The Sniper Elite franchise has always struck just the right chord for me, personally, but I’ve never been able to wholeheartedly defend them as great games. Even as a fan of the campy violence, pitch-perfect sniping mechanics, and the simplistic thrill of shooting Nazis in the face, I’ve always felt a bit let down by everything else about the series. Sniper Elite V2’s maps were often uninspired and linear, and its follow-up threw a bunch of mechanics into the mix that flatout detracted from the core experience. Naturally, then, I figured Sniper Elite 4 would be the same sort of situation – a pretty good game that I liked well enough, but came away wanting a little more from.
Imagine my surprise, then, that Rebellion has taken longtime criticism to heart and delivered a truly great game. Sniper Elite 4 feels like the culmination of this franchise’s potential, untapped since the series debuted twelve years ago. The added fat of Sniper Elite III has been trimmed, and the longstanding issues with non-sniping gameplay fixed – it’s a leaner, meaner take on a series I’ve been invested in for years.
From a narrative standpoint, even, Rebellion has upped the ante a bit. Yes, it’s still about Karl Fairburne acting as a one-man exterminator to a Nazi infestation, but the little bits and pieces surrounding that winning premise are more interesting than previous games. Players snipe, sneak, and stab their way through 1943 Italy, aiding a local resistance effort and enlisting the Mafia to push out the fascist regime. Karl destroys top-secret weapons, uncovers artillery caches, assassinates key Nazi figures, and generally makes himself a thorn in the Third Reich’s side.
But it’s in how Karl accepts these tasks that differs from past entries. There’s actually a supporting cast now, and not just a radio telling you what to do, or a solitary supporting character. These characters, while not deep by any stretch of the imagination, give Karl people to play off of, which in turn makes him a bit more of a compelling protagonist. It’s a similar move to the route Wolfenstein: The New Order took, turning its archetype of a protagonist into something more nuanced and satisfying to take control of. Also similar to that 2013 title is a surprising knack for female characterization, exemplified in Sofia, an Italian resistance leader. In an age where “strong female character” means “sexy and has a lot of daddy issues,” Sofia is a compelling snapshot of a woman in wartime. She’s on the same playing field as all the male characters – gruff, resilient, and not sexualized. Even if she is a side character, I wanted to see more of her, and found her to be one of the more memorable female characters as of late.
That said, Sniper Elite 4’s true strength lies not in its perfectly adequate narrative, but in its exceptional gameplay. In a post-Phantom Pain world, it’s an unenviable task to make a third-person stealth title. Yet Rebellion, with over a decade of experience in this genre under their belt, has produced a mechanically sound game that offers players a wealth of variety and depth. While previous attempts at implementing gameplay other than “aim down a scope and splatter some brains/lungs/testicles” have yielded mixed results, those attempts are knocked out of the park here. Maneuvering Karl never feels clunky or awkward, whether he’s doing parkour, slitting throats, or holding his own in the middle of a firefight. Whether a player wants to lure Nazis into landmines, sneak up behind them with a silenced pistol, or simply engage them head-on, the gameplay holds up across every imaginable situation. In a series sold on one core gimmick, the variety here is kind of staggering, and undoubtedly impressive.
Yet that core gimmick is still great, and better here than ever before. Sniping in Sniper Elite 4 is one of the most satisfying mechanics in a video game, period. It’s a tighter, pared-down version of the mechanics we’ve seen since V2, complete with monitoring Karl’s heart rate and holding breath for accuracy. Gone are the confusing “sniper nests,” the awkward “Ghost” system, the unclear detection by enemies found in III. There are fewer systems to worry about when looking down the sight and firing off a round here – it’s more arcade-esque, in line with something like Konami’s Silent Scope. It’s easy to pick up and learn, but there’s plenty of room to learn how to take the perfect shot.
From that simplification, though, springs a natural depth. Players take a shot, and if the sound isn’t masked, enemies begin to investigate their position. It’s up to them how to progress from there. Do they keep scrambling for new vantage points? Do they fire off a shot only to lure Nazis into traps? Do they want to gun down the investigating troops with an assault rifle or shotgun? The choices aren’t endless, of course, but they are abundant, and make for some fun replays of maps.
Speaking of maps, Sniper Elite 4’s are the biggest in the series. While III flirted with the idea of a more open approach to the franchise, the level of depth present in each area is kind of astounding. Dense forests that give way to housing encampments, trainyards that give way to fully explorable buildings and several dockyards, beaches surrounded by winding towns – every mission managed to surprise me with its sense of scale. It helps that this is a gorgeous game, offering lush textures and dynamic lighting effects that rarely impact the high framerate on consoles. Oh, and the franchise’s hallmark X-Ray kills are better than ever – delightfully bloody and unrealistic, with hilarious splashes of plasma and dramatic bone shatters that magically explode out of people’s bodies.
With Sniper Elite 4, a franchise that I’ve long considered to be “good” has officially become “great.” The myriad improvements to the stealth mechanics, the pitch-perfect sniping, the sprawling maps, the side content – it shows bigger games with more money thrown at them a thing or two about how to do things. It’s a title I’ll be replaying and tooling around in for quite some time to come, and any diehard stealth junkies should follow suit.