Sure, punching Nazis may be fun, but have you have ever eviscerated one with a single bullet, flung from the dangerous end of a powerful sniper rifle by a shot taken from almost 300m away? How about shooting one in the skull with a bullet that travels so fast that it rips past a young Nazi soldier’s right eyeball, bursting it immediately while bone fragments rain down onto the cold hard ground. You haven’t, and you probably shouldn’t (IRL), but when it comes to Sniper Elite 4 the very act of doing so is a glorious fist-pumping moment full of enough drama and thrill that it’s a distinctive pleasure amongst the 50 or so other kills you’ve taken during the same mission.
Rebellion Developments‘ latest installment in their popular tactical shooter series is a violent outing during World War II to Nazi-occupied Italy, bringing back their characteristic slow-motion kill-cam for spectacularly gory and bone-crunching x-ray fun. The game’s winning feature also improves upon that of Sniper Elite 3 by getting rid of the annoyingly repetitive jet sound, making the bullet travel and enter various body parts in sharper more fluid motions (and accurate angles), and holding back on the exaggeration that made previous attempts a bit less believable. The result is as perfect as I think the feature will get, offering plenty of crunch to each and every kill and making it all the more rewarding when you, as the personality-poor Karl Fairburne, execute one of these skillful shots, taking in full consideration of factors such as the noise in your environment and – if you pick “Authentic” mode – wind lift and direction (although it’s all made fairly simple with a helpful reticle, at least if you’re playing in ‘normal’).
The sniping is artful and smooth, as expected for a game with the very method in it’s name, but the primary way of taking down Nazis isn’t the only thing that’s going to move units for Sniper Elite 4. This is literally an enormous improvement over the well-reviewed third title, and although it doesn’t offer any inventive leaps forward, the thought put into the narrative – as cliche as it is, weighed down by it’s dull protagonist – as well as the scale of the game, should satisfy loyalists and bring in a whole new set of fans.
Texture obviously benefits from new-gen tech, although Sniper Elite 4 is still fairly underwhelming when it comes to graphics and animation. Environments such as the sparkling coastal villages of San Cellini are expansive and offer plenty of ways to adjust play styles according to sharp twists and turns in situations (mainly which come about from not tagging enemies properly), but on the other hand you’ve got an explosion looking like it’s still stuck in previous generations, not speaking well for the game’s own engine. Still, any lack of quality in these areas is minor compared to the consistent gameplay and damn near perfect pacing of difficulty as you dive further and further into an attempt to liberate Italy one tactical advantage at a time.
Gathering intel for side missions and destroying powerful anti-aircraft guns is a common frame referred to again and again to keep you exploring these maps, but it would have helped to hide more pick-ups and craft a better skill tree than is offered. Rather, the options available to build your character don’t live up to the high level of customisation gamers these days have become accustomed too. However, Sniper Elite 4 steps in the right direction with two distinctive modes for each weapon (for guns mostly suppressed ammo vs standard ammo) as well as differences like muzzle velocity and stability that do make a noticeable – albeit tiny – impact on play styles. That step just isn’t large or significant enough.
The way you traverse the environment has also seen a great improvement, with Karl running faster, leaping quicker, climbing and shimmying his way to reach and discover vantage points, and escaping enemies efficiently even when the odds seemed stacked. But the odds are only really stacked if you approach this tactical shooter with impatience. Stealth is key, and having these traversal mechanics so central to each map helps a great deal as you navigate Karl through vast environments that often feel like three stages in one, full of situations you can manipulate the best way you see fit with access to devices like trip mines and regular ground mines (although just shooting everyone in sight often works much better).
Powerful binoculars are often your first point of call for each mission, tagging as many enemies as you can although it always turns out that you’ve missed quite a few. While most appear as yellow circles on the map whenever they are alerted to your presence – tagged or not – knowing where your enemy is and how you’re going to take him down is crucial. This is also fleshed out by a neat little detail which gives you names and a little bit of intel on each and every enemy you tag; I found myself feeling a bit bad for Lucas Hauer, a young Nazi solider of no particular consequence whom I tagged on the first map. Although not bad enough to not send a bullet straight to the centre of his brain and watch in painstaking slow-motion as it exited through the back of his skull while I stood 250m away.
Enemy AI is tight, but there are still stupid mistakes and unbelievable situations on regular difficulty – like when little time passes, the Nazis forget you were even there in the first place. This is made up for by different difficulty options, with even ‘normal’ bringing a great deal of challenges as enemies quickly triangulate bungled shots or track you down after they find a fallen comrade. “Authentic” is on a whole new level, presenting you with a much meatier game and enemy AI which actually makes sense.
Tightening a few loose ends from Sniper Elite 3 as well as using new-gen to help ramp up the scale in each map has seemed to work wonders for this new title. Fans of the series will take to it like butter on bread, and as mentioned there’s good chance this will winning more gamers over as long as they are looking for a fun, uncomplicated tactical shooter that atones for it’s lackluster character progression and average-for-the-time graphics with plenty of gun action, meaty gameplay and most of all comprehensive missions that you can choose to tackle in a variety of ways.
Highlights: X-ray sniper kills feel dramatic and rewarding; freedom to tackle the mission your way; able to set situations up with various devices and watch them play out; improved traversal mechanics; larger maps mean more immersive missions and more comprehensive gameplay; the European settings.
Lowlights: Graphics look dated at times (especially explosions); skill tree very dull and unexciting; lack of character progression; predictable storyline; repetitive side missions.
Developer: Rebellion Developments
Publisher: Rebellion Developments
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.