Schlocky, supple and slicker than what's gone before, Sniper Elite 4 is a riotously entertaining WW2 stealth adventure.
Whether rightly or wrongly, Rebellion - one of the UK's longest standing indies, something the Oxford-based studio is understandably proud of - has a bit of a patchy reputation. Perhaps it's the frayed edges found in work-for-hire such as the brilliantly conceived but poorly executed NeverDead or the poorly conceived and poorly executed Rogue Warrior (a game which still demands to be held in high regard for its end credit sequence alone).
When Rebellion's been able to work on its own terms the results have often fared much better, as with the recent self-published Sniper Elite series; knockabout action stealth games with delicious period WW2 trappings, they've quickly risen from guilty pleasure to something much more commendable. The end result of the quickfire iteration that comes from a series that's seen five games since 2012 is Sniper Elite 4. And it's kind of brilliant.
Sniper Elite 4 doesn't deviate from the formula laid out by its predecessor, nor does it make any profound additions, but that's all for the best. In placing a focus on the fundamentals - as well as keeping this to current generation consoles, unlike Sniper Elite 3, so that compromises aren't so commonplace - Rebellion has been able to tease out all the potential that's been bubbling under the surface for so long. And if you haven't played a Sniper Elite beforehand, this is most definitely the right time to get acquainted.
At this point in the series' evolution - and as part of its continuing spread to ever more open levels - this is essentially a stealth game with a vaguely open world framework. It's Metal Gear Solid 5 with Reggiane fighter planes droning across azure Italian skies as you're crouched in an olive bush with a bolt action rifle slung over your shoulder. Who wouldn't want to play that?
While Sniper Elite 4 lacks the polish and poise of Metal Gear Solid 5, feeling at times like a direct-to-video counterpart, it has a plucky spirit and a schlocky flair that's all its own. The series' signature feature of being able to see a bullet fly in slow motion across a map before entering an enemy soldier and bursting an eyeball, shattering a spine or popping a nut returns and is as disturbingly satisfying as ever. It's a repeating moment of Grand Guignol that wouldn't be out of place in any self-respecting VHS action epic that's grown fuzzy from one too many rentals from your local rental store. This is the video game as raw, naked and unashamed entertainment, and it's all the better for it.
The suite of missions that make up the campaign (at about 90 minutes to play through each, this is a fairly generous adventure you undertake) are broad and varied. They're coherent playspaces, and finely crafted too; Sniper Elite 4's Italian setting allows for some exquisite backdrops, from wooded outposts to towns tumbling down the side of a bay, and each one offers a multitude of paths and opportunities. There are night-time missions now too, such as a harborside base that offers plenty of dimly lit warehouses and walkways to prowl as you take out a series of AA guns and searchlights any which way you choose. The amount of freedom each area affords can be intoxicating.
This is stealth on an altogether different scale than seen before in the series, and it's helped by a slight broadening of your repertoire - you can drop out of windows, hanging off ledges to either escape an escalating situation or to sneak up on enemies. Adaptability is key here, and you've now got the tools to go from sniping to close quarters action and back again.
Indeed Sniper Elite 4 is nicely adaptable throughout, offering a suite of options that have accumulated over the years. On one hand it can be a viciously exacting simulator, where you have to take bullet drop, wind speed and a more authentic ballistics system into account with each and every shot. Take it down a few notches, though, and it's an enjoyably pliable action romp. Co-op's even supported throughout the campaign, a welcome touch even if it feels like Rebellion has made few concessions for team play.
There's no right way to play Sniper Elite 4, in other words, and in the tradition of all fine stealth games it's just as entertaining to klutz your way through levels as it is to ghost them, waiting patiently for the sound of passing planes to mask each and every one of your shots. The AI has been fine-tuned since Sniper Elite 3's notoriously thick-headed enemies, and while it's certainly improved - troops seem to be more in sync with one another, something that can be wonderfully exploited by taking down an officer and instilling panic - it's still fallible. There are exploits aplenty, and it's easy enough to corral an entire army into a small corner of the map to their slaughter.
Rough edges such as these seem to be part of the territory when it comes to Sniper Elite, and while it's a smoother ride than what's gone before this is still far from a premium product. The writing is uniformly horrendous (doge references aren't particularly welcome anywhere in 2017, least of all in mission text for a WW2-themed video game), while the character models show the age of Rebellion's Asura engine in their leaden creakiness. Good thing, then, that the storyline here is entirely forgettable, each cut-scene being eminently skippable.
Such blemishes aren't enough to mask the brilliance that shines through here. Rebellion has folded in the essence of stealth greats such as Splinter Cell and Metal Gear while keeping the characterful flavour of Sniper Elite itself, and for the first time it's not necessary to make any excuses on its behalf. Sniper Elite 4 is a really good video game. It's as simple as that.