Sniper Elite 4 [official site] is my first time with Rebellion's World War II third-person shooter series, games I have hitherto only been peripherally aware of as 'that one where you get to shoot Hitler in the plums'. I must admit, from afar I'd presumed this was a game about spending 80 minutes crouched on rock, gauging wind direction with a wet finger and applying mathematical levels of after-touch to each level's single shot.
Turns out, no, it's a halfway house between Hitman and Call of Duty - equal parts stealth and firefights. It's entirely accessible, and that biggish number at the end of title doesn't mean any prior knowledge is necessary either.
I've written before about my appreciation of both the solid 7/10 third-person action game and the B-list first-person shooter, both of which are somewhat out of fashion as escalating development budgets mean middle-of-the-road fare has effectively been priced out of the market. The good news is that Sniper Elite 4 is absolutely one of those games, at least at heart. The bad news is that this nobly straightforward heart is swaddled in a cracked hide of deep cynicism.
OK, here's the gameplan: description first, good stuff next, then gripes, then let's see how we all feel about this thing at the end of that.
This is a third-person, World War II-set shooter in which your primary weapon is a sniper rifle, but though stealth and long range is by and large the most efficient way to play, you are at all times free to bust out a machinegun or shotgun. It is surprisingly responsive to an all-out action playstyle, and does not seem particularly bothered about how you play.
You know how, if you're playing a Hitman game and you get spotted or otherwise bungle something, you can try to shoot your way out, but realistically more than a couple of enemies on-screen at once and it's all over? Well, I'd say SE4 is halfway between that a traditional shooter. You're fragile, but there's a fair amount of leeway, and more often than not you'll be able to resolve a screw-up without dying. Either by simply scarpering and waiting for the AI panic levels to reset, or by leaving a trail of corpses in your wake.
Where Hitman is a tightly-wound clockwork watch, this is far more fast and loose. It's more akin to Assassin's Creed or Far Cry 3/4 in that respect (it's no sandbox, mind you, although its individual levels are huge), in that, no matter how much hell you raise, the world will revert to normal soon enough. Indeed, simply moving a sufficient distance away is enough to pass into an area where enemies are blissfully unaware of how many of their mates you just slaughtered.
My point being that this is very much a game to muck about in, rather than one in which you must be unfailingly precise and efficient. You'll level up faster if you do do the silent assassin thing, plus keeping out of sight is of greater import at the top difficulty settings, but most of us are going to employ a play style that is 50% caution and 50% carnage, without penalty. Even the levelling up constitutes minor statistical boosts rather than dramatic growth of your abilities - you can all but do without it, on Normal at least.
Each of the large levels is peppered with core and sub-objectives, which you can approach in an order of your choosing. You can blitz your way to the main target ASAP if you like, you can carefully loop your way around sorting out side missions without being seen, or, if you're me, you painstakingly scrub every single enemy from the map before worrying about the actual objectives.
Depending on how you play, you're looking at between 45 minutes and two hours for a single map - again, comparable to last year's Hitman. I like this kind of structure a lot. Enough space to experiment, enough space to feel that you've gradually learned a place, but not so much that it just feels a bit endless and I drift off before I've seen all of it, as tends to be the case for Assassin's Creedses for me.
As for the sniping itself, it's neither simple point and shoot or full simulation, but again a halfway house. A bullet's force fades with distance, so there's a drop-off effect, requiring that you aim slightly above and/or to one side of a target if you want to connect. The truly dedicated can play without aids, but for most of us it's about watching for a secondary reticule to turn red when we find the sweet spot, much as in dogfighting games. It's a cartoonish system but a satisfying one, as what's a sweet spot one second will be irrelevant as soon as the enemy moves, so it's still very much about finding that split-second of opportunity.
Feels great when it works out, turns into a reasonably thrilling bout of sheer chaos if it doesn't. Standard shots invariably alert nearby enemies, leading to either a game of cat and mouse until they give up the hunt or a fuggitall firefight until that section is cleared.
Or you can better manage the situation in the first place with a limited amount of special stealth ammo (as opposed to sticking a silencer on; not entirely sure how that works, but it's that sort of game, innit?), distractions that range from throwing rocks and blowing whistles to blowing up lorries, or, as I have tended to, slope about with a silenced pistol and a knife, taking everyone out methodically. It's tight yet highly flexible, not woolly and random.
It's hard not to have fun in Sniper Elite 4, despite an undeniable background awareness that it's all deeply, deeply preposterous. It also boasts some extremely pretty scenery, reveling in a degree of often frankly redundant environmental detail. Do you really need dramatic mountain backdrops and lush sunlit forests in order to shoot a few guys in the head from 200 metres away? Obviously not. But it's neat anyway.
Unfortunately, there's a lingering odour of contrivance to SE4, and this can be disruptive to what's otherwise simple action pleasure. The first element of this is the much-ballyhooed X-ray killcam shots, whereby your are shown your bullet passing through bones and organs in graphic, slow-motion detail.
It's too clinical to be comic, but too lascivious to feel realistic, landing in a dull middleground of Just A Bit Needless rather than either simulatory or truly shocking. Yeah, I winced at the first testicle shot, but that's about it. It's also inherently repetitive - once you've seen every major organ take a bullet you've seen 'em all, and it was for that reason I turned the feature off. Just wanted to get back to the action, not watch effectively the same cutscene time and again.
And yes, the real world setting does add an edge of distastefulness to it - overly celebratory about the act of killing a man, which, for all the pretend man-shooting we do, is something that most games treat with no small amount of abstraction. But the game offers you a choice over whether to turn it on before the campaign begins, so appropriateness is very much in the eye of the beholder here.
Just a niggle, really - far more disruptive is that the game is designed to shower you in experience points for almost every action, no matter how inept. Be it a headshot at half a kilometre or a fumbled machinegun spray in the kidneys at two feet, you're going to get rewarded for it. I felt as though I could jam a live stick grenade up my character's anus and be given 500 experience points for it. This is problematic both in terms of dragging the player's ambitions towards meaningless, mobile game-style rewards instead of the satisfaction of a job well done, and in terms of being the killing blow for Sniper Elite's already garbled tone.
Couple this pinata effect with the human pinata effect and what we get is not a serious game about a plucky American hero facing down the Nazis, but rather a lurid carnival of leering silliness. Doesn't help that, plot and characterisation-wise, this feels like a game on autopilot. Its square-jawed, forgettable action man hero is lifted straight from the noughties FPS production line of one-dimensional Jacks, and the few other speaking characters are mired in the exposition dumps. Sure, there are only so many ways to say "go shoot all the Nazis!", especially four games in, but given how OTT this is in so many other ways, the absolute blandness of its storytelling is a bewildering choice.
What we've got here is a solid stealth-action core with some lovely level design - both visually and in terms of the vast array of possible ways to accomplish your objectives - wrapped up in something equal parts drab and cynical. The gore, the Farmvilleish reward system: these are there as contrived hooks for the less discerning man-shooter enthusiast. It's highly telling that the rest of the game would be barely effected if these were removed.
I do like that core, though. When the time comes to update that Best 7/10 Action Games feature, Sniper Elite 4 will have a decent shot at a placement.