Say what you like about Karl Fairburne – that he's a mostly personality-free, ruggedly cookie-cuttered, rifle-firing automaton, for example – but the man knows how to collapse a lung. The eponymous star of Rebellion's Sniper Elite series has been on a Tour de Skull-Popping for some years now, making Nazi-massacring stops in Berlin in 1945 and then North Africa in 1942, and now here he is in Italy in 1943 with Sniper Elite 4.
As always, Karl's got a job to do, and he's not intimidated that the description for that job on SEEK was: "Are you a dynamic go-getter with a can-do attitude, great interpersonal skills and key competencies in shooting things? We're an innovative and exciting new group of Allied nations looking for someone to single-handedly win World War II."
Sniper Elite is a series that has shown continual incremental improvement, and sticking with this trajectory, the fourth is the best entry to date. Sniper Elite 4 wisely chooses to double down on the more open-world nature that Sniper Elite 3 brought to the series by dropping Karl into large, Nazi-infested bits of Italian countryside and towns, providing primary and second objectives, and leaving the order and methods of tackling them up to the player. Karl's variously tasked with the assassination of high-ranking Nazi officers, recovering intelligence, assisting Italian partisans, and destroying German war matériel, and to his own one-track mind, there aren't many of these he can't pull off by shooting stuff from a long way away.
The raison d'etre of the series – it's trademark spectacular, grisly, and cinematic slow motion x-ray kill cams – are, naturally, back. Leaving you in very little doubt as to exactly where your fatal bullet went in, where it came out, and what it went through in between, they're as brutal as ever, and almost endlessly arresting. Making the most of its hero mechanic, Rebellion has also dropped the kill cam onto melee and explosion kills, allowing you to track individual bits of shrapnel as they shred organs, or marvel at the devastating power of Karl's right cross, which tends to shatter jawbones like they were made of Lego.
Many other systems also return from previous games; using loud noises in the environment to mask the sound of your rifle, setting traps via an array of devious explosives, and lobbing rocks to divert the attention of the enemy. It also still pays for Karl to survey the surroundings with his binoculars in order to plan his approach – this allows him to tag enemies and keep visual tracks on them. This time out, tagging even provides personal "intelligence" details of the man you're marking for death, like the year they joined the German army, details of their troubled childhood, or the nickname their squadmates have given them (because apparently the Allies somehow have this information, and Karl has somehow memorised the faces of every Wehrmacht soldier in Italy).
Tapping a button to empty Karl's lungs once again slows down time a little bit and, assuming you're playing with the game's bullet physics on, provides a convenient non-physical crosshair that shows you where your shot will actually end up after the effects of gravity and wind – essential for landing shots of any real distance. Working Karl hard via plenty of cardio or holding his breath for too long ups his heart rate and makes activating this feature impossible until the sniper's own cool down though, upping the stakes when running around trying to make snapshots and during open firefights, and drawing out tension as you wait for a covering noise to make a shot as Karl's heart rate steadily increases.
It's in its various new improvements though that Sniper Elite 4 does much to make the game a more rounded experience. Perhaps most notably, this entry gives Karl the ability to hide himself in foliage for the first time, leading to tense moments reminiscent of the Assassin's Creed games as you roadie-run between bits of shrubbery when the second guards turn their back, or stay veeeeeery still in your bush as oblivious soldiers stroll past, mere metres away. It's just one of a suite of improved environment traversal options for your sniper that now include leaping over gaps, dangling unseen from ledges, climbing up certain walls, and slipping silently through certain windows.
The game still uses a few unimposing-seeming barriers to herd the player around the map a little bit – Karl may be able to pick out an eyeball from 300 metres, but he's stumped when it comes to getting over certain types of low wooden fence. But generally, these options do much to add to the viability of playing the game in pure stealth mode. Making your way between decent sniper spots has often been a bit of a painful slog in previous games, but you feel a lot more like a stealthy commando when you're now able to climb up a ledge behind an unsuspecting Nazi and knife him between the ribs.
As with seemingly every third-person action game in the history of the medium, there's the odd janky moment when the laws of physics get very confused about what should be happening when two bodies get too close together, and you may occasionally long for the ease of something like Assassin's Creed's "auto take-down from the bushes" manoeuvre, as executing such an execution is often a bit finicky here. Nevertheless, it's certainly a series high point for the non-sniping bits of the game.
Going loud can be fun too. The maps are large enough that pockets of Nazis can be engaged in different ways without bringing absolutely everyone down on your head, so you might choose to sneak carefully through a village, ping your target in the head and sneak off again, leaving only confused fascists in your wake. You could then head somewhere else and start lobbing grenades and pelting people down with your trusty Tommy gun St Valentine's Day Massacre-styles, with gunplay that feels more tightly executed than what we've seen before in the series.
Karl's not particularly impervious to bullets, and enemy soldiers are able to coordinate fairly effectively once your cover has been blown, so a Commando-style approach that truly recalls Arnold Schwarzenegger can be difficult to pull off. But with assistance from his devious range of explosives and AI that still has a bit of a tendency to default to "He went around that corner! I'll just blindly rush round after him!", Karl is definitely able shoot his way out of trouble.
In between dropping Nazis, Karl can hunt out collectibles scattered around sunny (or occasionally moonlit) Italy, some of which have some gameplay benefits. Search an officer's body, for example, and you might find a letter detailing patrols that automatically tags all soldiers in a certain area for you. Or, you might luck upon the code to a safe. More often, though, you'll come across personal letters from soldiers, many of which are surprisingly poignant in a game like this that exists to glorify Nazi-killing. It leads to weird moments when you revel in another of the game's spectacular slow-mo kills, then search your victim's body and find an undelivered letter that says "I just want to come home to you and the children". Sorry, kids – Karl just put a hole right through Daddy's liver.
Sadly, this is pretty much as close as the game comes to meaningful storytelling, as the campaign is saddled with an oh-so-familiar Nazi superweapon storyline, but more crippingly, by Fairburne himself, who remains the personality black hole that he's been from day one. The man may be able to shoot stuff good, but he displays a narrower range of emotional states than our pet chicken, who can at least manage "hungry" and "alarmed". His gravelly voice actor turns in a performance that sounds like the only direction he received was "Can you make it more generic?" – although to be fair, he's not given much to work with.
The narrative makes an attempt to parachute some interest in via characters from the Italian partisans and even the mafia, but there's not much play here thanks to flat characters and familiar situations. Oh well. At least Italy is very pretty, and if there's not quite enough variation to your mission objectives, the varied terrain (railway bridge, Nazi fortresses, mountain monasteries) gameplay and trying to complete optional mission challenges are enough to stop things from getting too samey.
The single-player campaign is definitely the drawcard here, but an almost surprisingly robust multiplayer suite is a bit of a welcome bonus too, as is a firing range, which is a good place for Karl to practice learning to shoot without the aim assists. Full disclosure: I've never been a great fan of the experience of having some dude halfway across the map drill me in the head without me having even seen them, and so the competitive multiplayer modes on offer in Sniper Elite 4 where the entire concept revolves around trying do just that were not my personal cup of tea.
However, even a hater can appreciate the interest of the "No Cross" game type (which puts an uncrossable barrier between both sides and sets up a sniping war between them), and the different type of thinking required for Distance King, in which the winning team is not the one that makes the most kills, but has the greatest total kill distance. (I can also appreciate that maybe all the multiplayer sniping fans will congregate in these modes and stay out of other games I play. Dreams are free.)
Much more interesting, though, is Sniper Elite 4's take on your classic Horde mode. Survival has up to four players attempting to hold off increasingly tough waves of Hitler's minions. Sniping is to the fore big-time here and finding a good position is key – and then the game cruelly messes with you by relocating your crucial ammo resupply box every so often. As the waves get tougher and tougher, more and more enemies are running around under your scope, and the tanks start rolling in, it's easy to start panicking. Stay frosty, soldier! Overwatch also makes a return from earlier games, putting one co-op partner in the role of sniper and the other in the role of hapless squaddie on the ground. It's an occasionally fun mode but seems made for local co-op, which is sadly a non-starter.
It's nice to see a game series that capably builds on what has gone before. The Sniper Elite series may not be a blockbuster yet, but it's sneaking its way up there as a quiet achiever. The latest iteration is the best execution of the series concept to date; with a personality transplant for its lead, an improvement in writing quality, and a bit more variation in mission goals, Sniper Elite 5 might end up very sharp indeed. See you at those secret Nazi bases in Antarctica, Karl.