Sniper Elite III arrives to what might arguably be termed a “meh” sort of a pedigree. While the series to date has attracted some attention with its splashy camera gimmick, the games themselves have been somewhat middling efforts, saddled with some lacklustre stealth mechanics, and perhaps by the fact that shooting Nazis is so last century. Kudos must then go Rebellion Developments for stepping things up a notch for the third entry in the series, which offers improvements over its predecessor in almost every department, and attempts to answer the criticisms that have been levelled at previous games.
Sniper Elite III sticks with Sniper V2’s protagonist, gravel-voiced OSS sociopath Karl Fairburne, but jumps back in time as he’s being dropped off in North Africa with British forces in 1942 (since presumably British snipers aren’t up to scratch). “Most of these men will soon be dead,” Karl growls unconcernedly about his less superhuman colleagues, demonstrating within 20 seconds of the start of the game that he’s still (or rather, was still) the personality-free-zone that was on display in V2’s 1945. And indeed, players looking for a bit of a levity in their gaming should probably bail now, since this sets the oh-so-serious tone for the game ahead, which at times is so straight-faced it seems to border on parody.
Sniping here is not all point and shoot. Wind and distance can affect the player’s aim at higher difficulty levels, and Karl can hold his breath for a limited time when sighting down his scope to slow down time and steady his gently wobbling sight. Scoring nearly any kill triggers the series’ signature eye-watering (or exploding) sniper-kill cam, and with the circulatory system and more musculature added to the x-ray models, it now almost feels only a mushrooming bullet short of being used as crime scene reconstruction software.
Spectacularly tracking each fatal bullet fired in flight, the camera whips across the battlefield and into an internal view of the projectile’s unfortunate target to show bones being broken, organs obliterated, faces imploded, and brain matter strewn far and wide over the African scrubland.
As many times as you see this happening during play, it remains grimly fascinating each time, and is sure to induce many sympathetic winces. It also ensures that Sniper Elite III is not a game you should be playing when your Grandma comes over.
Karl makes large numbers of these kills from sniper nests – a new feature for the series that are part of the third game’s much more open-world approach.
Marked on each level map, these overlook spots provide a strategic field of fire and good cover, and Karl can choose to make use of them or not as he sees fit. Levels are very large and movement unrestricted, so the player decides on their own best route to the mission objective, with V2’s annoying invisible walls and locked doors happily mostly absent.
Scouting around the large areas with binoculars before probing defences and finally deciding on the best way forward to the target certainly succeeds in making the player feel like a stealthy commando. As in previous games, it can also be fun to range around the map setting up traps along likely enemy reinforcement routes. However, although it may seem a strange complaint, some levels are almost too large. Some areas of each level are inevitably little-visited backwaters away from the action, and the game’s collectibles offer little incentive for further exploring.
Karl does his sneaking under the auspices of an improved stealth and detection system, which now falls firmly into the ‘okay’ category. Enemy sightlines make more sense, and enemy suspicion and alert indicators are much more intuitive than they were in V2, although the enemy’s collective hearing seems to be annoyingly and weirdly acute at times.
A concept new to the series is relocation: firing once from an unseen position has enemies alerted to your rough whereabouts, and after a third shot from an unchanged location, every nearby enemy will have Karl pinpointed. However, if he fires once, then legs it 30 metres to a new location, he can keep enemy soldiers guessing.
It’s a good idea, but what it often means is firing, running the required distance until the Nazis have forgotten that someone drilled a colleague of theirs through both kidneys 15 seconds ago, then heading back to the original spot to pick someone off again.
This is just one of the smaller trophies in the game’s Cabinet of Axis Ineptitude, though. While any game with stealth mechanics requires a certain suspension of disbelief, guards here are happy to stand tall and still even knowing Karl’s in their midst, climb to a ladder that he’s waiting at the top of with a sub-machine gun, or return to their patrol with a bullet wound to the chest.
Let’s add their occasional failure to die respectably to the trophy case as well, with the odd physics glitch causing corpses to flop about like a recently-landed fish.
Axis goons will overwhelm and gun or grenade Karl dead in pretty short order if given a chance though, making a run-and-gun approach a hard option. Karl’s heartbeat, which picks up when he has to exert himself with running or climbing, also comes into play.
If it gets up over 80 beats per minute, he can no longer hold his breath when aiming, making it much more difficult to be accurate, and this adds an interesting extra element to manage that makes the style of open combat play less run-and-gun and more run-stop-take-five-gun. At the higher difficulty settings at least, it can be more efficient to simply load a save if the sniper’s cover is completely blown.
The campaign story is very bare-bones, and it’s safe to say anyone that’s played a few WW2 games will be familiar with its basic premise. Add the deadly serious tone and the unlikeable protagonist to the mix and it’s clear no-one will be drawn to Sniper Elite III for its stunning storytelling, although what narrative is there serves efficiently enough to keep Karl moving around Africa and shooting people.
Here the setting is at least something of a positive; relatively little-covered by the approximately 400 million WW2 games to date, the African theatre makes for something of a comparative change of scene, and is realised competently with decent presentation of night deserts, scrubland, and local building styles that offer a bit of variation to the standard era fare.
An individual challenge mode extends the life of the campaign maps a bit, while multiplayer comes in both co-op and competitive. The co-op campaign makes coordinating a stealthy approach tricky, but adds to the gratification when a plan is well-executed, and players can also team up in Wave Mode and Overwatch, with one spotter and one sniper.
There are five competitive multiplayer modes, including a “no cross” mode which eliminates any possibility of close quarters combat. Needless to say, in this sniper-focused game, enjoyment of the competitive multiplayer probably depends on one’s own tolerance for being suddenly and repeatedly shot dead without warning, although of course there’s also plenty of schadenfreude to be had if you inflict this fate on an opponent first.
Sniper Elite III isn’t going to be the entry that tips this game series into highest echelons just yet, but it’s a definite improvement on its predecessor. The game continues to do sniping in highly entertaining fashion while making improvements in other areas, and if the series can stick to this trend, we could be in for something truly memorable with future releases. In the meantime, Sniper Elite III delivers some hours of solid fun, especially for those shooter fans who always seem to find themselves looking down a scope no matter what game they’re playing.