In many shooters, playing the role of a sniper is thought of as its own isolated demographic. The practice requires a specialized set of skills, different from those of run’ n’ gunning in other areas of battle, with an objective more about precision rather than racking up the biggest kill count. The Sniper Elite series, however, has strived to see how far they can stretch this one facet of shooters—and while the games have not boasted wild innovations between each title, their focused, polished brand of combat continues to shine through. Now, on the franchise’s fourth installment, Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t exactly blow minds—apart from those of the enemy—but its flexibility in the player experience gives it its share of worthwhile virtues.
Previous Sniper Elite games have featured different theaters of World War II, and this fourth installment continues that trend with early 1940s Italy listed on the schedule. The story this time around involves the pursuit of advanced missile technology—not unlike the games that have come before—but the textbook plot and forgettable cast of characters make the narrative one of the game’s distinctive weaknesses. While they don’t offer much as a backdrop for a story with little impact, the rich Italian setting serves as a sniper’s paradise. After a short briefing area at the start of each mission (where one can collect additional side quests), players are dropped into huge, open-ended arenas, each uniquely different from the last. The missions players must tackle don’t deviate far from an established pattern—kill a target, collect an item, or destroy an object—but the game is more about how you do things rather than what you’re doing.
As the crux of the experience, sniping takes more nuance and goes deeper than the point-and-shoot mechanics of other titles out there. Most significant is the character’s heart rate BPM, which can be steadied by remaining still, but is raised by sprinting or engaging in combat. Getting your heart rate low enough allows players to hold their breath and line up the perfect shot using the game’s Target Focus system, assisted by binoculars that can mark enemies to track their movements and sight-lines. If the player wants to take someone out without signaling the whole army, shots can be masked by timing them alongside events like artillery fire or malfunctioning generators. Additional systems, like bullet drop-off and wind direction, are implemented the higher the difficulty being played, and sniping gets progressively more calculative with each new mechanic introduced.
When that perfect shot has finally been fired, players are rewarded with a Killcam. Unlike similar ideas in contemporary multiplayer shooters, these viscerally gruesome spectacles show an X-Ray view of the damage being done by one’s bullet. Depending on which part of the enemy’s body was targeted, the Killcam will show those organs being ripped to shreds or bones being shattered in a way that is hard to watch for all the best reasons. The open-ended levels offer more than enough vantage points from which to scope in on unlucky targets, complete with a variety of environmental traps for those looking to be truly vindictive. Sniping may quickly become repetitive, but it never becomes old; the artful planning of each shot reaps “gritty” rewards, making each its own special experience.
No matter how effective a sniper is, things might not always go their way. Should enemies get too close for comfort, a selection of machine guns, shotguns, and pistols are available to dispatch targets quickly at the cost of precision. The core gunplay subscribes to the format of most other third-person shooters, using a non-contextual cover system to engage hostiles in pop-and-shoot skirmishes. It gets the job done when enemies are closing in, but automatic fire can be unreliable, and the cover system doesn’t always keep you safe to the extent that it looks like it should. Ultimately, sniping is the more viable option for confirming kills, creating further motivation to stick to the game’s strong suit.
Luckily, there is a functional middleground that employs the close range of open gun combat while keeping the operation covert. Sniper Elite 4’s stealth dynamic doesn’t innovate for innovation’s sake, but instead focuses on a key selection of features covering all the necessities. Visibility indicators convey the severity and direction of an enemy’s awareness, allowing the player to readjust their position. If escape isn’t an option, there is a generous second between hostiles seeing the player and raising the alarm—a necessary feature in any stealth system keen on rewarding fast reflexes. If the player gets a little too loud, prompts indicate that the enemy is attempting to triangulate the noise, and repeated offenses from the same area will focus their search. Whether due to noise or visibility, the player’s cover can be blown, which places a silhouette at the location the player was last tagged, giving them an opportunity to use it as a distraction or bait. These mechanics are no more or less than exactly what is needed for the skillful execution of stealth, which feels more reliant on skill than random chance like many other games.
Stealthing is not exclusively a game of grandmother’s footsteps, however, as the player has more than a few things in their arsenal to use to fight back. Silenced ammo can be equipped to most sniper rifles and sidearms, but such a commodity is rare and must be used sparingly. More reliable is the melee attack that is silent, reasonably quick, and keeps the player hidden if activated fast enough and out sight of others. (A stealth takedown also results in one of the game’s Killcams as an extra bonus.) If knives and bullets aren’t enough, the player has access to a wide range of traps, bombs, and tools for distracting and eliminating enemies in clever ways.
Most of these less-direct methods—like wiring an enemy body to blow up upon inspection—are only possible due to the subpar AI of enemy NPCs. Their tunnel vision, short attention spans, and inconsistent pathfinding can be goofy—occasionally even frustrating when attempting to predict their movements for a stealth attack—but it is actually in service of the overall experience. Sniper Elite 4 doesn’t exactly operate by logic, but by its own set of rules. Once these rules are understood by the player, they can stop looking for reason in every corner of the game, and instead enjoy the challenge for what it is.
So what is the challenge all in aid of if not to finish a forgettable story? Everything the player does, from completing missions to pulling off spectacular shots, rewards various amounts of experience. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but this experience goes toward a character rank that follows the player through all that Sniper Elite 4 has to offer. Ranking up rewards currency which can be used to unlock new weapons and gear, and these weapons can in turn be upgraded by completing challenges with them. There are additional skills that can be unlocked to give a variety of combative advantages, and the loadouts built with a player’s hard-earned gear can be taken into any mission on any difficulty for the player to mess around with to their heart’s content. Multiplayer and co-op even use the same loadouts, which helps make everything the player does in the game feel rewarding when every action is leading toward new ways to play. Sniper Elite 4 has an overall goal, but much more satisfying is tackling the smaller challenges in the flexible framework that the game provides, knowing any action is adding to future enjoyment.
One might think balancing this meta-progression in a way that translates fairly to competitive multiplayer would be difficult, but Sniper Elite 4 pulls it off without a hitch. Virtually all tools, weapons, and systems usable in the main game can be employed online, even the Killcam feature to show how effectively you’re exterminating your fellow man. A wide selection of modes make good use of the game’s strengths; the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, and control point modes are present, but other sniper-focused modes give the multiplayer that special Sniper Elite flavor. The Distance King mode (with a team variant) is a deathmatch option that values the total bullet distance of a player’s kills, making sniper rifles a most valuable asset. As for the No Cross mode, both teams are split by an impassable zone, creating an intense sniping-only skirmish. It can be slow at times, but it’s a unique challenge that no doubt brings something different to the table.
The cooperative opportunities bring together the gameplay flexibility of the main game with the tactical creativity of the multiplayer. Players can tackle the campaign with a friend start to finish, shifting the entire dynamic of the experience. A survival mode is also available—one that can be played solo if one so chooses—but most interesting is the Overwatch mode. One player is equipped with a sniper rifle and limited to an elevated path overlooking the map, while the other player is on the ground, completing the objectives with close-quarter weaponry. The satisfaction gained through successful coordination feels like the peak of cooperative tactical shooting.
Often games will prioritize simplicity and quality over stretching themselves too thin, and this was the right direction for Sniper Elite 4. The drive to come back to this shooter over and over again won’t be to complete some ultimate challenge, but to just kick back and see what can be achieved with the tools at hand. It’s an inconsequential experience, but this is for the sake of flexibility and freedom—which sounds like a fair trade.
|Publisher: Rebellion Developments • Developer: Rebellion Developments • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.14.17|
Sniper Elite 4 isn’t the most sophisticated experience, but it puts all of its strengths front and center and delivers a very polished shooter.
|The Good||A rewarding meta-progression supplementing intense, long-range combat makes every shot worth it.|
|The Bad||The story’s lack of teeth means that the gameplay is left as the only thing keeping the player engaged.|
|The Ugly||The punctured guts of hundreds of fascists.|
|Sniper Elite 4 is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Rebellion Developments for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|