STAFF REVIEW of Sniper Elite 3 (Xbox One)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

Sniper Elite 3 Box art I'm quickly coming to the realization that the trend killing Nazis as a videogame pastime is coming back with a vengeance, thanks largely in part to the graphical power newly afforded to developers by both the outgoing generation of consoles as well as the current generation. Games have simply never looked better, and it’s the opinion of this reviewer that this new wave of Nazi-extermination simulators is wisely exploiting that power, providing us with some of the most thrilling excuses yet to become virtual tourists. Much like how James Bond hopscotches from one exotic locale to another in order to dispatch criminal masterminds, or Hitman's Agent 47 "Travels the world meet interesting people...and kill them”, games involving the utter destruction of the Third Reich are taking us to more colourful and interesting locales lately. Most recently, Wolfenstein: The New Order took us on an all-expense paid round-trip across an alternate-history Europe that had been "redecorated" by the Nazis, and while it wasn't quite the most scenic of vacations, there was a rather stimulating ride aboard a luxury train and some really good coffee. Now the latest installment in the Sniper Elite franchise invites players to battle the Afrika Korps division of the Axis forces across the world's second largest continent, swapping the drab, war-torn city streets of 1945 Berlin (Sniper Elite V2's setting) for the vast, sun-laden desert environments of North Africa. And thankfully, developer Rebellion didn't forget to pack plenty of fun along for the trip.

In Sniper Elite 3, players reprise the role of OSS Agent and top sniper Karl Fairburne, whose mission is to track down yet another top secret Nazi super weapon (what is it about the Nazis and top secret super weapons?!?), ventilating as many Nazi craniums, throat and chest cavities as he can along the way, and preferably down the barrel of his rifle. Each mission begins with a briefing narrated by the grizzled voice of Fairburne himself, first setting up the essential backstory and targets, and then with the assistance of a top-down, hand-drawn map lays out the basic mission plan and suggested routes. Keeping within the historical time period of the game, the layouts of maps in both briefings and in-game are crude representations of the actual terrain at best, and the only navigational assistance players will receive before putting boots on the ground are circles, arrows and other basic scribblings that Fairburne jots down college football-style as he goes over the strategy in his head. These brief glimpses into an expert sniper's thought process are actually rather effective in enveloping the player in the atmosphere of the game, in addition to setting the mission tone. The purposely vague nature of these briefings also means however that players new to the franchise will likely find themselves scratching their heads and wondering where to go first once they have arrived in the field, having been lulled into a false sense of security by Fairburne's matter-of-fact voice-over style. The reality is that from the moment that the mission begins, Fairburne drops the keys to the car into the player's hands and takes a backseat, only offering commentary when it becomes necessary to draw the player's attention to an important mission task. Likewise, aside from key objective beacons that consistently appear on the in-game map, mini-map and in the field, little assistance is provided to the player in terms of direction. It shouldn't take players long to realize however that this is actually a good thing, as they are forced to explore each level's sandbox environment, fill in the blanks for themselves and forge their own unique path to the mission objectives in the process.

As the title of the game suggests, the sniper rifle is the preferred weapon of choice, and in some scenarios it is the sole weapon capable of hitting targets that would otherwise be out of reach, but in most cases players aren't necessarily limited to long range combat as their only option. By default, Fairburne takes a secondary automatic weapon and sidearm pistol into each mission, and these can be swapped out for other variants or types as the player unlocks them via gaining XP, which the game rewards for just about everything that the player does, from completing mission objectives, finding hidden items and of course, scoring effective and creative kills on enemy soldiers. In addition to firearms, Fairburne also has customizable slots in his loadout for bandages, medkits, grenades, dynamite and a variety of landmines types that he can use to cover his back when he's dug in at a sniper's nest, or set up deadly traps for his enemies that he can trigger remotely with a well-placed shot or more directly with a grenade. And when the situation calls for more subtlety, Fairburne also has a pocket full of throwing stones for drawing the attention of enemies away from his location and/or towards traps, and flint stones for lighting small fires to lure enemies in the same fashion. Add in the ability to choose between four different loadout types before the mission begins, as well as the freedom to customize each sniper rifle from the stock right down to the reticle, and you have a stealth-action sniping game that can be tweaked to be a uniquely personal experience for the player.

In terms of gameplay, Sniper Elite 3's closest relatives would have to be titles such as Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Hitman Absolution, as the game borrows a good deal from Sam Fisher's and Agent 47's stealth playbooks while throwing in its own sniper-specific touches. Much like in Splinter Cell, players can make themselves less visible to enemies by crouching, going prone, using cover and sticking to the shadows, but Rebellion has wisely tied these common stealth mechanics to Fairburne's breathing and heart rate. By moving slowly and staying calm and collected, Fairburne becomes even less detectable by the enemy, even when hiding in plain sight, and his aim is far steadier. When scoped, players can use the RB button to empty Fairburne's lungs and slow his heart rate for a brief time in order to line up the perfect shot, which will usually result in the one of the game's famous “X-Ray Kill-cam” sequences that follows the bullet all the way from the barrel to the target, concluding in an ultra-slow-motion shot as the bullet shatters bone and rips through the internal organs of the victim. Conversely, impatient players can also choose to literally run-and-gun their way through areas of the game, but this approach is unwise as the physical act of running quickens Fairburne's breathing and heartbeat, causing Fairburne's accuracy with just about any firearm to go right out the window. In general, it only takes one or two shots with a sniper rifle to reveal one's location to the enemy, so players keen on sniping will have to relocate frequently in order to avoid being cornered by search teams. However, resourceful players who explore the area will find noisy machinery and other environmental opportunities to mask the sounds of their shots, enabling them to keep their killstreaks running longer while avoiding detection.

In another nod to Splinter Cell, Fairburne's level of visibility is represented by a "squinted eye" symbol that narrows at the most invisible state and widens completely at the most visible, with enemies becoming suspicious or alert upon glimpsing Fairburne in the latter condition. Even then however, Fairburne can attempt quickly slip away before enemies are fully alert and maintain cover, becoming a "ghost" (and thus even harder to spot) if the player is able to do it quickly enough, and should the situation devolve into a @#%t-show instead, players can use the Splinter Cell/Hitman- derived "last known position" mechanic to shake their pursuers and put enough distance in-between them to safely go back into cover. Fairburne is no slouch face-to-face either, capable of quick and lethal close-quarters takedowns that can snuff out an enemy grunt before he has the chance to alert others, and he can always fall back on one of his secondary weapons, though their on-hand ammo capacity as well as Fairburne's capacity to absorb enemy fire are rather limited. This notwithstanding, players are never made to feel powerless in any situation. Failed stealth attempts don't instantly result in a kill screen and a punishing checkpoint reload (unless of course the player dies); instead, players are given the opportunity to salvage the situation or retreat and reattempt with a different approach or angle, which will often expose new aspects of the environment that the they can take advantage of. In other words, failure in Sniper Elite 3 is often a pleasantly refreshing exercise in falling upward, rather than a frustrating, repetitive gameplay experience.

Rebellion has clearly worked hard to offer players as much longevity as possible with Sniper Elite 3. While the team has officially "guesstimated' a 12 hour campaign on its website, depending on one's play style, finishing the game could take considerably longer, and the developers have packed each level with all sorts of hidden items (e.g. weapon parts and collectibles), top secret intel, diary entries, optional secondary objectives and prime sniper nest locations, which all contribute additional XP when uncovered or completed. Accumulating XP of course leads to higher ranks, allowing players to unlock additional items and upgrades, so completionists should set aside an extra day or two's worth of solid play time if they hope to find everything in their first run-through (good luck!). Each level in the game is up to three times larger than those of 2012's Sniper Elite V2, and there are more enemies and interactive objects (such as explosives, destructible vehicles and the like) in each one, presenting players with more opportunities to set up diabolical, Upload Studio-worthy video clips to share with your friends on Xbox One. Finally, the entire campaign can be enjoyed with a friend via online co-op, and a separate adversarial multiplayer mode is also available to test one's skills against up to 11 other players. Designed by a separate team at Rebellion from the ground up alongside the single-player campaign, this mode shares key mechanics from the solo adventure, and the XP system carries across all modes. Oh, and don't forget the Challenge Modes that can also be played solo or in online co-op, as well as the higher difficulty settings dubbed "Sniper Elite" and "Authentic" (the former intended for players craving realistic bullet ballistics and the latter for sadomasochists who want all that and an unhealthy side of NO SAVE POINTS). There is even a "Custom" difficulty option to allow players to pick and choose what elements they want more challenge from.

If any complaint can be lodged against Sniper Elite 3, it’s that the character models (including Fairburne himself), textures, and the occasional jerky animations and transitions easily betray the game’s cross generational pedigree; in short, the game looks like a multi-platform title rather than one designed exclusively for current-gen consoles, but this is a common trait of many current games on Xbox One, and doesn’t really detract one way or the other from the game’s overall fun factor. That aside, Sniper Elite 3 is a highly enjoyable game for those who enjoy stealth action games with a good deal of sniping and assassination involved. Fans of games like Hitman: Absolution, Splinter Cell: Conviction and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, as well as players who simply enjoy messing around with enemy AI in closed sandbox environments should definitely pick this game up, as it offers replayability in abundance. Just don't expect the game's looks to blow you away in equal measure to its gameplay options.

Occasionally allowing slow-motion bullet damage to be seen on the outside (like in Max Payne 3) would pack more of a visual and visceral punch every now and then. Also, the X-Ray Kill-cam often obscures the path of the bullet when it impacts, and the animations at times feel canned, rather than driven by physics. Small but niggling visual snags in an otherwise solid game.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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