Thoughts: Sniper Elite 5

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Okay, so I’ll state up front that I have been goaded into this review a little bit. This goading was not caused by anything Sniper Elite 5 did itself — at least not directly — but prior to playing it I read multiple reviews that favourably compared this iteration of the series to Hitman 2 and Metal Gear Solid V, two of the best sandbox games of the last decade1. Which sounds great, but unfortunately for Rebellion I have also played Sniper Elite 4, so I knew that one of two things had happened here:

  1. That Rebellion had massively, massively upped their game, investing a ton of money into hiring a team of crack designers to shape the emergent gameplay while throwing away the old, dated Sniper Elite engine and starting again from scratch to properly enable all of these modern sandbox features.
  2. That these reviews were talking complete bollocks.

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I am sure that it will not shock anyone who has actually played one of Rebellion’s games to learn that, rather than being a Hitman or a Metal Gear Solid, Sniper Elite 5 is instead the next Sniper Elite game after Sniper Elite 4. It is basically the same game, except this time it’s set in France instead of Italy. And the reason this gets my goat slightly — the reason those unjustified comparisons irk me so much — is because I think Sniper Elite 5 is what you’d get if you went back in time and described a modern sandbox game (of which there aren’t that many which aren’t tainted by the open world RPG curse, but Hitman, MGS and Breath of the Wild are the most obvious examples) to a game developer from 2002. Sniper Elite 5 is definitely aware of these games, but every single time it tries to integrate one of their ideas it falls flat on its face because of a profound lack of imagination in their implementation, an ignorance of the context behind them, and a game engine that feels like it’s at least a decade behind its competitors in terms of things like player movement and level terrain. What’s made it through into the final product is so basic, shallow and limited that the only comparisons to Hitman or Metal Gear Solid that I want to see in a review are the ones talking about how much better those games are.

But hey, this is nominally supposed to be a review of Sniper Elite 5 itself, so let’s talk about what this game actually is. Sniper Elite 5 is a third-person action game set during World War 2 where you’re playing a SOE sniper who infiltrates a series of Nazi facilities, shoots all of the Nazis, and then blows everything up. The SOE sniper has a name — Fairburne — and Sniper Elite 5 in fact spends a lot of time and effort on its story, which is curious to me because it’s not only completely disposable videogame rubbish where the Nazis are putting together a superweapon to bomb America and you have to stop it, it also happens to be exactly the same as the story behind Sniper Elite 4. Fairburne’s characterisation is non-existent, the NPCs surrounding him are even worse (not to mention having the worst collection of accents I think I’ve yet seen in a modern AA videogame), and nothing of any interest whatsoever happens in any of the lengthy cutscenes bookending every mission.

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This is not necessarily a big problem. True, exactly why Sniper Elite 5 feels the need to spend so much time and effort on static, scripted storytelling techniques straight out of 2005 (this is one of the many reasons Sniper Elite 5 feels like an early Xbox 360-era game rather than something released two generations later) is somewhat baffling to me, but to be honest I don’t really care why Fairburne ends up in any of the eight levels comprising Sniper Elite 5’s campaign, just what he does while he’s there. The levels certainly look pretty big when viewed from the map screen, and Fairburne is inserted into each one with one or more yellow sabotage targets and one red “kill” target already marked. Further optional mission objectives are uncovered as you play through the level, and I think one reason that Sniper Elite 5 has been mistaken for a sandbox game is that it does afford you a measure of freedom here. You can take any route across the map that you want and do the objectives in any order that you want, in any way that you want — the catch (or catches) being that:

  1. You can take any route across the map just so long as it involves walking there, because while the Nazis ride around in a selection of trucks and cars and bikes, Fairburne apparently doesn’t know how to drive and so has to hoof it on foot.
  2. You can do the objectives in any order that you want, but this lack of structure means this is essentially a choice between walking around the map clockwise or counterclockwise from your starting position, hoovering up the objectives as you go.
  3. You can do the objectives in any way that you want, just so long as it involves shooting a lot of Nazis in the face.

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This is where we start to get to the core of my problem with Sniper Elite 5. It is not Hitman, where you’re a covert assassin who is liable to die extremely quickly if you get discovered. And it is definitely not Metal Gear Solid V, which handed you a vast array of tools and toys and sent you off to cause absolute mayhem in an open, dynamic environment. The Sniper Elite engine, and the toolset that is available to you within it, is designed to allow you to do one thing, and one thing only: kill Nazis. You go into every mission with three guns: a sniper rifle, a submachine gun, and a pistol. Your utility items consist of two types of healing item and five flavours of explosive, which are mostly used to set up traps for unsuspecting Nazis by either planting mines or booby-trapping corpses — this is a fine idea, but one which is slightly undermined by Sniper Elite 5 making it far easier to shoot somebody in the face than it is to put a mine down and then lure a Nazi onto it, because the latter requires a bit of setup and the former is a single mouse-click and the outcome is the same either way. Your final utility item slot is taken up by a decoy, and that’s it for the tools the game offers you to solve problems. There’s not much in the environments that you can leverage, either, aside from the standard collection of exploding barrels and heavy things that you can shoot to drop them onto a Nazi’s head.

Now, ordinarily I would not call this all that much of a problem for Sniper Elite 5 either. Yes, this is very much an action game, and one that usually has you finishing every level with the vast majority of the Nazis in it having being shot in the face — but it’s not like it does this badly. In fact it’s the one thing the game actually does quite well, thanks to being what the engine is geared towards; this is supposed to be a cover shooter with some light stealth elements and a sniping mechanic, not an open world sandbox experience. If Sniper Elite 5 focused all of its time and effort on being the best cover shooter that it could be then I think I’d actually quite like it (or at least respect it) since it’s somehow been a half-decade since I’ve played a game that let me indiscriminately murder my way through a big pile of Nazis and I feel that’s a gameplay theme that’s criminally underserved these days.

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But its attempts to cram in ideas and mechanics from other, better, more imaginative games end up being counterproductive, since the half-hearted implementations here are treated as bolt-ons instead of core gameplay elements. For example, those kill targets? They’re just random NPCs stashed in a corner of the map with zero characterisation and no attempt made to build them up or explain why they’re on Fairburne’s “kill list”, so they’re essentially just a standard enemy that’s been marked as a mission objective for some reason. Each one attempts to ape Hitman by having a special kill method, but unlike Hitman these are all incredibly basic — the most complex one asks you to poison someone’s drink, and then puts the poison literally in the next room inside a house with no guards or anyone to stop you — because there’s no room or budget to do anything else. And because the game wants to encourage you to do these optional kills the targets are always inside a sealed room with no sight lines from the outside, meaning you can’t even snipe them! In a game called Sniper Elite! This is a textbook example of how the game’s lack of focus really detracts from the things it actually does well.

And this is something that is repeated throughout the game. Every mission ends with the Lethal/Non-Lethal Assault/Stealth chart that’s been stolen from Dishonored — wait, non-lethal? First of all your options for non-lethal for the first half of the game consist of choking people out via melee takedowns instead of shoving a knife through the base of their skull, and then towards the end you get access to special boxes of “non-lethal ammo” for your guns — these work identically to the lethal kind, but their exact method of functioning is, alas, never explained. This is not a particularly interesting way to play the game, to put it mildly2, but more than that, it doesn’t make any sense. This is a war, for crying out loud; Nazis are one of the three universal videogame baddies that it’s absolutely fine to kill in every scenario3, and there’s no reason to go easy on them. I could maybe understand if the game gave bonus points or XP for ghosting through a level without killing anyone as you are supposed to be somewhat sneaky, but it doesn’t; it’s explicitly for Nazis that you manhandle into unconsciousness but leave alive in the hope that they mend their ways later.

(And every single sabotage objective gives you a choice of how you accomplish the sabotage, except the choice is between turning two small valves or pushing one big button, and the valves and the button are both right next to each other. Again, this is a game called Sniper Elite – could I not perhaps blow things up by, I don’t know, sniping them?)

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As you might have gathered, one of the reasons I’m annoyed about these things is because they all detract from the sniping, which Sniper Elite has several dedicated systems built around but which end up being almost completely ignored in favour of these one-dimensional distractions. Your sniper rifle is very loud and will alert all Nazis within a 150 metre radius when you fire it, but there’s a sound meter at the top of the screen that lets you wait for ambient noise from the environment (such as a plane flying overhead) that’ll mask the sound of your shot. Bullet drop and wind speed are both modelled by the game but are somewhat abstracted away by the Iron Lung mechanic, where you hold your breath to make a little marker appear in your HUD that shows you where your shot is actually going to land; the amount of time this takes to appear is related to how well you’ve dialled in the range in your sniper scope beforehand, so it’s still a good idea to spot a target with your binoculars first to get the range and adjust the setting accordingly before taking the shot. Bullet penetration is modelled, and you can shoot through wooden walls to nail the Nazis crouching behind them if you’re smart; if you’re using AP ammo you can punch through stone and metal, and you can even take out armoured cars and tanks if you shoot the right spot.

In short, taking sniper shots requires a bit of time and forethought on how you do it and is, as you would expect, the most interesting thing about Sniper Elite 5 by far. This is why I think it’s really, really weird that I don’t even need my fingers to count the number of mission objectives that actually use the sniping mechanics; I can just use my thumbs instead. Sniping is something that you almost exclusively do in combat with the bog-standard Nazi mooks, to try and thin their numbers before they can get in close to you. It is good that it does at least remain your most useful combat tool, especially given how much combat there is in the game — semi-stealthy runs are possible, but because your tools for it are so limited it’s very difficult to completely ghost a level and you’ll be forced to go loud when fighting big clusters of guards at least a couple of times per level. I did eventually get tired of the game’s infamously gratuitous X-ray cutscenes where you get to watch your sniper’s bullet bore its way through the internal organs of whatever unfortunate Nazi you’ve fired it at because there’s a surprisingly limited number of outcomes there, but the dramatic zoom on Fairburne as he fires and the slow-motion cam following the bullet as it flies 100, 200 or even 300 metres to its target never did get old, and neither did the sniping over the 8 hours it took to finish the campaign.

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It is curious, though, that while your scope can be dialled out to 500 metres (and the training level has a challenge where you have to hit a target 1,000 metres away), the maximum range at which you’ll find an actual live target in one of the campaign levels is around 350 metres. This is down to the level design, which I’m somewhat torn on; I think the theming and the look of several of the levels is very good, being particularly taken with the level modelled after Mont-Saint-Michel and the one set in a steel foundry on top of a dam. I liked these because they were ripped out of classic war movies like Where Eagles Dare and I think Sniper Elite 5 would have done a lot better had it channelled that kind of energy more. However, while they are nice to look at they’re not particularly interesting to explore — partly this is because of the traversal, which I’ll get into in a second, but it’s mostly because while the levels might look nice what they actually are, functionally, is a big container for about 200 Nazis. There’s nothing else in them except for the standard collection of tedious collectibles and a few workbenches that unlock new weapon attachments, and in fact there’s very little in the way of alternate routes either. They feel static, stale and weirdly repetitive, like a collection of smaller boxes of enemies stuck together with little regard for level flow and few of the sightlines that actually let you do the cool long-range sniper shots. I replayed the Mont-Saint-Michel level to see if I could approach it a little differently, but because the environments are so unreactive it was essentially the same experience the second time through.

But while the level design is another thing that might feel like it’s straight out of 2007, the level traversal somehow feels even older. As mentioned earlier Fairburne can’t drive any of the slightly-bloodstained Nazi vehicles he comes across in his travels and is reduced to having to run everywhere, which is a big part of why the levels feel so straitjacketed and restrictive; the other part of this is that because you’re running everywhere you are constantly dealing with Sniper Elite 5’s shitty, shitty movement. Fairburne can’t run up steep slopes; he can’t jump; he can’t drop down more than a couple of metres without shattering both of his legs; he can’t mantle ledges unless they’re specifically marked with the genre-standard white paint; when he’s hanging from a ledge he can’t climb around corners; he can’t vault walls if there’s any vegetation on the other side; and this is because a string of small bushes is an impassable obstacle for him, often enforced through the hilariously blunt measure of an invisible wall that prevents you from even getting close This last one makes getting around the levels an absolute nightmare, as you look at the map to plot a route to your next destination and end up having to make a series of massive detours to get around seemingly innocuous scenery that other games have treated as fully-traversable for decades. These are solved problems, and I do not understand why Sniper Elite’s movement systems have apparently remained untouched for so long, especially when fluid movement options are such a big part of the sandbox games that it’s apparently trying to emulate.

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(One area where I will give Rebellion some credit though: the Sniper Elite engine may be almost old enough to vote, but it is extremely well-optimised with fast loading times, no dropped frames, and good netcode. I played through the whole campaign in co-op and it was seamless with zero connection/desync problems. It’s sad that I have to praise a game for its basic features simply working as advertised, but that’s the state of modern game development these days.)

In spite of all of these issues, though, Sniper Elite 5 is the epitome of the perfectly-calculated mediocrity that has made Rebellion so successful over the last two decades. I’m annoyed by its distracted design, its lack of focus and its wasted potential, its best bits are essentially inherited from previous iterations of the franchise, and its good-looking levels can’t hide how dated the engine feels to interact with in 2022. It is, however, a difficult game to stay annoyed at; it’s not worth it when the production values and general design ethos all but scream that this is an entirely disposable game that you play through once and then forget about until Sniper Elite 6 comes out in four years’ time. And by those standards it’s a success; the levels look striking enough and the combat is satisfying enough to sustain the game for one playthrough. That it falls apart when you attempt to replay it — to do anything that goes beyond shooting an endless procession of Nazis in the face — is only a problem if you’re the sort of lunatic who is attempting to compare it to Metal Gear Solid V with a straight face. Because it’s not. It’s Sniper Elite 5. Nothing less, and very definitely nothing more.

  1. In particular there’s this “Essential” rating from Eurogamer. I know that games journalists are paid next to nothing and have zero long-term career prospects and this sometimes makes me feel bad about ragging on them so frequently, but then one of them gives Sniper Elite 5 an “Essential” rating and I just can’t let that kind of thing go.
  2. And is the same criticism I levelled at Dishonored itself, although the sequel fixed it.
  3. The others being aliens and zombies.
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2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Sniper Elite 5

  1. ilitarist says:

    >it’s somehow been a half-decade since I’ve played a game that let me indiscriminately murder my way through a big pile of Nazis and I feel that’s a gameplay theme that’s criminally underserved these days

    I see Wolfenstein Youngblood turned out to be very forgettable.

  2. innokenti says:

    Yeah I enjoyed my time with it plenty enough, but it mostly felt like more Sniper Elite 4 with a few bells and whistles lightly tacked on.
    Most of the disappointment comes from just seeing the wasted opportunities or lack of ambition.

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