Kill or recruit top Nazi scientists before the Soviet Union makes off with them.
PC Release: May 2, 2012
By Ian Coppock
“One bullet can change history”. That sentence is the mantra of the Sniper Elite series. It suggests a mentality of finesse and subtlety, which is sorely underappreciated in the world of today’s shooters. Indiscriminately firing into crowds of bad guys is all good and fun, but today’s shooters bear immense, and often underdeveloped, potential for tactics. Crysis is a great shooter because it forces players to think laterally. It creates a much more immediate sense of danger and requires players to be smart about how they approach enemies. However, there’s another tactical shooter out there bereft of invisible nano-armor, making players rely even more on tactics than that venerable shooter. Sniper Elite V2 is its name, and tactics is its game.
Sniper Elite V2 is a third-person stealth shooter made by Rebellion Developments, a British studio that also handled the task of publishing the game. Sniper Elite V2 is a half-remake, half-sequel to 2005’s Sniper Elite, refining that game’s shooter gameplay while also adding expanded levels and a narrative. Unlike most military shooters, Sniper Elite V2 is a stealth game, compelling players to be sneaky and smart about taking out enemies. The term “V2” is a nod both to this game being a remake, and to the German V2 rocket program that serves as its narrative core.
Sniper Elite V2 takes place during the final weeks of the European theater of World War II, when Nazi Germany teetered on the brink of collapse. Even before the death of Adolf Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union began angling for pieces of the Third Reich in anticipation of what would ultimately become the Cold War. Among all the Nazi secrets both sides wanted was to know how to build V2 rockets, the world’s first long-range ballistic missiles and the most advanced rocketry of their day. To that end, the OSS dispatches elite operative Karl Fairburne to Berlin to recruit top Nazi scientists as part of Operation Paperclip. Failing that, he’s to kill the scientists before the Soviets can get their hands on them.
Not long after arriving in Berlin (or what’s left of it), Karl obtains a list of five Nazi scientists who are associated with the V2 program, and makes recruiting or killing them his top priority. He’ll have to take care, though; the Wehrmacht and the Red Army are fighting for control of the city, and he doesn’t have the luxury of reinforcements should he be sniffed out. It is not for Karl to charge blindly into enemy ranks, shooting as he goes. Instead, he must be a ghost of Berlin, creeping through rubble piles and taking back alleys.
That premise also serves as the basic gist of Sniper Elite V2. As Karl, players start out each level in a different corner of Berlin and must take one of many possible paths to their target. Alerting the enemy will bring the entire Wehrmacht upon Karl, so players instead have to rely on stealth and subterfuge to navigate the ruins of Berlin. Indeed, it’s best to think of Karl’s sniper rifle not as a weapon to be used heavily, but a precise, surgical tool best used only a few times. Sniper Elite V2‘s infamous “kill-cam”, a mechanic that shows the player the precise skeletal and internal damage caused by each sniper shot, is gruesomely entertaining. Rebellion caught some flak for allowing players to watch an x-ray slow-mo of a Nazi’s skull exploding, but nothing is more cathartic after a long day at work than precisely that spectacle.
As Karl, players start out each of the game’s 11 missions armed with a sniper rifle, a pistol, and a secondary weapon (usually an SMG or shotgun). Karl also comes with a backpack full of landmines, and the ability to regenerate health once behind cover for long enough. Even though Sniper Elite V2‘s armory sounds conventional for a military shooter, the game encourages tactics and trickery. It’s far better to kill a Nazi and booby trap his body with a landmine than try to shoot the entire squad with a shotgun. Karl’s secondary weapons are meant to serve as a Plan B in case of discovery. Otherwise, it’s best to take cover and avoid enemy patrols while sneaking toward the target. The fact that Karl will go down in a handful of shots adds expediency to this strategy.
Because of its furtive focus, Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay is set at a more thoughtful pace than other romps through Berlin. This is no Call of Duty: World at War, where the player has virtually unlimited ammo and dozens of troops backing them up. The sense of isolation emanates just as much from Sniper Elite V2‘s gameplay as its premise or narrative. If Karl gets spotted, no one can help him, so patience is key to success in this game. Karl can mark targets with his binoculars to help keep track of enemies, or throw rocks to distract them, so Sniper Elite V2 isn’t as merciless as it might sound.
Then again, maybe the game is more merciless than even the developer intended. The enemies in Sniper Elite V2 have that overly sharp AI programming that can make gameplay a frustrating bout of trial and error. Remember how the thieving in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is broken because guards can somehow hear the Hero of Kvatch sift through a desk? The soldiers in Sniper Elite V2 are similarly omniscient in their vigilance. Players who are even a microsecond too late to grab cover will alert every Nazi from here to Hamburg faster than split infinity. This doesn’t make sneaking in Sniper Elite V2 impossible, but it feels unreasonably difficult in more than one instance. It’s not exactly fun to signal every Russian on the next 10 city blocks because Karl wiped his nose too loudly.
Contrary wise, some encounters in Sniper Elite V2 are far too easy. Karl frequently has to deal with German or Soviet military convoys as he stalks the city, and they’re all protected by big ol’ tanks. Sounds terrifying, right? Wrong. Because each one can be blown to smithereens with one shot to the gas tank. Combine this with the tank’s slow aiming, and the result is a profoundly neutered heavy enemy challenge. To say nothing of how the explosion usually kills all the soldiers around it in one go. Indeed, a tank is usually a welcome sight, because all it takes is one bullet to blow it up and level every outpost on the city block.
The level design that hosts all of this sneaking and shooting is a curious blend of linear city streets and open, bombed-out buildings. Karl can take a few different paths to his objective, and nearly all of them will lead past enemy lines. Though there are several unique routes to uncover in each level, most missions in Sniper Elite V2 still feel quite linear. Each of the paths Karl can take still generally point in a straight line, and checkpoints placed in specific doorways and corridors further choke out any feeling of being open-ended. Still, the levels are serviceable for what the game is trying to accomplish, and are still head and shoulders more open than the set pieces of today’s linear first-person shooters. Some missions even force Karl to sneak over and under skirmishes between the Nazis and the Soviets, killing men from both armies as he goes.
The visuals used to flesh out all of these levels are surprisingly vibrant for a gritty war shooter. The game’s visage is bleak, but not dull. There are bright buildings in Berlin whose paint has faded under endless smoke, and impressive monuments that stand emergent from big mountains of gravel. Columns of smoke tower above the city, and stale wind pushes huge clouds of ashes across the broken cityscape. Sniper Elite V2‘s graphics have aged a tiny bit, and some of the rubble piles look too much like PNG images, but it all still looks just fine. Character animations are a bit wonky, though. NPCs just walking around in gameplay act natural, but are stiffly animated in cutscenes. Additionally, Karl’s prone crawl animation is a bit… twitchy. But, digression is called for. These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise suitable core.
Less suitable than Sniper Elite V2‘s visual design is an exceptionally rough audio production. No element of Sniper Elite V2‘s sound design is without some eyebrow-raising hitches. For starters, the enemy troops’ voices echo very loudly, as if each level is actually taking place in a cave. This reverberation is so powerful that Karl can usually hear enemy soldiers from the next street over, even when they’re whispering. This may have been an attempt by Rebellion to make it easier to detect soldiers, but unless Karl is part bat, there’s no way he should be able to overhear how many bratwursts the Wehrmacht ate last night.
The other unfortunate design choice bringing down the audio is the soundtrack. The music is fine; that is to say, it’s a serviceable but otherwise unremarkable batch of horns and string music. No, the issue is how severely the music tracks loop. It’s not just a little bit, where the song fades into nothing and starts over. No, the songs accompanying each level abruptly end, clip out, and start up again. It’s very noticeable and does more than a little to break the game’s atmosphere. Thus far, the only workaround is to turn the music off, which would be fine if it didn’t make the enemies’ loudly echoing conversation even louder.
The other factor that gives Sniper Elite V2 pause is its narrative, or more precisely, its relative lack of one. Sure, Karl has a mission to infiltrate Berlin, but there’s no character development and no compelling storyline. The entire game is simply Karl starting a mission, killing a guy, ending the mission, over and over until the credits roll. There’s a little tidbit of thriller toward the end when one of the last scientists on Karl’s list tries to launch the V2 rockets, but it’s over in a single level, so the tension has no time to build. Karl himself is pretty unknowable, speaking only during the mission briefing, and of no topic other than his mission objectives. All of this isn’t really a narrative so much as a series of checkpoints.
None of this makes Sniper Elite V2 a bad game, but it does make the production conspicuously hollow. There was plenty of room for a gritty subterfuge thriller in Sniper Elite V2, but the game is more interested in showing off countless kill-cam vignettes than telling a story. Nothing wrong with the kill-cam, but each mission’s short briefing and then the game’s abrupt ending make Sniper Elite V2 much less memorable than it could’ve been. It certainly doesn’t help cover up the poor sound design.
Sniper Elite V2 isn’t getting out of here without a recommendation, but it feels less like a compelling war story than a meticulous study concocted by hardcore World War II nerds. Y’know, those military history enthusiasts who are more concerned with the precise trajectory of a ship’s cannon than the emotional brevity of whatever that cannon was firing at (see also: ARMA 2 fans). Though Sniper Elite V2 has its sound and AI problems, and its narrative is a far cry from a World War II drama, its competent sniping and sneaking will sate anyone looking for something different.
You can buy Sniper Elite V2 here.
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