Sniping is a lot like driving a car off a ramp. Both tap into some primal thrill mechanism, leapfrogging our critical thinking and making us have fun whether we want to admit it or not. It's probably best not to dwell too long on why shooting someone in the head from far away feels so satisfying, but there's an undeniable feeling of control and power that comes from the perfect headshot that is downright intoxicating.
Shame, then, that Sniper Ghost Warrior squanders that thrill so horribly.
There's undoubtedly room in the first-person shooter genre for a sniper-based game, provided the game in question tailors its challenges to the unique aspects of long-distance, "one shot, one kill" combat. In a gaming environment riddled with bullet-blasting bombast, the prospect of a shooter where patience and concentration pay dividends is enticing.
Unfortunately, Sniper Ghost Warrior has no interest in making the required effort to deliver such difficult ideas. So, yes, this is ultimately just another corridor FPS, albeit one where you're stuck using a sniper rifle, even in situations where it makes no sense.
After a reasonably promising opening in which you're teamed up with a spotter who talks you through a covert assassination, things rapidly devolve back to genre basics. For the bulk of the game you're stuck, on your own, in a jungle, and must advance through linear villages and camps, blasting away at the enemy.
Several times, Sniper Ghost Warrior dangles the prospect of serious sniper play, then snatches it away and replaces it with yet more mindless firefights where you're stuck using the wrong tool for the job. As you single-handedly sweep and clear another enemy stronghold, you can always switch to your backup pistol, lob grenades or ditch your sniper rifle and swap it for a machine gun. But, at that point, you're neither sniper nor ghost and the game is squarely in Modern Warfare 2 territory, where its low-budget limitations prove impossible to ignore.
Like pretty much everything else from City Interactive's budget code factory, Sniper Ghost Warrior is a technical horror show. The Chrome 4 engine wheezes and sputters as it tries to generate something even broadly comparable to the genre's base requirements, and the result is a parade of near constant quirks and glitches that obliterate all realism and immersion.
The frame rate is terrible, the game freezes just before any dialogue or autosave, and objects float in the air or lodge in the ground with clockwork regularity. Climb up a ladder and your feet pinwheel as you run, vertically, up the rungs without touching them. Use the grapple hook and you walk out into space on an invisible bridge, then slowly clamber down through an atmosphere of treacle, as your poor virtual arms flail in front of you, trying to work out where they belong in a world where gravity makes no sense.
Enemies are subject to the same weird forces. In one particularly eerie moment, I killed two guards and they continued speaking, even as their angular polygonal corpses juddered halfway into the floor. Even worse, if you zoom in on enemies, you'll see that they're often firing in completely random directions - even straight into the ground - yet their magic bullets still find you.
This sort of mechanical strangeness can be acceptable in a game that is fun or ambitious - Red Dead Redemption has more than its fair share of outrageous physics catastrophes, after all - but too many of the problems here impact directly and negatively on the gameplay.
There are few things more maddening than bad stealth gaming, and Sniper Ghost Warrior muffs it up spectacularly. Your radar, for example, is frequently wrong. Sometimes it'll flag up an enemy before you see them. Just as often, you'll stumble onto a soldier who still doesn't generate a little red triangle when you're two feet away. At one point my radar showed one enemy, facing east. In reality, it was two enemies, both facing north. These aren't just harmless bugs, but the sort of issues that cut the legs out from any attempt to play the game seriously.
The AI follows suit, offering no consistent foundations on which to base your approach. Enemies will either spot you instantly or remain oblivious to your presence, seemingly at random. You can shoot one guard without alerting his companion, even when they're facing each other. You can be on your belly, so deep in foliage that all you can see are enormous green pixels, and suddenly be attacked from all side by enemies hundreds of feet away.
Even under fire, locating these assailants can be an infuriating task. In trying to come up with the sort of lush jungle environments made popular by Far Cry, the game overreaches itself once again. While individual foliage elements can look decent, they all cast huge jagged shadows. There are more harsh right angles in this organic jungle than in all the LEGO titles put together.
It's the lighting that proves most problematic, though. What is presumably supposed to look like tropical sunlight dappling through the trees actually comes across as hundreds of flashing squares sprinkled over the screen. It's incredibly distracting and it makes spotting enemies and their muzzle flashes a real chore. You're never entirely sure if that oblong lump in the distance is a soldier, a weird bush or just a random collision of shadow and strobing sunlight.
The tragedy is that, beneath all this ineptitude, the sniping is pretty good when you actually get to do it. It's not particularly sophisticated, basically using the same click-to-concentrate system as Sniper: Art of Victory, but the vestigial thrill of a well-placed head shot can still be felt: muffled by terrible design, but undeniably there.
There's also a bare-bones online option with six maps and three game modes. Have they come up with a clever way to incorporate sniping into a workable multiplayer framework? Of course not. You get deathmatches. With sniper rifles. Sure enough, everyone retreats to the edges of map, and waits out the clock, hoping the other players blunder into view. Awesome.
Low-budget games can be charming experiences, given the right mix of inspiration and passion. Just look at DarkStar One if you need a recent example of a title that overcomes its surface limitations by offering solid gameplay to a neglected niche. Yet Sniper Ghost Warrior can't even manage to hit that easy target. By favouring tired run-and-gun scenarios over actual sniping gameplay, you're left with a technically inept entry in the most over-populated gaming genre around. Show some mercy, put one in the back of its head, and leave it for the vultures.
2 / 10