I was on the subway headed down to see and play Sniper Elite III at a 505 Games media preview when I realized I’d forgotten my eyeglasses. Oops. You can’t be a good sniper at all if you can’t see a damn thing even with a scope, but amusingly enough, that absent-minded error on my part made the demo even more enjoyable.
Thanks to veteran developer Rebellion making the game much more flexible and thrilling than its predecessor, even a quarter blind bat like me was able to have a total blast making as many mistakes as I did. Okay, that’s not sounding like a ringing endorsement for the game, but it’s coming – keep reading. Even if I had brought my gaming spectacles along, my plan was to play the demo in as loose a manner as possible, making mistakes to see how the AI would react while seeing how expansive the level designs were this time out. In Sniper Elite V2, despite some alternate routes, most maps felt a wee bit too boxed in and linear and displacement wasn’t emphasized enough throughout the game (although the best players learned those levels and probably did some of their own shoot and scoot tactics…
This time out however, stealth is a much bigger key to the game as are far more open maps to explore and more aware enemies to avoid and/or dispatch at your leisure. Still, Rebellion knows its audience and it knows it’s also competing for the gamer more used to easier run and gun franchise shooters, so the game caters to both crowds with a killer opening mission that’s part tutorial and part fast-paced action film. Playing as American OSS Agent Karl Fairburne, this time in the North African front, the opening section has the base camp he’s at fall under attack by German artillery and Karl needing to take out a few well-placed cannons and the men manning them with extreme prejudice.
That X-ray kill camera is back and even more effectively unsettling thanks to improvements to the damage system. I did notice the kills seem quicker here than in V2, getting you back to the game’s action and not lingering on whatever bones and organs were shattered by your shots. I was actually more interested and impress with the vehicle kills, however. Karl can shoot out a gas tank for a one-shot explosion that can also deal with any AI around a truck, or he can pull off a two-shot deal where the first takes out a vehicle’s armor or grille protecting the engine and the second shot kills that motor but good. I didn’t ask if tires could be blown out, but given that would be a wasted shot with a truck already pulling up to let loose some troops on Karl’s position, I’d imagine Rebellion left that out this time.
I got to watch this slice of the game played by someone from the dev team who noted that he’d gone through this section a bit differently for the last editor-type an hour or so earlier. The first things I noticed right away were the sheer size of the opening map, the lovely detailed visuals and the grand draw distance Rebellion’s proprietary engine provides (the game looks spectacular running on the PS4). Sniping is, of course the draw here and yes indeed, it’s handled even better here with improvements to V2’s mechanics and even more enhancements to the gory kill camera (which can be turned off, by the way). As in previous games, breath control and proper aiming techniques are a big part of the experience, but when all else fails, you can always sneak or run up on some poor soon to be deceased enemy and take them down quickly in some excellently animated kills.
After completing the mission, the controller was passed to the guy with the fuzzier vision (that would be yours truly) and it was time to execute my plan, which turned into Plan B because as I couldn’t see well, I’d be improvising even more than I’d intended. Amusingly enough, the mission I played as Fairburne opened with a silent kill of a soldier fiddling with a noisy generator. That noise was to be used to mask my shots at the multiple targets spread out in the camp below. Fortunately, marking up to seven targets is here, which highlights them as they walk around and interact with the environments or each other. My initial plan (with glasses) was to do have Karl do a few quick kills, following the game’s prompts before “messing up” intentionally to see how the AI would react as I tried to outwit it. However, without good vision, my first two shots missed the tower sniper and alerted the men in the area that something was amiss (pun intended)… SUSPENSE!
The updated (and even greater) GUI warned me immediately to displace and that I did, scooting down from my perch near the generator and ducking to my right down a dirt path. The soldiers eventually got to the area I ran from, discovered the body I didn’t move and went on a wider hunt. Meanwhile, I’d found a new hiding spot and kept an eye on the enemy range and timer icons that ticked down. When the timer expired, the men were back to a somewhat normal routine, but one had replaced the dead soldier and the sniper in the tower I’d missed was gone from his spot and patrolling below it. I figured it was all or nothing and decided to play the rest of the map by ear (because hell, my eyes certainly weren’t going to give me a hand, ha!)…
Leaping down from that new hiding spot, I scooted Karl around a huge boulder and surprised the soldier with a knife to the neck. As his body conveniently fell into some scraggly plants (meaning I didn’t need to move it), I was free to scamper up into the tower and squinting, took out an enemy with two shots (instead of one), which alerted the remaining men again. Running from the tower and switching to a machine gun, I quickly took down two more enemies, switched back to Karl’s Garand and shot another soldier down as he was running towards me around the big rock I’d killed his buddy near. That next to last (and now dead) man had some important intel on his person, so it was looted and afterwards, a another (intentionally) missed shot lured out the final soldier and a tossed grenade finished him off.
In other words, the game not only breaks free of the linear paths of V2, you’re free to play as you like and experiment with different tactics. Excellent. I decided to quit the mission (which was only about a fifth completed, I believe) and test the multiplayer waters out. Survival mode was the first bit of fun that got tried out and it’s a blast. One or two players can dive into a series of fifteen increasingly challenging stages where enemy waves need to be taken down before they do you (and your partner if you play online) in.
After getting in a few easy kills (including a supremely LUCKY pair of headshots), I more or lees followed the Rebellion rep around after the first relatively simple wave, backing him up with my machine gun and a few grenades. We made it to the third wave before both of us were dispatched, but players can revive each other (provided this is done when both of you aren’t getting shot to pieces). Later maps add half tracks, APC’s and tanks to the mix, so I’m expecting pure hell in the hot desert sun in the final version.
Finally, we played one of the maps from the revamped Overwatch mode and yes, it’s a far better experience. In V2, you and your buddy were separated into Sniper and Spotter positions and you had to cover your friend and guide him around the maps, stopping to take out faraway enemies before he was overrun. Now, both players have free run of the maps which leads to some great action and plenty of choices to consider. The map played featured a small but spread out camp packed with German soldiers, so a few stealth kills were in order to whittle down the troops and clear the first structure.
This map’s darkened first building led to a few surprises and some nice takedowns before things heated up. As my eyesight wasn’t better but I was feeling bolder, I decided to let my partner engage and distract a pack of soldiers as i did an end run around the outer area of the compound and quickly stealth killed a few men. Unfortunately, my myopic play style resulted in me missing two men with what should have been well-placed shots and both me and my companion perished in a blaze of glory that had us both laughing and apologizing.
I wanted to stick around and play a bit more, but my hour was up and I had all the intel I needed to know. The game is tight, looks outstanding and everything’s here for the best entry in the series to date. Online multiplayer will support up to 12 players (those modes will be revealed shortly), there some Hitler-themed DLC (this time, it’s the man and one of his doppelgangers who need some lead in their diet) and only the PS4 and Xbox One will get that nice $69.99 Collector’s Edition package pictured above. PS3 and Xbox 360 owners can snap up a $39.99 Standard Edition while PS4 and Xbox One users will pay $49.99. Sniper Elite III rolls out on July 1, 2014, so absolutely go plunk down a deposit if this one is up your alley.