We recently got our hands on the much anticipated fourth instalment in the Sniper Elite franchise (not counting the zombies-themed spinoff), trying out a level that involves a bridge, shooting soldiers, and much sneaking around. Although the gunplay was obviously the focal point, there was much more to see during our time with the game.
One thing that really sticks out is that being a sniper is by no means easy. Although several aspects of the game help the player in achieving their goal, such as the bullet drop indicator when shooting, this isn't one for those who love tearing through enemies with ease. Being discovered means big trouble, and enemies will outnumber and kill you if they're given the chance. If a mistimed shot rings out then nearby guards will be alerted to your presence, leaving you in a spot of bother as you then progress through an area full of mightily annoyed Nazi soldiers.
So for those expecting an experience where you simply pick off guards from range and watch their bones shatter and organs explode, know that this game has far more tactical depth to it. To prevent a situation like the one detailed above, players need to time their shots and make each one count. In the demo we played there was a rumbling noise (likely from nearby machinery) from somewhere which gave us a prime opportunity to cover the noise of our rifle, also meaning we had to take the shot quickly but efficiently. Missing, after all, dramatically increases the risk of alerting enemies, which makes your job a whole lot harder.
Difficulty also applies to the other areas of combat that don't involve sniping at a distance. Always engage in close combat with caution, not only because ammunition is limited but also because the guns handle in a more realistic way than most shooters. The automatic rifle we held, for instance, had so much kickback that we had to really focus on hitting one person, let alone a swarm of them.
The good thing about Sniper Elite 4, though, as with the other games in the series, is that close combat doesn't need to be an option if you take the time to plan your route. There are a whole host of traps and equipment available to help the player, all on a very simple selection wheel. Traps can be set, explosives can be used, and creativity and forward-thinking is rewarded. We can easily imagine that a player can get through a lot of encounters by combining long-range sniping with traps and stealth, rarely needing to come face-to-face with any Nazis at all.
That's not to say combat at close range is off limits. True, machine guns and pistols won't take down an army of enemies, but with careful aiming and patience all of the weapons we saw could be used to good effect. Also, melee kills have had an upgrade, with more animations and a new x-ray kill-cam added, similar to the series' signature move that we normally see when sniping, giving that extra bit of grittiness to close encounters with enemy soldiers. For those who take satisfaction from this grizzly visual flourish, this will come as a welcome addition.
In terms of level design, many have seen the area that was playable in the demo, and it plays very much as you would expect. You can start sniping from the opening section overlooking the bridge, but that's a sure way to start alerting people, so it is more advisable to sneak round and find a way through. Of course all around you is guarded by soldiers, so this is no easy task, as we found out from our multiple deaths, one of which involved being rushed and flanked by enemy soldiers while we were behind cover.
We found there were just enough buildings and cover in the level to allow players to take their time, switching from cover to cover quickly, but not too much where it started to feel like Gears of War. Cover here feels natural in its placement and the layout of the level we saw was challenging, with lots of open spaces for enemies to spot you in. Time and care has to be taken if you're not to be seen, then, although the game gives you all the tools to do this, especially since you can see enemies on the mini map.
The detection system works really well too. As with many stealth games, the interface highlights where you were last spotted both in-game and on the mini map, so you can work out where enemies will be heading. We found that the enemy's ability to spot you was also reasonable, as being out of cover more often than not rapidly filled the detection meter at least to yellow, as ground troops and snipers started noticing where you were. It didn't fill up too quickly, though, meaning that there is just that little bit of forgiveness if you're a bit sloppy moving out of cover.
In terms of the sniping itself, when you hit the target you still see the x-ray footage of the bullet tearing enemy insides apart, shattering bones on the way, and the extension of this to melee kills will likely be welcomed by fans. Slow-mo bullets also return. In fact, everything that makes Sniper Elite iconic is still very much at the heart of the experience. These are complimented by features like being able to go prone, the smooth interface, and showing bullet drop to get the perfect shot away. The sniping in general is therefore not only accessible but rewarding, even if it hasn't been changed too much from past instalments.
Visually, the level we played looks good, but it remains to be seen how good it can really get. For a game set in Italy, the parts we saw were relatively dull. Sure, the valley beneath us was gorgeous in terms of its size, but in colour it all looked a bit normal, a bit commonplace. What Rebellion continues to do with 1943 Italy will define the look of this title, but considering the trailers and screenshots already released we expect that they'll deliver.
Going back to the size of the map, this demo was clearly built to show off this particular aspect of the game. It's no accident that we were placed on a vantage point overlooking the sprawling valley beneath, a goliath bridge stretching out and connecting the two sides. This part of the demo was what seriously impressed us. The developers have made no secret about the dramatic size increase in this game in comparison to earlier instalments (and the sandboxes in Sniper Elite 3 were quite big), and series fans will be very pleased by the opportunities that such vast open spaces give them.
It should be noted that the demo had quite a few bugs, such as enemy soldiers running into objects and so on, but that's fine considering the game still has some time to go before launch (it's hitting PC, PS4 and Xbox One on February 14). What's important is that it shows great promise and sniper enthusiasts should enjoy what it offers next year. If everything continues in the direction as shown by the demo, especially in terms of level design and the huge, open areas, then Sniper Elite's return should be a valiant one.