Version tested: Xbox
When you've got 497,593 World War II games to compete against, it's hard to get anyone's attention, never mind a genre-fatigued reviewer currently unphased by the gurgling death of his nine-millionth fictional Nazi. And when they're buried under a mountain of games that would make Roman Abramovich's pile of cash seem trifling by comparison, it's even more of a task. But! As luck would have it, just when we thought we'd cleared the backlog of unreviewed titles Rebellion's Sniper Elite crawled from the wreckage, its hand stretched out in a last desperate act pleading for one last chance. "I've just won an award!" it sobbed. "I won the TIGA Game of the Year. I'm good! You'll like me!"
In the midst of the now-traditional two-month long videogame release famine, even previously ignored World War II games deserve a chance, especially British-developed ones that have just won unexpected recognition from their fellow developers.
And having chipped through all 28 taxing sniper-based missions, we can see why. It's different. It's doesn't follow the same path as all the other me-too fodder, and delights in giving you the chance to play it as gung-ho or as carefully as you want. We like that.
A chilly old war
The story, though, is typically ridiculous in a way that contrives to fashion a US protagonist, despite it actually focusing on the Russian-German conflict. Basically, we're asked to suspend our disbelief in supposing that right at the end of the Second World War, a crack US OSS sniper has disguised himself as a German to stop those darned Ruskies getting their hands on their nuclear secrets - the kind of advanced weaponry that could tip the balance of world power unfavourably in their direction.
Aside from the somewhat wooly premise, Sniper Elite quickly develops into the kind of covert, slow burn, pick-'em-off-one-by-one experience that gets under your skin the more you play it. Harking back to the best bits of the seminal Hidden & Dangerous, it encourages a more careful, more considered approach that many run-and-gunners might initially find a bit jarring. Placing you in the confines of largely deserted, ruined urban environments, you play the lone hero sent in to disrupt, destroy, eliminate and rescue by whatever means necessary. But once you start ticking off semi-linear objectives and engaging in fairly familiar third person combat, you might be forgiven for thinking 'so far, so familiar', and leave it at that.
The main difference between Sniper Elite and the army of other me-too shooters out there is the need for a heightened degree of tactical awareness. Given that (for virtually the entire game) it's just you against a determined and deadly massed enemy this isn't a game that allows you to get very far by simply charging in and spraying bullets around for fun - at least not unless you want to strip away the spirit and point of the game and play it on easy. But let's be clear: despite the title, Sniper Elite is not a game that forces you to be a sharpshooter all the time; it'd be interminably dull if that were the case. In fact, if you want to simply play it as a traditional third-person shooter, you can. But if taking your time and clearing enemies silently and with surgical precision like a deadly assassin is the role you want to fill, you can do that too.
Although you could legitimately argue that practically every shooter features a sniper rifle at some stage, the fact that it's such an integral focus here allows Rebellion to zone in on the art of sniping in a way that few games have bothered to do. For example, the effects of wind and gravity play a key part in the aiming process, meaning it's not simply a case of lining up the crosshair anymore. The further a target us away from you, the more you have to aim above the target to compensate, and the same applies if a crosswind is likely to steer the bullet away from its intended target. In addition you have to pay attention to your heart rate and stance: if you've been running around, your pulse will be racing and hence your aim will wobble accordingly. Crouching or lying down, catching your breath and using the 'empty lung' technique helps enormously just as you're about send a bullet flying a few hundred metres towards its unsuspecting target. It's a game that really makes you think about how you go about shooting, rather than simply lining up the crosshairs.
But far from getting beardy about the subject, it's a game that's not afraid to make it an exciting spectacle, and just as Max Payne and others delight in showing you a 'bullet cam' when you've lined up a particularly sweet shot, Sniper Elite does the same, to delightfully grisly effect, displaying the full gory results on impact and rewarding players with score multipliers for skillful and unlikely feats of sharp shooting.
Delivering a steady aim, though, is only half the story, and as you'd expect, the life of a sniper depends as much on their ability to remain out of sight. In accordance, the game gives you no end of opportunities to pick off victims unseen through the broken walls of innumerable shattered buildings, peepholes through twisted wreckage, abandoned machinegun nests as well as deadly vantage points - but also doesn't hesitate in returning the favour with interest when it wants to. With such excellent cover for the canny AI to lurk among as well, you'd be completely bamboozled if the game didn't give you some clue as to where the enemy was firing from, so there are a few obvious concessions to realism in the name of fun. Chief of these is the ability to see an approximate 'cone of sound' on your compass, so if bullets happen to fizz past your ears, you'll be able to tell instantly where it came from even without the advantage of surround sound.
Erase and rewind
Needless to say, flesh wounds are an occupational hazard, but patching yourself up isn't quite as free and easy as other games, with even the easiest settings forcing you to be frugal with supplies and search every body for leftover medikits or bandages - not to mention do everything possible to avoid enemy fire in the first place. Admittedly you do get a convenient supply drop at the start of every mission, but it's never one of those games to overload you and make it too easy. You really will fear for your life at every turn, and as such this heightens the sense of satisfaction when you get things right, and serves as a crushing blow when things screw up. Thankfully, Sniper Elite doesn't overdo it in the save-game department either, and the limited number of quicksaves per level also prevents the game turning into a stop-start affair and feels more sensibly managed than merely checkpointing as well, though it does force you into nervously gambling on your ability to make headway ("just round this next corner. Blam. Oh dammit"). As it stands, there's a nice balance between being able to make steady progress and still giving the game a much-needed feeling of tension that games like this thrive on.
As we touched on earlier, in terms of what you actually do in the game, it's pretty standard run of the mill stuff. You know, take out this cluster of enemies, destroy that installation, sneak undetected past those guards, rescue so-and-so. You know the drill. Sniper Elite's recent TIGA award certainly wasn't won on the basis of the startling originality of its premise, but what it does do that's refreshing is give the player more choice than is typical. Choice over the order in which they tackle many of the level's objectives, choice of route, choice of fighting style. It might not strike you initially, but there's much more to this game than meets the eye, and it's a shame that this aspect wasn't pushed more heavily before the game slipped out unnoticed.
If there's one thing that's charming about the game is the sense that some of the traditional linear shackles have been taken off, making it possible to do things your way to an extent. In a way that Infinity Ward experimented with it in Call of Duty 2 recently (just after this was released in fact), you might have a bunch of buildings to clear in the general area, but which order you tackle them (and how) is largely your choice. And better still is the knowledge that no strategy is best. If you're not getting on with the stealthy, sniper-led approach and find yourself being charged down and outmanoeuvred unexpectedly, the ability to do a complete about-face, pull out the PPSch-41 and take a posse of enemy out with a machinegun or silenced P-38 pistol in a fit of impatience (or out of necessity) makes it feel a completely different game. It's not like this all the time, mind you, and you are shepherded around in many senses (and some of those invisible walls grate a bit), but you do come to learn which approach is the most effective, but it's good to see developers finally letting players take more of the initiative about how they go about doing things.
To kill or be killed
A special mention, also, for the AI, which manages to be far more convincing than many other celebrated games which make a big hoo-hah about how good theirs is (take the Conflict series, for one). In Sniper Elite enemies behave like they exist not just to kill you, but to stay alive - something of a revelation when you're used to so many games where enemies simply charge at you like cretinous maniacs on a fundamentalist suicide mission. Much of the time you'll be trying to take out foes from afar through the scope of your rifle, and as frustrating as it is to miss your target, watching their reaction is - at times - hugely convincing. Not only do they rush off and find some decent cover, they'll fire back with a convincing lack of precision, only to find their aim and force you to go to ground yourself. Some of them give you such a small window of opportunity to cap them again it becomes a real game of cat and mouse, and in a sense this is Sniper Elite's thirty seconds of fun right there. Furthermore, they'll actually gesture for reinforcements (in their native tongue), try and outflank you from different directions and even attempt to rescue the injured - giving you a perfect opportunity to pull off those tough-to-earn 'two-for-one' kill bonuses. It's one of the few military games ever released where the enemy actually provides a convincing challenge and seems to think for itself. Sadly, there are a few notable exceptions when it blots its copy book, but by and large the AI feels convincingly fallible rather than just badly designed, which is a hugely important distinction to make.
One thing we haven't really addressed so far is the focus on combos and scoring in the game - a factor that few games of this ilk bother with. With so many cool ways to take out enemies from distance, Rebellion has really gone to town with dishing out means to rack up kill combos, rewarding players for taking out moving targets, long range, covert, multiple kills and so on. Although it's nothing to do with the game objectives as such, it definitely adds a sliver of replay value - and gives bragging rights to those who want to upload them to Xbox Live. As an extra layer of achievement, such cool little stats are ace.
In terms of its technical standing, it's not a game to turn anyone's heads particularly, but it's certainly not bad either - especially once you realise how few people actually worked on the game (it was almost a side project for the Oxford-based team, by all accounts), but there's also the sense that it probably could have done with a final layer of polish to, for example, make the character models a little better, or make the levels a little less samey, or the set pieces more bombastic and impressive (as they are in the Call of Duty titles, for instance). There is a sense that within a few hours you've seen pretty much all there is to see, and that most of what follows after is pretty similar.
Admittedly, the two train station levels near the end are a break from the norm (and architecturally interesting), as is the airport, but if you've seen one bombed-out, deserted German town, you've seen them all. Just as well, then, that Rebellion did at least manage to depict such scenes of destruction with conviction, but at the same time you'll get very little (if any) reward for exploring the various bombed-out buildings, and as a whole the game does feel a little too empty for its own good (even if it was for the sake of realism). As for the storyline and narrative, this isn't really the place to come; it never stretches itself to try and make you 'care' about the characters, and any exchanges that are there tend to be all over in a sentence of grunted acknowledgement, but in a way that works in the context of the lone sniper. What you do get just about manages to neatly frame the premise without ever outstaying its welcome, and perversely you'll probably begin to feel grateful for the hollowness.
For what it's worth (for a game few people are playing online) there's even some multiplayer spills to indulge in. Offline there's the two-player, split-screen co-op mode to get your teeth into, but online's really where it's at. Sadly, online co-op's not there (boo), but you can engage in a spot of free-for-all deathmatch or team deathmatch for up to eight players, with one side playing as the Russians, the other as the Germans. No Yanks or Brits in sight! Throw a party! Slightly more interesting is the Assassination mode, again for up to eight players, with the German's role as the bodyguards trying to keep their target alive for as long as possible, while the Russian's job is obviously to wipe him and their Nazi foes out. But as simple as all this sounds, the ability to tweak any number of gameplay balancing options gives you the scope (and there it is) to tailor the style of game just so, meaning everything from reload time to how realistic the sniper conditions are can be balanced in meaningful ways. Much of the fun will depend on how populated the servers are, but rounding up a bunch of like-minded pals should make for an entertaining session, with full in-game voice comms supported.
Evidently Sniper Elite deserved far better than to be slipped into an uncaring market with no marketing or retail support, but that's the reality for most games these days. From first impressions it's easy to take one look at it and assume it's a rather low-budget affair that does little that any number of other slicker, better looking titles haven't done a dozen times over. Yet what lies beneath its rather unspectacular veneer is a really well designed game that approaches the conflict from a different angle and provides a solid platform for a hugely entertaining game. Now all that needs to happen is for an ambitious publisher to expand Sniper Elites premise and fully realise its obvious potential, because the pickings would be rich if it did.
7 / 10