The Sniper Elite franchise has made a name for itself in smaller circles, but it is overlooked by much of the gaming community. This underrated series of stealth third-person shooters holds its own against modern AAA war shooters, mainly for the fact that it is doing something far different than Call of Duty or Battlefield. It is one of the few remaining WWII shooters around, and is a fascinating take on that formula.
One-man army sniper Karl Fairburne is tasked with the end goal of thwarting Nazi plans to build a deadly remote-controlled rocket. The plot is surprisingly well-written, highlighting interesting aspects such as Nazi research and even the Italian mafia’s role in the war. Each mission begins with a briefing, followed by a few interactions with Fairburne’s allies and informants. This helps to add emotional weight and context to his mission before he makes the lonely trip into enemy-occupied territory.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Sniper Elite 4 is in its sense of complete freedom. Each level consists of sprawling environments, each with their own unique characteristics and challenges. These massive sand boxes offer different approaches to every scenario, which is where the game really shines. It is completely up to the player to assess the situation, efficiently eliminate Nazi soldiers and gather intel. Mission structure is not linear by any means, allowing the player to have creative control and develop their own plans of attack. Completing missions is not always a standard start-to-finish affair, and most of them take about one or two hours to complete.
Levels in Sniper Elite 4 are dense, with multiple targets and objectives, as well as a number of collectibles to find. What makes the gameplay compelling is the exploration. As a sniper, the player must survey the landscape by using binoculars to mark nearby infantry and track objectives. A plan of attack is formulated from this scouting research, but success only comes to those who are patient and thorough. There is the potential to rush through missions and simply complete the main objectives, but that play style would be missing out on the fantastic level design Sniper Elite 4 offers. The game does not provide instructions on how to play the game by any means; however, I naturally gravitated towards doing a thorough sweep of every level and completing as many objectives as possible. The play style just seems to work organically for meticulous and in-depth players. This is not a game to rush through, but rather one of strategy and careful execution.
The opening level, for example, is a giant seaside outpost consisting of towering cliffs, deep caves, and streams. I felt overwhelmed by it at first, not knowing where to start or how to make my mark in the world. As I slowly and silently crawled through the tall grass, I began to take note of enemy placement and become familiar with my weapons and abilities. My greatest enjoyment was getting to know the environment and using it to my advantage. Guard towers are posted throughout the land, which can be used as a vantage point for Fairburne. It is not as simple as sniping enemy soldiers from a distance, since suppressed ammo is scarce. Even at 200 meters away, a sniper shot without a suppressor will alert enemies to your position.
Sniper Elite 4 has a fantastic mechanic known as sound-masking. Different levels have creative ways of implementing this, whether it’s waiting for jets to fly overhead or artillery guns to fire. Patiently waiting for the right moment to conceal the sound of your sniper shot is intense and nerve-racking, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of the gameplay. In addition to sniping, knifing enemies is another effective way of neutralizing targets, and features some particularly brutal melee animations. Additionally, environmental kills can take out a group of enemies at a time, whether it’s shooting explosive barrels or dropping a suspended wooden pallet on top of an unsuspecting Nazi below.
Stealth games are often more about setting up the assassination rather than performing the deed itself. In this case, both are equally important due to the fact that Sniper Elite 4 is more of a shooter than games like Hitman, Metal Gear Solid, and Splinter Cell ever will be. There is less of an emphasis on taking out specific targets; rather, the end goal is largely to end the life of every Nazi in sight. Other objectives include taking out searchlights, disabling anti-aircraft guns, locating intel, and eliminating important officers. In addition to completing these objectives, it is also encouraged to destroy trucks, tanks, and armored cars. You’ll feel like you truly laid the encampments to waste, and made a difference in the war. By the end of each campaign mission a trail of destruction has been left throughout the level.
For every successful kill, a certain amount of XP is granted to the player. This is used later on to unlock passive abilities and purchase new load-outs. The XP offers an incentive to get creative with the eliminations, but this isn’t even the most rewarding aspect of killing. A precise shot results in a slow-motion bullet trail that reveals exactly where the impact occurs via X-Ray vision. It is so satisfying to see a shot pierce through an enemy’s jaw, go right into his eye, or rip apart his arteries. This becomes even more breathtaking after landing shots of 200 meters or more. The long distance and small line of sight requires immense concentration and precision. Successfully taking these shots grants a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that never gets old, like defeating a boss in Dark Souls.
Though the emphasis is largely on being silent but deadly, discovery is not recognized as a complete failure. Due to the size of the map and the distance between enemy camps, every player mistake can usually be contained within a specific area. Gunning down pursuers with an SMG is, of course, always an option but there are more graceful ways to get the situation back into your control. Sniper Elite 4 has a system in place that allows you to see your last seen location by the enemy. For example, if Fairburne jumps behind a stack of crates and then disappears from the line of sight, there will be a red ‘ghost’ outline of him, which represents the last time the enemy laid eyes on him. By visually seeing this, it allows you to better understand what the enemy is thinking and plan accordingly.
On top of excellent mechanics, Sniper Elite 4 has great looking environments. Throughout the eight campaign missions, you’ll encounter a variety of battlegrounds including forests, town squares, industrial facilities, and a beautiful city with a deep canal running through the center. Graphically, the game is not on the AAA level, but it pays good attention to detail and uses a deep color palette. Each level feels completely different from the last, which helps to enhance the gameplay loop.
Even after finishing the campaign, I had the urge to go back and replay levels on harder difficulties and try new techniques. There is an immense amount of depth, which is only complimented by excellent level design and great shooting mechanics. The game’s aim assist mode has helped me to better understand bullet trajectory, which will be helpful in other games as well. That being said, Sniper Elite 4 is a highly recommended game for fans of stealth, third-person shooters, and World War II history.