Games, so the argument's been going recently, are predominantly dumb, trapped in an eternal adolescence and forever fixated with smut and gore. Some games are dumber than others, and some don't seem to care too much about their lack of smarts at all.
That's certainly the case with Sniper Ghost Warrior 2, an oafish but lovable first-person shooter that's got all the intellect of a straight-to-video '80s action flick. Importantly, it looks like it's got all the charm of a VHS classic too. It helps, perhaps, that the expectations have been set low for a sequel to a poorly received original that went on to do improbably well.
The premise of the first Sniper Ghost Warrior was simple enough: imagine an entire game focused on the original Modern Warfare's undoubted highlight, All Ghillied Up, promising stealth, headshots and slick tension. The execution, however, left a lot to be desired.
"Low-budget games can be charming experiences, given the right mix of inspiration and passion," Dan Whitehead observed as he worked his way down to a damning 2/10. "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."
A critical kicking didn't keep it down, though. A budget price-tag and the thirst for gunpowder in the vacuum before the release of Modern Warfare 2 made for an unlikely commercial success, and the riches it brought in helped developer City Interactive to build a mini-empire, from which this sequel springs forth.
With money comes ambition though, and this time out City Interactive's striving to make a triple-A shooter. All of which seems to be missing the point a little, really - this is a B-movie of a game, but at least this time out it's a B-movie with less risible production values.
A shift to the CryEngine is the headline improvement, and it makes for a strong baseline from which to work. Naturally, jungles and dense foliage all look as you'd expect from the powerhouse that brought us Crysis, while urban environments look none too shabby as well, the streets of wartorn Sarajevo shown with a fidelity that's only slightly marred by a chugging frame-rate on the Xbox 360 (an issue that, we're assured, will be fixed come the game's release in August).
It's all underpinned by a story that's artful in its artlessness - you're Cole 'Sandman' Anderson, an Elite Forces Sniper who's learnt his trade growing up in the Arctic, and one who was also raised by Native Americans. It's a cut-and-shut of action clichés that's got a certain silly appeal of its own.
The real character of Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 lies elsewhere, however. Whereas the first game managed to somehow neuter the morbid appeal of a well-placed, long-distance headshot, here it's front and centre, and it's delivered with no shortage of conviction.
There's a satisfying sense of weight that's been lent to the shooting, and it's all served by a nice line in ballistic theatrics. Fire off a particularly handsome shot and a bullet-cam kicks in, observing the metal slug in slow, revolving glory before the real money shot. A 50-caliber rifle can do terrible things to a man, and that's a fact that Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 revels in.
Impacts are played out in delightful pirouettes or, if you've placed the shot elsewhere, in pained heaps. The dismemberment possibilities elsewhere bring to mind the guilty pleasures of Soldier of Fortune, limbs sheered off by well-placed bullets, and there's even some tactical gain to be had; land a shot in the chest and the screams will draw attention, while a perfect headshot's the silent ideal.
It's the kind of thing that'd be gruesome and perhaps a little tasteless if it weren't for the overstated nature of it all. There's a certain Hollywood panache in the wet, dull thud of steel meeting flesh, and it helps that the cannon fodder seems to have strayed in from the set of an '80s action flick. "I've just seen a ghost," says one soldier in an accent that's stranded somewhere between Scotland and Serbia as he's being stalked in the thick Philippines jungle. "Have you been drinking?" asks his comrade. "Of course I've been drinking."
Stealth elements have been smoothly worked in, an ever present on-screen mini-map showing enemy's cones of vision and allowing you to plot their paths. It's simple yet effective, and it suggests that the tension that was sorely missing from the first game may find its way into Sniper Ghost Warrior 2. An extreme difficulty level looks to make that tension explicit, removing the mini-map and placing a greater emphasis on the influence of wind speed on your shots.
So the shooting, importantly, looks fun, and it's been flourished with a couple of thoughtful touches too. Sprint any great distance and you'll have to take a few seconds to catch your breath before being able to hold it and steady your scope.
That's not to suggest that Sniper Ghost Warrior 2 is anything but derivative - but this time out it seems that it'll be the good kind of derivative, a shooter that peddles genre clichés with a big daft smile and that greets every headshot with a knowing wink. It's an unashamedly dumb game, and it looks to be all the better for it.