Note: This review only covers the single-player portion of Sniper Elite III. At time of writing, the PlayStation 4 version of the game has significant issues with multiplayer matchmaking, meaning many players—Josh included—have been unable to get online at all. Rebellion has acknowledged the issue and is working on a patch that they hope to have to Sony by the end of the week.
There aren’t many things Sniper Elite III bothers doing well.
After polishing off the single-player campaign and replaying a handful of the best missions, I couldn’t tell you the name of the main character without looking it up first. (It is, apparently, Karl Fairburne, so don’t go saying I never make an effort.) If I really rack my brain, I can think of all of three adjectives to describe him: “American,” “stubbled,” and “snipery.” I have no clue who he’s working for, who the Big Bad Nazi is, or why any of the missions unfold in the order they do.
Call of Duty, that platonic ideal of the triple-A shooter, has spent the last decade struggling to give its non sequitur set pieces some sort of cohesive meaning, tapping bigger and bigger Hollywood talent with increasingly obvious desperation. Sniper Elite III feels like a pilot program for the exact opposite approach. Call it ludonarrative apathy. You go places and shoot bad people, and that’s all you really need to know.
In one mission, I fought back and forth across an expansive area to obtain a reel of film with details on the Reich’s new superweapon. When I picked it up, the game told me to throw it on a nearby projector. The moment I did, a new objective marker popped up, shooing me out of the room and, shortly afterward, the level. Karl Fairburne is so elite that he doesn’t need to bring top-secret enemy intel back to his superiors. Hell, he doesn’t even need to watch it himself.
In reality, that’s just Sniper Elite III at its most honest. Who wants to wait around and watch a boring cutscene when there’s a super-cool canyon base to infiltrate and dozens more Nazi torsos to ventilate? It’s the pornographer’s approach to game design, where any shred of plot, purpose, or structure is merely another excuse to put bodies in front of the camera—or in this case, the crosshairs. The sandbox levels, the stealth mechanics, the XP system, the loadout customization—it’s all just foreplay for the kill.
And, boy, does Rebellion love their money shot. I’m talking, of course, about the X-ray killcam, first introduced in 2012’s Sniper Elite v2 and expanded here with new levels of gory realism. After almost every lethal shot from your rifle, the action pauses and the camera jumps behind the bullet, trailing it in slow motion as it spirals toward its destination. As it nears the enemy, their body goes transparent, allowing you to watch as your shot shatters bone and carves through muscle and organs. The level of variety and detail verges on psychopathic. You transform orbital sockets into bone confetti. You bisect lungs, perforate intestines, and explode kidneys. If you get a thrill out of wreaking that sort of anatomical havoc, then Sniper Elite III will offer plenty of excitement. Sometimes it’s tempting to avoid the obvious headshot just to see what other, more interesting damage you can do.
For my tastes, it’s a bit much. It’s one thing to have text pop up on the screen informing you that you’ve earned bonus XP for a “testicle shot.” It’s quite another to actually see the bullet carve through poor Fritz’s vas deferens in super-slo-mo.
Of course, there’s still the excitement of putting the bullet there in the first place, which Sniper Elite III also does admirably well. Where most games ask you to point and shoot, here you’re required to manage your heart rate, breath, bullet drop, and wind speed—though the last two are made fairly accessible by way of a secondary reticule that shows you where each shot will end up. With the realism cranked all the way up, however, you’ll actually need to calculate those factors on your own, which adds a considerable new layer of challenge and depth.
But, sadly, no other gameplay aspect has been given anywhere near the same level of care. The secondary weapons feel weightless, impotent, and inaccurate. The different pieces of equipment you can bring into the field, like trip mines and dynamite, are aggressively situational to the point of being practically worthless in the wide-open levels.
The only thing that comes close is the stealth approach, relying on a combination of melee attacks and close-range headshots from your silenced pistol. In the right areas, it can be surprisingly enjoyable, but it’s also a much chancier and more tedious option, since the game checkpoints infrequently and encourages you to rely on manual saves. It’s also hampered by the AI behaviors, which are perfectly functional from a gameplay standpoint but completely nonsensical in any realistic context. You can instigate a firefight, wipe out half the guards in an area, walk 50 yards to the left without being spotted—and a minute later, the survivors will go back to their patrols like nothing happened. Once, an enemy caught me carrying a dead guy through tall grass about 10 feet away and only saw the body.
Essentially, the further you get from the bloody centerpiece that is the killcam, the less attention Rebellion seems to have paid. Repeated boss encounters with tanks are tedious when tackled with the sniper rifle and laughably simple when you lay down mines, since they circle around the same predictable route every time. The numerous collectibles and secondary objectives feel hidden deliberately out of the way. Small features are poorly communicated (I still have no clue why the word “ghost” appears in the middle of the screen sometimes or what effect, if any, it has on gameplay) or outright broken (according to the stats screen, I finished the game with 0.0 percent accuracy).
What we’re left with, then, is a game that revels in split-seconds but struggles to fill the minutes in between. Sniper Elite III has a handful of interesting or well-executed ideas, but they rarely connect with one another in any meaningful fashion. There are definite strengths here, but there’s also a lack of total commitment to them that shatters the illusion and leaves the game feeling surprisingly hollow and forgettable.
Case in point: Early in my playthrough, I sent a particularly nasty headshot through an enemy’s face and reveled in the gory display that followed. His left eye popped, his nose disintegrated, his blood showered out in long, syrupy strands. Once the show was over, I crept forward to investigate, wanting to see the gruesome aftermath of all that sound and fury up close. When I arrived, I found him slumped neatly against a wall, his Aryan features perfectly intact—save for a tiny red dot on his cheek.
A bang and a whimper.
|Developer: Rebellion Developments • Publisher: 505 Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 7.1.2014|
Sniper Elite III’s gory killcams and open-ended arenas succeed at making the act of sniping more involved and rewarding than you’ll find in most other shooters, but it struggles to flesh out a complete game experience around that one mechanic.
|The Good||Deep sniping mechanics, especially at higher difficulties.|
|The Bad||Lack of polish and compelling non-sniping options.|
|The Ugly||Unless you pre-ordered, you’ll have to wait to shoot Hitler’s balls off.|
|Sniper Elite III is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by 505 Games for the benefit of this review.|