Sniper Elite 3 review in progress

We received an early review copy of Sniper Elite 3, but I hit a couple technical issues on the way to reviewing it. According to developer Rebellion, a patch released Wednesday dug out some bugs, and now I have the final build which will be released Friday (the one I want to review anyway). As far as I can tell, it's smooth sniping now, but I've also had a hard time getting into populated multiplayer matches—not because it doesn't work, but because there are too few players before launch.

All this is to say: I can't write a final review and score Sniper Elite 3 until I've completed the campaign (I have some progress to recover) and played co-op and competitive multiplayer in a live setting. I can tell you how I feel so far, though, and so far, I like Sniper Elite 3.

I'll leave the elegant table-setting for the final review and just toss the dishes in a pile: Sniper Elite 3 is a third-person shooter with first-person sniping (of course), set during WWII in the North African theater. There's a single-player campaign, co-op, survival challenges, and 12-player competitive multiplayer. The latter allows for custom player-hosted matches and dedicated servers. Thumbs up for that.

In single-player, you can save at any time. Another thumbs up earned. There's weirdly no windowed option [Update: I'm wrong, it's alt-enter] or FOV slider, but lots of advanced graphics options otherwise. On max settings, the environment textures are mostly crisp and detailed, though I once climbed over some rocks so blurry I was worried I'd sink into quicksand. The character's faces are a bit plastic-looking, and that's sometimes exacerbated by action-figure-like animations during in-engine cutscenes. The complex, starkly-lit yellow rock formations and cool caves, however, are attractive and sell the setting. Also, sometimes you see people's skulls explode.

Oh, and it's about sniping. That's what I really want to talk about.

The part where I talk about sniping

I started the campaign by setting custom difficulty options. I began with mid-grade enemy intelligence, full ballistics difficulty (bullet drop, wind interference), and partial tactical assistance from the UI. I wasn't too concerned with enemies and on-screen help yet, but I knew that my bullets had to act like bullets. The easiest ballistics mode just puts bullets in the center of the crosshair, no matter how far away you are, and that's dumb. It's not sniping if you remove all the things that make sharpshooting hard, and I was glad I could set that straight right away.

Leaving UI help partially enabled did turn out to be a problem, though. When looking through a scope, Sniper Elite has a steadying function many sniping games have: an 'empty lungs' key. Actually, most games call it 'hold breath,' which is also dumb: WWII snipers probably would have been taught to fire during the respiratory pause after exhaling, and no sniper would take a gulp of air like you hear in some games. So I appreciate that, Sniper Elite. And I digress.

The problem with Sniper Elite's 'empty lungs' function is that on top of steadying your rifle, it puts a red marker where your bullet will go, taking into account distance and wind. It has a fast cooldown, so I can use it for almost every shot, and that essentially brings me back to just putting a crosshair over someone's head. Fully disabling tactical assistance gets rid of it, but after growing used to it, I feared distance shots might then become absurdly hard. There's no basic training to aquatint me with SE3's ballistics, which certainly won't be the same as Battlefield 4's or Rising Storm's or Arma 3's, so how am I to know my bullet velocity and weight?

The red marker exists because I'm not really a sniper in North Africa: this isn't my gun and I can't actually feel the wind on my face or judge distance like I could in reality. Without my helper, I have to interpret a wind indicator without any practical knowledge of its effect on trajectory and hope that what looks like 200 meters is really 200 meters. Most problematic is that the recoil on my M1 Garand makes it hard to spot the piddly-little particle effect puffs my missed bullets kick up. If I can't see where failed shots landed, I can't correct them and learn.

For the third mission (the second real mission after the tutorial), I said to hell with it and turned off all tactical assistance. Aside from losing the aim help, that meant I could no longer see how alerted enemies were to my presence (musical indicators do the trick anyway) or tag them with my binoculars. It turns out I was wrong to clutch onto the UI: everything got better.

Long shots were hard, as expected, but I started to improve at spotting my hits and correcting—going prone lessens the recoil. Near the middle of the mission, I had a fairly good sense of what 100, 200, and 300 meters looked like, though it's a shame Sniper Elite expects use of the auto ballistics calculator instead of teaching players how to use the reticle properly and offering a way to zero it to different ranges. I prefer to be trained in a world's fidelity than given UI crutches. Falling back on the overlay might be tempting for a frustrated sniper, but a perfect shot only really feels good to me when I earn it through reasoning and intuition. It's worth it to fly blind.

A good shooter mission

Enough on ballistics: The thing about Sniper Elite 3 that makes me really happy is the mission design. So far, and excluding the introductory mission, they are big, open, and free. They have a logical linear course, but I'm never forcefully pushed in one direction. There are targets marked on my map, hints all over the place, and cliche 'this is a game mechanic' detritus like explosive red barrels everywhere—but I'm never told explicitly how to solve a problem. No one has said, "You take the one on the right."

It reminds me—in a very specific way that doesn't suggest it's as good—of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The best MoHAA missions went: "Here's your objective. Here's a gun. There are a bunch of Nazis between you and your objective. Now, go." That's essentially what Sniper Elite does. In the first real mission, I have to sneak around Nazi camps assassinating officers and searching their bodies for documents. I can shoot them from long-range entirely undetected, then sneak in and retrieve my prize, or I can sneak in first and slit their throats from behind. Or I can make a ton of noise and spend a lot of time running around hoping I don't die before I've shot everyone else.

Before the mission ends, it tells me a general is escaping, and to kill him before he does. Well, crap, I'm kind of in the middle of a firefight when I get the notice, and his armored vehicle rolls right past me. I fail, reload, and try to snipe him, but I think I only hit the driver. I fail, reload, and remember I picked up some landmines earlier. Well, there you go—problem solved, and I didn't need to be told how to solve it.

There are lots of tools in Sniper Elite 3. You have your rifle, of course, a silenced pistol, and an automatic weapon for when your cover's blown. You have med packs and bandages, flint to start fires and distract enemies, rocks to toss, dynamite (detonate by sniping), land mines, grenades, and other traps I'm sure I haven't unlocked just yet. Admittedly, so far I'm mostly sticking to my rifle and pistol, but I love having all these tools with no one is telling me I have to use one or another.

Stealth design is tough

My biggest criticism of Sniper Elite 3 so far is that it's easy to establish a rote attack and run procedure. It saves itself from becoming a shooting gallery—the most boring representation of sniping—by making your shots loud, as they should be. One rifle shot alerts every nearby enemy to your location, but while they take cover you have ample time to bolt 30 meters away, crouch behind a rock, and wait for them to forget you ever existed. Silly it is, but SE3 would cease to be a sniping game if they spent the rest of the two-hour mission hunting you down, never letting you find a new nest. What a difficult problem.

In the third mission, where things got a little harder with most of the UI disabled, I had a slightly harder time staying out of firefights. Though at one point I did just crouch-walk up to a ledge, take a shot, run through a cave to hide for a minute, couch-walk back to the ledge, and take another shot. And then all that again, so you can see how exploiting the stealth system can lead to routine tedium.

There are some mechanics in place to break it up. For one thing, a lot of my kills are close range. A headshot with my Welrod suppressed pistol does a guard in without alerting anyone, and is often preferable to making a racket at close range. Ammo conservation is important, too—I constantly run out of Welrod ammo, forcing me to improvise with other tools.

Another big feature: sound masking can let you take carefully-timed rifle shots without giving away your position. Remember how I said SE3 is full of Game Mechanic Objects like red barrels? This one is sillier: sometimes the useful sound is artillery, but in sniper's nests you'll always find a generator. Break it, and it'll make popping noises every few seconds. Never mind that the popping noises are coming from the place you are, they mask the sound of your shots. Having to track your target while you wait for audio cover adds a great bit of tension.

And though I'm pointing out how stealth can be exploited, that's not to say I'm never careless. I've had to pull out my MP40 a few times, spray down some Nazis, and retreat to cover. Often I'm detected because I just don't see a guy near me. Baddies can be tough to locate for a couple reasons. One, anytime you can hear them talking it sounds like they're right next to you, even if they're nowhere near you—it's confusing. And two, the third-person camera is cantankerous. It pivots either too fast or too slow depending on my mouse sensitivity, rolling around a point that feels like it's above my head, and the FOV feels low and isn't adjustable (motion sick gamers take note). My dude also steers like a boat, so it's a good thing the most important parts of SE3 involve slow movement and looking through a scope.

I'll have more to say and more precise criticism when I've recovered some campaign progress, unlocked more weapons, and the multiplayer servers fill up. I can tell you this already, though: it's better than Sniper Elite V2. Oh, and those x-ray kills everyone makes a big deal about: yeah, they're alright. I'm much more interested in ballistics porn than gore porn, and after the 50th skull-splosion I'd had enough. I turned them off.

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