Sniper Elite knows its limits, by which I mean its audience. It's not looking to hook the historical re-enactment crowd with a pedantic World War 2 simulation. Nor is it hoping to seduce connoisseurs of shooter fare with inventive, rarefied mechanics or an elaborate arsenal. Worthy plot and character development are a distant hope. What Sniper Elite V2 offers is a third-person duck shoot in which the ducks are Nazis with explodable testicles.
Set in and around the Battle of Berlin, its largely linear levels suggest stealth is possible, but nearly always fall back to the more reliable redoubt of mass murder, letting you plug brainpans and ballsacks as the beleaguered Wehrmacht smashes itself against your defensible position.
Nearly every killing shot in the game cuts to a slow-motion bullet camera, which peels away your victim's outer layers at the point of impact, revealing a cutaway rendering of bones and viscera which shatter and rip and pop as a half-inch of steel burrows through. Eyes are unseated as their sockets are sundered, teeth spiral out of a blasted jaw and, though it's tricky to land the shot, gonads burst into a gluey-looking red spray. That's really what people are here for, and the game delivers again and again and again, all other priorities rescinded. You can't accuse Rebellion of a lack of focus.
This is not quite a complaint; in the seven or eight hours of campaign I never tired of emasculating the Third Reich, one ballsack at a time. Its appeal is most definitely crass but, oddly, these animations also give each enemy's death a ghoulish significance. In other games, a flurry of bullets fells a soldier and is instantly forgotten. Here, every gormless Nazi-bot that you encounter is designed to expire in a memorable moment of gross-out carnage, turning the very placement of your crosshairs into a playful, macabre challenge.
Can you plug two guys with the same round? Can you detonate the grenade on his belt to take out the squad? The repertoire of grisly deaths isn't as wide as Bulletstorm's, but there's a certain creativity to it, made more thrilling by the need to account for wind speed and the parabola of your shot. The degree to which physics affects your fire and how much assistance you get can be customised, but even without the bullet-drop indicator you'd be hard-pushed to consider this a realistic game. Tanks, for example, come with a tiny, glowing weak spot that detonates the entire vehicle instantly.
There's little pretence to realism when it comes to the AI either, who seem able to detect your exact position by the sound of a single, distant shot, and tend to react by running back and forth shouting until you blast off their scrotums. They shoot back periodically, but only mounted turrets and snipers pose a lethal threat at long range. Submachine gun fire can be shrugged off on the default difficulty setting, allowing you to duck in and out of cover, popping heads as you go.
It doesn't feel like a terribly neat solution, however. Being a tad obsessive, I ended up reloading and reloading, attempting the missions by stealth. The enemy's sonic sensitivity encourages you to use some discretion, at least until you reach an advantageous position for open engagement, and some levels allow you to disguise early kills beneath the rumble of environmental noise. This might be the sound of mortar fire or an inexplicably loud and incoherent tannoy message, repeated ad infinitum. In another level, a church bell rings every few seconds, allowing you to perforate brains with each chime. On the downside, you have to listen to a church bell ringing every few seconds - but that's preferable to the agonisingly terrible, looping music that kicks in whenever you've been spotted.
Even when the alert is sounded, you can slip the net. Your last known position is marked by a ghostly silhouette, just as it is in Splinter Cell: Conviction, and the enemy continues to fire at it, allowing you to flank them unseen. You can also deploy trip wires and booby-trap corpses, luring inquisitive soldiers to their deaths by tossing pebbles. But, despite the theoretical presence of such mechanics, the game is reluctant to provide many opportunities to use them effectively. Stealth gameplay is a complicated thing to set up, and Sniper Elite V2 is aware that its primary selling point is uncomplicated in the extreme. No surprise that most levels end up enforcing straight-up firefights.
Notable exceptions include a capacious underground facility, whose winding, interconnecting tunnels provide ample space to circumvent guards, plant traps, and slowly prune the defending force to a more manageable number. Later, you tangle with a Russian tank in a sprawling level of razed buildings, then fight your way back out through a killzone of sniper fire. Most of the time, however, alternative routes are closed to you, barricaded with locked doors and rubble.
The slew of co-op modes don't mess with this formula too much. You can play through the campaign with a buddy, though it doesn't feel especially improved by the presence of another sniper, and there's the inevitable Horde/Firefight equivalent in which you battle waves of foes. Another slightly limp mode is Bombing Run, in which players recce modified levels from the single-player campaign to locate scattered components for your busted escape vehicle.
By far the most intriguing is Overwatch, a mode which doles out different roles to the two players. One makes a sortie on ground level, ducking enemy patrols to place a bomb on an anti-aircraft gun, for instance, while the other takes the high ground and uses his scope to thin out the defenders from afar. It's a more exciting dynamic than simply throwing two snipers into the mix, and the asymmetry provides a clear division of labour.
Alas, on PC, voice communication only seems to work on the menus - a strange choice in a game which so requires co-ordination. There are some other minor oddities too. Enemies who have their happy-sacks detonated in one player's game occasionally remain defiantly alive, well endowed and lethal in the other. In all modes, the need to deal with two combatants seems to cause disarray among the Nazi forces, who end up not really knowing who to shoot or where to run - but this doesn't really make them any less delightful to gun down.
Competitive multiplayer, exclusive to the PC version of the game, offers 16-man snipe-offs in a handful of the campaign's more spacious arenas, each thoughtfully reworked for online play. With real human brains behind the gun barrels, battles become an agonising exercise of second-guessing, as players try to identify the tactically advantageous spots that are not so clearly advantageous as to be obvious targets. As in the single-player, sniper scopes glint as they pass over you, giving you a split second to react or pray that your opponent fluffs the shot.
Teething issues with the netcode aside, it's a neatly packaged extra - albeit largely one-note. The tense crawls to cover and patient surveillance of the battlefield would satisfy a novelty snipers-only mode in something like Red Orchestra 2, and it's a welcome diversion here, but the pace of the action isn't varied enough to grip indefinitely.
This is not a sophisticated game in ethos or execution: it's a series of environments in which you shoot men's balls off in slow motion. But this singular calling is, on the whole, well served, and Sniper Elite V2's perfunctory ancillary mechanics don't distract from the practice of cinematic Nazi gelding. Rebellion knows the extent of its capabilities and has set its ambitions just within them. If you can't exactly praise it, then at least you can say that, for a sniping game, a narrow focus is rather apt.
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