Sniper Elite 4 Review
When a bullet hits an eye as a sound echoes by, that's amore
It seemed like Rebellion’s Sniper Elite franchise was destined for more of the same. While other shooter franchises moved into different eras, it has persisted with the World War 2 setting. After Sniper Elite 3, it appeared like Rebellion was also comfortable maintaining the status quo when it came to gameplay. Fortunately, not everything is as it seems. Sniper Elite 4 pulls the franchise out of its rut and proves there is plenty of life remaining in the WW2 setting. It is the best Sniper Elite game so far, due mainly to changes in stealth and level design.
Welcome to Italy
Sniper Elite 4 takes place in Italy during 1943 and players reprise their role as sniper expert Karl Fairburne while he hunts down the Nazis’ plans for a radio-guided missile. The Allies plan to invade Italy and a remote-controlled weapon could prove disastrous for their approaching battleships. Karl must infiltrate fortifications, eliminate key personnel, and discover information before the main force arrives. 1943 was a pivotal year for Italy, starting as part of the Axis and finishing on the Allied side. As Italy switched sides, armed civilians helped to push the Germans north. The tale of these armed rebels is a big part of the fictional story, and it is framed around real war events and locations. The underground resistance aspect does wonders for the narrative, in a series that has typically been fairly humdrum and clichéd when it comes to story.
Perhaps the best aspect of the story is that most levels now feature a mini introductory staging area. Here players will talk to pivotal characters that outline main objectives and ask Karl to perform side tasks. Not only are the objectives better received from characters, it allows for more natural background information. These staging areas are not on the same level as the Normandy from Mass Effect, but the idea is similar and appreciated. It is also quite neat to overlook the upcoming locales of Italy from a safe distance before the action begins.
The Italian setting brings visual distinction from previous entries, much like the African setting did in the last game. Gone are the gloomy war-torn cities of Europe and the blindingly-yellow deserts of Africa—replaced by colorful Italian cottages, crystal-blue ocean views, mountainous backgrounds, grape-vine fields, coastal forts and fishing villages. The Asura Engine has no problem rendering the world filled with dozens of guards. Although the graphics engine is starting to show its age, it still has its moments with tessellated ground textures, healthy draw distances, and dynamic lights. The game automatically saves frequently—making for a smoother experience overall—and load times are insanely fast given the level sizes.
All campaign levels have good overwatch positions to tag enemies
The best change for this sequel are the large and consistently-open levels that can take hours to complete. Starting from the first mission, all levels are broad sandboxes with objectives spread throughout. Players can take the high ground and snipe encroaching targets, or tread carefully through patrols. The game is largely devoid of linear sections; most objectives can be approached from two or more directions and completed in any order. Some levels are completely open, allowing progression through soldier-infested (and ammo-rich) barracks or along sparsely populated cliff tops. Obviously this open layout might pose a problem for any covert plans, but soldiers are placed in groups that tend not to intermingle unless things get chaotic. Karl's job is to navigate through the German patrols however he sees fit.
Sound-masking tools return across these maps. They might disguise a gunshot across the entire map or just the local area. Infiltrating a coastal fort under the cover of darkness featured cannons that regularly fired into the water, and standing near them allowed Karl to kill enemies (and destroy trucks) while the guards scrambled below. Destroying these cannons was also a side objective, one that was best delayed. Another mission takes place around an aqueduct, in the lush mountains, and a large artillery weapon briefly disguised sound across the entire map. Once Karl got close enough, the reloading sounds provided advanced warning to fully exploit the short-lived sound-masking. Sound-masking is perhaps the most interesting sniper-related element in the series and it is used quite well across the eight levels.
Along with the better level design, stealth has been greatly improved. For the first time in the series, it’s good enough to almost entirely carry the game on its own. Crouching, going prone, or just sticking to the shadows will all make Karl harder to see. This visibility is perfectly represented by a new faded circle on the mini-map that resizes dynamically. Line of sight is important, but the AI will take some time to fully detect Karl moving between cover. On harder settings, the AI will detect faster, search longer, and hear sounds from further away. It's generally a tolerant system with multiple AI states that allow for a better covert experience.
Most of the stealth changes are minor, but they make a big difference. Karl can now whistle to alert nearby guards, and this is more natural than hurling rocks from behind cover. You can also do melee takedowns from the non-sticky corners, or while hanging from a ledge. Stabbing people in the heart is now almost as satisfying as a long-range kidney shot. Suppressed ammo can be equipped for the sniper rifle, offering quieter distance kills; although you still need to worry about who can see the fresh cadaver. There is no need to rely on the ugly Welrod pistol anymore, as several other handguns now have suppressive capabilities. The amount of suppressed ammo is the limiting factor, restricted even more on harder difficulties.
Use the new bushes for stealthy melee kills
When it comes to stealth, the best change is the addition of specific hand-placed bushes. Like other stealth games that feature waist-high foliage, these sparse bushes allow Karl to remain nearly invisible if he stays still and crouched. They are not just great places to plan attacks, spot enemies, and lure guards—they are perfect locations to hide bodies. So good, in fact, that you may cross large distances just to dump the sixth Nazi soldier into one. Sure, the ocean water can hide bodies permanently, but throwing a body and having it get stuck on the railing is a good way to tell patrolling guards that some daft sniper is roaming about. And we don't want that, so the bushes are a fantastic stealth improvement for a series that previously had inadequate solutions to hide bodies.
You'll want to hide bodies because the guards are thorough. Unlike previous games, the AI seems more logical and measured in their approach. Making sounds will see one guard investigate. If he's alone, it's easy. If he's surrounded by guards, they all enter a cautious state until the investigating guard declares the all clear. Should you take down a guard while the others are cautious, more will search the area. And when cautious, they detect faster. Explosions cause lengthy searches, as guards initially take cover. And the area searched can be quite broad, taking guards in range of different soldier groups that now acquire the cautionary state like a propagating virus.
Not to say the guards are flawless. During perhaps the only scripted AI assault in the game—initiated after destroying a gun emplacement in a dockyard—one of the approaching guards took up cover beside a burning tank and suffered fire damage until his death. Another slightly more common issue was guards remaining in the cautious state permanently. Like when one sniper continued to spot the same dead body on a gantry, or when two other guards stared each other into a continually enforcing state of panic until a thrown rock jarred them back to reality.
Traps are a good way to cover your six
So stealth is better, but what about the sniping? It remains largely unchanged, although this time you can re-zero the scope to make the long range shots hit closer to the crosshair. The improvements to stealth can mean less sniping, although there are plenty of good opportunities to go prone and go crazy. Completing the campaign with a mix of stealth and sniping could take 20 hours, significantly longer and more enjoyable than its predecessors.
The entire campaign can be completed with another player and it works surprisingly well because of the open map layouts. You may go after the same objectives or split up; the AI is capable of dealing with multiple targets and will do its’ best to flank. The only downside of separating is not being able to help when your partner bleeds out, but the game saves online states often enough that it is no big deal. There is also a decent two-player Overwatch mode, where one player takes the role of sniper and the other completes objectives below.
Survival is the other main cooperative mode, allowing you to play with three others against waves of Nazi soldiers. Unlike the campaign or Overwatch, stealth is not really possible because guards rush and attack on sight. Placing traps near defensive points will get kills but most of the damage will come from quick sniper shots or the sub machine gun. The mode is quite challenging in solo play or as a team.
The Railroad map is a huge online arena, so bring a snack
Much like the last game, competitive multiplayer works about as well as you would imagine when 12 snipers face-off. Players will lie down in bushes or crouch inside buildings and wait patiently for the impatient to move out from cover. Aside from the cramped Marina map, the levels are large enough that you can go 10 minutes without seeing an enemy. It’s a Mexican standoff without anybody standing. In some ways it is also relaxing; you find a good hidey-hole, defend it with traps, and wait until an enemy scurries into view. Then you raise the scope, aim carefully, and take a bullet to the head because you are a terrible shot.
Online modes remain largely unchanged from the last game, with standard Deathmatch and a Distance King mode that rewards the longest kill shots. The No Cross mode keeps the teams separated with an impassable barrier, so no need to worry about pesky traps, although getting a clear line of sight is a battle in itself. Control is a new mode, and it has teams capturing noisy radio drops and defending them for a short time. Enemies can capture and earn a point despite only having control for a few seconds. The mode is not as well suited to the sniping action as the other modes, nor as popular.
Multiplayer does have a lot of quirks though. Trying to use binoculars when near waist high cover is frustrating because you need to be right against the wall or you won’t peak over. Audio is weird too, as it was common enough for sub machine guns to continue firing after death—the noise echoes across the entire map. The amount of XP gained from competitive multiplayer is pathetic compared to the single player or co-op. And this XP is used to buy additional sniper rifles or equipment. It is also terrible that the sniper Ghillie suit is only available by purchasing DLC, because it definitely helps to camouflage players in foliage. There aren’t many players online on PC, but network connections were fairly good even for player-hosted matches. Despite a few obstacles, there is enough fun to be had with the online modes.
Sniping is an eye-opening experience
Sniper Elite 4 is just the shake-up the series needed. The Italian setting is a fresh look at WW2 with clever staging areas and a better story. Stealth has been refined thanks to a number of small changes, including excellent hiding spots and better melee takedowns. Now the covert part is just as satisfying as the sniping. Best yet are the levels, which are large and open, allowing completion of objectives in any order and from any direction. Sound-masking opportunities are plentiful and remain the series’ coolest feature. Plus, the campaign can be played with another person, and the other co-op modes are decent. Competitive multiplayer requires patience, although the slower pace can make for satisfying kills. Rebellion has reinvigorated the series with Sniper Elite 4, and the gameplay improvements will only help sequels in the years ahead.