It's off to Africa for the latest instalment in the Sniper Elite series, as protagonist Karl Fairburne joins the Allied offensive against Rommel's Afrika Korps. Say goodbye to the familiar urban corridors of Sniper Elite V2, this time we're heading out into the wilderness.
The change in level design is fairly dramatic from the off. V2
's levels were boxy affairs, linear shooting galleries that pushed you towards one or two elevated locations and brooked little experimentation. Sniper Elite 3
's levels are colossal by comparison, and filled with plenty of options for flanking and multiple routes. Do you sneak past that machine-gun emplacement sight unseen, avoiding a fight that might be more than you can handle? Or do you take them down and give yourself some peace of mind in case you need to backtrack through the area later on?
All this is backed up by the game's vastly improved AI, and in particular its brand new squad mechanics. Every soldier you'll encounter has their own role. Some are basic patrol infantry, armed with rifles. Not too much trouble on their own, but dangerous if you set off a general alert. Scattered amongst the squaddies are officers, experienced leaders who can regroup and direct their charges. Take out a Lieutenant and you'll seriously hamper the enemy response. Opposition snipers, meanwhile, not only provide a serious threat but can also report your position to ground troops.
Rebellion's intention is to force the player to think like a sniper, to think carefully about every single shot. While V2
was essentially a shooting gallery with some very satisfying sniping mechanics, with Sniper Elite 3
the developers are forcing players to plan and, more particularly, adapt.
The new relocation mechanic is key to this mentality. Every shot has a chance of revealing your position, which will unsurprisingly result in waves of angry Germans swarming towards your carefully chosen hideaway. Just like a real-life sniper, you'll have to learn when to relocate, preventing your enemies from getting a bead on your location. There's a kind of Assassin's Creed
-esque awareness bar hovering above each enemy that lets you know how close they are to spotting you. Moving on stealthily resets the bar, and allows you to safely line up another kill.
Once again you can also sound-mask your shots with environmental noise; artillery fire makes a good cover if you get the timing right, but you can also create your own by sabotaging engines or destroying fuel dumps with satchel charges. We were shown how to combine TNT with a flint and lighter to create a makeshift timed explosive, and the developers are promising other ways to combine your gear in the name of causing as much chaos as possible.
With wide open levels and more intelligent adversaries, lazing about in one spot firing round after round at helpless targets is no longer an option. Varying your tactics and preparing yourself before each engagement is key. Even the new items play into this approach. Before, trip mines and the like were always luxuries that you could afford to ignore. Here, they're key to hampering your enemies, stopping them from pursuing you and allowing you to relocate. A crafty bouncing betty placed at the entrance to your sniper nest will give you precious time to make your escape.
Ah, I should probably talk about the actual sniping too. It's as satisfying as it was the last time round, sounding and feeling chunky and responsive. Sniping mechanics were possibly the area the team needed to improve the least, but there are still some minor tweaks. They've added a new heartbeat meter that affects the stability of your aim, so if you're off the back of an extended foot chase it will be slightly trickier to pull off the perfect shot due to your rising adrenaline. There's also a visual representation of bullet drop over distance, just to complicate things further. All of these HUD details can be turned off if you're skilled enough to play without them
And then, of course, there's the famous killcam. This time around Rebellion have added layers of musculature and a far more complicated skeletal structure, so if you absolutely need to know what happens when you shoot someone in the clavicle with a high-powered rifle round, Sniper Elite 3
provides the most succinct demonstration available. It's as gloriously tasteless as ever. There are even kill shots for vehicles, so that Tiger tank cresting the horizon can be disposed of via a kind of sniping minigame. Take out the driver through the front viewing port, stopping it in its tracks, then pick off the exposed gunner. Trucks can be violently destroyed by shooting engines and petrol tanks in a particular order. Not particularly realistic, perhaps, but I think we can make a case for the rule of cool here.
Visually the scrubland and rocky outcrops of Halfaya Pass, a strategic gateway between Egypt and Libya and the location of the demo mission I was shown, makes a nice change from the same old rubble-strewn European cities found in most World War 2 games. Rebellion are promising lots of variety in Sniper Elite 3
's level locations, including jungle areas, mountain forts and more. Their updated in-house Asura engine renders these locations in impressive detail; ambient shadowing has been added, along with tessellation. On next-gen consoles and PCs it all looks very pretty without requiring the sort of graphical hardware only NASA could afford. Rebellion have clearly been listening to common complaints about Sniper Elite V2, especially with regards to enemy intelligence. The demo build I saw had a nice mix of stealth and action, and thanks to the enhanced squad AI enemy soldiers actually felt like they were reacting to the situation naturally; closing you down, calling in support, generally being a nuisance. It's a big change from the dumb oxen that populated V2's European streets, gleefully lining up to be popped in the head. Those new, open levels are a big boon too. Rebellion are claiming each to be around three times as big as a typical level from V2, and the hour-long mission I saw certainly seemed to confirm that. Multiple routes and secondary objectives add a welcome level of choice, avoiding the shooting galleries of the previous game. While V2 was a title that too often relied on a satisfying sniping system to do all the work, Sniper Elite 3 appears to be a much more rounded and varied experience. Fans of shooting people from really far away will want to keep an eye on it as it zeroes in on its Q2 2014 release. Most anticipated feature: Hopefully that enhanced squad intelligence will make for some tense hide-and-seek gameplay, making the sniper kills vastly more satisfying when you land them.