By Gareth F 6 Days ago
Sniper Elite 4 reunites us with one-man army and eagle-eyed Nazi botherer Karl Fairburne, as he gleefully doles out cracked skulls, ruptured kidneys and splattered testicles to anybody foolish enough to stray into his crosshairs. The year is 1943, and Fairburne, the owner of the kind of gravelly voice that guarantees a lucrative post-war career as a Vin Diesel-a-gram, has rolled into Italy in the aftermath of his South African sortie that was the basis of Sniper Elite 3. Given that this is the man that single-handedly destroyed the German Ratte super tank, as well as take down the facility that was manufacturing it, a fairly pertinent question is raised: Why use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut when you can just send in a lone sniper to shoot the hell out of it? Well, Fairburne is back to do exactly that in a vast, sprawling campaign far larger than any of its predecessors to not only take on the impressively resilient German forces once more, but punch a few holes in their fascistic Italian allies, too.
For the uninitiated, the Sniper Elite series takes place during World War II and is a third-person shooter sporting a lengthy campaign that's reliant on meeting multiple objectives (some optional) across each of its huge sandbox levels to progress. Despite sitting in a genre that's arguably one of the most oversaturated in the modern gaming marketplace, it's fair to say that Rebellion Developments has a fairly unique franchise on its hands that owes much of its success to actively not following the herd—and truth be told, it's all the better for it.
It's a sad fact that when looking for gun-based entertainment, people rarely venture very far from the obvious big hitters, as evidenced by sales juggernauts such as Call of Duty, whose annual updates artificially impose a shelf life on it - "Guys, play this for a year, then buy the next one, yeah?" Sniper Elite 4 offers a viable alternative and welcome respite from the quick turnaround of its competition, and as such, has room to breathe, foster a player base, and make a meaningful impact on fans of the scoped kill. Speaking as a gamer that plays a lot of shooters and almost never opts to play as a sniping class, what Rebellion has created here does actually feel like a total breath of fresh air.
Veterans of the series will notice immediately that almost everything has been scaled up, improved and made that little bit shinier—the result no doubt of escaping the restrictions imposed by having to release comparable Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. Yes, Sniper Elite 4 is now a fully-fledged next gen title, and in a bid to put this into some kind of perspective, the picturesque Bitanti Village, which just so happens to be the smallest map in the game, is actually three times larger than the biggest map that Sniper Elite 3 had to offer. Pretty big, then. Add to that a whole new level of verticality that comes hand in hand with a set of traversal moves that allows Fairburne to climb up to vantage points, hang off ledges, shimmy across roof tops and leap narrow gaps, all of which open up more diverse opportunities for introducing bullets to heads.
PlayStation 4 Pro owners also to get to enjoy a visually enhanced version with a higher level of detail, better lighting and shading, enhanced frame rates, and an improved draw distance. The vibrant colour palette used to depict the sunny Italian setting provides a diverse set of locales laden with stunning vistas, from the opening mission on the island of San Celini, to the verdant woodlands of Regilino. It's a real looker.
Stealth is a big part of the Sniper Elite experience and Fairburne is far more effective when the enemy isn't aware of his presence. Thankfully, each level is designed so there are multiple routes to each and every objective, with plenty of opportunities to lie low in areas of high enemy activity and observe the patrol patterns and surroundings. There's a lot to be said for hiding in a bush, luring over the enemy with a few strategically tossed pebbles, then performing a swift, vicious melee stealth kill or silenced pistol bullet to the head when they wander too close. Fairburne's awareness of his surroundings is aided by a mini-map showing the number of enemy guards in the immediate vicinity and whether they are passive, suspicious or in an alerted state.
Long range reconnaissance is possible courtesy of a set of binoculars, which have the facility to permanently tag (or untag) the enemy from a great distance, and frequent use of these has the added bonus of highlighting the mission objectives, making it easier to ensure Fairburne is heading in the right direction for the task in hand. In a bid to 'humanise' the enemy, tagging them also reveals pertinent information about the individual, such as their hopes, fears, aspirations and what they happen to be carrying on their person that might be of use, which could also include one of the many collectibles. It actually reminds of the henchman from the Austen Powers movies—a nice touch, but it won't be enough to stop anybody from putting a bullet in their heads, as they are still the bad guys, after all.
While it's primarily all about the sniping, the temptation to just start lining up shots and taking down the entire platoon from a distance should be resisted if possible, as it only takes one overheard gunshot to alert all the nearby guards. Timing is everything. Finding a way to disguise weapon usage is a smart tactic that definitely pays off for anybody wanting to maintain deep cover, so waiting for the precise moment that a plane flies overhead, patrol boat passes, or even whenever a tampered generator motor starts to splutter are all good times to squeeze that trigger, as the gunshot will get masked. Of course, leaving a trail of dead bodies is the calling card of the careless and another sure-fire way of alerting the enemy that something is amiss. Bodies can be hidden out of sight, searched to glean new consumables (bullets, grenades, etc.), and even booby trapped, which is a great way of creating a diversion and taking out a few more threats while doing so. The AI can be pretty smart and methodical once they've got wind of Fairburne's presence, though, and it only takes a few stray shots for them to triangulate his position and coordinate an attack plan. This is when it starts to get fun.
The minor skirmishes that punctuate the intense stealth sections really play to the strengths of having a sandbox setup. Of course, straight-up sniping seems the obvious way of despatching the enemy to the point where resorting to a more traditional type of pistol or machine gun almost feels like failure, but there are more inventive ways of taking care of business. Taking aim at a crane pulley will drop its heavy cargo, crushing the poor soul stood underneath, and given the wartime setting, it'd be pretty weird if there weren't copious amounts of explosive material scattered about the landscape, right? A well-aimed bullet placed in the radiator grill of a nearby truck could be just enough to set off a chain reaction of explosions that takes out a big chunk of bad guys in one fell swoop. The enemy's habit of honing in on Fairburne's last known location can be exploited and used as a tactic to either draw them into a trap, or even just to distract them enough to perform a flanking manoeuvre, get behind them, and stealthily take them down one by one.
This time around there are also more opportunities for self-improvement and weapon customisation. The persistent player ranking system that's spread between both the campaign and multiplayer component has a skill tree attached that adds a new trait/skill to Fairburne's character every five ranks. There are two skills to choose from at each plateau and these tend to range from the likes of having the ability to stabilise heart rate quicker and increased target focus speed, to passive improvements such as reduced fall damage and decreased explosion damage. Continued usage of a weapon contributes towards improving its efficiency, so, for example, succeeding in making 30 sound masked kills increases the damage, 20 kills over 100 metres improves the zoom, and so on. Each level also has five challenges attached and a wealth of collectibles, both of which give plenty of reason to go back for repeated replays.
Finding a quiet spot on a vantage point with the intent of taking pot-shots at enemy troops might sound like a fairly solitary activity, but fans of both co-op and adversarial multiplayer should know that they are well catered for in Sniper Elite 4. While the entire campaign can be played co-operatively, there is also Overwatch, which sees one player responsible for spotting the enemy with a pair of the binoculars, while the other takes care of shooting them, and the very tense Survival, which is a Horde-like mode that caters for squads of up to four. The adversarial modes include the now-obligatory Deathmatch options (both solo and team), and it's fair to say that it's a bit more laid back than the average online shooter, so probably won't be for everybody.
On top of the classics, there is also the self-explanatory Team Distance King, which sees heated competition for the highest kill distance accumulated during the course of the match, and Control, which centres around a power struggle as both teams try to capture radio drops. An interesting new addition is No Cross, a Deathmatch variation that forces sniping only due to the impassable no man's land standing between both teams. While it's an interesting wrinkle on an old classic, it's probably best tackled after getting a bit more familiar with the map layouts, as it's very easy to get disorientated. Admittedly, it's difficult to know if the right direction is being aimed at half the time, and even after playing three matches, a member of the opposing team has yet to be laid eyes upon. The good news, though, is that Rebellion is committed for the long haul and has plans to add new maps and modes in the future free of charge.
Sniper Elite 4 is a solid entry to the series that's stuck to its guns (pun intended) by not tampering with the formula laid out by its predecessor, but has instead built upon and improved everything that made it so great. Rebellion has delivered a true next gen sandbox shooter that looks fantastic, plays well and should keep fans of the long-distance kill entertained for some time to come.