Sniper Elite III Review: Head Wound
Admitting that I like Sniper Elite III’s X-ray bullet cams is not something I would confess face-to-face to a total stranger. In the wrong circles, applauding developer Rebellion’s penchant for anatomical mutilation might send you to the top of an agency watchlist, but when a stealth series – now on its third iteration, not counting spin-offs – strives to keep up with modern innovations, fans need to sift through the bad to find the sporadic good. Although Sniper Elite III’s nearest rivals range from Metal Gear Solid V to Splinter Cell Blacklist, Rebellion’s latest has neither the story or the gameplay density to match.
Not that I despise all of the developers’ choices, at the risk of sounding overly negative. The Rebellion team identified the one thing that made Sniper Elite unique and leaped at the chance to improve upon it. I, obviously, mean the X-ray gore cams. Time still slows with every body cavity obliterated; skulls cave in, lungs collapse harder than Michael Jordan’s baseball career, and testicles burst like water balloons. Yet Sniper Elite III augments these blood-infused displays. Bullets slice livers in half cleaner than a professional cook, bones break into macabre jigsaw puzzles, and hits to the throat produce sickly death gurgles. The added muscle layers enhance the realism. I thought past Sniper Elite entries dulled me to their tricks, but destroying femurs and wrists, seeing hips and hands wildly dislocate in response, brought on fresh winces.
When not slowing my breath to pinpoint ensuing shots, each penetration rewarded creativity, as morbid as that sounds. Did I wreck that man’s hope of having kids? Did I just devastate a soldier’s perfect 20/20 vision? If you get tired of the game stripping control from you for every assassination, you could decrease the amount of slow motion kills shown. But I caution against it. Remove Sniper Elite III's core hook and all you have is a rote shooter. Submachine guns erupt into fits of violent recoil when fired full-auto, and the silenced pistol strains to bring people down at range.
If someone snuck up on me, I had to improvise, yet for the first time, I thought of stealth as a serious tactic. Sniper Elite V2’s linear settings left little room to branch out and avoid hostile guards. With the tech powering current generation consoles, Rebellion ups the expanse of the locales considerably. African deserts house multiple canyons and cave systems that help fans outwit assailants, while multiple optional objectives yanked me from the main path. Whenever my superiors asked me to retrieve intel or eradicate targets, I took the silent route. I bypassed most enemy camps and engaged patrols from afar.
Masking shots is tantamount to success, since creeping past soldiers could betray your presence. Low flying planes and busted generators conceal a weapon's discharge, as do explosions. I became deadlier than Africa’s greatest predators, tracking stragglers and eliminating them once isolated. The developers reward resourcefulness beyond just grisly executions. Sniper Elite III's experience system implies it is better to be felt than to be seen or heard. Stealth kills rocket you through the ranks, unlocking custom scopes, barrels, and triggers that balance out each firearm's pros and cons. The Lee-Enfield’s high damage is offset by unruly sight wobble, for example, but people with shameless disregard for the words “covert” and “subtle” can have fun, too.
Rebellion ensures players have sufficient means to dispatch enemies. Trip mines, land mines, and dynamite fill the sky with shrapnel, and considering the size of most levels, it pays to have something watching your back. Patrols caught me off-guard initially, until I learned to maximize my arsenal. Binoculars mark several targets at once, medkits patch various wounds, and ordinary rocks lured many men to their demise. When I did cost myself the element of surprise, detonating grenades and vehicles attracted attention elsewhere. Chain reactions led soldiers into my crosshairs, like shooting fish in a dusty barrel.
Yet I was shooting very dumb fish at that. Sniper Elite III’s AI sits on both ends of the intelligence spectrum ... and nowhere in between. Enemies zeroed in on my position after killing their comrades, a transparent outline tagging my last known location. Staying in the area too long drowned me in reinforcements, flanked and flushed out with grenades. Their aim is spot-on, but relocating resets the threat meter, at which point enemies gain the attention span of a goldfish. Ignoring countless bodies I left lying at their feet, adversaries resumed their cycles unphased. Entering alert status, attackers become walking murder machines.
And to experiment what I could get away with, without raising alarms, I ran halfway through an enemy base before the occupants retaliated, because the mission demanded I protect an abrupt allied invasion. Changing the difficulty to a harder setting, AI patterns appear unaffected. However, the combined wind speeds and bullet drop separate the marksmen from the recruits. Each death cam brought relief during shootouts. Was that headshot 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 1,000,000? Never tell me the odds.
The tougher difficulties prepared me for multiplayer. Sniper Elite III’s mechanics do not fit into traditional deathmatch schemas. Remove every firearm except the sniper rifles from Battlefield and you start to grasp the lethality. Matches echo with nonstop gunshots, as teammates and hostiles dial in their targets after repeated misses. Provided people ignore your sniper nest, you could camp in the same tower for 20 minutes. Multiplayer tosses pacing to the breeze for kill-death ratios.
But Rebellion does find places to innovate. No Cross, the series’ newest mode, cuts maps in two, preventing people from crossing the area’s midpoint – and Rambo types from ambushing sharpshooters. Moreover, server filters commit to the extensive customization. Hosts determine friendly fire, sudden death, tagging, sprinting, bullet trails, etc. Sniper Elite III could be the online component Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell always wish they had, though the game needs more fans first.
Sniper Elite III throws in a Horde mode, just to cover its bases, but hold back those sighs of indifference for now. The game gives players free reign over each map, letting teams punish the idiotic AI. With tripwires and land mines, I baited enemies into traps to conserve ammo, while my teammate corralled them with gunfire. Against armored vehicles, we used similar tactics, one of us approaching tanks or halftracks to plant bombs ahead of their advance. Battles shift sides rapidly, and it is easy to see reenactments of Saving Private Ryan’s definitive skirmish taking shape. How about designing four-player co-op next time, Rebellion?
You may have noticed I said nothing of the story thus far. I would have, if the narrative had any merit. British Intelligence wants returning operative Karl Fairburne to eliminate one of Hitler’s lackeys and his giant prototype tank project in the heart of North Africa, though story details come and go as they please. Players don’t even find this super secret undertaking or the corrupt antagonist until the game’s last half hour. Engaging writing escapes Rebellion’s efforts again, alongside decent voice work.
The developers must have modeled Karl’s personality after picking random traits from a hat. For reasons unknown, other recruits appear uncomfortable around him. All we have is his word and no reason to think otherwise, though his dialogue contains some clues. Here’s one example of Karl’s philosophic thoughts: "Keys ... nice." Another: "I am not like you. I remember who I kill." Rebellion plays up the guy’s psychopathic qualities, but no character gets his due, really. A loading screen pinned the death of an informant on my hands, despite said informant standing atop a lookout tower, in the midday sun, in clear view of a German Tiger tank. No, bad Sniper Elite III.
That is not even touching on the rampant bugs. Fresh infantry replace their buddies’ lifeless bodies after Karl completes objectives, like past patrols never existed. Corpses also lodge themselves in sand bags and walls, and the living often enter suspended animation. Rescuing a trio of prisoners brought nightmares. I expected to find the men huddled in their cell, but they were perched on the bench like birds of prey instead, their bodies rigid and locked in an Egyptian-like pose. Try as I might to capture a screenshot, the game refused. Although checkpoints restart players anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes ago, Sniper Elite III is not optimized well. Minimizing the game slowed my computer to a standstill. Not even Crysis 3 or Metro: Last Light can claim that award.
Not that I expect Sniper Elite III to win much acclaim. Heaven knows the co-op and multiplayer will hardly tide competitors over until they clean up achievements, which I say not to be rude or cynical. I loved Sniper Elite V2’s zombie expansions, which fixed the oblivious AI problems and integrated four-player co-op. Sniper Elite III lacks campaign matchmaking, so you have to invite friends. Although I enjoyed the thrills of shouldering my rifle and playing spotter, I still preferred shooting dudes in the nuts, kidneys, and intestines for hours. That juvenile mirth is worth every cent.