elite 3 back in 2014?
Tim Jones: I think one of the key things with Sniper Elite is that we always try to make it better with every iteration we release. We pay very careful attention to what the players and fans want from the game as well, and I think generally they are very much in tune with the way the dev team thinks about the game, the way we want it to be as well. Often the things they are clamouring for we weren’t able to do with the previous iteration but wanted to. This time around with Sniper Elite 4, the maps are much larger than they’ve ever been before, which we’ve been able to do because we are on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Now that we’ve finally left behind the Xbox 360 and PS3, both of which we loved, but now we’ve got that much more power at the base level from the platforms we are on, we are able to really go to town, take the gloves off if you like.
We’ve got some really awesome, big levels in this game. The smallest level in Sniper Elite 4 is actually three times bigger than the largest level in Sniper Elite 3, which should give you some type of sense as to how much bigger we are going. That offers up more options, more choice, more variety for the player, longer sniping shots as well which people are always keen for. I think sniper fans are going to be very happy this time around. We’ve also got far more abilities for players to get around the environment, more clambering, climbing, shimmying, ledges… You know, we aren’t going into Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed territory, we are keeping it a lot more low-key, more like what you would expect a determined sniper in World War 2 to deal with. It has opened up routes for the level and more options for the players as there’s a lot more verticality available as well. There’s numerous things we’ve added; I could ramble for ages about it but, in summary: it’s more refined.
One of the other things that’s important to say is that we’ve completely reworked the AI system so that behaviours in game are fully emergent now. We aren’t scripting the behaviours of the AI so they pop into existence as you come around the corner. All the AI are active across the map at all times. They are all following their own routines, potentially following their orders as troops, whether they are on patrol or on look out, or just skiving off. The AI behaves according to what the player does and they adapt their behaviour accordingly. They pay attention to things like the hierarchy, like if there’s an officer in the squad and he orders troops to move forward. If you take the officer out, his troops are more likely to cower in cover. If you injure a guy, one of the other guys, if they deem in safe enough, will run out to rescue their teammate, then pull him back under cover before resurrecting him. There’s loads and loads of cool stuff going on in there. The AI pays far more plausible attention to bodies this time around. Sniper Elite 3 was reasonably criticised for the fact that the AI seemed a little blasé about the fact that people were dropping around, now our AI will actually stumble across the corpse, see the problem and deal with it accordingly. You can even booby-trap corpses to deal with the AI if you felt the need to do so.
GameWatcher: Going back to your quote where you mentioned, “the smallest level in Sniper Elite 4 is actually three times bigger than the largest level in Sniper Elite 3.” What were the main challenges when dealing with all the new space?
Tim Jones: Well, as you can imagine, there are a lot of challenges involved, but we have an extremely talented team here that are getting more experienced and better with the Sniper Elite franchise with each iteration. So they were up for the challenge. There are certain areas of maps that are relatively easy to dress, if you are over a large area that is more rural, filling an area with grass, scrubs and trees is easier than if you are creating an entire town with rooms and interiors that have to be full of plausibly placed objects. It depends on the area that you are dealing with. But yes, we have made a lot more work for ourselves, it’s true, there’s no two ways about it. It’s shaping up really nicely and it’s looking pretty special. We think so anyway.
GameWatcher: Zombie Army Trilogy was a bit of a departure from the usual Sniper Elite games. Did any of the things you may have learnt while developing Zombie Army somehow make its way into Sniper Elite 4?
Tim Jones: Everything we do at Rebellion, because we are running on our own technology, because we are one studio, well, we are two studios but in our headquarters at Oxford we all work together as one team essentially, everything we do on any project we learn from and we bring to other projects. In the case of Zombie Army Trilogy, we were able to build on a lot of the progress we made across Sniper Elite V2 and Sniper Elite 3 using the engine improvements over the course of the franchise. A lot of engine improvements that came along the way went into Zombie Army Trilogy, and similarly engine improvements that went into Zombie Army Trilogy, particularly things on rendering and optimisation on the networking front, because Zombie Army Trilogy had hundreds of characters going on at any one time and four player co-op.
There were significant challenges there which we overcame to make it run nice and efficiently. All of those changes are paid forward into the engine we use across our titles, so that bled into Sniper Elite 4 as well. Naturally, just the general experience and knowledge of creating the levels, the gameplay, the gun handling, all of that is relevant. Some of which has a very different feel to Zombie Army Trilogy compared to Sniper Elite. Sniper Elite is a lot more considered in its gameplay whereas Zombie Army Trilogy is unashamedly action-based. We took some liberties with Zombie Army Trilogy to make it just fun to shoot down whole loads of zombies with lots of ammunition because that seems the right thing to do there, whereas Sniper Elite is a lot more focused on realism. Lesser amount of ammunition, making every bullet more meaningful.
GameWatcher: Back in 2012 (the year Sniper Elite V2 came out), run-and-gun first person shooters were at the height of their popularity. Were you surprised by the success of Sniper Elite V2 and its subsequent sequels?
Tim Jones: We were always confident that it would be a success. I don’t think anybody could have predicted quite the phenomenon that Sniper Elite would become. We’ve never really been in the business of trying to chasing after what everyone is doing at Rebellion. With Sniper Elite V2, we just made a game that felt right for Sniper Elite, which has always been the thinking man’s shooter, as we sometimes refer to it. It’s certainly not Call of Duty run-and-gun. We weren’t really worried about doing something different, we were just making the game we felt it should be and, fortunately, it’s found an audience that really appreciates it. We are in the fortunate position of being able to continue making further Sniper Elite games in the same vein.
GameWatcher: With the amount of stories to tell based around World War 2, it’s understandable why you’d want to stay within that setting… however, a lot of fans have been hoping you may branch out from World War 2. Have you considered branching out into different settings?
Tim Jones: Never say never, but for the time being… well, as you say, World War 2 has such a vast wave of our collective history and that so much has gone on there, and certainly in particular with our last two games (Sniper Elite 3 and Sniper Elite 4), we’ve delved into areas of the war that haven’t been as well covered, certainly in fiction. Whether that be movies, books or games, a lot of the stuff people most know about World War 2 are the big famous battles, but certainly the Africa campaign in Sniper Elite 3 and now Italy in Sniper Elite 4, they are less well trodden areas that are fascinating areas to get into. We were certainly paying attention to the fans when they were clambering and predicting about what they wanted next out of Sniper Elite 4. People were saying they wanted it set in the future, or modern, or in the pacific, or Vietnam, or whatever.
I can’t think of someone saying “we really want it to be set in Italy!”, but we set it in Italy for various good reasons, and we have been very gratified by the response when we announced it. Basically, everyone has suddenly seen it and gone “oh wow, that looks awesome”, because it is awesome. It’s a beautiful part of the world now and it was then, even amidst all the troubles. It’s certainly offering up a bit of a sniper’s paradise for us and it’s an interesting part of the war to explore. We don’t always need to follow what everyone says they want. It’s nice to surprise people occasionally and have them go “yes, that’s actually a really exciting idea!”.
GameWatcher: As you mentioned earlier, the World War 2 setting has allowed you to explore a variety of locations that are both aesthetically pleasing but also historically accurate. Have you explored the possibility of incorporating historically accurate stories into the Sniper Elite series?
Tim Jones: Yes, we always consider it and we try to remain respectful of the history. We generally don’t try to go too close to actual events that have happened, it can feel a little awkward if we are gamifying things to make it more fun. It feels more appropriate and comfortable to us so far to take events inspired by or on the fringes of a lot of those sort of things. We are essentially creating a ‘it could have been’ narrative that fits within what happened but we don’t really want to tread on any toes.
GameWatcher: One of the more surprising additions to Sniper Elite 3 was the inclusion of Charlie Brooker as a German field officer. How did that come about and do you have any plans to add any other celebrities to the game?
Tim Jones: That came about because Charlie Brooker has always been vocal in his appreciation for the Sniper Elite franchise. He was a fan and so we reached out to him and got him involved. He was well up for being motion captured, having his likeness taken and being put into the game which was a big pull for us because we are all big fans of his. As for whether we’ve got anything else in the pipeline, I couldn’t possibly comment laughs.
GameWatcher: I was a bit surprised to see that there haven’t been many mods for the Sniper Elite series. Given how large the player-base is on Steam, is this something you would consider adding in future titles?
Tim Jones: Conceivably, although generally our focus is creating the best game we can. Opening it up to modders is less straightforward than it might seem. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s just we haven’t had the opportunity thus far to be able to do that. We are always keen to, as I’m sure the community has seen on our previous titles, by supporting the community with ongoing content updates and keeping the community alive by delivering lots of content for them, hopefully for the lifetime and beyond of the game. That’s certainly something you can expect from Sniper Elite 4 as well.
GameWatcher: The Sniper Elite series has incredibly advanced mechanics. From the wind affecting the trajectory of a bullet, to adjusting how you shoot your gun to account for bullet drop, there’s a lot to keep the hardcore crowd entertained. Do you find it difficult to cater towards both a casual audience - the one that wants to see constant slow motion kill cams - and the hardcore audience - the ones that care more about being patient on the battlefield?
Tim Jones: It’s absolutely at the core of what we are always trying to deliver. We know we have casual fans all the way up to the hardcore of the hardcore. We always have multiple difficulty modes where the easiest has all the ballistics turned off so whatever you point at, the bullet is going to go straight there. The casual players don’t have to worry about wind and the like. The standard difficulty has some of the ballistics in but not everything.
We’ve got the more Hardcore mode where everything is in play, and we also attune things like the difficulty of the AI and various other factors for those difficulty modes. On top of that, we offer an Authentic mode which is tough as you like with none of the visual assists or anything that gamifies the game, this makes it really quite hardcore. Then we’ve got the ability for players to customise the difficulty modes as they like, so they might want to have full ballistics but also full health on and easy AI, so we allow that as well. That’s something that will be present in Sniper Elite 4 as well. Whether we effectively cater to all of those audiences, I guess the only thing we can point to is our ten million sales to date on the Sniper Elite franchise, not including Zombie Army Trilogy. I hope we are doing something right, and we are continuing to try and deliver for all of those audiences without watering it down for anybody.
GameWatcher: Do you know the numbers of people who play on those hard difficulties? It has to be a faction of the player base, surely?
Tim Jones: I can’t give you exact numbers but, yes, it’s true. It’s a smaller proportion of players that like to play on the absolute hardest difficulties, however, that doesn’t mean they are smaller in importance. They are usually the most hardcore, the most committed players that are often the most active in the community. If those players are enjoying themselves and having a good time with the game, being vocal about it, they are more likely to draw in players from all other difficulty groups that may not want to play in the same way, but they want to experience the same general vibe. We just want everyone to have a good time.
GameWatcher: As you guys already know (based off of the Battlezone reboot you are doing), VR has basically become its own platform at this point. Have you considered the possibility of a Sniper Elite: VR Edition?
Tim Jones: We think about everything and all possibilities, that’s our job. Exactly what we do in the future, if we did have plans about it, I couldn’t tell you about it, I’m afraid. But you are right, it would be exciting.
Sniper Elite 4 will arrive on PC, PS4 and Xbox One sometime in 2016.