Reviewed: December 7, 2005
Released: October 18, 2005
One shot, one kill. That’s all there is to it. Snipers live and die by those four words. No mere rifleman, the sniper is a specialist in the truest sense, meticulously trained and carefully deployed for maximum effect on the field of battle. In an army of swords he is the scalpel, and in the right place at the right time he can achieve more than a fleet of ships or a battalion of tanks. He has one chance to get it right. And so do you. Can you swallow your fears and keep calm long enough to pull the trigger? You’re about to find out.
Sniper Elite puts you behind the sights of one such specialist, alone, facing not one but two hostile armies in the closing hours of World War II. For fans of the “Medal of Honor” games that may sound like familiar territory. But look closer. Namco has raised the stakes with this one, crafting an altogether tougher and more realistic style of play, more raw and uncompromising than anything we’ve seen in EA’s glitzy FPS series. So bring a steady hand and nerves of steel because you only get one shot, and it better be good.
The premise of “Sniper Elite” comes from the “so scary it might just be true” file. It’s April, 1945. The Allies have yet to triumph against the beleaguered German army, yet you, as an American sniper in the Office of Strategic Services, are called upon to fire the first shots of the Cold War. As Stalin’s forces draw nearer to Berlin, you are deployed into the chaotic line of scrimmage to stop the Russians from finding the Nazi’s top secret atom bomb program, including the specs for the powerful V2 rockets. To do this you must stalk through the bombed out husk of Hitler’s empire and accomplish a laundry list of mission objectives that include the rescuing foreign agents, destroying armories and ammo dumps, and eliminating high profile Soviet officers. If you’re spotted, you’ll be pursued not only by soldiers but tanks, half-tracks, and anything else that might have a clear shot.
Impatient gamers take note: Stealth is critical to your success. You will spend more time getting into position and lining up a good shot than you ever will actually fighting the enemy. This is the whole point of the game. There are explosives and short range weapons available for use, but they are meant only as a last resort. Your rifle is your salvation, and if you use it right you can clear a path to your objectives with relative ease. That means ducking for every available cover, using binoculars to scout the path ahead, watching for (or avoiding) enemy patrols, and using your surroundings to conceal yourself long enough to take your shot.
Borrowing a page from “Metal Gear Solid 3”, you will be aided by some camouflage attire and a camo index that indicates how well you blend in with your surroundings, though be warned that even if you appear well concealed you are NOT invisible. No matter how well hidden you may be, firing a shot will require you to move to another firing position, as guards will quickly wise up and draw a bead on you if you linger in one place too long.
The science behind a successful shot is more realistic than any game I’ve ever seen. In addition to the obvious necessity of a clear field of fire, you must also account for stance, gravity, wind speed and direction, and even your heart rate. You can shoot standing, crouching, or lying down, but the more of your body you expose the more likely you are to be seen. Shooting standing up allows for the widest field of fire, but it also creates the unsteadiest aim of the three positions. Lying prone is the safest bet, but it means slower movement and a smaller field of fire. You may have to wait several minutes for your target to appear only to have a few seconds to take him down. You must be every bit as conscious of your own position as you are of your target’s.
The farther away your enemy is the higher you must aim to compensate for the natural drop of the bullet as it flies. For an especially long shot this could mean aiming your crosshairs six virtual inches above your foe’s head in order to hit him between the eyes. To strike a moving target you must “lead” it – aim at where he WILL be instead of where he is – and adjust your lead depending on how far away you are. A meter on your HUD indicates the speed and direction of the wind. To get the bullet to where you want it to go, you must aim slightly east if the wind is blowing west and vice versa, and aim farther in the opposite direction depending on how fast the wind is blowing. Once you’re ready to fire, you can command your sniper to exhale, emptying his lungs and buying you about a two-second window when your aim will be rock steady…but only if your pulse is regular. Draw fire, get hit, or spend too much time running and your heart will quicken and the empty lung trick won’t work.
NOW you’re ready to pull the trigger. Err even slightly and you’ll miss or only wound your target, alerting the enemy to your presence and making your second shot infinitely harder. If it sounds maddeningly difficult, it is. But, like high school, doing it right the first time will make life easier in the long run. It takes some practice and a judicious bit of trial and error, but eventually you’ll become proficient enough to aim with some skill and strike your targets on a regular basis. If you pull off a particularly good shot, your view will switch to a slow-mo “bullet cam” showing you in gruesome detail just where you struck your unlucky prey. This initially seems a bit gory, but with practice you discover this feature helps give you a better sense of where exactly your bullet was going relative to where you thought you were aiming, allowing you to adjust accordingly for even more effective hits.
You’ve got an authentic WWII-era arsenal at your disposal, including the MG42 heavy machine gun, a P-38 pistol with silencer, some nasty tripwire grenades (for luring the enemy into an ambush), and of course your rifles, of which you’ll eventually wield three. As an added challenge, the other two rifles have different specs and higher levels of zoom from your default rifle, increasing your killing range but requiring a whole new set of all-in-your-head calculations to achieve the same level of accuracy. A headshot with the German-made Gewehr 43, for example, is easy enough because it only has a 2x level of magnification. Scoring the same head shot with the Russian-made Mosin-Nagant with a 6x magnification demands that you aim WAY above your target’s head since you can shoot from that much farther away. Whew! A shooting range mode would be appreciated in “Sniper Elite.” Sadly, there is none. Baptism by fire, baby!
Once you get the hang of sniping, you can attempt some advanced techniques. If you’re observant, you might find a spot where several guards line up in your sights all at once, and you can take them all down with just one bullet, saving the American taxpayers precious tenths of a cent. If the Soviets are toting around in a jeep, you can pop a round into their gas tank and watch the fireworks. You can even shoot an enemy’s grenade off his belt and blast him and any nearby comrades to kingdom come.
A handy search function lets you loot the bodies of your fallen foes, providing you with ammo and perhaps even some TNT, ideal for disabling roving tanks. Obviously the more exotic and theatrical you get with your attacks the more you risk exposing yourself to enemy fire. Avoid this at all costs since you can only endure a few wounds, and medical kits are a precious commodity.
The controls of “Sniper Elite” are excellent. All commands are streamlined to allow fast, intuitive reaction to any situation. You can crouch, crawl, stand, and run in an instant, and a really convenient feature in the Options menu lets you switch automatically from your binoculars to your sniper scope without having to readjust your aim. Using items is a snap since you can scroll through your inventory with the D-pad and are limited to only a few luggable items at any one time (i.e. one pistol, one machine gun, etc.) A handy compass keeps track of your direction, and some just-the-facts maps point out primary and secondary objectives with minimal chance of getting lost.
One of the best features is that you can save your game at any time during play, but you are allotted only a few saves each mission. This makes the save data function just another challenging aspect of resource management, so critical to the success of your mission (Sidebar: check your memory card before playing. Each save file demands a whooping 1400kb!).
The life of an OSS sniper is not an easy one. Success in the first mission will result in increasingly resilient foes. Russian Black Beret commandos, for example, will work in pairs to flush you out, one drawing your fire while the other sneaks up to box your ears. Advance far enough and the Ruskies will deploy their own expert sniper to take you out, resulting in some serious cat-and-mouse dueling across great distances.
“Sniper Elite” also features a two-player mode in which a buddy can act as your spotter, pointing out targets and covering you while you take aim. This is a truly excellent, exciting alternative to single player mode and every bit as much fun as the lone wolf missions, if not more so. For a real blast have a buddy position himself at the opposite end of a street and see who can hit the same target first.
These graphics are evocative and effective, very cold, dark, and chaotic, and it looks great. Take one look at the ruined husk of the city around you and immediately you sense the gravity of your situation and how very alone you are. The muted, dusty color palate captures the uncertainty of the dawn of the Cold War, a grim but pivotal moment when allies were turning into enemies and nothing would ever be black and white again. Primary reds, blues, and yellows are nowhere to be found, deferring to lots of iron gray, drab brown, and faded Army green. Well-rendered rain and nicely textured clouds add to the ugly, war-weary feel of the setting.
Level design also contributes to the grim almost-reality. The streets are awash in rubble, the buildings – large and nicely detailed – are gutted, every window shattered, pocked by countless bullet holes, even wallpaper peeling in the eerie dark hallways. The little things are the best. Take your eyes away from your scope long enough to look toward the sky and you’ll see scores of Allied bombers high overhead and, eventually, a fighter crashing in front of you, obliterating your escape route.
There can be a little choppiness and some pixilation when using your scope, especially if you zoom in at extreme range or try to look at too much all at once, but for the most part the view is clean and resolution maintained. There is a good ratio between open spaces and tight spots, though it does seem that some of the buildings intentionally conspired to box you in, and you may find a computer-generated dead end in which enemies may come and go, but you’re stopped in your tracks.
Cutscenes are short and sweet, telling you what you need to know without trying to top Spielberg. Kudos to whoever painted your character’s face for the close-ups, however, since his camouflage gives him a quiet, deadly look that matches his mission.
Another real highlight is the physics of enemy movement. It is rare to find computer-controlled enemies that move as naturally and fluidly as these do, and who attack and defend so realistically it feels as though the model makers studied an Army field manual. Enemy reactions to being shot also seem true-to-life – they don’t just slump over and die. They stagger, limp, crawl, and huddle for cover and make it obvious they’re not out of the fight. What is so effective about this kind of motion capture work and detailed character modeling is that it adds to the sense of realism without making the game needlessly gory.
Incredibly, “Sniper Elite” derives as much effect from what you DON’T hear as what you do. Though your accomplishments are punctuated with some rousing John Williams-esque scores, music during play is muted and sparse. But without music you find yourself listening for anything you CAN hear, like the deceptively nearby rumble of a Soviet tank or the cracking rapport of an enemy rifle seeking you out. In a game like this it’s infinitely more effective than the generic background music, and at times the tension created by all that nothing is unbearable. Like other games where stealth is critical, sound is a crucial element of the gameplay. You must be conscious of when to run, when to stalk, when to lie still and not make a peep, and above all, when to pull the trigger, since your shot (none of the rifles are silenced –sorry!) will wake up the neighborhood.
The voice work is unremarkable, but the effects are jarring and realistic. However, it is in this same department that I must confess an annoying shortcoming in “Sniper Elite”: the effects, while not awful, are noticeably limited and repetitive. The missions seem to be peppered with no more than a half dozen overlapping and endlessly looping sounds without pause or variety: Soviet rocket barrages (that sound like angry elephants), Russian curses, propellers, gunfire, and maybe an explosion, all day and all night. It is the only component that made me step out of the experience of “Sniper Elite” and made me aware that I was playing a game. Honestly, it was a bit annoying. A game like this that is striving for realism should have a more versatile soundboard. Optimists, chalk it up as yet another distraction you must overcome. Everyone else, turn down your volume.
There is a at least one good thing the replay value of a sniper-themed game: no matter how good you get, you can always be better. Score a headshot at 200 yards? Big deal. Try 300 yards. Now do it with another rifle. Oh, and do it without being spotted – not once – for the entire mission. A stat system keeps track of your Points of Fame, listing highlights like longest headshot, best moving target hit, most multiple kills, and lots of others. Of all the things you can do in “Sniper Elite” the best incentive to keep playing is simply to make yourself the best sniper you can be.
Unfortunately the replay value will slowly decrease as you A) become a better sniper and B) become familiar with the missions. Enemy positions are always the same on every level of difficulty, so simply remembering where they’ll be will make your second or third run-through much, much easier. But with 28 missions to accomplish and an excellent 2 player mode, there will always be room for improvement. Expect some missions to take longer than an hour and others closer to 20 minutes, and budget some time for some trial and error. You can also take advantage of the online multiplayer component (Broadband Ethernet only) to play some seriously deadly tag with your buddies in Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Assassination modes.
An important thing to keep in mind is that the thought and detail that went into this game really makes it worthy of a genre unto itself: the sniping genre. If that’s something you as a gamer can get behind, then you will definitely find the admission worth the price.
I’m not sure what I expected when I played “Sniper Elite” for the first time, but I definitely turned it off feeling impressed. There is a little bit of “Medal of Honor” here and some “SOCOM” as well, but really this game has an identity all its own with a unique mood and feel. It isn’t the most challenging war title I’ve ever played but it is one of the grittiest, and likely to be the standard by which all future sniping games will be measured.
Don’t try this one if you favor the rocket launcher over the rifle – you won’t get far. But if you’re willing to invest the time and effort to do it right, you’ll find “Sniper Elite” a high tension, heart pounding, and exciting game with some seriously versatile challenges and a respectable replay value. So remember: one shot, one kill. And don’t forget to breathe when it’s over.