Sniper Elite 5 Could Be the Series’ New Pinnacle

It’s always beneficial to refresh one’s memory of the previous entrant upon checking out a series’ latest installment. Outside of the V2 remaster — one that also made its way to Switch, albeit with some major caveats — and the most recent left-field detour to slaying Nazis of a more zombified variety, you’d have to go back five years to recall Sniper Elite’s last, original outing. And quite the outing it was; 2017’s Sniper Elite 4 by far the series’ biggest shake-up and proof that its creators Rebellion had plenty of new tricks and captivating spins on the tried-and-tested formula. A formula that, taken even at its simplest, was in no way a detriment. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a rifle cartridge whistle through the air before planting itself in an enemy soldier’s targeted body part. But while the series was always known for this exact loveable bravado, 4’s veering towards more open environments and emphasis on exploration encouraged finding an ideal nest to fire from. But like any great open-world, or simply open-ended sandbox, part of the charm was in simply uncovering every nook and cranny there was to discover. Sniper Elite 4 was not without its flaws of course; going back to the game as I had done days prior, my quarrels with the AI for one remain unchanged. But just as it was five years prior, one’s enjoyment with the sandbox of Sniper Elite — now in much more open regions — is what still triumphs.

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As it turns out, that refresh turned out to be one of unexpected hindrance moreso than any would-be benefit, foolish it might’ve been to come to Sniper Elite 5 with the belief Rebellion would provide essentially more of the same from five years prior. The series’ latest installment is continuing the prior successes of more spacious environments. Requiring you to mix reconnaissance, stealth and timing (all of which fueled by a keen eye) with one’s shots to see you through to objective’s end. At least from the outside looking in, that’s how it seemed. So it’s thankful then that I can remark on how Sniper Elite 5 does very much feel (if not clearly look) like an evolutionary step up from its predecessor. I say “feel,” because it ties into my previous point about revisiting the previous entry; it’s surprising how quickly you’ll slip up if series veterans come into this with some casual, laid-back assumption that this year’s outing is some near-identical “Sniper Elite 4.5.” Exchanging Italian landscapes for French equivalents. The truth is a bit more complicated than that, but delightfully complicated at least.

It no doubt helps that the level offered up during this recent preview was aptly modeled and structured to deceive. So credit to Rebellion first and foremost that 5, from the get-go, makes it clear that slow and steady very much feels more like a necessity, rather than an optional alternative. Naturally, players can avoid all manner of stealth and ghostly assassinations if they want; the series continues its usual trademark of a game marketed on sniper kills, but providing all manner of weapons and gears for those who may want to go in guns blazing and/or cause as much unruly chaos as possible. Or, as the team themselves emphasized here, to avoid all manner of lethal engagement entirely. A wise decision as in the case of 5, players may just find themselves actively avoiding engagement with the enemy — as tempting that 200-300 meter shot may be. Part of that lies with how much more is going on in the world of Sniper Elite 5. The patrol routes of enemies is one and as an extension to that, how vehicle convoys of troops patrol the roads linking up the level’s more spacious pockets. Convoys even dropping off soldiers to add to the threat level of particular regions or sites. At times unpredictable, at times requiring a little of that last-minute, unforeseen improvisation. And if that doesn’t raise the stakes, in the example provided for this session there was no repeated environmental trait to help mask one’s bullet-fire. Sure there remain objects hidden about to aid in that regard, but I was surprised throughout at just how apprehensive I was about reaching for my trusted scope and rifle.

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In a game with the word Sniper in it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s something of a dire miscalculation on Rebellion’s behalf. A game all about sniping that seems to dissuade you from the very thing it’s built around? But oddly, that’s precisely why one’s time in Sniper Elite 5 has been such an enjoyable trek. Admittedly frustrating to start off with, but the more I got accustomed to the pacing the game is clearly encouraging me to adopt, the more its intentions focused into view. Because Rebellion’s intentions here seem to be focused more on the preparation and multi-step planning of one’s journey (and how unforeseen changes can very much play their part) as it is deciding how and when to take out long-range targets. Sure there are plenty of spots on the map where a huddle of patrolling troops can be picked off if you spend enough time memorizing patterns. But by far the best moments in retrospect — even if admittedly annoying in the moment — are in miscalculating how bad things can go. Or how one’s over-confidence can result in missing some pivotal environmental element that, with more exploration or reconnaissance, could’ve been avoided.

Admittedly some of that frustration can be put down to the game itself, specifically how the environment at times doesn’t distinguish well enough in what’s traversable and what’s a poorly-disguised invisible wall to bump into. A momentary failing in a series that often does so well at disguising its web of spacious areas linked by linear paths. Likewise, chest-high walls you’d rightly think could be leaped over remain exactly that or incur a brief annoyance in that the required button prompt isn’t as snappy as one would like. Not least when sprinting away from a foe on high alert. So in terms of elements carrying over from the previous game, that sadly does include its more nagging complaints. But as a means to turn a negative into a positive, perhaps it’s because Rebellion continue to encourage its players to explore every corner of the map why these minor conflicts pop up. For all the talk about preparation and potentially avoiding all the danger and peril littering these environments, that doesn’t mean the game still doesn’t find ways to tempt players into that common design philosophy of high risks potentially netting high rewards. Namely, how thoroughly exploring the levels — perhaps dealing with a hidden enemy sniper on the way — can net you a highly-prized, fully-modified weapon.

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By far one of Sniper Elite 5’s more upfront additions is its weapon customization aspect. While tailoring load-outs is nothing new to the series, here Rebellion have taken this aspect one step further by introducing a whole slew of variety. Bullet types are just one example, be it scopes, stocks, barrel length. It’s not exactly recent Call of Duty craziness with Gunsmith flexibility, but needless to say Rebellion — for all their emphasis on planning — are making sure to provide as many tools to the player as they can think of. And it’s through that presence of modified weaponry where the aforementioned potential rewards for exploration come in. What you may think is a casual exploration of an area or dealing with a troublesome sniper may in fact, as it turned out in my case, net you a prized Gewehr to swap out that trustee Kar98, in one unforeseen instance. And not just a mere single-shot rifle — that’s just as useful at long-range as it is at short-range — but one the game has buffed with a silencer, advanced scope and all manner of attachments.

These weapons, denoted by a golden icon at the UI’s bottom-right, while not an automatic win or some “get out of jail” game-changer are prized possessions in Sniper Elite 5. Not least for those who may initially feel deflated by the supposed dissuading from freely picking off soldiers. Enemy AI once more quick (and conveniently lucky) at nailing down your position in a short amount of time if you’re not constantly on the move and continuously out of visible sight throughout. In fact the volume of enemy reactions is one part of my time with the game I remain on the fence about. An aspect I’ll hold off on for the time being, partly because there are concessions to acknowledge on how differently built a game this one is. Or to put it another way if you must: how many mistakes I was making during the early parts where my overconfidence perhaps got the better of me. Even so, you can’t help but throw up skepticism at just how quickly enemies can surround and even spot you. Worse, how the game at the briefest of spells, seems more than happy to punish you continuously until you’re down. As if the game is resorting to simply spawning in troops from behind or out-of-shot out of necessity.

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Yes the game makes it clear that enemies can call for reinforcements — an indicator even being planted on those alerted, should you decide to stop them before they can — but if we’re to look at it in a sense of balance, this is perhaps the one area the game maybe overcompensates on. Of course the counter to all this remains the same: don’t get spotted to begin with. Hence why this part of the game, like the criticisms of past games, thankfully remains something easily dismissed, as opposed to some fundamental flaw shackling the entire experience down. So it’s rather telling that the notion of frustration, in concept, is one that doesn’t seem to sully too much of what Rebellion’s latest has to offer here. Troublesome in the short-term prior faults may once again be — resurfacing in the series’ fifth mainline outing as they did so five years ago. But that frustration is so much more a means to tempt its players to truly get involved and immerse one’s self with each step of the journey to one’s desired goal or objective.

To fully grasp the breadth of these levels, environments and the secrets they hold. Through all the many ways one can succeed and can so quickly falter as a result of such voluntary investigation. But this is less a case of stacking so much against the player and more a case that what Rebellion offer is a careful balance between a multitude of tools at one’s disposal alongside the many unexpected ways assumption prior can come back to bite you. It’s because Sniper Elite 5 is, at its best, as unpredictable and unexpected as it is — for a game of this scale and premise still —  that is its most impressive aspect. To still feel on edge, even as you’re heading to the exfiltrating point on the map. Not many games instill that measure of doubt throughout, but it’s not so much Rebellion have found a way to do just that, it’s just here, that trait is stronger and far more versatile in its construction.

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So then, this is a game direction that’s not down to some blatant expanding of scale or increased level size for size’s sake. Rather, through a carefully-orchestrated series of quietly-deceptive and less-bombastic traits. Traits that are if not immediate in their materialistic rewards, are still rewarding on the basis of figuring it all out. It’s clear that the series’ latest is leaning on that preparation and pacing is key if one is to seriously take the role of deadly marksman from a distance. But these very emergent moments — complimented by what feels like this more persistent vulnerability on top — are shaping up to be the means by which Sniper Elite 5 remarkably becomes the series’ new pinnacle. Five years on from achieving a similar claim with the previous title, it’s through this combination of compelling level design and reframing of the core gameplay loop where Rebellion look to have pulled it off yet again. Sniper Elite 5 potentially standing as the series’ most refined and rewarding outing yet.