There’s a reason why seeing Richard Spencer getting decked in GIFs all over the internet is so satisfying. We have been taught through countless films, comic books and video games that Nazis are evil, and deserve to be met with extreme prejudice. The Sniper Elite (SE) games are all tactical third-person shooters characterised by a raw, unfettered appeal to one’s baser instincts toward Hitler’s henchmen. Where the World War II shooters of yore were tonally uncomplicated and morally forthright, the SE games reward you for shooting Nazis in the testicles. They’re simultaneously vicious and a bit silly, with gameplay that is both cunning and brazenly stupid. SE4 is more of the same, but bigger, prettier, and nastier. The solo campaign is the best in the series and is oddly refreshing compared to more prominent, fully open-world stealth games like Far Cry. The package in its entirety, though, is not without substantial problems.
SE4 doesn’t have much of a story. “Man has gun, will kill Nazis” is the essence of what little narrative sustenance you’ll find in here. For those who really must know, you fill the combat boots of one Karl Fairburne, OSS commando and the titular elite sniper. He’s like Aldo the Apache in Inglorious Bastards, just without the good ol’ boy charm or comic appeal. Karl’s mission is to infiltrate various fascist fortifications and do what he does best, along with assisting a cast of Italian resistance fighters, OSS agents and Mafiosos. You’ll get to talk to the cast of characters in pre-mission briefing areas, and they’ll offer you additional objectives along with terribly written and voiced speeches. That’s it. They don’t assist you during a mission, and they never become intriguing or engaging. It’s more than was on offer in previous titles, but you won’t find yourself scrawling any of their names into your rifle’s stock. Sure, there are experimental weapons that need obliterating and secrets to be discovered, but really, these small ‘plot’ developments are a mere excuse for you to indulge in some of the finest ultra-violence this side of a Mortal Kombat title.
And what violence it is. As one might hazard to guess from the title, the SE series’ trademark gameplay mechanic is that of lining up Nazi heads through your scope, and bearing witness to gloriously fetishised death animations. Once you’ve found your target through your scope, you can empty your lungs to slow time and gain an extra zoom while steadying your shot. When you pull the trigger, the camera follows a slo-mo x-ray shot of your bullet’s journey through your victim’s vital organs, all in shocking detail. That level of detail in SE4 has been ramped up considerably over its predecessor. Organs will shred and contort realistically in sway with the direction of your bullets. Jawbones and teeth will shatter and fray explosively in all directions. Eye sockets implode. Testicles pop. This perverse level of detail is hard to understate and feels rewarding when considering the time and judgement it takes to execute the perfect shot. Melee kills now also show off x-ray animations, and are often more vicious and satisfying than long distance kills. Sickening as all this might be to observe from the outside, it is a deeply gratifying gameplay hook in a game that caters to the bloodthirsty.
SE4 doesn’t coast on the appeal of its gore alone. As with previous entries, you are sent alone into massive levels with a diverse collection of weapons and traps. You may choose your loadout before each mission, but the player always has at least one scoped-rifle, a secondary weapon and a side arm. Additional weapons, traps, medical supplies, intel and collectables are all found on enemy corpses or encampments. SE4 incorporates realistic bullet physics, the degree of which is entirely customisable. Using a rifle allows you to dial in the range of shots, as well as empty your lungs. Emptying your lungs will lower your heart-rate, as well give an indicator of where your shot will land. Sprinting or clambering will increase your heart-rate, adding pressure to more callous playstyles. Your rifle isn’t (initially) silenced, so staying in one spot and taking shots from a static position will give you away.
After your first shot, your enemy is on alert, but only has a vague idea of your location, and all troops within earshot will come to investigate. Firing again will confirm your presence, and troops will begin shooting and alert others to your presence, forcing you to relocate. Unless you wish to become alsatian dog food, that is. Add to this the presence of radio-operators, capable of calling in reinforcements, armoured vehicles and tanks, HMG-toting Jaeger units, and you’ve got quite a powder keg of potential trouble if you play carelessly. You’ll quickly change back and forth between cat-and mouse sneaking and all out assault, and it will either make you feel like a tactical genius, or a dim-witted meat axe. Success in any approach hinges on your level of planning and awareness of enemy patrols. A lot of the time though, you can get away with kicking the hornets’ nest, running off into the bushes and sneaking away to stir once again elsewhere. It just pays to know who’s attention you’re grabbing when you decide to kick off. The level of fluidity between stealth approaches would mean nothing, however, if it weren’t for the stellar open level design and the challenging, but comically forgiving AI.
SE3 suffered from a semi-linear level design that encouraged just a bit too much camping. Even for a game whose primary selling point is pitched near permanently in a nice, snug tabernacle. This issue was also compounded by rather buggy enemy routines and terrible, forced stealth sequences, undermining what was otherwise an excellent action game. SE4’s solution to this glaring issue is simple but brilliant. Every level is a sandbox, roughly equivalent to the size of a Battlefield multiplayer map. Once you’re in, you’ll see every objective pinned to your mini-map as well being made visible through your binoculars – all you have to do is pick a target, choose your direction of approach and go. The levels also have a greater emphasis on verticality. Karl is now capable of climbing particular wooden supports built into rock faces, along with various pipes and drains. Cosy perches from which to pick away at your foes from litter each level like morbid treehouses on your death-dealing tour of the Mediterranean. The objective driven gameplay is mostly static and straightforward; go here, find the things, press x to destroy or capture, then move on. Occasionally you’ll need to deliver a quick lobotomy to a particular Nazi officer. Standard as they may be, these objectives will draw you into increasingly protected areas of a level, and SE4 starts to shine in how you manage your overwhelming number of enemies.
You’re encouraged to observe your surroundings and tag enemies and items of interest with your binoculars, as you would in any sandbox stealth action game. Hovering over a particular enemy for an extended time, though, will reveal other details more easily missed. Hans Goober III and his MP40 might be patrolling the outhouse next to the villa, for instance, but you’ll also learn that he occasionally listens to American Jazz. This level of slight knowingness extends to the AI’s overall character. While they will swarm you, flank effectively and communicate well with one another, they’ll also lose interest after a few minutes as you quietly rest in a set of bushes no more than ten metres away. It’s unbelievably silly, but makes the combat scenarios manageable and lends the game a constant, pleasant rhythm. More importantly than Hanz’s taste in music, though, you’ll see what equipment he’s carrying – and this often presents you with tactical opportunities. A well-placed shot from your rifle will detonate a grenade hanging from Hanz’s belt and will obliterate not only him but any poor soul standing next to him. Exploiting the AI like this extends to planting traps, both in buildings and on bodies. I often found myself sneaking behind a straggling guard, disposing of with him with a silent melee kill, then planting a mine on his body. I then tracked down the second patrol, lobbed his corpse in front of them, and watched as the fireworks sent their splintered skeletons flying languidly through the air.
In recognition of every act of savagery you’re awarded medals and XP. These feed into a Call of Duty-esque metagame, giving you access to perks, along with currency for new weapons. The perks themselves don’t alter the game much, and currency is doled out at a positively glacial pace, so you’ll have to invest a serious amount of play time if you want to acquire all the available tools of decimation. Skins only unlock for equipment specific challenges, but they all require a significant time investment if you’re really into your bling. All upgrades extend to multi-player and co-op, but don’t expect to have much fun in the former. Competitive multi-player offers standard deathmatches and sniper-themed variants like ‘distance king’ and ‘no-cross’, but SE isn’t known for its multi-player. It’s still frightfully dull, especially in comparison to the campaign. Sitting in bushes and scanning every square inch of a map through a scope for fifteen straight minutes should only appeal to the most cretinous of campers, but at least they have an outlet here to suffer their own kind exclusively.
Co-op on the other hand, is a goddamn boon. I’ve only managed to find matches playing the horde-like ‘survival’ mode, which condenses the fun of the campaign and ramps up the challenge. Having spent two and a half-hours total trying to find matches in the other two co-op modes, at the time of review, at the date of writing, I’ve still had no luck. It’s a shame as playing the campaign in co-op sounds fun, but the ‘overwatch’ mode is also intriguing – with one player taking up the role of spotter while the other takes shots in isolated scenarios. I’m not sure why I’ve not yet found a game, as the game’s matchmaking has not had any difficulty finding games in any of the other modes I tested.
Lastly, SE4 is one of the prettiest games in this current console generation. The Mediterranean landscapes used for the levels are brought to life through developer Rebellion’s Asura Engine, with vibrant, colourful lighting, awesome destruction physics, and of course, painstakingly detailed character models, both inside and out. My ageing Xbox One, however, seems to have difficulty keeping up with it all, as the frame consistently dipped to around 15 frames a second during intense gameplay. PS4 owners will be safe, but if you’re on Microsoft’s side of the fence beware, as this stuttering is not only ugly but makes it difficult to enjoy multiplayer and co-op. Hopefully, some performance can be helped with a future patch.
Sniper Elite 4 is the high-watermark for the series, with consistently enjoyable single-player that allows the series’ best gameplay traits to shine consistently. It’s everything you’d hope a good Sniper Elite sequel to have; more grotesque violence, better sneaking, more sniping, bigger levels and awesome co-op. The story and competitive modes are barely worth mentioning, but what’s left is more than enough to satisfy an itchy (yet calm) trigger finger.