Sniper Elite 5 Review
Bon appetit for a sniping connoisseur
The Sniper Elite franchise is aiming for the right target. After a few average sequels, Rebellion took measures to alter the series with Sniper Elite 4 in 2017. It was a significant step up from the previous titles because of large open levels, competent stealth mechanics, and a colorful Italian setting. Sniper Elite 5 is a sequel that knows its predecessor was on the right track. This time Karl Fairburne spends most of his time in France, hunting another top-secret Nazi project and trying to eviscerate as many internal organs as possible along the way. If you liked the last game then expect to enjoy the fifth entry, but there are some parts of Sniper Elite 5 that fall a bit short.
Fairburne is in France to help the resistance before the allies begin their assault. While scoping out the area, he stumbles upon a secret Nazi operation known as Project Kraken. Kraken’s true purpose is a mystery, but it has the potential to alter the Second World War. So Fairburne follows the clues, occasionally helping to liberate towns and clearing paths for allied forces whenever the trail goes cold. He even has to disobey orders to follow the breadcrumbs through chateaus, sub pens, and underground bases. This secret Nazi operation is an adequate driving force, although some missions are too disconnected from the main objective. The story involving the resistance fighters is disappointing. There are not many characters and they merely tell Fairburne what to do and where to go in boring cutscenes that lack personality. Unlike the previous game, there are no staging areas where you can talk to resistance fighters. Extra story comes from letters (and other collectibles) you find in missions, and most are uninteresting. At least these letters sometimes reveal side objectives and can take Fairburne to secret weapon caches across France.
Like the previous game, the level design is the standout feature. The large open maps are back, with multiple objectives, enemy clusters, patrolling vehicles, and more. France is not as colorful as Italy, but it finds its own style with gothic architecture and darker ambiance. There are some great levels that take you through idyllic farmlands, quaint villages, windswept coastlines, and deep inside Nazi mega-factories. The size of the levels ensures there will be new things to see in subsequent playthroughs. The game has eight main levels and there is good variety and only a few minor lapses in quality; some levels are cramped and feature unnecessary blockages, creating linear channels rather than a more natural open flow. At least there are climbable vines, zip-lines, and other methods that link areas together to minimize this structural problem. The visuals in the big levels are good, especially considering how well it performs on a lower-end machine.
Many of the big maps feature variations in elevation, some of which can become ideal positions for sniping. Sniper lookouts and church bell towers are good places to wait for the useful sound-masking devices: circling airplanes, cannon fire, machinery, and bombing runs. You can even make your own loud noise by sabotaging trucks and generators. It’s fun to watch Nazis scramble about as they are picked off one-by-one, oblivious to where all the bullets are coming from. Although it works as before, the sound-masking feature is a little rote because it’s all been done a few times now.
The act of sniping remains enjoyable. You will need to account for wind and bullet drop, and there is the ability to re-zero the scope. Holding your breath activates a handy hit marker to land the perfect headshot. There are a few different rifles to use, with various attachments that alter functionality. You can choose a loadout before each mission and equip upgrades on workbenches placed within levels—discovering these benches unlocks items. So if you prefer to be aggressive, you may opt for a fast-reload clip and short-range scope, over a silencer and barrel that increases accuracy. Regardless of loadout, the sniping is rewarding. Spotting a target in an exposed window might encourage you to run away, climb up a windmill, and launch a long shot that rewards you with a gruesome X-Ray kill, featuring organs rupturing in ways only trauma surgeons can authenticate. But you don’t need to be a doctor to appreciate brain busters, intestine intrusions, and liver lacerations. When it comes to sniping, few games do it this well.
Stealth is also a viable tactic and nearly as entertaining as the sniping action. Instead of those strange bushes in SE4, there are now fields of grass that look better and function well as places to hide. Takedowns work fine, either from a cover position or by sneaking up to the target. Bodies can be left in the grass or dumped into convenient boxes to prevent patrols from stumbling upon them. Some guards cannot be killed with a melee takedown, so they require a change in tactics. As with the rifles, there are various pistols and sub-machine guns to use when not sniping. Silencers can be equipped on them too, although their effectiveness at sound suppression varies so those seeking maximum covertness will probably stick to the welrod pistol due to its short audible range.
Stealth and sniping would not function without proper AI, and Nazis are both smart and dumb. They tend to read the room well, searching for a prolonged period if there is a mountain of bodies nearby. Scaring off seagulls will make guards come to check what caused the disturbance. If their friends are taken out from an unknown direction, they might find a hidey hole and wait it out. Their detection speed and range is well-tuned, but the game offers many options to further tweak difficulty. Increasing the AI intelligence is recommended, but it only goes so far. The AI gets stuck too often. Some got caught on walls, on their way to scour an area where you foolishly got spotted. This led to a situation where a group would constantly switch between all-clear and investigating, unable to break free until one suffered a lethal lung shot by yours truly. Some of the vehicles also had trouble driving their patrol routes. They occasionally ended up stopped in a big conga line, which is a hindrance near objectives.
Fairburne also gets stuck due to his own clunky animations. Moving around levels and over obstacles is just not as smooth as it could be. The cover system does not always pull Karl up against the wall (essential for a corner takedown) which results in detection. He also has long pauses when interacting with items of interest, like consoles and doors. Even with the extra navigation routes (vines etc.), the movement in general feels stiff.
Despite some sticky situations, the campaign is good value. It will take about the same time to complete as the last game (approximately 20 hours in stealth). You can replay missions to complete side objectives and find more of the collectibles. And there are even different starting spots and exfiltration locations to freshen things up. You can play the entire campaign with another player too. Here the teamwork can help when things get heated but it’s still often best to keep it quiet given the number of enemies.
New to the franchise is an Axis sniper invasion option, similar to Deathloop. When enabled, one player will randomly enter the campaign level and try to kill the allied sniper(s). This Nazi sniper can walk around, at leisure, and ping nearby AI to make them more alert. There is no side objective for the Axis sniper, so they have the advantage of merely getting ahead and waiting for Karl and co. to scurry into view. The allied sniper team can use telephones to get the current position of the Axis opponent, but it can be countered by simply moving. Since the levels are huge, it can take minutes to find the invader—the location of allied snipers is eventually revealed if they stay in one spot. The suspense at the start of an invasion is the best part of the mode, and it’s refreshing that it can be all over following one good shot.
For a solo allied sniper, an invasion means moving briskly and keeping a low profile. This creates a different kind of pressure, but invasions get annoying. It is hard to remain incognito with the Axis sniper around, so even if you do end up victorious, half of the AI enemies are now hunting you down. And if you die and reload the last save, another invasion can happen immediately. There is not enough time for the AI to go back into their regular patrols. No chance of finding supplies and health, let alone completing objectives. At its best, the invasion mode offers intriguing suspense, but it’s rarely like that and struggles to find balance. While some will appreciate the raw sniper vs. sniper action, invasion is an option that most players should disable when going through the campaign by themselves.
There are plenty of other options for online fun. Survival co-op takes four players through stages where they must protect a zone from capture against waves of incoming forces, including tanks. It’s fun and frantic, and might be the best online mode. The other competitive modes are similar to last time, with a few standard deathmatch options and a no-cross mode that keeps the teams apart. Although there are only four maps, they have good layouts, with lots of verticality and multiple routes to power positions. The general strategy involves finding a place to hide and exploiting the third-person camera to spot movement. But there is the element of faking out enemies, peaking out to make those distant scope glints emerge. The game does reward players with bonus points if they relocate, in an effort to reduce camping. Plus the kill-cam makes it easy to pinpoint your killer so you can creep up behind them and die to their well-placed landmine.
All online modes suffer from network issues and general imprecision. Lobbies migrated quite a bit, and many failed to find a new host which ended the game. Sniping is just not as smooth as offline, due to jittery enemy movements. Even spawning and moving is clunky, with random unexplainable delays. Kill trading happens, which makes sense for the sniping, but it occurred almost exclusively from point-blank range. There are a few nuisance bugs too. One glitch disabled shooting with the rifle, as though it was reloading. Another happened in co-op, causing my character to get stuck in a quasi-spectator mode, only able to rotate the camera and die. And there were snipe-offs where my character screamed in pain but suffered no damage. While there are a good array of online activities, and fun to be had when it works, some tweaks and fixes are needed.
For the most part, Sniper Elite 5 is an easy shot that hits the target. The campaign takes what worked in the last game and brings it into France. With huge levels and competent stealth mechanics, it’s a sniping experience that satisfies over around 20 hours. The replay value is good too, and there is a decent co-op mode with an almost-there player invasion option that is probably best disabled on your first run. There are quite a few online modes and most entertain, despite some network issues. If Rebellion keep taking this formula and moving it to another setting, the resulting game would likely turn out to be good too. But it would be a pity to see Sniper Elite rest on its laurels. After all, the longest shots are usually the most satisfying.