Sniper Elite 3, the third game in the series about shooting Nazis from really far away in World War II, eschews the usual dreary, gunmetal skies of bomb-battered Europe for the sun-and-blood-drenched deserts of North Africa. Despite eleventy million thousand WWII games having been released on PC over the years, this is a setting rarely used.
I ask Jean-Baptiste Bolcato, senior producer, why Rebellion decided to return to the Second World War for their sequel, rather than drag the series into the more fashionable present.
“It's driven by the studio and the brand,” he says. “Half the team are huge, hardcore World War II fans. It's an incredible setting. That's not saying we won't try new things in the future, but for Sniper Elite 3 we really wanted to explore that side of the war. It's an interesting period. There was a lot of mechanical warfare, and it's when the Americans started to get involved. It also looks different, and hasn't been used much before. We wanted a different feel from the usual grey European setting.”
The completely gratuitous, but perversely satisfying, bullet-following killcams are back, of course. Now when you see the X-ray of your target's insides exploding, you see their muscles and circulatory systems being mauled by hot lead as well. Hooray, I guess. It certainly looks impressive, but it adds nothing to the game besides giving gore fetishists an excited throb in their underpants.
What is different is the way the levels are designed. One of the biggest complaints about the last Sniper Elite was the boxy, linear, uninspiring maps. The sequel goes in the opposite direction, giving us large, multi-level playgrounds to kill in. There are numerous ways to get through a mission, depending on how you choose your targets, your route, and the order you complete your objectives.
The level I had demoed to me, set in a Nazi-fortified desert canyon, was impressively big, with elevation for makeshift sniper nests and underground tunnels to escape into. The placement of machinegun nests and patrolling soldiers made stealth a necessity, and there are a lot of toys to play with: rocks for throwing to distract guards, tripwires to cover your exits when you're sniping, and plantable TNT. But because I wasn't playing the demo myself it was difficult to gauge how sharp the enemies were. A stealth game lives or dies by the quality of its AI.
Taking advantage of those bigger levels, vehicles play a bigger role. “When facing tanks you can shoot the driver through the slot or use a mine to destroy its tracks and immobilise it,” Bolcato says. “There'll be killcams dedicated to mechanised combat too. Encounters with vehicles will have proper, multifaceted gameplay and won't just be a one-off cutscene or set-piece.”
Sniping being the focus of much of the game, it is, appropriately, a bit more complicated than just hovering your sight over someone's head and squeezing the trigger. There's wind and bullet drop and your heartbeat to consider. “We're not quite a sniping simulator. We still want it to be a fun experience. But if you set it to the highest difficulty setting, it's pretty damn close to a simulator. Authentic mode is the most hardcore, with no guides at all. It doesn't even tell you where your objectives are. We'll also have a custom mode where you can, say, play on easy with all the sniping aids disabled.”
Bolcato ends the interview by stressing the studio's dedication to the PC version. “It's getting a lot of love in the last months of development, even after the console versions have begun their tricky approval process. We play the game on PC every day. We're trying to refine it to be as good an experience as possible. Rebellion is a very PC-focused studio, and development of our engine is driven by it. We have new tessellation tech, ambient shadowing and ultra high-res textures. You can zoom in on anything with your scope and it'll instantly have a high level of detail.”
I'm cautiously optimistic. I love the idea of the open maps, which should make the stealth feel much more dynamic. My only issue right now is the amount of clutter on the HUD. There are markers and meters and notifications screaming at you, and it destroys the immersion somewhat. It doesn't give you the sense that you're using a sniper's battle-honed instincts.
But if SE3's map design really is as freeform and open-ended as Rebellion are promising, and not just a series of slightly wider corridors, this could be a major improvement on the so-so last game.