Prevent the Nazis from building a doomsday weapon.
PC Release: July 1, 2014
By Ian Coppock
So often, the Sunday retro review is used as a chaser to catch the shortcomings of Wednesday’s big reviews. It’s become a depressingly familiar pattern, especially during this year’s tourney of big-budget holiday releases. Today’s review of Sniper Elite III marks two chasers in one: a hopeful chance to get some real stealth tactics after StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops dropped the ball, and to build upon the mechanics of Sniper Elite V2, which were rough around the edges. Hopefully the developers of V2 were able to learn from their mistakes in crafting this new game, and move the series along in a meaningful way. That always happens with sequels! …Right?
Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter created by Rebellion Developments, a cabal of English game designers with a flair for graphic head shots. Despite what the title “Sniper Elite III” implies, the game is actually a prequel to Sniper Elite V2, taking place a few years before the first game and in an entirely new setting.
Sniper Elite III takes place in 1942, when World War II was still in full swing and when the Axis still stood a massive chance of winning the war. The game shifts the Sniper Elite series’ focus from Europe to the war in North Africa, one of the most pivotal, and most underappreciated, theaters of World War II. The game features the return (or rather, debut) of Karl Fairburne, the gravely-voiced OSS sniper from Sniper Elite V2, and Sniper Elite III opens as he joins the British defense of Tobruk, Libya.
Although the Brits lose control of Tobruk, they’re impressed by the heavy casualties Karl inflicts upon the Germans, and he’s seconded to British naval intelligence to partake in a special mission. Franz Vahlen, a top-ranking Nazi general and one of Hitler’s proteges, has been spotted traveling around Africa under heavy guard. Given Vahlen’s outspoken support of super-weapon research, the Allies are worried that he’s building something big out in the desert. Karl is also convinced that Vahlen is up to something especially nefarious, and sets off across the burning sands of North Africa to find and kill him.
Although Karl has the tacit support of the British army, he is almost always just as isolated as he was (or will be) in Sniper Elite V2. Though he’s adept at using the terrain to his advantage, he’ll still have to contend with the Third Reich’s elite Afrika Corps and their Italian allies in his quest to find Vahlen. As always, though, one bullet has the potential to change history, and Karl sneaks off into the desert with precisely that goal in mind.
Like its predecessor (or sequel, depending on how one looks at it) Sniper Elite III is a third-person shooter that emphasizes stealth over shooting. Unlike many of its shooter contemporaries, Sniper Elite III sends players on lone wolf missions deep into enemy territory, with no backup and few options should they be spotted. Because Karl has no backup, is heavily outnumbered, and goes down in just a few shots, players who want any hope of success in Sniper Elite III will stay quiet. Sure, they can try to go in guns blazing, but they won’t get far.
With all of these factors in play, players have to look for means of mission completion other than SHOOT ALL THE THINGS. There are a lot of tactical opportunities out there in the desert, and taking advantage of them requires creativity and a keen attention to detail (something that linear FPS games usually do not demand these days). As such, stealth and shooter fans alike found common ground in Sniper Elite V2, but the question remains. What changes does Sniper Elite III bring to Sniper Elite V2‘s decent but roughshod production?
Well, for starters, Sniper Elite III allows players to create and customize their own loadouts. As Karl, players can select from a wide array of sniper rifles, secondary weapons, and pistols. Whether it’s a Japanese bolt-action or the infamous Mosin Nagant from Russia, Karl has quite the reach when it comes to procuring firearms. Players can also choose from a wide variety of other tools, including health kits, hand grenades, land mines, and tripwire mines. Best of all, each weapon can be customized with different stocks, scopes, triggers, and other peripherals, allowing players to alter their rifle’s stats to suit their playstyle. Players who prefer total stealth, for example, will want to add peripherals that increase range and effective accuracy.
For Sniper Elite III to give players so much freedom in picking guns is fantastic. Anyone who’s detail-oriented enough to appreciate the game’s stealth will also appreciate being able to execute that in the manner that best suits them. Players will have a chance to pick and modify their loadout from each mission, and can maintain up to four concurrent loadouts for different mission profiles. For anything else that can be said about Sniper Elite III, it does a great job of allowing for an assassin’s greatest asset: preparation.
Once Karl has selected his loadout and tools, it’s time to head out into the field. In significant contrast to the levels of Sniper Elite V2, which allowed for a few different paths but were still mostly linear, Sniper Elite III‘s levels are wide open. Karl will usually start at the bottom of each map, and complete various objectives that are scattered randomly around a circular map. This level design overhaul is a welcome change for the Sniper Elite series, as it grants players much more freedom in how they pursue their goal. Instead of being able to sneak through one of a few houses, as in Sniper Elite V2, players can use the versatility of Sniper Elite III to find many more paths. Does Karl sneak through a cave and take the Germans out from behind? Or snipe them from a tall cliff?
On that note, Sniper Elite III‘s levels also contain a lot more vertical variety than those of Sniper Elite V2. Karl can ascend up rocky hillsides or hunker down in oases; either route works for reaching the target. Each level also contains a lot of open and closed areas, from wide desert dunes to claustrophobic slot canyons. Karl will also wind his way through a diverse palette of ancient ruins, desert villages, military bunkers, and other structures. The sheer variety of terrain, buildings, and paths in Sniper Elite III comprises a remarkable improvement over that of Sniper Elite V2, one that players will be all too eager to take advantage of.
The gameplay of Sniper Elite III has also received a significant overhaul from that of Sniper Elite V2. The two biggest, most immediately noteworthy changes are that Sniper Elite III abandons its predecessor’s health regeneration system in favor of first aid kits, and also does away with any sort of cover system. Neither change may seem all that big at the outset, but they’re actually very clever implementations for a stealth game. With first aid kits, players can’t just charge into battle and take cover to regenerate when things get too hairy. Since Karl has to use first aid kits, and can only carry so many of them, this forces players to be much more careful about what fights they pick. Likewise, the lack of a cover system means that players have to manually duck behind objects instead of just magnetizing to a wall until a patrol passes.
The actual shooting gameplay hasn’t changed too terribly much, though. Karl can still tag enemies with his binoculars and, of course, squeeze the trigger to shoot fascists until their bodies are sufficiently riddled with lead. Sniper Elite III does afford the player more tactical opportunities, though, like loud noises to mask shots and the ability to make melee kills. The gloriously gory x-ray kill-cam returns with more detail and viscera than ever, allowing players to see the internal damage of most every sniper shot fired. This system does get a bit old after seeing it for the 100th time… but not that old. Sniper Elite III also includes a few multiplayer modes that pit snipers against each other rather than NPCs. They’re okay, but nothing to write home about, and the online community has died down a lot in the last two years.
Another major change Sniper Elite III makes to its gameplay is a complete revamp of enemy vehicle encounters. In Sniper Elite V2, vehicles made easy targets because one bullet to the gas tank would take it out and all its surrounding troops with it. In Sniper Elite III, most vehicles’ vulnerable points are heavily armored, requiring Karl to shoot them 3-4 times before he can pierce a gas tank or radiator. This change makes vehicles incredibly dangerous foes in Sniper Elite III, as they should be, and forces players to contend with a foe that will know their location with every shot. Sniper Elite III also introduces a wider array of vehicles, bringing Panzers back from Sniper Elite V2 but also introducing light tanks, turret trucks, and other vehicles.
Finally, Sniper Elite III‘s enemy AI has received a hefty tune-up after the overpowered omniscience of Sniper Elite V2‘s foes. Whereas one wrong move in Sniper Elite V2 would alert every German in Berlin, the enemy AI in Sniper Elite III is much fairer. Players have a bit more time to get behind cover if spotted, and enemies react with shock and surprise at seeing Karl instead of a half-second gun-sling. Sniper Elite III also does a better job of tracking enemies’ location of Karl, giving players more elbow room to slip away and try again after the alarms die down. This isn’t to say that Sniper Elite III is easy, but the challenge it offers has been polished down to a more fun, reasonable level.
Another thing that Sniper Elite III gets right is its setting. There’s nothing wrong with the bombed-out European ruins, per se, but that motif has been done to death in dozens of World War II games over the years. By taking the action to North Africa, Sniper Elite III avoids looking like another grimy European grind-fest and espouses a novel setting rarely discussed by historians, students, or the general public these days. The scorching African desert, and all the jungles, oases and savannahs it hides, are to the ruins of Berlin as day is to night, and what a nice change of pace it is.
On top of all of that, Sniper Elite III looks beautiful. The environments burst with color and contrast despite what a desert setting might imply, and each map espouses all sorts of different terrain, from canyons to villages to dunes. Character animations are smooth (Karl’s awkward prone animation from Sniper Elite V2 has been fixed), as are the animations of tanks and artillery. The world is coated with grit from high desert winds and incoming storms. The sound design accompanying this world is also in good shape; enemies speak at a normal volume (unlike in Sniper Elite V2) and the world includes noises from wildlife, machinery and warfare. All in all, it’s a compelling package of a world and a visual feast to boot.
For all that Sniper Elite III has improved upon with its gameplay, visuals, and level design, the one area that it fails to elevate to that same height is the story. In Sniper Elite V2, Karl’s mission to find the scientists behind the V2 rocket program was less a narrative and more a series of checkpoints. Start a mission, kill a guy, end mission. Unfortunately, Sniper Elite III has the exact same problem. Karl remains just as unknowable and uninteresting as he was in V2, speaking only during the mission briefing and maybe a few times during the actual levels. In the case of the latter, it’s almost always Karl talking to himself about a better sniping position instead of, y’know, meaningful dialogue. Karl finds an object or kills a guy in one level, it leads him to the next one, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.
Sniper Elite III also fails to elicit an emotional connection from the player, and its attempts to do so are pretty pathetic. In Sniper Elite V2, the game tried to make players feel panic when the last scientist standing tried to launch the V2 rockets, but the tension only lasted one level, so the panic had died pretty much as it’d begun. Sniper Elite III tries to coax empathy from the player when a buddy of Karl’s dies during a mission, but he’s a buddy we’ve only known for that one mission. If Rebellion hopes to create a narrative worthy of remembrance, they’ll have to try a lot harder than a level-long arc of emotion. Indeed, the game’s premise makes little sense either. Why are the Nazis building a super-weapon in North Africa? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do that in Germany, where there’s more infrastructure and security? For all the beauty afforded by Sniper Elite III‘s new setting, it and the narrative within it are completely disconnected.
Even though Sniper Elite III‘s narrative is a bust, this game gets massive props for doing an uncommonly good job of improving over its predecessor. Rebellion’s story writing still needs a lot of work, but the studio did a fantastic job at overhauling and fine-tuning literally every other facet of their game design. From level design to gameplay, from audio design to graphics, there is no area of game development that Sniper Elite III doesn’t represent a considerable improvement in. Hopefully next February’s Sniper Elite 4, which will send Karl off to 1943 Italy, will complete the puzzle by adding a compelling narrative. For now, shooter and stealth fans will definitely want to check Sniper Elite III out. Its story ain’t no epic, but its gameplay makes it a great tactical shooter.
You can buy Sniper Elite III here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.