Spare a thought for the poor soldier standing on the balcony of an opulent Italian townhouse, looking out over a sun-kissed bay that's radiant in pastel blues and deep terracotta reds. He's recently signed up to the army to escape his abusive father, a little in-game text tells us as we train our sights on him, giving us brief pause for thought.
Really, though, he should know better than to stand so close to a bright red barrel. Crack goes the rifle, boom goes the barrel and the balcony soon comes tumbling down. At least we spared him the series' infamous nut shot.
Sniper Elite, Rebellion's stealth action hybrid, is back, and it's looking more handsome than ever. Cut free from the last generation of hardware - unlike Sniper Elite 3, this one's exclusive to Xbox One, PS4 and PC - it's looking mighty fine, even, all the rough edges that marked the series before smoothed out. Sniper Elite's evolved from guilty pleasure to reliably enjoyable entertainment. This one could be a seriously good video game.
The setting's switched up from the North Africa of Sniper Elite 3 to Italy just before its invasion in September 1943. It's afforded Rebellion some gorgeous locales - in a brief hands-off demo we're shown the bay, alongside a level set in sumptuous countryside under the imposing shadow of a grand viaduct - as well as a little more breathing space. Sandbox games such as this love throwing around grand statistics, so try this one on for size: the smallest level in Sniper Elite 4 is three times the size of the biggest one seen in its predecessor.
The shift up in scale has meant more of an emphasis on open-ended play, and a polishing of the underlying systems to make all that emergence seem a little more believable. You're a more supple hero now, able to mantle ledges and drop down from one window to another, while your enemies are that little bit smarter. In return, you're afforded some more devious moves yourself - you can dash while crouching, even if the soft ruffling of your slacks is going to draw a little more attention to yourself, and it's possible to booby trap a corpse by planting explosives on it. How charming.
Sniper Elite 3 always had a passing resemblance to Metal Gear Solid 5, and that's only become more pronounced in this latest instalment. That is, of course, something to be celebrated - there's a fluidity in the way encounters go from stealth to action and back again, and more reliable AI makes for more entertaining skirmishes as enemies are pulled away from their patrols. And anyway, a World War 2 themed Metal Gear Solid? Who wouldn't want a piece of that?
Sniper Elite has retained its own personality, of course, and it's still a wonderfully schlocky slice of entertainment. In addition to the kill cams that marked out earlier games - and yes, it's still possible to spend all day lining up nut shots and being rewarded with a slo-mo exploration of a ball-bag being popped - there are now shrapnel kills where you'll see pieces of exploding scenery embedding themselves in soldiers, while melee kills are also afforded the X-ray treatment as you marvel at your knife being plunged into someone's face. Again, how utterly delightful.
It really, genuinely is. Rebellion's games have always had a charm of their own, and now the developer's moved away from work for hire and struck out more on its own - Sniper Elite 4 is effectively an independent production - it's beginning to bring a little more polish into its output. The Sniper Elite series has never struggled for devotees, nor for sales, but now it could finally be getting the wider acclaim it most definitely deserves.
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