Is it weird to feel nostalgic for a video game setting? That’s what happened to me when I loaded up Rebellion’s Sniper Elite III and I was greeted to Thompson submachine guns, M1 Garands, MP40s, and the conflict between Axis and Allies. Games set in World War II don’t come out nearly as often as they did about a decade ago, and while there was definitely an oversaturation of them back then, they come out infrequently enough these days to make me a little excited to jump back in. Unfortunately, my excitement was met with a middling experience.
Sniper Elite III continues the story of the man with one of the coolest names in games, Karl Fairburne, as he does a series of solo reconnaissance missions. He quickly uncovers a secret plan that the Nazis are cooking up and sets out to stop it. The story isn’t taken very seriously and is just generic fictional WWII nonsense. It’s merely there to provide context for shooting Nazis in the face.
And, boy, will you shoot some Nazis in the face. Karl has the ability to slow down time to line up his shot (and put an indicator in his scope where the bullet will land). You can trigger this ability when Karl’s heart rate is below 80bpm (which goes up from running or sprinting and goes down from standing still). This makes sniping extremely easy and appropriately overpowered for a game called Sniper Elite. Since this is easily the most effective method of dispatching foes, you will unsurprisingly do it a lot and the game seems to enjoy it. In fact, Sniper Elite III (as well with its predecessors) makes shooting Nazis in the face seem like porn. Every time you pull the trigger of your sniper rifle that leads to a kill shot, the camera will follow the bullet in slow motion and until it reaches your target. Once it does, the target’s body will be shown in x-ray vision as the bullet pierces through their head or their body, shattering bones and vital organs. Depending on where your bullet lands, you will get a bonus for headshots, lung shots, kidney shots, or even, my favorite, liver shots. It is extremely gratuitous, but I will admit that I found it entertaining the first few times. It does get old relatively fast, and I found myself skipping it unless I knew that I did a particularly skillful shot.
When you’re not slowly watching the innards of Nazis explode, you are trying to remain hidden as you make your way to your objective – such as gathering intelligence or planting satchel charges. Sniper Elite III is a stealth game first and a sniping game second. Sniping is more like your most useful tool for dealing with the Nazis rather than an essential part to the gameplay. You could complete most of the missions in Sniper Elite III with only firing a few bullets of your rifle if sniping isn’t your thing. You have the option of using pistols (silenced or not), submachine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and landmines, among other things, to dispatch your foes. If you do plan on using your rifle more often, it is advisable to that you wait until there are noises to mask your shots (such as the popping of a broken generator or a plane flying overhead) as to not alert the enemies of your presence. When a sound is loud enough to mask your shot, there is an icon that pops up on the top of the screen. This is problematic because if you do decide to use the sniper rifle (which is the best course of action), a large portion of your play time will be spent waiting for a sound to go off so you can shoot. This results in a lot of just sitting around following enemies through your scopes. Another issue is how sometimes the sounds don’t give you the icon, so even though the sound actually comes through your speakers at the same interval it always has; it doesn’t register as a sound that can mask your shot, so you end up firing and giving your position away to the enemy. Also, there is a spot in the game where thunder is blasting off pretty consistently, but doesn’t actually mask your shot until a scripted sequence later in the level. It’s minor, but it’s pretty annoying.
If you want to treat the game more like a traditional stealth game with a few mandatory sniping sections, Karl has the ability to do silent (but brutal) stealth kills if he sneaks up behind enemies. Sneaking up behind people can either be extremely difficult to pull off or laughably easy. That’s because the enemy’s AI is wildly inconsistent. There were times where I would walk up and stab a Nazi in the neck right in front of his friend and the friend seemingly paid no mind. Other times, enemies would see me through solid objects or from across vast distances. There is no pattern, no rhyme-or-reason as to why the enemy AI is the way it is, but it is extremely frustrating. There are only a handful of different enemy types in the game, so when a basic soldier is more difficult to take down than a tank, you know something went wrong.
On the subject of the tanks, though, they were probably the least fun things to fight in the entire game. This is an extension of the wildly inconsistent AI. Tanks will patrol the perimeter seemingly with no set path in mind. They will stop, turn around, pause, turn back around, go a little forward, stop again, and then continue on a path, only to repeat the process in a somewhat different order. This is extremely frustrating if you don’t have access to the rocket launcher (which you unlock by leveling up through the game, so it is unlikely that you will have it early on) as you are forced to snipe an extremely tiny weak point on the body of the tank. Not only that, but you have to shoot the same weak spot three times. What’s even worse is that, as soon as you shoot the tank’s weak spot, even if you masked your shot under noise, the tank is immediately alerted to your presence and knows exactly where you are. I was able to get lucky a few times and get two shots off before the tank turned around and blew me away, but this didn’t happen often. What usually happened was I would manually save right before I took the shot because I knew death was impending. I would then die repeatedly until I was able to shoot the tank and get away safely, in which case I would then save again.
I also found myself abusing the manual save. Checkpoints are given out sparingly, and these missions are pretty lengthy – anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours – and dying could potentially lose you fifteen minutes or more of progress. This is extremely frustrating, especially in a stealth game that relies on patience. After the first few times I lost that much progress, I learned to just manually save after any action that I took. This was after losing all of that progress, getting impatient, and then carelessly trying to save time by getting back to where I left off as quickly as possible, resulting in my death again. It was a lesson I learned quickly, but it was a lesson I wish I didn’t have to learn.
The checkpoints are made even more frustrating when you are forced to replay large sections with boring objectives and bland level design. The levels are generally open (with few exceptions) and you are, in theory, able to take any path that you want to reach your goal. The goals, though, are extremely lackluster, usually resulting in you going to a certain point, pressing the interact button, and then being forced to backtrack to an earlier point because you don’t have a combination or a document. While you could take a different path while backtracking, the levels are clearly designed with two paths in mind – one of sniping and one of stealth. You can see areas that were built to be high above the battlefield with different sound masking options and sniper nests to survey and pick off enemies. You can also see the ground paths that are usually strung together by forms of cover that you can use to sneak by enemies. While this seems like good design, the problem again lies with the inconsistent AI. Enemies will see you when they shouldn’t and be able to take you down almost immediately after spotting you. There are also times where using any gun other than your rifle results in missed shots that you would have sworn were dead on accurate. Since your silenced pistol isn’t as damaging as your sniper rifle, anything that isn’t a headshot doesn’t kill your enemy. If that happens, you have about two seconds to pray that your next shot hits his head, because if you don’t, somehow everyone in the entire map is alerted to you. This makes the sniper path almost exclusively the better option while traversing the levels, even though it can be more time consuming. Optional objectives encourage you to explore the entirety of the map, but they again are just about going to a certain point on the map and hitting the interact button, and the rewards for completing them aren’t worth it.
If the game’s design was the only thing holding it back, it might be easier to overlook. However, the game actually has quite a few technical issues. There were moments where I would step on spots that triggered cutscenes that would then repeat themselves if I stepped on the same spot. A few times, objectives were unable to be completed until I reloaded a checkpoint. There were some enemies that I saw and were actually shooting me and doing damage that were invincible until I triggered a certain scripted sequence. These are just a few of the more notable glitches and hiccups that I ran into over the course of the six and a half hours of the campaign.
You need to be a certain person to enjoy the multiplayer offering, and I am not one of them. The main multiplayer mode is called No Cross, and it is a team-based deathmatch mode where each team is on opposite sides of the map and they cannot cross over to the other side. Since everyone is a sniper, most people are too afraid to move and just camp in hopes that somebody else does move. The game attempts to encourage people to move around by providing bonuses to people with kill streaks when they move to a different spot, but in my experience, everyone just stuck to a spot that worked for them. This resulted in an extremely quiet (and boring) multiplayer experience. You can also player through the campaign in co-op, although most of the issues still stand.
In spite of all that I dislike about it, there were a few times where the game clicked for me. Times when I would lay down a landmine that would blow up a passing enemy truck and pick off the stragglers with my sniper rifle, get discovered, have to relocate, and hide from the enemies investigating were legitimately exciting and fun. Times when I would line up a shot with an enemy officer and follow him with my scope until he became isolated and then taking the perfect shot as a plane flew over me to mask the sound of my rifle were really satisfying. The issue is that these moments are few and far between, and they seem to occur based on blind luck.
I was also struck by how nice the game looks. Since the game is set in a specific time period with realistic locations, you won’t see a big variety of locales, but what is there is very detailed and high-res. The light beams from the sun that shines through cracks and crevices are extremely impressive, and all of the textures are really sharp. Also, it can’t be ignored that the sniper porn slow-mo moments are visually impressive. You see a large portion of the human anatomy during these moments, and they are destroyed in pretty disturbing (and graphically beautiful) ways. I also want to mention how quick the load times are. While it may seem annoying that the loads go so fast that you won’t even see the tooltips, I’m smart enough to not need them and I appreciate that I’m only in load screens for a second or two. While I’m running a pretty powerful PC, the game was not installed on an SSD, so it was genuinely shocking just how fast it loaded considering how nice the game looks and how open the environments are.
The sound is a bit hit-or-miss. Specifically, the sound mixing is a bit confusing. There are times when things are very close to me that sound like they are miles away and vice-versa. This can be troubling when you are attempting to locate enemy positions based on their sounds. The sounds themselves are pretty good, though, and the squishes of the bullet ripping through flesh during the slow-mo sniping sequences are pretty funny. The score is a bit generic and simple and is pretty derivative of other works set in World War II, but it’s not bad.
When Sniper Elite III does what it sets out to do, it is a unique and fun experience. These moments happen far too infrequently and are outweighed by the myriad issues in both design and functionality. There are quite a few neat ideas on display here, but the execution is subpar at best. Maybe a few more rounds of polishing would have helped alleviate some of the issues, but at $50, it is hard for me to recommend.
A PC Copy of Sniper Elite III was provided by Rebellion for this review.