The sniper - respected and despised. In online games there is nothing worse than getting shot over and over again by the same illusive sniper from a far, but at the same time we'd love to put ourselves in that same position and knock our foes off one after another.
Polish developers City Interactive realised that there was a bit of an opening in the shooter market for a dedicated sniper experience. Not an entirely novel idea, but in the backwaters of the Battlefields and Modern Warfares of the world, Sniper: Ghost Warrior managed a very respectable two millions in sales worldwide. A massive feat considering the below average critical reception the title received (Metacritic scores PC - 55/100, Xbox 360 - 45/100, PS3 53/100).
For the sequel the developers obviously had a big list of improvements they wanted to make based on the feedback they had received. They switched over to Cry Engine and the graphics are definitely a notch above the first game, even if it's not quite on Crysis levels. They removed the criticised "run and gun" sections, and built the game entirely with stealth and sniping in mind. They wanted to create more variation, and at first they thought they'd do away with jungle altogether, but as they started using Cry Engine they thought it'd be a shame not to get some jungles in there and as such the game is made up of urban, jungle, and mountain environments. There are binoculars with which you can tag enemies (practical both when you're sniping multiple target and when you're trying to sneak past them), and thermal vision in later levels.
The game starts out with our sniper, Colin Anderson, on mission in Sarajevo during the Balkan Wars in 1993. His mission is simply to document the atrocities that are commited, but as he is captured along with his mentor Maddox, the risk of a major international incident forces him into action.
As Anderson escapes from his holding cell he is given instructions and information on how to progress, a theme that seems to go through the game. You're given objectives along the way, and you can choose to solve them in a number of different ways. General rule of thumb: lots of targets - try and avoid them. Close and lonely target - try for a quick stealth kill. Lonely target far away - pull out your sniper rifle.
Producer Michal Sroczynski from City Interactive tells me how they wanted to implement sniper duels with some major distance in them, which allows for the delicate ballistic system to come more into play. Wind, distance, and time are three elements you need to consider any time you line up a shot. In the easy mode a red dot will present itself where the bullet will hit, but at harder difficulties it's up to you to estimate how the condition will affect your shot.
What happens next is a rare, and rather uplifting breath of fresh air. I ask producer Michal Sroczynski about the story and why Colin finds himself in Sarajevo. The short reply from the developer, pretty much details the entire narrative structure of the game in a minute. I find myself shellshocked.
"Maybe I said a bit too much," says Michal Sroczynski.
"Yeah, probably," I reply, "You pretty much said it all."
"You know I'm just a simple developer from Warsaw, they tell me to go here and talk about the game, but it's probably best you don't write all of that," Michal Sroczynski continues.
"I think I would be in as much trouble with my readers as you would be", I smooth things as I try and end the somewhat awkward exchange on a positive note.
Spoilers aren't to be taken lightly, and what I heard is nothing you want to know too much about before you actually get in there and play the game. There is no PR rep in the room, and it's the kind of relaxed atmosphere any journalist would want for a demo/hands-on opportunity. But too much information can be a terrible thing.
What I can reveal is that Sniper: Ghost Warrior 2 has a nicely laid out narrative arc that at least holds the potential for an interesting story, it's kept fairly personal and away from politics and major conflicts even if the game starts out in the midst of the war in former Yugoslavia.
Next up I get to try the game myself in a later mission when Anderson finds himself in the modern day jungles of the Philippines. There is thermal vision to rely on (wonderful), even if you have to be quick about it as the battery runs out rather quickly and needs recharging. With a spotter on my side I'm taking out some thugs and weapon dealers, picking up intelligence along the way. It's a slow crawl and it takes a bit of patience to line up the perfect shots. One instance, where I can glean a second enemy on the other side of a shed through a crack with the thermal vision goggles stands out. I make the double kill, and our trek through the jungle carries on.
What's interesting in a game like this, which could easily become a bit of a shooting gallery if you do everything according to the rules, is when you think outside the box a bit. What happens if I shoot this person here and ignore the advice of my spotter, and what if I take out the guy to the left and not to the right? Or what if I shoot at that guy's hand grenade?
There is obviously a significant market out there for a dedicated sniper game, the question remains whether City Interactive can deliver a better game than they did the last time around.