It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Sniper Elite series. It’s one of those gaming guilty pleasures that sounds faintly perverse written down, and utterly ludicrous spoken out loud. Not that there’s anything particularly unusual about sniping in games; almost all shooters have at least one rifle, and many have whole stretches of gameplay that are dedicated to nothing but long-range marksmanship. The sniping in and of itself, though, isn’t the appeal of Sniper Elite. Things would be so much easier if it were. But, no, there’s something else that differentiates this series from other sneaky-stabby-shooty third-person games, and it’s that psychotic slow-motion X-Ray view that lets you see all the catastrophic internal trauma you’re inflicting on your victims.
Seems an odd thing to be into, doesn’t it? Certainly wouldn’t sit well around the office water cooler or the in-law’s dinner table, and you get the sense that Rebellion, the game’s developers, probably recognise this. Which, I assume, is why they continue to set the series in World War II, despite having exhausted every major theatre of the conflict. You need Nazis for this kind of thing. These games have such a throbbing stiffy for lovingly-detailed exploding organs that it would be uncomfortable if your bullets were tunnelling through the brainpans of anyone else. But killing Nazis is always guilt-free. In the context of taking on a xenophobic imperialist war-machine, it’s actually pretty satisfying to watch precisely how much irreparable damage each bullet is inflicting on the Third Reich. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
If there’s another reason for the continued early-40s setting, it’s probably that if the series was modernized most of its mechanics would vanish. Sniper Elite has always struck an interesting balance between maintaining stealth and subtlety while grappling with unwieldy old-fashioned technology. The only silenced weapon in the series is the Welrod pistol, an ungainly tubular monstrosity with limited ammo and an effective range of about one yard. All the rifles crack like thunder, and bring battalions of German infantry flooding to your position like you just opened a bratwurst stall. The games give you ways around this. One of them is masking the sound of your shot with, say, the rumble of a passing Luftwaffe plane, or the crackle of a faulty generator. The other is a bag full of tricks – landmines, tripwires, various types of explosive – that allow you to lure Fritz into your hidey-hole and then noisily blow them out of it. You’re never truly penalised for having your cover blown (a sharp increase in difficulty notwithstanding), so the gameplay becomes a pleasing push and pull between stealthy infiltration and then explosive retaliation.
At least, this is the conclusion I came to during my time with the previous entry in the series, Sniper Elite 3, which often felt like this was the only way to play. In that game, opportunities for shot-masking were few and far between, as were truly fruitful sniper nests. I played it as a stealth-and-sniping game until I made a mistake, and then as a ropey cover-based third-person shooter whenever I fucked up. I figured that was the point. But Sniper Elite 4 makes me think that maybe I was making too many excuses for simple bad design. Most of the changes this sequel makes seem to revolve around giving players more opportunities to honour the title.
The levels themselves, for instance. Gone are the arid deserts of North Africa, and in their place are sprawling Italian locales; beachfront towns, verdant forests, gothic fortresses. I’ve heard tell that the smallest map in Sniper Elite 4 is three times larger than the biggest map in Sniper Elite 3 – could be bullshit, but it seems true enough. These environments are once again stuffed with open-ended objectives, secondary goals, collectibles, and fascists. Each mission’s scale gives you the freedom to tackle its various obstacles in any order and manner you choose, but it also essentially segments the maps into multiple closed-off areas, each containing an objective and its own local guard populace. What that means, functionally, is that your fuck-ups aren’t permanent. Once you accomplish your task and move to another area, you’re free to approach it quietly. I’m not sure how much real-world sense it makes that Sniper Elite 4’s Nazis can’t hear or see explosions going off just a scant couple-hundred yards away, but I also don’t care.
Besides, enemies in this series have always been thicker than McDonalds’ milkshakes. Things are slightly improved here, but it’s still a trivial task to ridicule their AI in creative and often hilarious ways, particularly by exploiting the shadows in the new night-time missions, or the lush countryside foliage. More than once, I lost count of how many Germans I’d piled at my feet in a flowery bushel, throwing rocks to attract more, and whistling them over to my position for a hand-to-hand instant-kill. Speaking of which, Rebellion have wisely applied the slow-motion X-ray cam to melee kills, so if you ever wanted to know the precise damage a palm to the nose can inflict, Sniper Elite 4 has you covered.
Some of this stuff is ostensibly new, but it doesn’t feel it. That isn’t necessarily a criticism. Since it abandoned the linear progression of the first two games, Sniper Elite has carved out a niche for itself as a sort-of open-world experience with low-budget niggles but priceless charm. And I understand that “charming” is an odd descriptor for a game that allows you to see precisely which aortic artery you’re slicing in half, but I honestly can’t think of a better one. These small but significant refinements of the core Sniper Elite formula are what push this latest instalment into slightly new territory – less guilty pleasure, more flawed greatness. And it’s purely a ludic greatness, too; systems interacting with each other in complementary ways, creating convenience and struggle, balance and chaos. That might be a high-minded way of describing it, so let me put it in simpler terms: Sniper Elite 4 is very fun to play.
It’s also remarkably dumb, but mostly in ways that don’t matter. The story concerns yet another fiendish master-plan concocted by a wacky German general, and it’s a plan that only series’ hero Karl Fairburne can thwart. Karl’s a man with an exquisite side-parting and a Bale-as-Batman growl, and he’s also the most prolific marksman in Allied history; a mythical globetrotting assassin who has popped up in each major theatre of the war, personally shot most of the Third Reich’s senior management (including Hitler), rescued British Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents-to-be, and single-handedly dismantled every experimental project the Nazi war machine has ever dreamed up. Sniper Elite 4 puts a little more narrative weight on his exploits than the character can reasonably carry. He has to negotiate with the Italian partisan resistance and the Sicilian mafia, but you never get the sense he knows what he’s doing unless it involves shooting or stabbing. The writing is awful and the voice acting is hilarious, but also awful. There are only seven credited actors, most of them playing at least two parts, and their efforts at distinguishing between them are better left unheard.
Still. I care about storytelling in games a great deal, but I don’t care about storytelling in Sniper Elite 4 at all, and neither should you. A game that allows you to watch a slowly-rotating bullet travel 500 metres and burrow into a German’s bollocks has no use for a mature, thoughtful story, and that’s perfectly fine. Not everything needs one. All you need to know about Karl Fairburne, and about Sniper Elite 4 for that matter, is it’s progressive. Left-leaning. If the trend these days is to punch Nazis in the face, this is the Holy Grail of social justice. It’s the most detailed Nazi-punching simulator ever made. And you even get to punch real Nazis, not just people who wear red hats.