Ever since Enemy at the Gates helped catapult the WWII sharpshooter into the public consciousness, video game developers have been busily trying to emulate the same experience. One of the most prominent games to capitalize on that formula was Sniper Elite, a relatively modest 2005 sleeper hit that flew largely under the radar.
That all changed in 2012 with the release of Sniper Elite V2, a complete ground-up rework that would help establish a baseline for the entire franchise as it moved forward.
Blending style with substance… and one particularly gruesome X-Ray kill cam, Sniper Elite V2 managed to make a mark on the stealth action genre.
It was far from a perfect game, however. Gamers didn’t know it at the time, but V2 was riddled with subpar game mechanics and less emphasis on stealth, as opposed to frenzied gun battles. Two years later, developer Rebellion would give it another go with Sniper Elite III in an attempt to refine particular gameplay elements.
This entry switched up Europe for the North Africa theater, proving that Rebellion wasn’t afraid to get creative with changes of locale. Sniper Elite III put more emphasis on stealth, while still retaining the same run and gun formula as the original. In other words, it was getting there.
Then, Rebellion hit pay dirt in 2017 with Sniper Elite 4: Italia, arguably one of the greatest stealth action games of all time. This entry was a monumental paradigm shift for the franchise, giving gamers the freedom to sneak their way through a host of large, detailed maps, while picking off enemy soldiers in a number of creative ways.
It’s been a long time coming, but after a lengthy hiatus, Sniper Elite 5: France has finally arrived, and it continues to build upon the formula established by its immediate predecessor. The question is whether it’s worth stepping into the shoes of Karl Fairburne for yet another descent into the belly of the beast, or if the series is getting stagnant at this point.
As the title implies, Sniper Elite 5 drops players into the heart of France in 1944 in order to sabotage and derail the Nazi war machine, and yet another of the Reich’s super-secret doomsday projects. Along the way, he’ll uncover the typical batch of nefarious snake heads, allies, and resistance fighters with their own skin in the game.
Sniper Elite has never been particularly big on story, even though Rebellion has tried to expand the narrative in recent years, particularly with Sniper Elite 4. Those going in expecting a Call of Duty-style interactive movie experience will be disappointed, but that was never the point of the franchise in the first place.
This is a game that values play mechanics and atmosphere over shocking plot twists and character development. It’s unapologetic in its approach, which might actually work in its favor. However, as we’ll soon learn, Rebellion may wish to up the ante for the next installment if it wants to maintain relevancy.
Sniper mechanics are the heart and soul of the series, but it doesn’t over-specialize. Players can also make use of a secondary weapon, and a sidearm during missions, utilizing each one according to specific circumstances.
The rifle will still see predominant use, especially when catching enemies unaware, or thinning their ranks from a distance. However, when things go pear-shaped, players will need to fall back on a secondary weapon such as a machine gun in order to stay alive. When all else fails, the sidearm is a last resort, provided players are a decent shot.
Certain sidearms like the Welrod can also be used for silent stealth kills, and are practically a necessity for close quarters exploration. Gamers can also sneak up on enemies and perform melee takedowns, though Sniper Elite 5 is the first in the series to introduce a twist on the formula.
Now, players can decide on either lethal, or non-lethal takedowns, taking a page from other stealth action games such as Hitman and Deus Ex. Bodies can even be stuffed into storage crates, as opposed to plunking them down into some tall grass in the hope that nearby patrols won’t notice.
Sniper Elite 5 builds largely on its predecessor, with only a slight bump in terms of overall graphical fidelity. Rebellion has done a masterful job of crafting some of the most detailed environments imaginable, and it really does add to the atmosphere of the game.
That being said, it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off in terms of visual brilliance. It’s not a bad looking game by any means, but it’s clearly a step behind when standing next to competing franchises, many of which are bordering on photorealistic at this point.
The lack of advanced lighting or built-in ray-tracing is a bit of a bummer, but it’s not a deal breaker. Sniper Elite 4 was released half-a-decade ago, and it would have been nice to see a more refined and graphically superior engine taking center stage. The creative environments really do help to massage away a lot of that disappointment, which is a net positive.
Sniper Elite 5 sounds great, but not fantastic. Once again, this is a straightforward game that relies heavily on its gameplay mechanics as the main focus, which means it can get away with it to some degree. The music is still appropriately WWII-themed, and instantly recognizable for fans of that particular gaming genre.
The dialogue is hit and miss, with some voice actors hitting the pun-intended bullseye, while others are just average. Tom Clarke-Hill reprises his role as Karl Fairburne once again, and he’s still got it after a decade of voicing Sniper Elite games. He’s as synonymous with the franchise at this point as David Hayter was to Metal Gear Solid.
Gunshots crack nice and loud, and the weapons sound relatively authentic, even if many of them probably aren’t. Atmosphere is what counts here, and when the bullets start flying, the tension can ratchet up rather quickly. Same goes for explosions, environment ambiance, and subtle sonic details like Nazi officers making announcements over loudspeakers.
This is where Sniper Elite 5 really shines, and for those who take the time to learn the game’s intricate play mechanics, it’s a stealth actioneer’s dream come true. The delicious meat n’ potatoes formula that makes the game so great comes courtesy of Sniper Elite 4: Italia, but its successor tries to nip and tuck where appropriate, in order to tighten things up.
SE4 vets will immediately notice some stark contrasts in this newest entry, most of which were conceptualized from a common sense perspective. For instance, the suppressed ammo from SE4 has been jettisoned in favor of several different ammo types that players can unlock through gameplay, and swap on the battlefield to accomplish objectives.
These include subsonic rounds which do not hit quite as hard as a conventional bullet, but produce much less noise. There are also non-lethal rounds that can used to knock enemies out, as well as several other variants with specific purposes in mind.
In fact, weaponry in Sniper Elite 5 now focuses heavily on customization in a way that even its predecessor did not. Most of it is unlockable through gameplay, but the way SE5 approaches that system feels much more accessible and balanced this time around.
The same goes for secondary weapons and sidearms, all of which can be customized from the ground up to suit a player’s particular preferences. Multiple loadouts can also be saved, and easily utilized for particular missions.
Players will need to use the environment to their advantage in order to stay alive. That means sticking to the shadows, and avoiding brightly lit areas where enemies can spot them easily from a distance. Crouching and going prone also have their advantages, especially when gamers unwittingly stumble into a random patrol.
The use of environmental noise to mask shots has also been expanded on. In addition to sabotaging generators, players can also fiddle with the engines of nearby vehicles to create on-the-fly noise that can mask gunfire. While this might seem like it would reduce the game’s difficulty factor, Rebellion was wise enough to space these options out on each map.
And of course, there’s a customizable sniping system that can be tweaked according to player preferences. Wind direction and bullet drop are just a few things players will need to take into account in order to land the perfect shot, which gets more difficult as distance increases. First-time players should acquaint themselves with these mechanics, before taking off the training wheels over time.
Stealth kills make a glorious comeback, which build on the excellent system introduced in SE4. It must be said that there are few things more satisfying than performing a surprise takedown on a Nazi soldier wading through a patch of tall grass. Players can choose to be as quiet or loud as they wish, though the former is arguably more satisfying.
Sniper Elite 4 was the first game in the franchise to approach gameplay from a sandbox-style perspective, and the fifth entry builds upon that to great success. The maps are massive, and can easily take an hour or two to complete, depending on how efficient – or impatient – gamers are. Each level is littered with primary and secondary objectives to complete, not to mention tons of hidden collectibles.
Completionists will obsess over finding every hidden secret in each level, but the replay value extends far beyond that. By adopting a non-linear approach, gamers can literally replay each level dozens of times, taking new paths and utilizing different strategies to try and beat their old mission ratings.
Co-op is also incredibly fun, and every single Sniper Elite player owes it to themselves to try it at least once. With twin snipers on the map, players can communicate with each other to take out scores of enemies with lethal efficiency. By putting some distance between one another, players can take turns picking off enemies, preventing them from getting a bead on either’s location.
Secondary modes are there as well, including Survival, which can be done solo or with several other players, and PVP combat to determine who truly has the eagle’s eye.
Sniper Elite 5 also introduces another mechanic into the franchise in the form of Invasion Mode, which allows a human player to infiltrate another’s Campaign mission at any time, and take on the role of a hostile Axis sniper. Their objective is to hunt the player(s) down, triggering a cat and mouse scenario that really gets the heart pumping.
Invasion Mode introduces a few gameplay elements to keep things interesting, as well. Players can find a series of phones strewn about each level which will approximate the position of the enemy sniper, but they can also be booby trapped, which adds a layer of risk. For players who wish to not have the Campaign interrupted, Invasion Mode can be toggled off at any time.
More improvements have been made to the mechanics which tighten up both the obvious, and the subtle. Taking cover and going prone was often a sloppy affair in SE4, but SE5 seems to have tightened things up a bit, and that’s important when there are enemies lurking about. Gamers can even swap cover points with the push of a button, rather than manually run from one side to the other.
They can also now pick locks to gain access to buildings, or use bolt cutters to save time, at the risk of drawing more attention to themselves. The usual distraction methods are also available, with a few differences. Whistling to attract enemies is still a thing, but the pebble-throwing introduced in SE4 seems to have been replaced with throwable bottles, of which there’s a finite amount the player can hold.
Movement in Sniper Elite 5 feels a bit faster and more fluid in comparison to SE4. There are benefits and drawbacks to this system, but once Sniper Elite vets get a feel for it, it should become second nature. The result is a highly balanced stealth action title that improves on the massive paradigm shift of Sniper Elite 4, without eclipsing it.
And finally, the infamous X-Ray kill cam is back, showcasing muscle tissues, blood vessels and organs getting devastated by the brutal effects of a high velocity bullet. As a pro-second amendment advocate, I’ve always personally admired Sniper Elite for being bold enough to show this, as I believe guns should never be trivialized, for any reason. I do not, however, feel guilty about those Nazi testicle shots. They had em’ coming.
If Sniper Elite 5 is guilty of one thing, it’s not moving the franchise forward enough. To be fair, doing so might capsize the entire formula altogether, which is the last thing fans want. For better or worse, Rebellion has found a particular niche with this series, and mucking about too much with it could make waves.
However, if Sniper Elite is to continue as a franchise, it’ll need to undergo another evolutionary leap forward in order to maintain relevancy. Stronger emphasis could be put on the presentation and story, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the gameplay, or the non-linear sandbox approach. That’s a lot trickier than it sounds, but it’s doable.
The aforementioned graphics also ding the score a bit, even if the environments are a treat to frolic around in. The next SE game needs to dazzle the eyes in a big way, and that means embracing a new graphics engine that can properly sell the dirt, grime, and blood of WWII in an authentic manner.
Speaking of authenticity, Sniper Elite 5 continues the trend of loosely adapting WWII history to craft fictional missions that ride its coattails. That’s for dramatic effect, to be sure, but it would be nice if the series put Karl Fairburne smack-dab in the middle of some actual authentic WWII battles that stick close to the facts.
In its defense, Sniper Elite was always meant to extrapolate WWII in order to create its own world where an isolated story could play out, and it’s done that to great success. With only the Pacific theater left untouched at this point, the next Sniper Elite game needs to do more to keep players interested.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the number of video games focusing on the Korean War is positively anemic at this point. Sniper Elite could easily transition out of WWII, and change the setting to the “forgotten war” in order to tap into that historical period, and bring greater awareness to it.
Finally, there are some bugs that have cropped up since the game was released yesterday evening, including the ledge takedown kill. Expect a patch to come fast and furious from Rebellion as more issues are reported. They aren’t huge, and the game runs lovely on PC with no hiccups or crashes, but that’s not say everyone will experience the same stability.
Those who aren’t interested in stealth action games won’t find anything particularly dazzling about Sniper Elite 5, but longtime fans of the franchise, and the genre in general, should adore it. Few games manage to provide such a sense of freedom and empowerment, while creating enough atmosphere to keep players riveted for the long haul.
In terms of sniper-oriented video games, this entry stands near the top of the list. Currently, it’s a running battle between Sniper Elite and Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2 for the crown, but I personally prefer the former. Part of it may be the WWII dynamic, which never seems to lose any appeal, but there’s also something rustic and authentic about the series in general.
For those who are squeamish at the sight of blood, or others who run screaming for the hills at the sight of guns, this game is not for you. For everyone else, it’s potentially the greatest and most balanced stealth action game yet, at least in terms of play mechanics. The rest is subjective, and each player will pass judgment according to their own preferences.
- Open ended sandbox gameplay with tons of replay value
- Well-refined, engaging stealth action mechanics
- Nice balance between sniping, firefights and melee combat
- Not quite the paradigm shift that Sniper Elite 4 was
- Average story and characters
- Graphics feel long in the tooth