Being taken to an undisclosed location and surrounded by men chatting idly about firearms is something more associated with hostage situations than press events. And yet here I was. I had accepted RPS’ mission to go out to the countryside and shoot WWII sniper rifles with complete strangers, despite harbouring very straightforward phobias of both bullets and dying of bullets. It’s not that I hate men with real guns; it’s just that I prefer them to be very far away. Did you know I have a recurring nightmare in which I am shot in the head by an unknown assailant – and, in one instance, by Daniel Day-Lewis? Well, I do. Yet here I was in some remote farmhouse waiting to be handed a loaded Springfield M1-something-something. The things I do for you, dear reader. The things I do for you.
My first clue that this was not a normal farmhouse was when I went into the bathroom and saw more military boots and camo jackets than bars of soap. But even then the reality of the situation didn’t kick in until the firearms instructor started to give his idiosyncratic safety briefing. This included a joke about ‘stealing your watch’ while ‘your bleeding cadaver’ is loaded into the boot of his car (license plate: SN1P3R) in the event of an accident. I think this joke was intended to put everyone at ease.
While the first batch of journos were escorted out to the firing range, the rest of us got a go on the actual game, which I can confirm also has sniper rifles and will now finally talk about at length.
Rather than being an out-and-out sequel, Sniper Elite V2 is a remake of the original game, set in Berlin during the closing days of the war. The idea is to retain the ‘sniper simulation’ feel of the first Sniper Elite but also to give it pretty graphics and a few stylistic additions. At heart, it’s a game full of stealth-based missions with lots of patient creeping about, usually followed by a bullet-heavy, explosive finale. Of course, it takes me a couple of deaths to realise just how stealthy the game wants you to be. Jason Kingsley, CEO of developer Rebellion, says this is all part of the plan. And it’s one of the reasons they brought us out here to shoot real guns in the first place.
“One of the issues I think for us is that we want people to play the game like a sniper,” he says. “It’s very important that people understand about the ‘observe, plan and then execute’ [idea]... The idea that you don’t just charge down the street and shoot the crap out of people – because you’ll be killed. So I think the idea is to show people what sniper rifles feel like and hopefully inform their gameplay a little bit in terms of how they’re playing it and what a gun actually does.”
And what a gun actually does in Sniper Elite V2 is this: it makes a horrid mess. The original game featured a kill cam which tracked the bullet’s path and showed the impact on your target in slow motion. This kill cam makes a return, only this time it will also include an x-ray image of your round tearing through the target’s body in a very graphic way, rupturing organs and shattering bone before it pops out the other side. But only when you make a particularly ‘skilful’ shot.
This feature is as grotesque and troubling as it is fascinating. I was visibly wincing at the damage I was doing to these soldiers. At one point I fired at a German rifleman in my usual panic-stricken way and as the bullet entered his body in painful slow-motion it ruptured each kidney, passing from one to the other as leisurely as if it were going for a swim. At least, I think they were his kidneys. I hope they were. Because I have a nagging feeling they may have been his testicles and my mind was so disturbed by this image that I have since repressed, warped and diluted the memory to make it slightly more manageable. This is frightening, if only because repressing memories is exactly what people do following genuine war-time traumas.
In spite of the nasty nature of this feature, the developers stress that it has a greater purpose than ‘gratuitous gore’. Steve Hart, Senior Producer, tells me how they even scaled back some of the gory details because of how their testers were reacting to it.
“I mean, eight months ago we had something... One of our QA lads said, ‘That’s it, I’m off. You got to take me off the project.’ Because he couldn’t handle it. And there were certain elements that we had within the kill cam that were pretty graphic and he just didn’t want it. And we only put it in to see: how far do we want to take it? Where are we comfortable taking it to? I mean, I’m desensitised to the entire thing, right? But we worked hard making sure that what we did was... we’re not trying to be controversial with it – we’re trying to make people think about it. And actually it’s quite interesting to see the kind of damage you deal to the victim. It’s not to be gratuitous.”
It’s an interesting angle, trying to provoke thought among shooter fans – after all, we aren’t known for our consideration toward our fellow man. But something about the word “victim” unsettles me. In harder modes the simulation aspects are increased – wind is added, the AI gets smarter and HUD assistance disappears.
Although the sniping is the focal point of the game, a lot of it is made up of making your way from one place to another in third-person. You can plant tripmines in doorways to cover your back while in a building. Or put a landmine by a fresh German body so that when his comrades come over to check on him they are blown up in the process. There’s a snap cover system that you’ll also have to make use of, although this played up a couple of times during our demo and could probably afford to be a little less sticky.
There’s a lot of on-the-hoof planning it you want to put down these traps to cover your back because it’s hard to know what’s going to happen on your first couple of playthroughs. Which enemy is likely to come from where? Sometimes I laid down a tripmine only for it to go unused which only made me feel like I’d wasted it. This made me want to conserve them, since you get so few in each mission, and I spent the rest of the game not bothering with them unless there was an obvious upcoming setpiece. When they do work, you’re very grateful for them – although it’s up to you if you want to risk causing such a racket.
And silence is important here. You rarely want to sprint because of the noise it makes, especially on the floorboards inside the maybe-garrisoned buildings. As might be expected, you can perform a silent kill by sneaking up on an enemy from behind (the trademark Big Dumb Action Movie neck-snap). But there’s no standard melee attack to accompany this, so if some Jerry turns on you just as you’re sneaking up on him it’s a hard time trying to leg it or pull out your silenced Welrod pistol in time to stop him alerting everyone else. Then again, the decision to leave a powerful melee attack out might also be intended to keep players from gung-ho-ing it across town, happy-slapping every Nazi they can see, making a bit of a farce of the whole ‘long-range combat sim’ thing they’ve got going on.
Although you are armed with a Thompson and a Welrod pistol, you don’t really get a lot of ammo for these, even after looting the corpses of your enemies. So you never feel like you will have enough to back you up if it comes to an all out shoot-out. But then that’s something the game wants you to avoid anyway. This becomes clearer when enemies do become alert. The soldiers seem very keen on pushing towards you and not giving you any respite. Fritz is very fond of lobbing grenades into your hidey-holes too. Meanwhile, some levels have tanks which will trundle ominously towards you if you get spotted. Even one explosive round from these will bring you down, so relocation is not just encouraged – it’s necessary.
The idea that you will be under pressure from the moment you make yourself known is core to the game, says Hart. But which bad guys come for you will obviously depend on their class. It’s no surprise exactly who is likely to charge you.
“You see, riflemen won’t because they’re good at distance,” he says. “Snipers won’t. MGs? Absolutely. If you’re holding an MP40 and I have a sniper rifle, you want to get close to me. You won’t want to stay 200 yards away.”
Once or twice I managed to hide round a corner and simply wait for the everyone to follow me, then gunned them down with short bursts of the Thompson or pot-shots with the pistol – which is completely against the core concept of this game. But I think this was mainly me messing around and looking for breaking points. Hopefully it isn’t something that would happen if you approached the game normally because it’s precisely what the design is trying to avoid.
Thankfully, the AI does seem mostly intelligent (and brutish). However, the missions still seem fairly heavily pre-determined. After a few deaths you’ll begin to know what enemies will appear, where they’ll show up and in what numbers. They may patrol differently, or react differently to your actions each time – but the general odds you’re up against and their positions in the tumbled down streets of Berlin are always the same. Don’t the developers fear this might turn the whole thing into a game about memorisation more than anything?
“Um, yes and no,” says Hart. “It depends on how you approach it. If you’re going to be loud and run around corners, foot-stomping, these guys are going to respond very differently. They’re going to be aware of your position earlier... In terms of way-pointing in a level, rather than saying, ‘You can run there or you can run there or you can run there, Mr AI’ instead, we mark the whole area out so they go where they want ... so the AI system is pretty complex.”
But even if the actions of alerted enemies are unpredictable, their ‘base’ behaviour is always the same, every time. And I got the sense that the early introductory levels we played through weren’t as open as later ones might be. All in all, it did sometimes feel like I was memorising a level little-by-little after each death. This could have one of two effects on you as a player:
Effect the first: you will find the missions repetitive and frustrating. On normal difficulty and upwards you will get one or two kills then die after stumbling into the path of a Tiger tank. You will restart from save, get three or four kills then die. You will continue in this vein until you push through the checkpoints and bit-by-bit complete the level. You will be annoyed at this.
Effect the second: you will find the missions strangely reminiscent of Hitman, in that you restart many times trying to discover the best approach and most efficient or “perfect” route through the level. You will use the regular bellowing of church bells to mask the sound of your rifle fire. You will time your sprint across an open road to the millisecond so as to avoid a single patrolling German. You will be engaged by this.
Obviously, the developers would rather you feel the latter effect and it’s easy to see why the game will appeal to people in precisely those ways. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that Sniper Elite V2 seems as varied or as open-ended as Hitman. It doesn’t yet seem that way from the few levels I played – so repetitiveness is the second-greatest danger here.
The first-greatest danger for Sniper Elite V2, however, is Mr Sticky Cover System and his lout of a cousin, Sporadically Unhelpful Camera. A couple of times when we stuck to cover the camera wouldn’t rotate the entire way, meaning not every corner was suitable for peering round even when it felt like it should be. Camera angle problems and obscured views won’t exactly be popular in a game about sniping – a military discipline which is mostly based around seeing things. Even if these problems are seldom, it’s not difficult to imagine that they’d be enough of a nuisance to lead to your death once or twice. Hopefully not enough to put you off the entire game.
Meanwhile, the cover system itself might prove difficult to get used to but then the point of the game seems not to have to duck and dive between cover pumping out bullets but rather to skulk around quietly and plan the precise moment you want to ‘go loud’ with the utmost care. It could have a cover system as competent as Mass Effect or Gears of War (and in a perfect world it will) but you could argue Sniper Elite V2 doesn’t actually need it. You’re not supposed to get into those kinds of over-the-top, machine-gun-toting scenarios. You’re supposed to snipe.
The co-op multiplayer modes sound interesting too, although we didn’t get to play these. Bombing Run sees players sneaking around trying to find objects to fix their getaway vehicle against the clock, as a bombardment is due to begin. Kill Tally sends waves of Germans storming your position. And Overwatch arms one person with a sniper rifle and another with an MG, meaning the sniper has to cover the close-combat guy as he scurries around planting bombs and setting traps. “The sniper is the finger of God, essentially,” says Hart.
Now that I’ve had a go at the game and shot several men in the liver, the Rebellion PR folk tell me I’m in the next squadron of journalists to visit the real-life firing range out in a nearby field. After being yelled at by the scary firearms instructor to put my ear defenders on properly I line up my target through the scope of a K-nine-something. At the bottom of the range there’s an A4 paper sheet imprinted with a distinctly Germanic head. For a moment I consider the kidneys (please God, let them have been kidneys) of the soldier I shot earlier in the day. I also get a flashback of the soldier who ran out to pick up a friend and carry him to safety only to have his sternum disassembled by one of my bullets post-rescue. Suddenly, firing a real gun at a piece of paper isn’t so scary. After all, it’s not a “victim” – it’s just a target. I line up the sight and imagine it is Daniel Day-Lewis. I hit him three times in the neck and then I shoot his ear off. Mission accomplished. Phobia conquered.
Then again, I just shot a real weapon of war, designed expressly to kill other human beings and I was less unsettled and disturbed by that than I was when pressing a few buttons to destroy a non-existent man’s kidneys in a non-existent digital world. I don’t know if this makes Sniper Elite V2 a good game or a repulsive game but it definitely makes it a game I want to watch. Preferably from very far away.
Sniper Elite V2 is out May 4th.