What is it? A sniper stealth action game.
Expect to pay $50/£45
Released May 26, 2022
Reviewed on Nvidia GeForce GTX-970, Intel i7-4790K, 16GB RAM
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Five games deep, Sniper Elite delivers what I consider to be its best instalment since the original—thanks largely to the influence of games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and the Hitman reboots. Yet a lack of confidence in its core sniping conceit, as well as a truly dire story, drag down an enjoyable stealth game.
It's probably not what a lot of people coming to Sniper Elite 5 care about but someone at Rebellion was intent on cramming numerous cutscenes into this thing and they are all, without exception, duller than the dead eyes of the Nazis left in the wake of protagonist Karl Fairburne. This macho American commando and sniper is a videogame gruff-man so generic he feels like he didn't even get to the end of the assembly line of the factory where they make these cookie cutter men. It's not impossible to imbue a Nazi killing machine with inner life and depth—BJ Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein is subversive with his well of introspection. Karl, though, is boilerplate, and everything he says washes over me like white noise.
Well everything except those moments of unintentional comedy, like at the game's outset where, after seeing their submarine destroyed, Karl utters "Nazi bastards" while a sad accordion plays. Accordions! Get it? Because it's set in France!
The choices of the game's musical score are a not so subtle hint towards the level Sniper Elite is working on. It's the second world war through the lens of a teenage boy. Which doesn't matter in the grand scheme of shooting nazis, but certainly holds it back from having much in the way of character or tone—never tongue-in-cheek enough to pull off the macabre humour of Hitman or serious enough to engage with the realities of occupied France.
The French resistance are present throughout and every time they showed up I couldn't help but wonder why they weren't the star of the show. Why weren't we some under-resourced sniper, having to use their wit and cunning to overcome the powerful nazi war machine? Someone with personal stakes and ties to the country? It's such a blindingly obvious way to breathe some life into proceedings but for whatever reason, the series seems married to its bargain bin action man.
It doesn't help that Sniper Elite 5 puts its worst foot forward with a tiresome tutorial. But when it does finally open up, you can at least begin to enjoy what the game does best: picking a roost and shooting bad guys from really far away. It's not open world. However much the expansive landscapes conjure up the notion, the levels are far more linear in practice. Not that they're bereft of choice and in truth, the more limited scope allows the game to funnel players into interesting obstacles. Rather than picking a perfect hill and performing long distance brain surgery from safety, you're pressed into taking risks to manoeuvre around patrols and reach vantages undetected. The pay-off of a secret tunnel or climbable ledge feels hard earned instead of laid at your feet.
The third mission, Spy Academy, set at the real world Mont Saint Michel, a tidal island well defended from the outside world, is maybe the highlight of the whole game and a showcase of its best qualities. Sometimes even obvious sniper spots like a church tower turn out to be duds and it means that you often have to pay real attention instead of going through the motions.
No hit, man
While Sniper Elite 5's levels fall short of the Hitman games from which it has taken blatant influence, they nonetheless inject proceedings with more than just popping heads off. While not as open as they seem, these levels are sprawling labyrinths full of little choke points and secrets worth exploiting. You can even stage accidents in places, though fundamentally, the game's AI doesn't recognise it as such and views any death as proof a sniper is in the vicinity. That there are various options available makes levels more fun to exploit, even if the lack of a real atmosphere, or even a sense these soldiers are doing anything besides waiting for you to show up, means there's little thrill in your trespassing.
In one level I timed it so that a mine I planted would be set off by an incoming patrol car after I took out a sniper under the noise of a low flying plane for cover—distracting nearby guards while I sprinted behind enemy lines. Rare as these moments are, they sure are satisfying.
But I can't shake the feeling the game is lesser for this variety. Rather than doing one thing exceptionally well, it's done a handful of things moderately well. When I think of the best depictions of sniping that games have crafted, I think of things like Call of Duty Modern Warfare's All Ghillied Up and One Shot, One Kill levels. Linear, set piece driven design of course, but they emphasise stealth and patience, setting up for one all important shot rather than exterminating loads of grunts. Sniper Elite 5 sometimes feels like it's embarrassed of the sniping, worried you'll get bored. I don't need games to simulate the full idea of staking out a single target but surely they can have me do more than be a second hand Sam Fisher?
The X-ray kill camera feels like an attempt to add unnecessary spectacle into the art of sniping. It's become the series' calling card ever since the second game. Yet in a game so lacking in meaningful tone, they continue to struggle in finding their place. Is it meant to be the gleeful over the top grotesqueness like Mortal Kombat? The kills are far too lacklustre and point of fact for that. Perhaps a pointed reminder of the suffering you're inflicting? Not when the game treats exploding testicles like the world's greatest punchline. The X-ray kills are indicative of so many of the series' problems. Latching onto a single, awkward but standout feature in place of anything genuinely novel, while failing to figure out what exactly it is they're going for.
Even the skill trees speak to a lack of thought, offering up perks that scarcely change how you'll play the game. An extra tool here, a bit more health there. It all feels redundant in a way that speaks to the lack of fundamentally different options available. The game might force you to spend more time creeping around in close quarters but it's not something it does especially well. Even by comparison to the decades old Splinter Cell titles, Sniper Elite 5's close encounters feel clunky and basic. No wall splits here.
The mixture of near and far objectives leaves the game feeling at odds with itself. After all, it's not called Sniper And Sneaking Into Buildings To Grab Documents Elite. The thrill of judging a shot, observing the wind and distance, estimating the right adjustments, this is what the game excels at. Following it up with clunky close quarters stealth only diminishes the good.
Difficulty options really help bring out that good however. Like most modern stealth games, Sniper Elite is overburdened with information. You can tag and track enemies, be aware when they've nearly spotted you, have an assist on your sniping… at every turn the game slaps on some training wheels and expects you to feel empowered. It causes a lack of tension that can thankfully be recovered by tinkering around in the difficulty options.
You can strip the game way down. Next to no HUD, no assists, smarter enemies, no way to track foes except remembering what you've seen. It's harder obviously but it's more interesting. With all those assists on I felt terribly bored by the lack of friction or challenge. My advice? Put as much on "authentic" as you can and take your time with it, for a much more memorable experience where you'll really have to engage with what you're seeing and hearing.
Those options aren't the game's only shake-up. Co-op returns and it quite radically changes how Sniper Elite is played, allowing synchronous take downs and coordination that gives the game a whole new dimension. Then there's the new invasion mode, a Dark Souls-esque system where players can enter other's games as an Axis sniper. It brings a real Enemy At The Gates energy which adds way more tension than the offline game can provide, as you suddenly have to slow down your pace and duel it out with a real thinking enemy instead of the slightly dim AI. No tricking a real player by chucking a bottle off into the distance. If the thought of strangers waiting out in the bushes is a little much, you can always turn it off completely. That said, it'd be a shame to not engage with the multiplayer side of things because I think even the game itself undersells how much these features enhance the experience.
Under the right circumstances Sniper Elite 5 is a decent, occasionally great, stealth game—surprising enough to give it an edge, but too inconsistent to keep it. It wisely has its eye on the competition; it just can't quite hit the mark.