“They say of a sniper’s bullet that it if you hear it, then you are safe, because it will already have passed safely by. It is the ones that you don’t hear that do for you.”
In an era when new projects seem to span five genres, Rebellion is doubling down on what it does best in Sniper Elite 4. There aren’t any extended chase sequences or quicktime events showing Karl Fairburne engage in fisticuffs with Axis forces. Sniper Elite 4. Just more of the slow, calculating stealth shooter thousands of gamers have come to love over the years.
Sniper Elite 4 picks up shortly after the events of its predecessor. Following his success in North Africa, Lt. Karl Fairburne has been reassigned to Italy to help pave the way for the Allied invasion of September 1943. That means creeping deep behind enemy lines, where supplies are scarce and allies even moreso, to eliminate key Nazi personnel and military installations. The series’ core gameplay is largely unchanged, combining third-person stealth with some of the most satisfying sniping gameplay in recent memory. And a handful of improvements to the Sniper Elite 3 formula make SE4 one of the first great games of 2017.
Sniper Elite 4 is still stage-based but its maps are much larger than the environments from the first three games, a feat that’s even more impressive because the visuals also vastly exceed its predecessor. Each stage holds a combination of primary and secondary objectives, some of which you’ll only discover by exploring the level, which take anywhere from one to three hours to complete. The environments are refreshingly diverse and manage to sprawl without becoming boring or cookie-cutter. The newfound openness gives SE4 players more avenues to plot an attack... and more escape routes when the shit hits the fan.
Bigger maps aren’t the only improvement in Sniper Elite 4. Rebellion is well aware Sniper Elite’s killcam, which follows shots from rifle barrel to exit wound, is one of the series’ most popular features. So there are more triggers for X-ray shots in SE4. Players will see slow-motion shots of shrapnel and melee kills, along with camera cuts away anytime a trap is activated. The studio also found clever uses for the rumble features in modern gamepads, using pulses to mimic a heightened heart rate (after running) or a sustained rumble to let the player know when a nearby sound will mask rifle fire.
Sniper Elite 4 also requires a healthy amount of patience. For all the attention paid to the series’ trademark kill shots, anyone familiar with the franchise knows you’ll spend far longer crouched in tall grass and hiding in darkened corners than you will looking through your rifle’s scope. Few things will impact a player’s success more than their ability to hide effectively (or lack thereof). Careful planning will also save you the trouble of eluding Nazi search parties or relying on quick shots with the Welrod to elude enemy detection.
The franchise’s ever-expanding armory also gives both sides new options for killing each other in Sniper Elite 4. Nazi snipers are still hiding in each stage, usually with alternate weaponry and spare ammunition close by, and a plethora of firearms (from Lugers to panzerfausts) can be recovered from Nazi soldiers. But the series is called Sniper Elite for a reason. Karl’s rifle and his ability to stay out of sight remain the most reliable tools in his arsenal. Rebellion even takes a more realistic approach to suppressors -- which don’t actually make guns whisper-quiet -- by allowing soldiers to hear Karl’s suppressed rifle if he doesn’t maintain a reasonable distance.
Those who finish the Sniper Elite 4 campaign will likely do so in 10 to 20 hours, depending on personal skill and completionist tendencies, but anyone intent on 100 percenting the game could easily spend 30-plus. There are dozens more collectibles in Sniper Elite 4 then we saw in SE3, sometimes as many as 25-30 per mission. Documents run the gamut, from confidential plans and duty rosters to letters home, with some only recoverable when you kill the officer carrying it. And stone eagle statues scattered throughout each map, which must be shot by Karl, replace the sniper nests from Sniper Elite 3. Campaign aside, Sniper Elite 4 also includes a survival mode -- pitting Karl against waves of Nazi soldiers -- and multiplayer for the community's more competitive members. The Sniper Elite 4 campaign can also be finished cooperatively.
Sniper Elite 4 does have some problems. We’re not big fans of the game’s revamped loadout system, which “simplifies” gear customization by tying weapon upgrades directly to the player’s performance. None of the unlockable rifles in Sniper Elite 4 are an outright improvement over Karl’s first, and the gap only grows when upgrades enter the equation, leaving players with little incentive to abandon the rifle Karl carries onto San Celini Island. And there’s no reason to focus on unlocking the secondary weapons, handguns or consumables made available to Karl because they can all be looted from slain soldiers. We’re not sure why every Nazi carries an assortment of anti-tank and/or anti-personnel mines but the steady supply makes it easy to confidently begin every mission with the same set of healing items.
The game also has some rough edges we’re hoping to see smoothed in the weeks after launch. There were numerous times during the Sniper Elite 4 campaign when the UI indicated we had a lethal shot lined up, only for the bullet to mysteriously pass through its target and ricochet off the wall behind them. We also encountered weird pathfinding and vision cone issues when a noise, dead body or explosion draws the attention of Nazi soldiers. The optional challenges on each stage should also be made available from the start. Forcing players to complete a stage for that data, only to spend another few hours completing them, feels more like Rebellion trying to stretch existing content than well-considered game design. We'd also would've liked to see a few more distractions on each stage, like a special long shot to discover or more side missions, to give purpose to some of the excess empty space on each map.
Sniper Elite 4 probably won’t draw huge numbers of new fans to the franchise. It certainly won’t make the same inroads as the current standard bearer for third-person stealth action, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But the series is unparalleled in its ability to make players feel like a god among men with a rifle in our (digital) hands. Slowly crawling up an embankment to kill a Nazi officer from 200 meters out, while a busted generator sputters loudly enough to mask the shot, is about as good a feeling as you’ll get from a single-player shooter in 2017.
If you’re a longtime fan of the series, or just someone looking for a top-notch sniping experience without having to wade into competitive multiplayer, we can’t think of any reason to skip out on Sniper Elite 4. There’s still some room for improvement, mostly related to character progression, but Rebellion’s latest shooter excels in more ways than it stumbles. Anyone searching for a new tactical shooter to get them through the winter months could do much worse than Sniper Elite 4.
Sniper Elite 4 hits PS4, Xbox One and PC on Valentine’s Day.