Stop the Nazis from (literally) torpedoing the Allied invasion of Italy.
PC Release: February 14, 2017
By Ian Coppock
For Honor teaches that it’s fun to kill things noisily. There’s something so merry about hopping into a roaring battlefield full of screaming soldiers and leaving bloody stumps where heads used to be. Charging headlong into battle is all well and good, but that approach is a bit more complicated when the enemies have guns. It’s also more complicated when the protagonist doesn’t have a legion of troops at their back. In fact, in the case of tonight’s review, the hero is completely by himself. But is he any good with guns? Not sure, but the title “Sniper Elite 4” might offer a clue. Let’s find out.
Sniper Elite 4 is the fourth installment in Rebellion Developments’ cult World War II sniper series (fifth if one counts the Zombie Army Trilogy spin-off). The game features the return of series protagonist Karl Fairburne, an inveterate OSS sniper who specializes in forcing bullets through Nazis’ brains from a far distance. Likewise, Sniper Elite 4 marks the return of the Sniper Elite series’s emphasis on tactics. This game ain’t no Call of Duty, where the hero wades headfirst through neat rows of enemies. No, this is more of a… hunting game.
Set immediately after Karl’s North African Nazi hunt in Sniper Elite III, Sniper Elite 4 sees this steely eyed, gravelly voiced killing machine off to Italy. Karl stopped the Nazis from developing a super-weapon in Sniper Elite III, but wouldn’t you know it, those dastardly Germans are already hard at work building a new one somewhere in the verdant Italian countryside. General Dwight D. Eisenhower orders Fairburne to travel to Italy on a twofold mission: stop this new threat before it can impede the Allied invasion of Italy, and help the local anti-fascist rebels take the fight to Mussolini. With rifle in hand and the word “Nazi” in the clip, Karl sets off to do just that.
The Sniper Elite series is built from the ground up to be a stealth shooter, and Sniper Elite 4 is the purest incarnation yet of this motif. Rather than charge blindly into Nazi strongholds, players have to use tactics to manage one sniper against entire battalions of foes. Karl has finite health and ammunition, so his best chance is to be sneaky. Players can slip across the map stabbing Nazis up close or shoot them from afar with the game’s titular sniper rifles. Like its predecessors, Sniper Elite 4 also allows players to use grenades and deploy various types of minds. The tripwire charges are particularly… messy.
Before going any further, it’s also worth noting that Sniper Elite 4 is built from the ground up to run well on PC. The game has an impressive suite of options that allow for tweaks to virtually all its visual and audio facets, leaving players with no shortage of recourse if the game doesn’t boot up the first time. It’ll probably at least boot up, because Sniper Elite 4 also runs phenomenally well. It can maintain a constant 60fps framerate and run virtually devoid of bugs. Much like Karl’s rifle, Sniper Elite 4 is a fine-tuned, surgically precise weapon.
Although the Nazi superweapon in Sniper Elite III remained secret for most of that game, the one in Sniper Elite 4 is introduced about two seconds in: a radio-controlled missile that can sink even the biggest ships. Much like his hunt for Nazi engineers in Sniper Elite III, Karl immediately sets about traversing Italy in search of the Germans behind this new project. He discovers that the missile’s development is being spearheaded by Heinz Bohm, a Nazi general so good at eluding assassins that no one knows where he is or even what he looks like. He also has a reputation for being bloodthirsty and psychotic, so… that’s pretty neat.
Along the way, Karl also embeds himself with the Partisans (no, not Saw Gerrerra’s), a group of Italian rebels led by a particularly fierce gunslinger nicknamed “the Angel.” Karl is also accompanied by Jack Weaver, an American spymaster who sounds and looks like Steve Buscemi. Even with these allies at his side, though, Karl is in for a pretty solitary mission against the Nazi menace.
The player has a lot of options for how exactly Karl goes about this solitary mission. The most obvious choice and the American government’s number-one-recommended method for Nazi-hunting is a sniper rifle, of which Sniper Elite 4 has many. Most, like the almighty Mosin-Nagant, return from previous games, but the game also adds a few new Italian rifles to the armory. As in previous Sniper Elite games, each rifle offers different rates of fire, recoil and accuracy. Players who like the action up-close and personal might consider a rapid-fire rifle, while lone wolf players who refuse to shoot anything closer than a mile away might want a slower, steadier gun.
Just like in previous games, Karl can steady his breathing to make his shots more accurate- a little red targeting box shows up to aid the player on lower difficulties. Karl can shoot Nazis from afar and move before the Nazis pinpoint his position, or he can fire while his gun’s masked by a noise from, say, an airplane. Or perhaps a conveniently placed generator. The Sniper Elite series’ infamous x-ray kill-cam also returns in gory glory in Sniper Elite 4, showing players a gruesomely detailed slo-mo of the skeletal and other damage Karl’s bullets do to Nazis’ bodies. Sniper Elite 4 also introduces the kill-cam for melee kills so that players can see just how many tendons their combat knife severs. It’s gory, it’s provocative, it’s oh so satisfying.
As in previous Sniper Elite games, the sniper rifles in Sniper Elite 4 handle quite well. It can be tricky to find the perfect shooting perch, much less so to lie down in a prone position and start picking fascists off from afar, but the rifles are fun to use. Players can also pick a pistol (the Welrod, which has a silencer, is highly recommended) as well as a medium-weight secondary weapon like an SMG or shotgun. The secondary weapon has only one noise setting, though: loud. Best only to use it if Karl’s location is discovered. Luckily, Karl’s much better with secondary weapons than Sniper Elite V2 allowed, so players aren’t screwed if the Nazis hem them in.
Sniper Elite III is well-known for completely overhauling the gameplay of Sniper Elite V2, replacing Karl’s regenerating health with a medkit system and making all manner of fixes and polishes. Sniper Elite 4 takes III‘s refinements even further: Karl can now run while crouched (insanely helpful for getting somewhere quietly) and can now perform ledge kills on unsuspecting foes. As with Sniper Elite III, the game’s medkit-style health system makes it impossible for players to charge in loudly and then run off somewhere to heal. Co-op fans will be delighted to know that this game’s campaign can be played, well, co-op? What’s better than one Nazi hunter? Two Nazi hunters.
Sniper Elite 4 also adds a light RPG system, something previous Sniper Elite games have never toyed with before. Karl can gain points in each level through completing side missions and creatively killing his foes. As he ranks up, he can access new perks that enhance his abilities in the field, like being more accurate with a gun or regenerating a bit of health. Players can pick new perks for Karl every five levels, with a Mass Effect-style system of choosing between two perks at each landmark.
Karl can also spend his hard-earned points on new weapons. Unlike Sniper Elite III, which gave Karl an entire arsenal from the get-go, players have to unlock most of Sniper Elite 4‘s armory through good old hard work. Players can also upgrade their rifles like in Sniper Elite III, but this system has been reduced from colorful weapon mods to abstract stat increases. Instead of buying a new leather stock, Karl simply buys a 10% increase to his rifle’s recoil dampening. The two are functionally identical, but III‘s system added some color to the Sniper Elite world. Reducing rifle mods to stats buys is a bit boring.
Although Sniper Elite 4‘s gameplay receives a few tune-ups here and there, by far the game’s biggest shakeup over its predecessors is its level design. The levels in Sniper Elite 4 are huge. Leagues and fathoms bigger than the ones in V2, and several times bigger than even Sniper Elite III‘s impressively sized levels. More than being larger in size, though, Sniper Elite 4‘s levels introduce vertical travel to the series. Karl can now climb up ledges and buildings to get to higher areas, and he’ll have to in order to complete some of these missions. Sniper Elite 4‘s eight levels are all riddled with even more terrain variations than the levels in Sniper Elite III, which gives players the challenge of finding higher ground to shoot from.
This also means that Sniper Elite 4 is considerably longer than Sniper Elite III. III‘s levels weren’t small, but they also weren’t huge. Even players who spent time perched in a tower tagging Nazis could still expect to beat the game in 5-6 hours. Sniper Elite 4‘s expanded levels mean more travel time, and this game clocks in at a much more satisfying 9-10 hours. Each mission also features a plethora of side missions for Karl to undertake on the way to his main objectives, from sabotaging German air defenses to destroying the Italian army’s entire ricotta supply.
In addition to being larger and taller, the levels of Sniper Elite 4 are absolutely gorgeous. These are the most beautiful Italian countrysides in gamedom since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. Karl’s journey through fascist Italy takes him through a delectable palette of Italian environments. Old seaside towns, soaring canyons, forested hills, Tuscan villages and even the frigid Italian Alps are but a handful of the places Karl visits in Sniper Elite 4. Each environment is overloaded with bright colors and gorgeous multifaceted lighting setups, leaving players with lots to gawk at even as they violently explode Nazis’ heads from afar. Couple this with immersive wilderness and village sound design, and the result is an Italian vacation. With an explosion or two.
Indeed, there’s something inherently tragic about the juxtaposition of dark German war machinery onto the delicate Italian landscape. Karl will happen upon majestic mountain valleys stained with the steel of German weaponry. It’s a motif that draws intellectual as well as visual interest, demonstrating that there was nothing the Nazis were unwilling to spoil in their quest for world domination. This makes players all the more adamant about blowing Nazi stuff up and helping the Partisans take their land back.
Although the Sniper Elite series is known for solid tactical gunplay and expansive environments, Rebellion Developments has never been good at storytelling. Sniper Elite V2‘s narrative is skeletal, and Sniper Elite III basically doesn’t have one. The studio has seemed more preoccupied with delivering an authentic sniper experience, but the abject lack of storytelling has left all of this series’s games feeling a bit dry.
As for Sniper Elite 4, well… it has a narrative! No kidding! It has exposition, a cast of characters, and has more than the until-now customary two seconds of dialogue from Karl. It only took Rebellion four games, but players can finally get a glimpse of who this guy really is. Karl has the chance to speak with the Partisans and his OSS handler before each mission, and the conversations, while not groundbreaking, make Karl an instantly likable character. Stoic, yet sarcastic. Heroic, yet pragmatic. Through these conversations Karl can learn more about the history of fascist Italy and little-known snippets about the anti-fascist rebels operating during the time. Most missions also feature cutscenes with additional dialogue.
Before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth remembering that this game’s narrative is not some sort of magnum opus. Characters develop very little, and the dialogue, while interesting, does not take up the bulk of the game. But, Rebellion Developments is to be commended for including a plot that threads through all the levels. Karl learns about other characters’ lives and the story does include an interesting twist or two (he may or may not have to make a deal with the local Mafia, for example).
In previous Sniper Elite games, Rebellion tried and failed to elicit empathy by killing off an NPC Karl knew, but these were pathetic efforts. V2‘s tragic death was enacted moments after Karl met the character, and III‘s occurred the level after meeting the deceased. Karl would become angry at this death, ostensibly to compel the player to kill more Nazis, but the effort fell flat because the characters died before the players could connect with them. This time, Karl has game-long connections with people, and their deaths are subsequently much more meaningful and touching. Sniper Elite 4 is the first game in this series to inspire genuine rage against Nazi characters through dialogue alone. It’s not amazing, it’s certainly no narrative masterwork, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for a Sniper Elite game.
Sniper Elite 4 is a tremendous shooter, one that took what Sniper Elite III pioneered and added expanded levels and a story. Not a super-deep story, but a coherent, surprisingly charming plot all the same. Once again, Rebellion has demonstrated an uncanny knack for fixing what was wrong with a previous installment in their series, making Sniper Elite 4 the best of its saga and arguably one of the greatest tactical shooters ever made. Stealth-heads and shooter fans won’t want to miss this silky smooth and solidly satisfying title. From its gorgeous Italian vistas to its gruesomely indulgent headshots, Sniper Elite 4 leaves the discerning shooter fan wanting for little.
You can buy Sniper Elite 4 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.