The last time I covered a game in the Sniper Elite franchise, it was way back in 2014 when I used to write for another outlet, and I remember making a clever connection between the game’s main protagonist, Karl Fairburne, and Agent 47 of the Hitman franchise, another assassin who also just so happens to “travel the world, meet interesting people…and kill them,” in some rather colourful and scenic locales, I might add. In the decade since we were first introduced to OSS Agent Fairburne Sniper Elite V2, we’ve travelled to Germany, Africa, Italy, and now France, and considering that all of this hopscotching has been condensed into just four years of Fairburne’s fictional life (1942 – 1945), it’s been quite a whirlwind journey.
Truth be told, however, compared to Agent 47, Fairburne’s never been much of a travel companion. He’s got a dry sense of humour, rarely ever changes his no-nonsense hairstyle, and if you’ve ever crossed paths with him and survived, it means that either he just hasn’t gotten around to killing you yet or that you’re one of the few counted among his allies (a small consolation since you are likely part of a resistance group living under the heel of Nazi Germany that desperately needs Fairburne’s specialized type of help). At least Agent 47 might buy you a drink and pleasantly listen to your troubles long enough for you to spill the beans on his target before he drugs or poisons you, and who knows, perhaps you might get lucky enough for him to just knock you out and take your clothes.
The point is, if you’re riding in the saddle with Fairburne, then you know he’s all about business, and that business is the ventilation of as many Nazi skulls as humanly possible, in the most creative and entertaining ways one can when armed with a sniper rifle. It was with that clarity of focus that I went into last week’s remote preview of Sniper Elite 5 held by the game’s developer Rebellion, via Parsec streaming technology.
Participants were effectively dropped into the second mission of the game, which tasked them with infiltrating a Nazi-occupied château in the French countryside and uncovering plans pertaining to a top-secret Axis super weapon (Note: The Nazis are ALWAYS working on a top-secret super weapon!). The Château de Berengar level was exemplary of the upcoming game’s ambitious scope, which promises the largest and most interactive Sniper Elite maps in franchise history, and my careful trek across the pastoral farmland to the heavily guarded fortress was simply teeming with Nazis to exterminate as silently or as loudly as I wanted.
On top of the Axis forces, however, I had one additional and quite unexpected adversary to contend with during my two-hour play session, and unfortunately it was not a human player entering my game via Sniper Elite 5’s new Invasion Mode (more on that in a bit). Instead, it was the horrid spectre of input lag via Parsec’s streaming, which, despite my blazing fast internet connection and the game’s mostly slow and methodological pace, proved far more severe this time than with my previous Dying Light 2: Stay Human preview experience.
Simply put, it was very difficult lining up Fairburne’s reticle with targets using any degree of accuracy with a wired controller and adjusting the look sensitivity in the remote PC’s settings did very little to help. It goes without saying that the experience I had was by no means the fault of the game and shouldn’t be an issue for anyone who picks up or downloads the finished product when it launches late next month, but it did impact how far I was able to progress in the demo with the limited time that I had.
Teething issues with Parsec aside, I’m happy to report, however, that fans of Sniper Elite have much to look forward to. Having recently revisited Sniper Elite 4 in preparation for this preview event (SE4 currently is available on Xbox Game Pass by the way), Sniper Elite 5 is at the very least shaping up to be an iterative visual leap ahead of its predecessor, which I was able to guesstimate via the lag-free captured footage of my play session that was kindly sent to me by Rebellion’s PR team in the days following the preview.
“The freshly clipped hairs of Fairburne’s buzz cut have never looked sharper…”
Sniper Elite 4 currently runs at a stunning 4K60 presentation on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, but it’s evident even in the downgraded 1080p footage I received that Sniper Elite 5 is targeting an even higher level of fidelity with its character models and photogrammetry of real-world locations on PC. The freshly clipped hairs of Fairburne’s buzz cut have never looked sharper, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we can at least expect similar 4K60 performance to that of its precursor on PS5 and Xbox Series X (if the official specifications on its Xbox Store page are to be believed).
As stated earlier, I didn’t get far enough into the demo to play around with many of Sniper Elite 5’s new gameplay elements, but one that I did witness is the addition of the game’s trademark X-Ray kill cam to pistols and SMGs, allowing players to witness the destructive power their bullets wreak upon targets at a closer range. Previously, the feature had been limited primarily to kill shots performed at distance, chain reaction kills made to look like freak accidents, select melee kill takedowns, or explosive kills resulting from booby traps set by Fairburne and/or precision shots targeting volatile objects in the environment, like gas canisters, munitions or vehicles.
Allowing such shots with shorter range weapons and sidearms means that players will now get to see kill-cam shots more frequently and won’t always need to look through a scope to trigger many of them. This should come as good news to Sniper Elite players who enjoy a bit more “run n’ gun” in their sessions instead of always taking potshots from afar.
Unfortunately, the above improvement does highlight a couple of areas that haven’t really evolved much since Sniper Elite 3, which are Sniper Elite’s rag-doll physics and melee kills. Rag-doll physics, of course, should not be confused with the game’s weapon ballistics, the latter coming off as quite visceral and on-point as bullets tear through muscles and organs and shatter bone in a realistic manner.
“…bizarre kill physics are practically as much a Sniper Elite staple as the X-Ray kill cam itself.”
That being said, the way in which bodies physically react to kill shots in Sniper Elite has always been somewhat comical as they often don’t follow the momentum of the bullet, and the tradition appears to continue in this latest instalment. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, mind you. At this point, bizarre kill physics is practically as much a Sniper Elite staple as the X-Ray kill cam itself.
What’s far more perplexing is that melee kills still haven’t been given some additional love despite this game representing the fifth instalment in the franchise. The takedown animations themselves are fine and for the most part, are direct copies of Fairburne’s melee kills from Sniper Elite 4 (though I was unable to perform any X-Ray kill cam versions of those takedowns in my play session).
The problem is that the entry animations into those moves continue to be stilted and awkward, bringing all normal animations to a halt and abruptly repositioning both Fairburne and his prey to standing poses before the move is executed. Worse, from a gameplay standpoint, there’s no apparent XP bonus for performing a melee kill stealthily (as in undetected from behind), nor an XP penalty for doing it sloppily from the front. As a consequence, once things go pear-shaped, melee kills effectively become a simple, low-risk means of quickly eliminating an enemy standing in the way of your escape route when you need to buy some time to run away and bandage yourself up.
It’s a great option to have when your cover is blown, and you’re seriously outgunned, but it personally made me feel guilty for relying on it when attacking an opponent face to face. There’s always the possibility that these small complaints of mine might be addressed in some way by the time Sniper Elite 5 launches next month, or perhaps even later in a post-launch patch, but given the history of past instalments, I won’t be holding my breath.
On a more positive note, another intriguing gameplay addition that I came across while playing is the addition of workbenches, where players can fully customize and upgrade just about every weapon in their arsenal with various mods and attachments that impact said weapons’ performance on the field. This includes more advanced scopes, stocks, muzzles, stabilizers, cosmetic skins, etc., as well as a selection of different ammunition types (e.g., armor piercing, suppressed and even non-lethal). Unlocking such modifications is achieved through earning XP and levelling up one’s rank and skills.
On top of that, players can find more immediate but transient power-ups via temporary, limited-ammo weapons that can be used until they are depleted or replaced with another suitable firearm on site. I found this effective in shaking up the gunplay formula a bit by encouraging me to try out different weapons instead of sticking with the same default sniper, SMG and pistol combo that I started the level out with. Considering I had barely earned any modifications yet, the inclusion of these items proved to be a godsend.
There wasn’t an opportunity during the demo to check out any of Sniper Elite 5’s adversarial or co-op multiplayer modes, but the brand-new Invasion Mode is definitely tickling my Dark Souls fancy. As the mode’s name suggests, when Invasion Mode is enabled, a human player can invade another player’s solo or co-op campaign as an Axis sniper with the sole aim of taking out the player controlling Fairburne (and if applicable, his or her co-op ally). For the Allied players, the task of killing the Axis sniper is added to their list of objectives necessary to complete the mission.
“…I’m quite excited by what Sniper Elite 5 is offering in the latest evolution of its WWII sniper sandbox mechanics”
Besides representing a direct and imminent threat to the Allied sniper(s), the Axis sniper can also raise the alertness level of nearby Axis forces on command and reveal the target’s last known position via alerted soldiers who have seen the target. Meanwhile, the Allied sniper(s) can make use of Invasion Phones scattered about each map to reveal the Axis sniper’s last known position, but these devices can be booby-trapped with explosives and abusing them will give away one’s position to the Axis forces.
Both Allied and Axis snipers who accomplish their assignment in Invasion are rewarded with weapons and skin unlocks (as well as bonus XP for having the mode enabled), while Axis snipers will also earn bonus items for their participation as the intruder. It will be interesting to see the ways in which invading players will serve as a fly in the ointment for other players’ campaigns, and the strategies that host players and their friends will use to counter them.
If the idea of a live player messing around in your game doesn’t sound appealing though, no worries, the mode can be toggled off for a strictly solo or 2-player co-op experience. As with the previous game, Sniper Elite 5 also offers adversarial modes for up to 16 players (an increase in player count from SE4’s 12) as well as a 4-player co-op for its wave-based Survival Mode.
Having enthusiastically dabbled with a number of the Sniper Elite games over the years, I’m quite excited by what Sniper Elite 5 is offering in the latest evolution of its WWII sniper sandbox mechanics, as well as the potential of its new Invasion Mode. Better yet, with Sniper Elite 5 already confirmed to launch on day one as part of Xbox Game Pass, and its prequel, Sniper Elite 4 is currently available to play as part of Microsoft’s game subscription service right now.
As an Xbox gamer, I have both the perfect franchise primer at my fingertips and a painless means of entry to the finished version of Sniper Elite 5 when it launches on May 26th. Time will tell whether SE5 will warrant its full-price at launch regardless of platform, but at least for fans of the franchise such as myself, things are looking pretty good.