For all of its flaws, Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 certainly grows on you.
You've got to see through the worst of its problems before it gets there, though. It starts off rough, force-feeding you exposition and not relenting until it lets you loose on your first proper mission some 30 minutes later. What it sets up is jingoistic, overwritten and what would be horrendous if it weren't so bland. You're Jon North, elite black-ops agent and prime chewer of scenery who knuckles his way through a story that's all too easy to tune out of.
Which is probably for the best, as away from the miserable plotting there's a decent game here. It's a fine recreation of what pop-culture tells us sniping is all about, and you'll spend most of your time in Sniper Ghost Warrior's newly-introduced open world edging towards your target, scaling drainpipes or cautiously descending rocky outcrops to get yourself to that one perfect sniping spot.
You'll scope out levels from a perch, scouting out the enemy with your rifle and a twitchy drone. Using these you'll mark enemy positions and particularly thorny defences like sniper nests and mortar pits, before trying to take them out. It opens up as you get more familiar with its stealth systems, and quickly you'll find yourself creeping into the heart of enemy compounds, removing only those that stand between you and your objective.
Play it on the Hard difficulty and you're playing as developer CI intended, the regenerating health and generous sniper assists on Normal turned off to give you a proper sniping experience. However, it can be brutally punishing in a lot of cases, and those that want the feeling of being a black-ops badass without constant retries might enjoy the lower difficult. Similarly, for those that want more of a challenge, there's an even higher difficulty, which strips out the skill-system and many of the assists. That each difficulty has its own features has the bizarre and not wholly unwelcome effect of making each setting having its own slightly different texture in play.
Back to the perch. The sniping itself is a treat, a tactile element to the shooting making it feel like you're acquiring a technical skill. One of the best feelings in the game is lining up a target, fiddling with your scope to get the zoom and zeroing distance right, and then pulling off a perfect headshot. There's also a killcam similar to Sniper Elite's - minus the x-ray brutality - that shows you your best shots in slow motion.
There are several types of bullet you can switch between in your long rifle. These range from the sensible - anti-armour and anti-personnel rounds - to more ludicrous alternatives like exploding bullets, luring bullets and a bullet that tags every enemy within 25 feet on impact.
In these moments - during the core loop of infiltration, sniping and exfiltration - the open-world shines. The mission environments are all well-crafted and offer a wealth of opportunities to curious players, and they're stitched together across the broad landscape.
The expanded scope makes a lot of new aspects possible with the open landscape giving players the ability to approach missions in several different ways. There's also the addition of several Most Wanted targets scattered around the map that you need to track, stalk and extra-judicially murder, and the variety of missions, side-ops and objectives to juggle lets you feel like you're making meaningful decisions about how you spend your time, and feeling like you've got agency is valuable.
However, the open-world is to blame for the majority of the title's design flaws. Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 falls foul of several pitfalls of the genre, asking you to scavenge for components and ammo to replace your weapons, explore every house to acquire precious consumables, and kill every single enemy to level up one of your three different skill trees. This leading to a couple of times where I would do a mission with perfect stealth, and then return to the environment immediately afterwards to clear up anyone who I could kill for a level up, before rustling through some dingy apartments in the hope of finding a golden pin or a nice looking tie.
It feels like a betrayal of what's at the heart of Sniper Ghost Warrior 3, because the most efficient playstyle here is to make sure that you kill everyone in total silence to rack up XP and loot. The in-game lore and the level design encourage you to try and ghost through missions without alerting anyone, but as each enemy you butcher feeds your XP bars on death, there's no reason not to kill everyone you meet.
Such a contradiction is the least of Sniper Ghost Warrior 3's worries, though, when its technical shortcomings are so severe. On PlayStation 4, expect loading screens between regions in that take anywhere between four to five minutes. The camera might well disappear into your character's arm. Or enemies might continue their abusive rants well after you've put a knife through their throats. Multiplayer, meanwhile, is entirely absent, coming at some unspecified later point via a free update.
It all amounts to a frustrating game, which is something of a shame. Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 places care and attention into its gorgeous locations and robust missions and, most importantly, into the minutiae of the sniping experience. Unfortunately, it never quite delivers on its premise, and the pieces never come together as a cohesive whole. There's a lot to recommend here, but glitches, poorly polished areas and atrocious writing ensure this one shoots well wide of its mark.