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An ode to the sniper rifle

A rustle. A breath. A bang. Everything about a good videogame sniper rifle is sexy, sleek, and dangerous, from the look of a long steel barrel to the echoing crack of gunfire heard for miles around. We love playing games with great sniper rifles not because of how they look or sound, though, but because of something much deeper and darker: we want to play god. The allure of the sniper rifle is the allure of the divine power to reach out—way, way out into the distance—and snuff out a life.

It’s twisted, but that really is the heart of it. For proof, compare the sniper rifle to its Big Boomstick cousin, the shotgun. Both are typically slow to shoot, but they hit hard when they do. Both are loud. Both make explosions of fire and gore.

But a sniper rifle is unusual because its entire purpose is to make a fight unfair. We want to see the enemy without being seen. We look our enemy in the face without being in danger. Invisibility, invulnerability, and instant kills: the sniper rifle is a cheat code with a trigger. This is what Zeus feels like when he throws thunderbolts.

Today we’re celebrating the sniper rifle by talking about how it changed games, and all those pieces that make it a great videogame weapon. It starts with distance.

How to make a great sniper rifle 

Counter-Strike's AWP locks down entire sections of a multiplayer level. The AWP’s power isn’t just in killing, but in threatening to kill.

Almost all of the godlike power of a really fun sniper rifle comes from its ability to shoot at long range, so let’s start there. A great sniper rifle has to have a scope that lets us see deep into the microscopic horizon.

The best recent example of this is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, where your ability to see other players is your most useful skill. There’s something so disconcerting about running across an open field late in the game, looking around, and seeing no one. You know other players have to be close, but the hills seem quiet. This is where PUBG’s rare scopes come in. An 8x or, inshallah, the 15x scope brings you all of god’s many powers: eliminate a contender from the island in one shot before they know you can see them at all.

Counter-Strike’s AWP is a legend itself, and arguably it helped start the "all-powerful bolt-action sniper rifle" trope that we’re celebrating today. Counter-Strike is a game where split-second accuracy and twitch reflexes decide every battle, and using the AWP demands the patience of a tortoise and the reflexes of a hare. If you’re good at it, the AWP locks down entire sections of a multiplayer level. The AWP’s power isn’t just in killing, but in threatening to kill.

Giving players a better view from the inside of a multiplayer melee is one thing, but sniper rifles can do so, so much more than that. Games that focus on realistic simulation turn sniping into an advanced physics problem that only the best shooters can manage to solve under pressure. Throwing a tiny piece of metal at a target a mile or two away—so far that you have to account for the Earth moving as it rotates—only makes a great sniper shot feel more god-like.

Arma 3’s military sandbox is the best rifle simulation you can play today, and it only gets better with community-made mods that model everything from air pressure to wind speed. Making a shot at one or two miles away stops feeling like marksmanship and starts feeling like flying a spaceship to the moon: up a bit, left a bit, now turn this dial and flick this switch at the same time, and don’t forget to breathe. But only after you pull the trigger.

Arma 3 may have the most accurate long-range sniper shots, but the most famous must be from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s best level, "All Ghillied Up." Working your way through long-abandoned farmhouses in Chernobyl's radioactive exclusion zone, there aren't even animals around to break the silence. The tension grows as you sneak past soldiers and into town. When it's time to take the shot with your M82 sniper rifle, music stirs as we watch a little red flag dance around in changing wind, holding our breath and waiting for the perfect moment to throw the lightning.

Bring the noise

It’s obvious that a good sniper rifle has to be loud as all hell. I understand that there are some that prefer their sniper rifles to be utterly silent for stealth reasons, but these poor souls are mistaken. A sniper rifle has to sound like the Earth breaking because, again, a good sniper rifle is the fist of god.

When it comes to noise, nobody does it like the boxy brick of a rifle in HALO: Combat Evolved, a hideous piece of technology burdened with the equally hideous name SRS99C-S2AM. We’re not here for looks, though. The Halo rifle has a boom that rocks around any level followed by reverberating echoes. It’s the echoes that really get me. And it’s not just the loud noises: the SRS99C is a symphony of little beeps and whirs.

Even though the reloading sound is pretty good, it’s the only thing wrong with the SRS99C. Since it’s a semi-automatic rifle, it lacks the the iconic, metallic bolt-action clanks that come with the best sniper rifles. Racking the action on a bolt-action rifle sounds so good, that even in our ode to the greatness of shotguns, we had to admit that maybe, just maybe, bolt-action rifles sound even better.

The sound of thunder and clanking machinery is even more jarring, more fantastic, when it’s contrasted with total silence and tension. Once the silence is broken, it’s OK to chime in with a really good soundtrack, as seen in this great clip from Far Cry 2.

History lesson: the first sniper rifle 

A well-made sniper rifle is a smoothly oiled machine, a clap of thunder you can hold in your hands, and the fist of an angry god all rolled into one.

After celebrating all that makes a good sniper rifle "the cheat code of weapons," it might be obvious how difficult it is to build a game around a worthy sniper. Giving the player god-like powers makes it hard to design levels and enemies that challenge them—and of course, you can’t tone down the sniper rifle without ruining the whole damn thing.

But for a long time, difficulty balance wasn’t the thing that stopped videogames from featuring sniper rifles, it was technology. In the early years, one of the things that games couldn’t really do was distance; we had height and width, but no depth.

There were some strong attempts, though. In 1988, one of the first sniper rifles ever depicted in a game came from the French videogame Hostage: Rescue Mission. The game came out on platforms like the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga. In the game, a police sniper sneaks around an embassy full of hostages to reach a vantage point, then uses a myopic little scope to scan the windows for bad guys.

But without 3D spaces, there couldn’t be any real distance. Though conventional wisdom claims that the first true sniper rifle in videogames was in Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, the truth is actually much closer to PC gamers’ hearts. A full year earlier, in August 1996, Quake Team Fortress released as a mod for Quake. Included among the Soldier, Spy, and Engineer was the Sniper. Snipers came equipped with a "Sniper Rifle," a menace that could kill at distance with one shot—as long as the player was fast enough and had great eyesight.

In March 1997, LucasArts released Outlaws, a western-themed shooter that seems to be mostly forgotten today. Those of us who played it, though, saw something new. Attached to the standard lever-action Winchester rifle was a sniper scope that magnified objects in 3D. As far as I can find, this real-time 3D magnification had never been done before at the time. Outlaws did it five months before Goldeneye launched.

LucasArts was sort of a pioneer in gaming back then, but I still think it’s unlikely that Outlaws started a trend. It’s more likely that the time for the first-person sniper rifle had just arrived. In the next year alone, 1998, we saw zoomable, first-person sniper rifles pop up in Half-Life, SiN, Starseige: Tribes, and Delta Force. Multiplayer games in particular started to play on larger maps, and the sniper rifle quickly became a staple for long-range battles. In 2000, the original Counter-Strike launched the AWP, and Deus Ex brought sniper rifles into a free-form immersive sim setting.

By the time Operation Flashpoint (the pre-cursor to Arma) launched in 2001, Battlefield 1942 arrived in 2002, and Call of Duty released in 2003, the sniper rifle was an essential part of any videogame that included guns at all.

Lasers, etc.

Not all sniper rifles throw lead. Despite my grandstanding up in the "Bring the noise" section, a rifle that shoots lasers or—gasp—silently flings arrows can still be a lot of fun. The obvious example here is Half-Life 2’s incredible crossbow, a hideous sci-fi monster that nailes people to walls with superheated pieces of rebar.

The joys of Half-Life 2’s crossbow are numerous: the all-seeing perspective of a decent scope, the one-shot power of that glowing slab of iron pinning a Combine soldier’s body to the architecture.

Even the loud, bass-heavy thunk and twang of the crossbow, though obviously not as good as a huge boom, is really nice to listen to—and possibly even kind of musical? The best crossbow noise doesn’t come from the crossbow at all, but from the slightly muted, high-pitch whine of the "soldier down" Combine alarm heard from a long way off.

For laser-throwing sniper rifles, the powerful Darklance from XCOM 2 is one of our hands-down favorites. A shot of boiling, angry red death rays flying at aliens is, in general, pretty fun, but the Darklance has another edge. Unlike every other sniper rifle in the game, soldiers can fire and move in the same turn. If you do it right, a sniper armed with the Darklance can flit around the edges of a map, firing and moving, smiting and disappearing. Darklance might not give you the joy of a first-person perspective, but its power is no less biblical.

In conclusion

Videogame sniper rifles are rad. Though they can be monstrous in multiplayer games and their effects can be more pornographic than 10,000 dicks on parade, a well-made sniper rifle is a beautiful thing. It’s a smoothly oiled machine, a clap of thunder you can hold in your hands, and the fist of an angry god all rolled into one.

But for all its power, the reason the sniper remains so compelling is how well it's balanced out by its limitations, and all the tension they bring. Missing a shot can mean an eternal few seconds of reloading, standing naked in front of the world. That moment can give way to panic, and without a cool head, you're lost. So goes one of the greatest sniper shots ever captured on video.

There's one more tool in the sniper's belt, which forgoes range, its greatest asset, to make you feel somehow more omnipotent. If there's a more rewarding shot than the no-scope, an impossible doming that spits in the face of the sniper's intended balance, we don't know it. The no-scope defies nature and reason. It's the ultimate trump card. 

Using a sniper well is an instinctive skill or a physics problem or both, and great games use them to make you feel unstoppable. Long live the scope.