Review: Sniper Elite 5

It shouldn’t go understated just how much a broadening of the canvas — how the series finally embraced the notion of open environments to explore and stealthily trudge through — Sniper Elite received with 2017’s outing. Sniper Elite 4 from the outside looking in may have given the impression more of the same was very much the order of play. And sure, even the most loyal of series fans would acknowledge that long-standing developer Rebellion, least with what may be regarded their most renowned creation, aren’t exactly known for radicalizing this formula too much. The gratifying killcams that send enemy skulls, organs and nether-regions alike splattering into a bloody pulp are always a splendidly-ludicrous feature to indulge in. But away from this, it’s hard to argue against the notion that Sniper Elite has remained resolute in the kind of series it wants to be.

Whether you deem that a critique is entirely down to one’s own tastes or prior experience in what Rebellion have dished out over the years. And yet for a game whose linearity and shooting gallery-esque delivery of gameplay is standard, late to the open-world party it may be, what 2017’s release proved above all else, was that not only were the series’ notable loops and quirks alike far from shackled to that prior linear flow. But in fact were bettered by this shift away from traditional A-to-B ordeals. So too the idea players had to properly find and mark their own opportunities. To determine whether taking “the shot” was even a benefit to begin with. The return of open environments and levels to fully comb through is the least surprising thing coming into Sniper Elite 5 given prior success and how well Rebellion had sewn that tried-and-tested formula onto new and farther-reaching ground. More so, how the studio understood that good level design isn’t so much about scale for scale’s sake, but more to do with that delicate weaving in of constructive and artistic curiosity alike. How you model said surroundings around curious left-turns and the unforeseeable just over a hill or around a corner whereupon anything could be lying in wait.

Good or bad, non-lethal or otherwise; prior games would simply have you pass the finish line in one piece, picking off targets as you do. Nowadays, not least with Sniper Elite 5, Rebellion have figured out a player’s want and need to explore can be as much an incentive for added reward, just as much as it’s another means by which one tempts fate wherein things can go so horribly wrong in a heart-beat. As a self-confessed admirer of level design in video games, Rebellion are a studio after my own heart. It’s not everyday you can find the tables turn, to find yourself descending into lightning-fast disaster — a misplaced move, resulting in enemies spotting you, sending the whole area into a state of alert — and still take away immense satisfaction from how it’s all been orchestrated. Front-end structure and back-end AI deduction alike. It’s because this year’s outing is bolstered so by its construction, let alone the gameplay (whose new additions, in both mechanics and modes on top, go so far as to reframe the formula in interesting ways) why Sniper Elite 5 marks another compelling win for Rebellion’s renowned shooter.

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As familiar the shooting feels. So too, in equally familiar a fashion, the returning issues in regards to unresponsive button prompts and dead-eyed character models, remind us this is a series whose budget is lesser than your typical AAA standard and whose polish may not always be immaculate. A realization that’s hindered even more by rarer but sadly more damaging failings from time to time. The notable one involving the mission success triggers in one level not activating properly — leaving me completely frozen out of progression and forcing a complete restart of said level. Two hours sadly wasted, the lowest point on a personal level. And yet like a lot of great AA-tier titles of the past few years, even if the presentation and performance may not be the most seamless or the most lush in close-up detail, Sniper Elite 5 manages to ride out its issues — unforgivable some of those issues may feel, such as with having to restart an entire mission from the start. And on a broader level with this year’s release especially, making its environments and surrounding space not just competent in the challenges they pose, but demanding of a second look. In fact, level design on its own is perhaps the best place to start when it comes to how and why Sniper Elite 5 has managed to top even its predecessor, in so much as its visuals let alone structure is concerned.

In the case of Sniper Elite 4, we had a game that wasn’t afraid to get vibrant and colourful with its in-game Italian setting, set against a global conflict it might’ve been. French countryside, grimy industrial sites and fortified islands with an Abbey at its centre/highest peak make up some of the highlights in Sniper Elite 5 and in the latter case, potentially stand as all-round series highlights. Part of that joy and satisfaction with these environments is this persistent ebb-and-flow a lot of these maps seem to be built around. A gradual shift between open spaces, snaking paths and interior/exterior exchanges that demand you take things slowly. Arguably slower than the usual pace one might’ve taken with past releases and while the varied geometry is partly why this is the case, the other reason lies with the improved AI in this year’s release. A satisfying sight to behold, given one’s own personal gripes about the behaviour of enemies in the last game — specifically the way the game felt at times one was being forced into a situation, rather than it coming across as organically unfolding from a good or otherwise bad decision prior.

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Instead, the enemy AI in Sniper Elite 5 feels much more competent and functioning in context to what’s unfolding. Soldiers caught in a cautionary phase, for example, will fan out more tactically; enemies alerted to you picking units off from some make-do sniper nest, pushing much more aggressively on your position. In fact, the overall intelligence of AI in this game feels like a much-needed step-up from prior. You’ll of course spot a soldier from time to time casually standing static-post over a fellow soldier’s dead/unconscious body. Dig deep enough and naturally you’re bound to come across an instance that doesn’t quite make sense, but overall the game makes it apparent that slow and steady is the desired route, if going full-stealth (and non-lethal on top) is your preferred play-style. So too the need to be patient as far as when one eventually gets the chance to perch atop a building or watchtower, in taking foes out at a longer-ranged distance.

Here, the opportunities between levels again shift back-and-forth between a reasonable balance of devices sprinkled about that one can sabotage, or using the cover of nearby fortifications firing off high-caliber rounds, in one example. I won’t bore you with the specifics as to the series’ core loop here — anyone who’s even aware of Sniper Elite will be well initiated into how things usually play out — but suffice it to say, Sniper Elite 5‘s use of space and more open levels if anything, puts greater precedent on the need to pick one’s very position, let alone one’s shots, carefully. And in the case of targets constantly on the move and in frequent patrol routes, fighting back the desire to take them out in favour of a more close-range engagement.

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As noted in my first impressions, it my sound counter-intuitive to discourage players from playing deadly marksman whenever and wherever possible in a series of games such as this. But the clever thing about Rebellion’s intentions here is that it brings into view that other aspect of the core gameplay loop that can so often go amiss — even ignored — when one’s options are limited. And that’s the worry that it can all go so horribly wrong in an instant. Here is where the level design once again comes into view and how Rebellion’s broadening of opportunities and rewards means Sniper Elite 5 is by far the most risk:reward honed of any of the series’ prior releases. Like 4, the game makes sure to sprinkle optional objectives and collectibles about the map — encouraging you to eavesdrop on enemy conversations and investigate highlighted areas. But what the game also features, a new inclusion here, is the presence of not just fully-booted firearms, but hidden workbenches where one can modify your load-out mid-mission.

The idea on dedicating the time and patience to properly scout out areas is something Sniper Elite 5 commits to on a considerable level. Whether it’s, for example, deciding to blow open a safe door in favour of looking for the accompanying code, or simply getting to a desired location through whatever means necessary. The combination of the seemingly-increased stakes, greater emphasis on maintaining a low profile, but also making sure to tempt players around every turn with opportunity and potential rewards, becomes increasingly a kin to the kind of involved exploration you’d find in a game developed by Arkane or the sort. I spent around two hours on the first level/mission alone and it’s because Sniper Elite 5 manages to vary things up at just the right times why that sense of curious discovery is so strong yet never shying from throwing one or two obstacles along the way.

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So it’s only fitting that this yin-and-yang balance — not just between tentative decisions and striving to explore, but also how situations can go from confident to catastrophic so quickly — is exemplified in the new Invasion mode. A PvPvE-style twist on the formalities of the single-player campaign. Wherein players take on the role of an opposing Nazi sniper, tasked with invading another player’s game and hunting them down. One might think that the role of hunter would seem advantageous and immune from a similar feeling of dread. Not least when enemy AI, understandably, treat you as one of their own and simply go about their regular routines as if it were any other single-player campaign routine. Yet that’s not how it is at all. In fact, thinking about it, Sniper Elite 5‘s Invasion Mode just might be the best thing about this package, all things considered.

Baffling on its own that feelings of Battle Royale games emerge when reflecting on the mood and vibe of an invasion-in-progress. But just like games of that ilk, Invasion Mode is one of those scenarios where it’s just as much about being smart with one’s play, as it is about being skilful when deploying it. How frequent do you rely on the abundance of phones dotted about each map that, when used, provide a snapshot location of your rival sniper? A mechanic both invader and invaded players can use during this time. How thorough do you move, in an attempt to locate said person? Do you simply hold out and hide in a corner of some interior? How often do you want to look over your shoulder, now that the paranoia of moving about such open fields, has now dawned on you? Have you taken into account players can see the glint of your scope when one is aiming? There’s a surprising number of options and emergent instances at play here. But the best thing is that very few of these feel exclusive to this mode on its own. Rather, Invasion Mode — by framing the series’ staple formula through a more direct and competitively-personal lens — feels like Sniper Elite, the series, distilled into its most tense, perilous but satisfying form.

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Closing Comments:

While a few issues remain that hamper the experience, it’s a no-brainer to proclaim Sniper Elite 5 has taken everything that made 4 as great as it was and improved it. The signature gameplay loop and general premise of picking one’s shots is as satisfying as it always was. But it’s what the game has added on top, around those figurative edges, that makes this year’s release a thoroughly-entertaining package, be it entirely solo in its campaign or competitively elsewhere. It’s this variety developer Rebellion utilise to great effect. A variance in visual design and more impressively how that’s applied further through terrific level design on top — serving as some of the series’ best by far. And that’s before we even factor in this year’s compelling new addition via the Invasion Mode — surprising not just in how well it integrates into the series’ foundation, but how too it seemingly reshapes one’s usual strategy and general mood going into this sort of game. A PvPvE spin whose biggest draw isn’t so much the drive to get the winning kill, but the rampant tug-of-war that is the dread and tension a rival sniper (out there, somewhere) on the field brings. Look past the momentary technical gaffes and what you’ll find with Sniper Elite 5 is a developer in Rebellion that even now can still find creative ways to excite and impress all over again.