Once again all-American hero Karl Fairburne is lining up Nazis and dispatching them one (sometimes two or three) at a time in this grizzly World War 2-themed shooter.
We say grizzly, because the gruesome X-ray kill cam that came to symbolise the last game makes a return, for better and for worse. For better as it looks more detailed, and while it's undoubtedly gory, it does offer a strange and visceral commentary on the brutality of war and our consumption of it. For the worse because it's a little overused and, by the end, it started to grate.
The Berlin setting of Sniper Elite V2 has shifted to the deserts of North Africa. The problem with deserts is they're dull and full of sand, which is something that Sniper Elite 3 doesn't entirely escape from. There's a couple of levels that stand out, but for the most part there's an element of blandness to the different environments.
Although they might not standout too much from each other when it comes to colour palette and variety, the actual construction of each stage does offer some variation. It's also worth noting that the sandbox (how apt a word in this case) levels are much, much bigger than they were in the previous instalment. There's less of them, and if you charge headfirst into the campaign and ignore side-missions, the running time is noticeably shorter than before. Luckily, there's plenty to do, with optional objectives and side-quests on hand to push you away from the path of least resistance.
While the campaign is shorter than before, Rebellion has done a decent job of fleshing out the game as a whole. There's loads of modes, and the split focus of Sniper Elite 3 means there's going to be plenty of longevity to the overall package. On top of the single-player campaign, there's a solo survival mode, where you're dropped into a stage and must fend off wave after wave of enemy troops. Then there's the multiplayer (both co-op and PvP), which we'll get to later.
We'll focus on the single-player for now. Once again we play as elite sniper Karl Fairburne, played here by the gruffest-voiced actor we've ever heard. It's a fairly straightforward plot that'll win absolutely zero prizes for originality, but it's not offensive and it's easy enough to keep track of.
What is bordering on offensive is Rebellion's over-use of the Killcam, the slow-motion death sequence where bullets rip through the bodies of enemy soldiers, innards exploding in gruesome detail for our viewing pleasure. Within two minutes of the game's start we've seen it twice. Last time around we enjoyed the gimmick as it was used more sparingly, but by the time we'd finished our pass through the third's campaign, we'd switched off the feature due to over-exposure.
Rebellion's reliance on this gimmick is most obvious during one of the several sequences whereby you're tasked with dispatching upwards of twenty enemies in quick succession. While the bullet physics are undeniably solid, and successful shots are satisfying, the polish is taken off by the constant splattering of brains. We don't mind the camera zooming in every now and then, but when it's happening six or seven times in three of four minutes... well, there's only so many exploding testicles and hollowed-out eye sockets that we can watch back-to-back. After a while we became so desensitised to it, we ended up bored and pressing the button to skip the animation.
Bollock shots aside, there's actually a few things that took the edge off our enjoyment of the campaign. From little things like being unable to search a body once moved, to the slightly unnatural animations and turning-circles of the patrols you're watching as you plan your next attack. AI is once again a little suspect (though, it seems a marked improvement on V2), and the phases of alertness that govern whether or not enemy forces are hunting for you or not are so rigid that Nazi soldiers can happily return to their patrols just minutes after you blew the brains out their companions just meters from where they're standing.
It's also fair to say that the terrible damage your bullets do sits at odds with your own physical reaction to getting hit. While it's normal for the player character to be a bit of a bullet sponge - anything else would be too punishing to be enjoyable - to revel in the destructive power of the bullet in the way that Rebellion does with the killcam, only to ignore it elsewhere, feels disconcerting at best, and at worst it jars us out of the experience
Another thing that impacts immersion is the fact that when you "silently" kill someone, often there's very audible yelps and cries that nearby patrols would no doubt have heard. It breaks the immersion, and would have been as simple to fix as not giving downed troops such a loud audio cue.
There was plenty of glitches and bugs, with enemies able to walk through scenery at times, and in some cases (and more worryingly) being able to see you through cover. The climactic cutscene was completely ruined with two different sequences overlapping/clashing. There's also the audio coming through the speaker on the DualShock 4 - we doubt we'll ever like this feature - with the sound quality being as tinny as it is. Also, the sound effect that denotes a shift in alert status sounds like whalesong.
Having said all that you'd think we'd hated our pass through the campaign, but in truth there were moments when he had a smashing time. Some of the stealth sections are really exciting, and the level design is such that it's easy to pick your own path through one of impressively constructed sandbox environments. There's different tools and tricks to get you through certain sections, whether that's by creating diversions, setting explosive traps, or just picking up a rocket launcher and letting them have it.
There's the genuine option to go for close-quarters stealth with hushed take-downs and silenced pistol shots, or as before you can use sounds from the world around to mask your sniper fire, offering a chance for well-timed attacks as you thin the enemy forces in front of you. Also improved from the last game is the close-quarters combat. It's still tricky to battle when nearer to your enemies, but it feels less cumbersome than before and we died less during these exchanges.
It's not just humans that you're attacking. There's plenty of vehicles to take down, each with weak points that must be exploited, these often protected by armour. In fact, there's tank boss battles that punctuate many of the levels. When you're not taking down a heavily armoured vehicle, there's a nice variety of different objectives busy yourself with, whether that be rescue missions, providing cover, taking long shots, or destroying enemy assets. All told, there's plenty to do.
If it was just that though, we'd have probably been disappointed. Happily, that's not the case, and Rebellion has tried to broaden the appeal of Sniper Elite 3 by including a variety of different modes and options.
First up there's the opportunity to play through the campaign in co-op. For those looking for a two-player experience with a twist, sniper co-op may well be a good option. Alas, we're unable to offer a concrete opinion on whether co-op is better here, but we're hoping that's the case. We'll check it out post-launch, and if there's any issues, we'll update you.
There's a wave-based mode that can be tackled either with a friend or alone. Progress is saved so you can jump back into the game following your demise, giving you a second crack at the challenge. Increasing numbers of enemies join each new wave, and the challenge rises thus. There's two different maps that we've tried so far (there may be more that are unlocked as you level up further, or perhaps coming later as DLC), and they're surprisingly large. There's also separate asymmetrical 'overwatch' co-op missions where one player acts as spotter, and the other takes the shot. Again, we'll let you know if this mode doesn't come up to scratch once we've had a chance to buddy up.
Multiplayer is much tenser affair, although we played on less crowded servers than we'd have liked. Once the gates open this will no doubt improve immeasurably, but even with the lower player counts, the taut long-range gun battles that we took part in were a highlight.
The more players that featured in the games that we were able to play, the more fun we had. Using a slow-mo mode that's a handy feature from the campaign (where time slows, your aim steadies, and you get a little reticule that appears in your scope, giving you an accurate idea of where your bullet will land) can be a hinderance in PvP, as it flags your position for all to see, thus teaching you to master your rifle, gauging distances more accurately via the crosshair on your scope.
At this stage it feels a little light with regards to the number of maps, but the ones that are there are pretty big, full of windows and ledges to peek out of. There's the odd unstable surface/texture that can distract the eye, a particular problem when you're intently scanning the horizon in search of a victim, and more than once we ended up looking at a flickering shadow when we should have been seeking out the glint of an enemy scope off in the distance. It's not, however, a deal breaker.
There's a nice selection of modes as well, with solo and team deathmatch, plus a similar mode where it's not the number of kills that matters, but rather the distance at which you hit your enemies; the team/player with the furthest combined distance winning. There's another mode, similar to deathmatch, where a strip of no-man's land sits in the middle of the map, meaning players don't need to worry about being flanked and can keep their eyes on the horizon.
The strength of the multiplayer builds on already solid ground, and that's with lower numbers and an improvement still to come. There's some decent moments in the campaign, but the misjudged overuse of the killcam and some of the technical imperfections break the immersion and consistently nibbled away at our enjoyment. While the campaign is shorter, it's much broader, and as such collectors and completionists will have plenty to content themselves with.
However, it's multiplayer (and hopefully co-op - at least, we're glad of its inclusion, even if we didn't get to play it) that wins the day. We'll be keeping an eye on the servers to see how the scene evolves in time, but what's there already fleshes out the whole and makes for a more appealing overall package. If you're after a solo-adventure, it's worth bearing in mind that Sniper Elite 3 isn't perfect. But, if you've got a friend or two who are after some long-range multiplayer, we'd be far more inclined to give Rebellion's latest offering the nod of approval.