Rebellion's sadistic cranial trauma simulator returns in an improved - but still flawed - form.
There's always been a linguistic connection between sex and violence, and no game illustrates it quite so viscerally as Sniper Elite. This is the series that has made its name by fetishising the entry of a bullet into the human body almost to the point of parody.
That headline feature, of course, returns for Sniper Elite 3, which switches the action from the ruins of Berlin seen in 2012's Sniper Elite v2 to the more interesting terrain of the North African campaign. The scenery may have changed but your role hasn't. You're sent behind enemy lines to sneak around and disrupt the Nazi war machine, and you do this by graphically demolishing the faces, torsos and testicles of as many German troops as possible.
You don't need to subscribe to Freud's theories of psychoanalysis to see the connection, as bullets burst forth from your rifle with ejaculatory zeal. After the foreplay of lining up your shot, you hold your virtual breath, squeeze and let fly. Time slows down as the camera lovingly traces the path of your bullet, thrusting manfully towards its target. If this camera view is triggered, you already know it's a hit, so there's no tension. It's all pleasure.
Just as the bullet gets close to your target, everything slows down even more. We get to see the blankly oblivious face of your chosen quarry, the bullet now mere inches away from his skin. Then the X-ray kicks in as you penetrate, bones splinter, organs disintegrate, and it's all rendered in pornographic detail. The soundtrack is all squelches and groans. It is, by far, the most horrifically violent orgasm ever captured in a game - or, arguably, any other medium.
It's an experience you'll repeat over and over (unless you switch the kill-cam off entirely) across the game's eight missions. It's also, rather worryingly, an experience that never really gets boring, often leading to its own meta-game as your given mission gets temporarily shunted aside in favour of your own improvised objectives. This usually revolves around the same persistent, burning question: can I get him in the nuts from here?
But then the problem with Sniper Elite has never been the sniping. That's almost a mini-game in its own right. It's the stuff surrounding it that has held the series back from greatness, and it's to Rebellion's credit that despite arriving only a few years after the previous title, Sniper Elite 3 represents a pretty huge step forward in terms of design. It's still not quite reaching the heights it should, but it's a game that is much easier to recommend.
Gone are the fussy, narrow, linear levels of the last game, replaced with enormous open maps that you're free to traverse however you see fit. They're beautifully designed as well, with dozens of potential routes that only become apparent with proper exploration. Secondary objectives are also discovered in this way, whether it's stumbling across trucks, AA guns or ammo supplies that can be sabotaged, useful intel to collect or key personnel to assassinate. It all comes together to encourage you to not simply squat-run in the direction of the main objective marker, but to poke around, consider the terrain and think about your surroundings.
More than anything, it's reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, only with eight sizeable mission areas rather than one and an emphasis on long-range engagements over melee stealth kills. I found that revisiting completed missions to try harder difficulties almost always meant moments of exciting realisation as I discovered buildings, tunnels and other secrets that I'd completely missed first time through.
Sadly, this increased ambition in terms of design hasn't been matched by an equal increase in technical polish. The longer draw distances made possible by the new consoles are an obvious benefit to a game that often sees you tackling enemies from 100m away, and the 1080p resolution delivers both detailed environments and greater precision in shooting. When you need to aim at an enemy who is little more than a speck, it's best if that speck is crisp and clear.
Yet resolution and frame rate aren't the sole signifiers of quality, and Sniper Elite's somewhat rough-hewn past hasn't been left behind. The ragdoll physics, so essential in making those gory killshots work, are just as likely to result in bodies lodging upside down in walls or juddering in mid-air.
More damaging, the dimwitted AI that held back the previous games is no smarter this time around. Like most stealth games, the system relies on arbitrary states of alert that reset once enough time has passed, and while enemies will occasionally advance on your position in intelligent flanking manoeuvres, they'll also happily squat behind boxes and shuffle about until the ALL CLEAR message flashes up - at which point they go back to their scripted routines, ignoring the mangled corpses of their comrades.
It means that, while those long-distance headshots are always fun, they're not usually all that challenging. The pressure comes from your own desire to do better rather than any pushback from the game's own systems, and while upping the difficulty makes it mechanically harder to snipe by removing visual assists and other features, it can't make the wonky drones patrolling in front of you any tougher to engage.
Naturally, the closer you get to those enemies, the more their flaws become apparent. As such, Sniper Elite 3 is a better sniping game than it is a stealth game, and a better stealth game than it is an action game. The further it gets from its core premise, the weaker it becomes. Thankfully, the move to larger, free-roaming mission arenas means that you're rarely forced into third-person-shooter encounters. If you're reduced to blazing away with a machine gun, it's because something has gone badly wrong.
Those weapons can be swapped out for new pieces of kit, unlocked as you level up. XP is earned based on the circumstances of your shots, as well as for collecting secrets and meeting bonus objectives. It gives the game a gentle forward motion, but you may find that the difference between rifles and the benefit of upgrades is hard to detect.
Story-wise, there's nothing much to get excited about. You're on the trail of a fiendish Nazi so brutal that even his fellow Nazis think he's a bit much. The game isn't overly burdened with cut-scenes, which is just as well since the lead character is yet another formulaic American with a buzzcut, five o'clock shadow and a voice like chewing gravel. The African setting at least gives certain missions a distinct Indiana Jones flavour, and the overall tone of the game harks back to venerable British comics like Commando or Action.
Away from single-player, multiplayer is much as it was in the belated additions to the previous game. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are decent enough, with the sniper gameplay changing the traditional pace and the new maps more suited to multiplayer games. Distance King and its team-based variant anoint winners based not on kill count or points scored but on the cumulative distance. No Cross keeps teams completely separate, forcing players to concentrate solely on sniping rather than traps or close-quarters kills.
Asymmetrical co-op mode Overwatch - which teams a sniper with a spotter - also returns, as does co-op play during the campaign. The latter was a bit of a damp squib in Sniper Elite V2 but it blossoms in the new, larger maps, allowing two players to genuinely split up and tackle situations from any angle. It's a generous bundle, let down only by miserly numbers of maps, with only two missions available in Overwatch and a handful of competitive arenas.
The package as a whole is still very much a rough diamond, but it's a definite improvement over its predecessor. The gruesome kill-cam remains a deliciously wrong thrill and the unifying force that holds the game together, but it's doubtful that it would be enough to paper over the cracks in a fourth game without a major overhaul of the AI and physics code. Even with its flaws, though, Sniper Elite 3 is a solidly enjoyable mid-tier action game. It may not hit the bullseye, but it's getting closer with every shot.