A squad of German soldiers moves around in front, sweeping the streets for any kind of opposition. That opposition very much includes us. In fact, at this specific moment, it feels like the entire German army is looking for us.
We're playing as Karl Fairburne, an OSS agent deep behind enemy lines (Berlin in 1945 to be precise). We've been tasked with infiltrating the German capital and enlisting, or assassinating, the Nazi scientists involved with the V-2 rocket programme. The stakes are high, even more so as the Russians are also in town looking for the same potential prize.
So there we are, staring down the street as a squad of troops searches through the dilapidated buildings ahead. A lone patrol wanders by; we decide that the best plan of action would be to quickly and quietly take him down with a blade before he can alert his colleagues. But before we do that, we must turn our attention to the rest of his squad. There's at least two more on the ground in front of us, and if our eyes don't deceive, there's a sniper on the roof up to our right.
We now have some decisions to make; decisions that will dramatically impact our experience with Sniper Elite V2. We could go in all guns blazing, run and gun to glory, take out the foot soldiers on the ground before having a pop at the sniper secreted on the roof. Alternatively we can use stealth to assist us as we move through the streets.
Ultimately this game has been built for stealth, so that's the way we roll. We quickly initiate the silent takedown of the nearby patrol, then use the ambient noise (of a bell ringing in the distance in this instance) to disguise the sound of the shot that takes down the enemy sniper on the roof. Then we follow up this smart exchange with the careful and clinical ranged dispatch of the rest of the blissfully unaware squad.
Sniper Elite V2, the sequel to the cult favourite Sniper Elite (2005), is best described as a long-range stealth shooter. Patient play and careful planning is encouraged, if not essential. For the most part combat and movement takes place from a third-person perspective, as you direct Fairburne through the rubble of broken Berlin. But action zooms into a first-person perspective when staring down the scope of your Springfield M1903.
Rebellion took great care to elaborate on the authenticity inherent in Sniper Elite V2. The game features realistic weapons and vehicles, and Rebellion has placed them in a detailed re-imagining of Berlin circa 1945. Whilst it is true that there are some slight embellishments (for example, the buildings are quite tall in V2, however in real life most of the buildings in Berlin were reduced to nothing but rubble by a concerted Allied bombing campaign), the game still reeks of realism, from the layout of the streets to the guns carried on your back.
Scenery and equipment aside, perhaps the most impressive thing that we were exposed to during our hands-on time with the game was the attention that has been paid to the art of sniping.
On the easier settings V2 delivers a perfectly entertaining stealth experience, but the shooting pretty much takes care of itself; aim-assist is king. However, crank up the difficulty a couple of notches and an altogether different experience emerges. On the higher difficulty settings V2 makes you consider all sorts of factors when preparing to take a shot. Bullet drop and wind direction needs to be taken into consideration, as does wind velocity and bullet penetration. If you want to take the perfect shot there is much more to do than just line up your quarry and pull the trigger.
Bullet Cam makes another appearance, after having proved a popular inclusion in the original. Well taken shots are rewarded, with the player treated to a slow-motion set-piece. Fairburne crouches in his hidden location, he takes his shot, the bullet comes spinning out of the gun and dances through the air until it hits the target. All in all it's a very elegant sequence.
In Sniper Elite that was the end of it, but V2 has taken this feature and built on it, turning it into eye-catching spectacle that most likely will come to define Rebellion's latest title. The "X-Ray Kill Cam" is a brutal and satisfying inclusion in Sniper Elite V2. When the AI calculates a particularly decent/brutal shot it initiates the Bullet Cam, but upon the bullets contact with its target, a new and exciting event takes place.
Bullet Cam makes way for X-Ray, and the brutal nature of warfare is exemplified in Rebellion's explosive new set-piece. Whereas previous shots left gruesome holes and broken soldiers, the new "X-Ray Kill Cam" reveals the destructive power of the bullet in one breath-taking cut-scene. Soldiers become skeletal as bullets tear through flesh, bone and organs, revealing the true extent of the damage caused by a bullet fired from so far away.
Rebellion has evidently invested a lot of time and energy in creating the new Kill Cam, and they are clearly very proud of it. Senior producer Steve Hart described it as being his favourite part of the game. Rebellion should be proud, because it works perfectly. Concerns that the developers might be tempted to over-rely on it have been put to rest, with only a small percentage of successful shots getting the full treatment. It is a fitting reward for a well taken kill.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the X-Ray sequence is the knowledge that it each cut-scene is entirely unique. Whilst one shot might enter through an eye socket and exit at the back of the skull, another might take off a finger, or even worse, a testicle.
We only had access to three of the levels taken from the campaign, but everything that we've seen so far points towards an engaging and polished experience. The third-person controls are, on the whole, responsive and accurate. Climbing across shattered streets and through devastated houses creates a unique atmosphere, and the constant fear of discovery only heightens the excitement.
The three levels played included the tutorial, which was a pretty straightforward introduction to the way of the sniper. The second level, set on the streets of Berlin, provided a variety of strategies to employ as we snuck towards completion. Its ultimate conclusion involved fixed explosives, destructible tanks, several headshots and a lot of dead Nazis; the perfect advert for V2 and a sign of things to come.
The last level we were able to try our hand at was the pick of the bunch. Set inside a battered church, Fairburne is tasked with fetching supplies that have been dropped in for him to collect. Unfortunately for Fairburne he was expected, and after dispatching the guards and retrieving his gear, wave after wave of enemy troops arrived with the intention of ruining his day.
This last exchange was much more action orientated than the previous set pieces we tried, and perfectly demonstrates Rebellion's desire to combine authentic combat with an engaging and accessible setting. However, fans wanted even more realism, perhaps more than Rebellion could afford to give them; to appease these hardcore fans would've involved creating an almost unplayable game.
Martin Pegler, formerly of the Royal Armouries, was the expert on hand throughout development to answer questions on the period. His knowledge of the time and place added more authenticity to proceedings, although he too was acutely aware of the need to marry realism with playability. "It's as realistic as you can possibly make a game without tipping over the edge into something that's so realistic nobody wants to play it, because the reality of that job, being a sniper in 1945, was that you would spend hours doing absolutely nothing, just watching. That doesn't make for much of a game."
Happily, it would appear the Rebellion agreed with him, and in Sniper Elite V2 it looks like they may have found a happy balance between playability and authenticity. We'll have to wait till May to try the multiplayer component and carry on with the campaign before we know for sure, but as it stands, Rebellion look like they've got a great shot lined up and we can't wait to see if it hits home.
Sniper Elite V2 is due out on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in May and will be co-published by 505 Games. Rebellion intend on publishing a PC version with Mastertronic shortly thereafter. Pre-orders will receive a bonus mission - Assassinate the Fuhrer - which will allow gamers to take a shot at Hitler himself.