Man oh man, I have been sleeping on the Sniper Ghost Warrior games.
There's a good chance that you have too, and for good reason: for a long time it seemed like Ghost Warrior was chasing other FPS successes with a sloppy Call of Duty-flavored campaign in Ghost Warrior 2 and overly-ambitious open world in Ghost Warrior 3. And then, while I wasn't looking, Ghost Warrior got really good. Developer CI Games reinvented the series yet again with Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts in 2019: a mission-based stealthy immersive sim with a focus on huge maps and replayability.
Now the sequel, Contracts 2, is going even further. No, like literally further. Look at this ridiculous shot I pulled off the other day from nearly a mile away.
Oh, baby. The dramatic bullet cam is a bit too gory for my taste (you can turn those camera angles off), but damn if that kind of precision shooting isn't satisfying every single time. Like the first game, Contracts 2's large maps are divided into discrete zones with specific assassination targets and secondary objectives. Think Dishonored or Splinter Cell: Maps are wide playgrounds with a bunch of viable routes, but you generally move in one direction toward a target.
At times it's best to crouch-sneak through camps dropping baddies with a suppressed pistol or avoiding them altogether, but some problems are best solved with a high-powered sniper rifle. That's when Contracts 2 gets really good.
The mission I played in my preview build was one of Contracts 2's new 'Long Shot' contracts, which are a big draw of the sequel. Unlike the medium-range engagements in past Sniper games that topped out around 400 meters, all three of this mission's targets were anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 meters out. From that distance, you can't even perceive targets unless scoped. Don't try to run or drive out there, either. You can only tackle these long shots from a single vantage point each, and that's because the target areas (a port, communications plant, and training yard) are intimately constructed murder dioramas for the player to tinker with from afar.
The setup is familiar if you've played Hitman's sniper missions, right down to the elaborate environment kills. The most obviously telegraphed kill on the first target was a hanging cargo container positioned precariously above a road the target will run down while trying to escape. You can poke and prod at the level in other ways, too, like opening doors by sniping an electrical box with an EMP bullet or making a car jack collapse on the poor soul working beneath it.
Assassination challenges reward you for pulling off these trickier methods of sending targets to the great beyond, but a classic bullet to the head is just as viable. In fact, dropping a stationary cargo container is the easy way out compared to mastering Contracts 2's challenging sniping mechanics.
Ghost Warrior strikes a clever middle ground between simulation and accessibility at its default settings. Zeroing-in is a manual process that requires you to figure out how far away a target is. You can scan them with binoculars if they're in clear view and find out for sure, but in a pinch I'd often have to use the height reference table in the upper left view of the scope that tells me "hey, this guy should be about this tall in your scope if he's 800 meters away." Correctly deducing the distance of a rival sniper lying prone by imagining him standing against the height diagram is the new highlight of my videogame sniping career.
The other big step is wind adjustment, which is represented by a trailing white line that periodically updates with changing wind patterns. Cleverly, the wind line draws an axis down the rangefinder that tells you how off-center a shot will be while demanding focus to interpret what you're seeing. It's up to the shooter to guestimate where "445 meters" falls between the "400" and "500" notches on your scope and time your shot to when the wind line updates. It tells you everything you need without drawing a red dot on the screen for you (though that is an option if you're fed up).
It's a nice contrast to the other sniper series of gaming, Sniper Elite, which trivializes wind/distance compensation by showing exactly where the bullet will go when you hold your breath. You can turn that assist off, but then its default wind indicator is unintuitive and also there's no height diagram, so you're basically forced to mark everything before daring to take a shot. It's like its only settings are "too hard" and "not hard enough."
I came away from my brief Sniper Elite stint with a greater appreciation for the sniper fantasy that CI Games is going for in Contracts 2. Once you get the hang of it, every kill feels like the moment I shot that guy's arm off in Call of Duty 4 (this time not in a scripted sequence), or even better, that part in Wind River where Jeremy Renner picks off a bunch of jerkwads from god-knows-where. I felt even cooler when I fired my first unsuppressed shot into that faraway port and wondered why I didn't alert the whole complex immediately. A developer chimed in during my demo and mentioned that from this far away, they can't even hear the shot.
The choice to not give you a suppressor on your rifle at first is an important distinction from previous games. In the first Contracts, you can basically treat your rifle like a one-size-fits-all solution, but in my Contracts 2 demo I was inclined to only use it as a last resort. You can buy a suppressor for most of the game's rifles once you have the cash, though I see myself sticking to this limitation in the full game.
When I wasn't making mile-long headshots, I was sneaking through camps that would definitely hear me if I went in scopes blazin'. I like how the level design naturally ushers you into a second phase between the long shots that plays more like MGSV or Splinter Cell: complete with stealth kills, interrogations, and loads of gadgets that are simultaneously unnecessary and fun to experiment with. On my second playthrough, I took an indirect approach by planting traps in a bush and attracting guards with a few thrown rocks (a classic stealth maneuver). I also experimented a bit with the remote sniper rifle tool, an automatic rifle rig that can be planted anywhere to oversee an area. You can tag enemies through binoculars and then tell it when to take a shot, meaning that you can potentially set up cool synchronized shots with yourself.
My only major reservation is that the game's contracts might dry up before I can get all the cool stuff I want. I really had to go the extra mile and replay contracts to earn enough for another rifle and unlock a few stealthy perks on the skill tree.
The full game only has five maps like the one I played. I doubt I can keep up my expensive lifestyle unless I go for every challenge kill I come across. Checkpoints make it easy to zip right back to each target's zone, so maybe that's exactly how CI Games expects players to progress, but exhausting every way to kill a limited pool of targets to buy a shiny new gun somewhat defeats the purpose when the only thing left to do is go shoot those same targets again. In the spirit of "choosing the right tool for the job," it'd be nice to have the various types of rifles (light, medium, heavy for various distances) available by default so you can't blow your entire budget buying the wrong thing. It's like golfing without a full set of clubs.
I can't think of a better time for Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 to come along than a quiet year like 2021. In a time when a lower-budget game like this would typically get overshadowed by major games that got delayed into April/May, Contracts 2 has room to breathe.
If you're an FPS fan like me that previously wrote off the Ghost Warrior series, I'm here to tell you to pay attention to Contracts 2. It's already the most fun I've had sniping in a game. I'm excited to see how the other four missions unfold when it releases June 4.